The great reform movement within western Christendom that began in the late eleventh century had as one of its primary targets a Church subservient to the State. Reformers sought to secure ecclesiastical freedom—not a firm separation from the State, but a proper clarification of roles. The ultimate purpose of that freedom was to allow for the reshaping and renewal of the Church on its own terms, so that it could more faithfully fulfill its apostolic responsibility for society. An inevitable consequence was the confrontations between prelates and princes, most famously between Pope St. Gregory VII and the German Emperor Henry VII, and between Archbishop St. Thomas Becket and King Henry II of England.
But with widespread calls for new ideals and standards for the Church and its ministers, the drama of reform also found its way off the grand political stage, not only into the towns and villages of Europe, but into the very dust of a German road. In 1115, when Norbert, a middle-aged deacon attached to the episcopal court of Cologne, sat stunned by the side of a road, the fullest implications of reform were revealed, at the most local level of a person’s heart. While riding with some companions, Norbert had fallen from his horse when he heard a voice denouncing him. He sat on the ground, and suddenly, the words of the Psalmist, “Turn from evil and do good” (Ps 34:15), took extraordinary hold of his heart. Unsure of precisely what to do next, he vowed nonetheless to follow the Gospel. In that resolution, Norbert had begun to articulate his understanding of true reform: all Christians were called to a renewed commitment to God’s Word.
St. Norbert of Xanten became one of the most famous men of his age, yet he has grown relatively obscure in the memory of later centuries. His renowned contemporary, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, recognized Norbert’s gifts after being in his presence, calling him a “heavenly water pipe.” Unlike with St. Bernard, however, whose own eloquence as doctor mellifluus fills eight volumes of his collected works, not a single written word of Norbert’s exists. His life as a wandering poor man of Christ, a pauper Christi, tramping barefoot through the snow and preaching the Gospel, was also overshadowed a century later by the lives of Sts. Francis and Dominic and those legions of mendicants they inspired, who walked over Europe in vast numbers. Yet, Norbert was to his own time a “new light,” whose efforts helped lay the foundations for the renewal of the Church.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Before his conversion, Norbert served in the western German town of Xanten as a secular canon and a sub-deacon under Frederick, Archbishop of Cologne. Afterwards, Norbert obtained an expedited ordination and, failing in his attempt to reform some secular canons in Xanten, he withdrew for several years of solitary study and prayer. The fruits of his contemplation led to action. His zeal for personal reform inspired him to preach in the town, where his charismatic, stirring presence soon drew large crowds of lay people. Preaching at this time was primarily the task of bishops, and when priests did preach, it occurred very rarely outside their own churches. Monks also avoided preaching, and though St. Bernard’s example was helping to change this, even he was generally opposed to monks preaching outside their monasteries. What Norbert recognized was the centrality of preaching to the apostolic life, and he made it the cornerstone of his ministry.
Norbert emphasized the unification of the active and contemplative lives, the “mixed life” which St. Thomas Aquinas would eventually defend in the following century as the best form of life, not a concession for those unfit for contemplation. At the same time, the novelty of Norbert’s methods was clear in the mutual uncertainty both he and ecclesiastical authorities had about his way of life. Wherever Norbert went, he would question and try to learn from those who were living by a religious rule. Yet a local church council in 1119 demanded to know why he was preaching without permission, and why he seemed to be dressed like a monk while still living privately. Rather than desist, Norbert sold all of his property and, with only one tunic, set out barefoot through the winter cold, walking 700 miles to southern France. There he found Pope Gelasius II, and he humbly asked for and received papal permission to preach.
This meeting determined the course of his next seven years, which he spent walking from town to town in France, Germany and the Low Countries. Whatever he received, he would give away to the poor. Before increasingly larger crowds, Norbert would celebrate Mass, preach, and catechize. For himself and his few companions, he claimed simply the desire to be “imitators of Christ’s disciples.” Before St. Francis did the same, Norbert’s imitation began with the literal observance of the gospel mandate to carry neither purse nor shoes nor two tunics (Mt 10:10). His willingness to wander and preach anywhere with so few possessions did remind people of the apostles, and it reminded them that they had rarely seen anyone living in this way. One of his hagiographers explained, “People were amazed at this new style of life, namely to live on earth and seek nothing from the earth.” A contemporary observer believed that “no one since the time of the apostles” had done so much to acquire so many “imitators of the perfect life.”
But Norbert did not try to fill the roads with more preaching mendicants; he sought instead to turn people again to the teaching of the Gospels and then to establish communities for them. There he hoped they might devote their lives to imitation of the life of the early Church as depicted in the Acts of the Apostles, a communal life lived in simple poverty, prayer, and charity. Norbert set up his first house of followers in France at Prémontré near Laon in 1120, and soon numerous other houses sprang up. He gave all of them a rule, a rigorous interpretation of the Augustinian Rule, which had been adopted by regular canons as part of the Gregorian Reform movement. These followers, known as Norbertines or Premonstratensians, shared property in common, sang the Divine Office, and engaged in manual labor. Their rapid growth in the twelfth century made them an order second in influence only to the Cistercians.
Norbert himself did not, however, settle down to become a Premonstratensian abbot or minister general. Instead, he continued his itinerant preaching and perhaps might have done so till his death, if the Church had not needed yet more from him. In 1126, when rival factions threatened to disrupt the election of the archbishop of Magdeburg in western Germany, Norbert was put forward as a reconciliation candidate and subsequently chosen. This new life was an abrupt change: Norbert was even turned away by the porter of the episcopal palace who mistook him for a beggar and not the new archbishop. Norbert accepted his new duties, though: he gave up his vagabond preaching in order to set his diocese in financial order, although he was still able to support the poor with diocesan funds. He also oversaw the preaching activity of other Norbertines in Germany, whose communities were doing missionary work among Slavic tribes east of the Elbe River. After his death in 1134, these houses followed his model of contemplation and action.
The historian Caroline Walker Bynum has described the spirituality of twelfth-century followers of the Augustinian Rule as “docere verbo et exemplo” (to teach by word and example). This theme was at the heart of Norbert’s life also, not in any written word, but in his preaching and his willingness to give up all for Christ, to offer voluntary poverty as a living model for others to follow.
Editor’s note: The image above of Saint Norbert was painted by Marten Pepijn in 1637.