Saint Norbert, Bishop
June 6—Optional Memorial
Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of Bohemia and of expectant mothers
Thrown from his horse like Saint Paul, he stood up a changed man
Today’s saint was born into an elite Central European family with connections to imperial dynasties and the nobility of his time. He received an excellent sacred and secular education in keeping with his high status. And as a young man he received tonsure, the particular shaving of the hair on the scalp denoting one a cleric. He was then appointed a canon, a member of a bishop’s inner circle who prayed the liturgical hours in common with other canons. As a young adult, Saint Norbert was well on his way to a career as an ecclesiastic typical of his era: well connected, intelligent, politically aware, committed to the Church, an adviser to princes and bishops, and materially comfortable. His life was almost indistinguishable from those of the laymen whose company he mostly kept. Norbert avoided priestly ordination and turned down a chance to become a bishop. In a one-Church world where civil power and church power were intertwined, canons lived comfortably and held a quasi-civil office which dispensed prayers, graces, and spiritual favors for which the populace paid handsomely.
If not for a near-death experience when he was thirty-five years old, Saint Norbert would be known as just Norbert, and he would be resting, forgotten, under the stone floor of a German cathedral. But one day in 1115, Norbert was riding his horse when a lightning bolt struck nearby. He was thrown hard to the ground and was unconscious for a long time but survived. It was jarring, both physically and spiritually. Norbert was changed. He was penitent. He would abandon his life of frivolity. He would take his religious commitment seriously. This powerful experience of the fleetingness of life and its pleasures compelled Norbert to deviate from the wide, crowded road he was traveling, in order to walk, instead, a narrower, stonier, less-traveled path. And as Norbert walked, he shed his past step by step until over many years Saint Norbert emerged, miter on his head, bishop’s crozier in one hand, and a monstrance in the other. One moment changed his life. It ceased to be just a moment, in fact, but was converted into a permanent event. God broke through, touched his deepest core, and created a new man.
Soon after this near-death experience, Norbert was ordained a priest, went on a month long retreat, founded a monastery with his own wealth, and began to preach about the transitory nature of the world. He had the fervor of a convert, the ardor of one for whom all things were new. Life was a permanent Spring day. He sold all that he had except what was necessary to say Mass, divested himself of all his properties, and gave everything to the poor. He wore a simple habit, went barefoot, and begged for food.
He started to preach throughout France and Germany and became well known. At the instigation of the Pope, he founded a religious Order, which quickly expanded. He was so well respected in Germany that, despite being the founder of an Order, he was named bishop of a large see. Saint Norbert became involved in various ecclesiastical arguments of his day of both a political and theological nature.
Saint Norbert’s efforts to reform the clergy of his day were not always well received. He was spat upon and rejected. But he persevered. No one outdid him in devotion to the Holy Eucharist, which he preached about constantly. Centuries after his death his body was transferred to near Prague after the German city where he had been buried turned Lutheran. Saint Norbert is most often depicted as a bishop holding either a monstrance or a ciborium, both of which hold the Holy Eucharist. The Norbertine Order continues to thrive, nine hundred years after it was founded. Would that anyone would speak just our name nine hundred years after we die! The Church remembers her saints, preserves their memories, and ensures that the heroes of our faith are held up for emulation long after their earthly work is done.
Saint Norbert, your conversion led to your life of total dedication to Christ and the Church. This change was nourished by reception of and devotion to the Holy Eucharist. May we be continually nourished with and converted by the same food from heaven.