I have a special affection for Saint Norbert, partially because I was ordained on his feast day (June 6th), but also because he is a fascinating figure born in a fascinating era in Church and monastic history. In my favorite book on monastic history (Medieval Monasticism by C. H. Lawrence), Norbert is written about in the same chapter as our Saint Romuald, entitled “The Quest for the Primitive.” This was an era in the Church, the first centuries of the 2nd millennium, when a great many reforms and experiments were happening in monasticism. The Church’s liturgy only recognizes Norbert as a bishop, but he was a hermit, a preacher, a wanderer as well as a canon, to prove yet again that there are all kinds of monks!
For many years now I’ve been particularly fascinated with the dynamic between the active and the contemplative life, the opposition and even the false dilemma that we often place between the two in Christianity. I’ve been reading a series of articles from the 1950s by our Fr. Benedetto Calati entitled simply “Vita attiva e vita contemplativa”—“The Active Life and the Contemplative Life,” in which he is trying to show that from the beginning of our own Camaldolese tradition it was assumed that there was really no opposition between the two, as long as we always return to the source, to the contemplative. And he traces the lineage of Blessed Rudolph, the first prior of Camaldoli who wrote the early Constitutions, and Saint Peter Damian of Fonte Avellana back to their sources in Saint Augustine and Saint Gregory the Great. This is not to say that there is no place for the purely contemplative life, but to say that even we contemplative hermit monks still need to be reminded from time to time, as do all Christians, that no follower of Jesus is exempt from following both of the two great commandments, to love God and to love neighbor. And we hear it again in the Gospel reading that we had on the feast of Norbert (Jn 21:15-19), which this year fell on Friday of the 7th Week of Easter: If you love me, feed my sheep. If we love God, then we must manifest that in charity. We had been hearing for days and days from the final discourse of Jesus in the Gospel of John; then suddenly we switched and were listening in on Jesus’ conversation with Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee after his resurrection. It’s as if two days before the end of the Easter season we get our marching orders. No follower of Jesus is exempt from this: If you love me, feed my sheep! Tend my flock! For someone like Thomas Aquinas the highest form of life isn’t the contemplative life or the active life, but action that flows from contemplation; contemplation should always resolve itself in some kind of apostolic zeal.
In some way Saint Norbert is emblematic of the dynamic tension between the active and the contemplative lives. He started out as a secular canon in the cathedral in Xanten in Germany, but fled from the comfort and benefices of that life into solitude, and spent several years alternating between hermit and preacher (a form of life that might look very tempting to a Camaldolese monk!). It’s like two out of our three-fold good—solitude and evangelization—but he was missing one thing––community. It’s one thing to be a charismatic wandering preacher or a visiting celebrity; it’s a whole other thing to live a life of charity next door to someone for 20, 30, 50 years, and sit next to them in choir each day when the act has worn thin. Norbert was given the chapel at a place called Prémontré in France and soon enough disciples gathered around him, both lay men and women as well as clergy. Norbert formed them into a group of hermits and preachers, very much in his own mold. And so the order of Prémonstratensians grew up, named, like us, after the place. The life he designed for them was a combination of community life organized around the ideal of ascetical poverty with ministry of evangelical missionary preaching. This is before the days of the mendicant orders, and in a way Norbert was prescient of the Franciscans and the Dominicans in his longing for both evangelical poverty and evangelization. Eventually Norbert was called on to be the bishop of Magdeburg back in Germany, and became more and more absorbed in missionary activity. It is his successor Hugh de Fosses who is credited with being the real architect of the order. But whereas Norbert based his original concept for himself and his disciples on the Rule of Augustine, Hugh leaned a little more heavily on the Cistercians, especially the customs of the great abbey of Cluny, meaning less on the pastoral aspect and more on the monastic.
It’s sometimes said about Mother Teresa that she had a vocation within a vocation. Well, Norbert himself seemed to have a vocation within a vocation within a vocation: from canon to hermit-preacher to monk to bishop. We, corporately and individually, are always looking for convenient categories for our vocations: contemplative/active, Rule of Benedict/Rule of Augustine––but it doesn’t always work out that neatly. As Walt Whitman said, we contain multitudes. In some way our own charism of the three-fold good—commuity, solitude and evangelization—is a kind of universal archetype, and that is what makes it so attractive. You see it at work in the Norbertines too in their first hour. Practically speaking, though, it is always very hard to hold it all together, as Prémonstratensians had a hard time, as we Camaldolese have historically had a hard time holding even just the tension of the solitary and the communal life together. Perhaps that’s because it’s so easy to see any of these three elements as ends in and of themselves––solitude, community, or evangelization. But the end isn’t any of those: the end is absolute availability to God; the end is to be filled with the Holy Spirit; the end is not my will but yours be done. And that too is pointed out in the same Gospel passage at the Sea of Galilee: ‘When you were younger,’ Jesus says to Peter, ‘you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ John tells us that this signified the kind of death that Peter would die; yes, but not necessarily physical death. When we make ourselves available to the Spirit, there is a chance that we will be taken where we do not want to go and asked to do something that we did not have on our five-year plan. That’s a very real kind of death too. I remember Richard Rohr’s teaching about Jonah in this regard. We can try to go where we think we should go or where we want to go, but be careful! We might just get tossed in the sea and swallowed by a whale, and that whale will spit us up where God really wants us. And that “sign of Jonah” of course is a sign of dying—and rising. Sometimes we have to die to our plans in order to do God’s will. Look at our Saint Peter Damian, who exuberates about the glories of the eremitical and monastic life in honor of Saint Romuald, and then ends up as a cardinal and a reformer. When he is challenged as to why a monk, who is supposed to be dead to the world, should be telling secular clergy what to do, he says that’s exactly why: because we’re dead to the world! And there is this wonderful quote of Abbot John Chapman that I ran into, of all places, in Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy, that I find very humorous: “I wish I could join the solitaries of Caldey instead of being the superior and having to write books. But I don’t wish to have what I wish, of course.” That’s a death too, a martyrdom of sorts, the community belonging that sometimes calls for sacrificing one’s own plans and will if it’s what the Spirit wills for the greater good. Not my will but yours be done.
With Saint Norbert, we pray for the grace to love Jesus so much as to be willing to be carried off even to where we do not want to go, to what we do not want to do, that our life with Christ would bear fruit in charity and evangelical zeal.