Next in our book excerpt series is from the newly released 900th Jubilee Year Edition of The Life of St. Norbert, published by the Norbertine Canonesses.
Saint Norbert courageously engaged the challenges of his time: corruption, petty wars, oppression of the Church, heresies, and more. The strikingly similar challenges facing the Church and world today suggest that St. Norbert is an intercessor uniquely suited for our times.
Chapter II: How the Grace of God Visited Norbert
Norbert drifted about in the midst of Babylon. He wandered about unthinking along many winding courses, along labored and difficult ways, always going but never returning, a wanderer and a fugitive, unknowingly being tossed about, in danger and yet safe, pursuing the wind and chasing after emptiness. Then, suddenly and without warning, a quick word and a powerful hand extended over the back of the fugitive, casting down the rider and raising up the crooked.
Accompanied by a single servant, Norbert hastened alone to a place called Frethen. Why he went secretly or alone only He knows who said: “I will surround your way with briars.” But while he was riding along in a pleasant green meadow, dressed in silk and on a fine horse, suddenly clouds appeared, a storm came up, thunder roared and lightning flashed. There was a tempest. There was no refuge nearby. The power of the storm struck them with terror and thoughts of a fearful death. What can we say? The unlettered boy called to his learned master, servant to lord, boy to elder: “Norbert, where are you going? Sir, what are you doing? Turn back, Father, turn back. The hand of the Lord is powerful against you.” The servant calls but the ass speaks with more results than Balaam’s.
The Lord above is compassionate in calling back and not slow to change, as if He were saying: “Norbert, Norbert, why are you persecuting me? I have fitted you with a body. I have given you wealth with which to outfit yourself. You ought to have served me. Why do you rush to destroy others? It is hard for you to kick against the goad.”
Suddenly, a bolt of lightning struck the ground before the horse’s feet. It scorched the grass, splitting and opening the earth to a greater depth than that of a man’s height. It was a crack no one could bear to hear. As said above, the powerful hand of the Lord cast down the rider. His life-giving mercy immediately raised up the bent and humbled man. The boy stood there stunned. His master lay there, as did the horse, unconscious almost to the point of death. The place and the man’s clothing stank. It was the stench of sulfur, like the fire of hell.
After an hour, the man rose as from a deep sleep. Coming to himself, he was touched with grief of heart and began to say to himself: “Lord, what do you want me to do?” Immediately, as if He were responding: “Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” Norbert went no farther. Nor did he cross the ditch that the Lord had dug for him. Rather, reflecting on the Lord’s mercies, that He is good, that his mercy is forever, Norbert returned home.
From this time on, the fire of divine love which had been ignited gradually expanded. He neither changed his garb suddenly nor immediately left the world. However, beneath his soft garments he wore rough haircloth to tame his members and fight against his lower nature. Then, gradually and slowly, the interior sword of the Word of God, penetrating his depths and burning his loins and searching his heart, began interiorly to reform what had been deformed, plucking out and destroying, rebuilding and planting, casting out the serpent by the same way in which he had crept in, and suddenly and in a moment turned and changed the wild and rapacious hawk into a simple and meek dove. But as the Apostle says, where sin abounded grace also abounded.
Because the Holy Spirit knew the manner and order of his working, nothing was forgotten. After He inspired love, He opened Norbert’s understanding. He put it into his already interiorly-renewed mind that he should wait a suitable amount of time before putting off the exterior man with its acts, and choosing an apt and suitable place for publicly renouncing this world and its prince and teacher, the devil, with all his pomp. In this way, the clemency of divine compassion might be more pleasingly evident.
Meanwhile, the Man of God gathered together all his strength. Returning to his senses and strengthening his spirit, and reflecting on higher counsels, he changed all the efforts of his life into a completely other and altogether different direction. Instructed on how to fight with the enemy, he immediately withdrew from the court. He resided either at home or stayed in the Abbey of Siegburg with Abbot Conon of happy memory, a man of admirable holiness, who at that time presided over that monastery. He studied the Sacred Scriptures and, as Solomon says: “The wise man bides his time.”
Being inexperienced, he trained himself for his future conversion. He prepared himself through tireless meditation for whatever he was planning for himself regarding poverty, for whatever could happen regarding suffering and struggle. Lest the eager spirit of the new recruit and still untrained soldier be in any way distressed by the constant delay of advancement, he was comforted by the example of his Lord and Master and Redeemer of all, Jesus Christ, who endured until his time and hour arrived, as the Gospel passage says, referring to the Jews: “And they did not take hold of Him because his hour had not come”; and elsewhere in reference to himself: “What is this to me and to you, woman? My hour has not come.” And again: “My time has not come, but your time is always ready.” And again the Evangelist says: “When the Passover had drawn near, the feast day of the Jews, Jesus, knowing that his hour was coming to cross from this world to the Father,” etc.
Imbued with the new grace of interior virtue, but not yet having put off the old exterior garment, he modified his desire with the hope of a more abundant harvest. He chose to take on the garb of the new man and its mark of honor at the same time, the former with the religious habit, the latter with the dignity of the priesthood. The conferred gifts would be the more pleasant the more they would be stronger from the double conferral, and thus the evil spirit would be more seriously damaged in the sight of onlookers the more the magnificent King gloriously triumphed in Norbert.