MAN ON FIRE
The Life and Spirit of Norbert of Xanten
By Thomas Kunkel
St. Norbert College Press, 2019
181 pages, softcover; $14
To order: amazon.com
There’s a strange comfort to be found in the dysfunctional corners of Church history. It’s not that the clerical corruption, lax discipline, bad theology and miserable leadership of the past allows us to shrug our shoulders, mutter a world-weary, “’Twas ever thus,” and wonder what’s a body to do when we encounter the same problems today. Rather, it’s the realization that challenges of the past produced saints to meet them — those men and women who looked at Christ and at his Church and said, “We must do better.”
And, fired by the Holy Spirit, they did.
Among the founders of enduring religious orders, St. Norbert of Xanten is the forgotten man. Part of this is due to the currents of history, which battered his reputation and the order he left behind — the Premonstratensians, colloquially known as the Norbertines. At his death in 1134, more than 100 abbeys and other foundations existed throughout Europe, with the strongest presence in France, Germany and Belgium, where Norbert himself lived, worked and preached. Within 200 years of his death, there may have been 1,000 Premonstratensian institutions, yet he wouldn’t be canonized until the Counter-Reformation needed a strong witness to the Real Presence.
As the Norbertines grew, their founder’s reputation was eclipsed by the very men he inspired. First St. Francis and then St. Dominic met the challenges of their days with his sense of boldness, fiery faith and Christlike simplicity. Indeed, it’s impossible to read Thomas Kunkel’s new book on the life of Norbert, Man on Fire, without seeing it as a kind of template for the life of Francis.
A noted biographer (Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of The New Yorker and Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker), as well as the president emeritus of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, Kunkel is well-equipped for the task of writing a fresh and engaging life of the great saint for a general readership.
In its pages, we meet the prototypical wealthy and worldly young man who turns to a life of radical poverty in order to be more Christlike.
The son of Heribert, count of Gennep, Norbert “denied himself nothing and left nothing that he desired untried,” according to one of two early biographies of the saint. He was ambitious, unsettled and eager for advancement, and his wealth and position earned him a rising status in the court of the bishop of Cologne. As a subdeacon, he had few religious obligations, and he soon found himself a trusted counselor to the bishop and then a member of the court of Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, becoming, in the words of one early life, a “renowned inhabitant of Babylon.” (Some later historians suspect his waywardness may have been exaggerated for effect.)
At some point, according to early lore, he declined the bishopric of Cambrai, although whether it was because the diocese was too far from the seat of power or because he felt himself unworthy is up for debate. What we know for sure, however, is that Norbert was in the process of changing. The man with the ear of bishops, popes and emperors was riding a horse when lightning struck the ground in front of him, opening a sulfurous pit and knocking him to the ground. A voice spoke to him: “Turn from evil, and do good. Seek peace and pursue it.”
Norbert was as yet unsure what this call meant, but he sought immediate ordination to be a deacon and priest, which was highly unusual.
Norbert arrived for the ceremony in Cologne wearing his most splendid finery, publicly exchanging it for the coarse tunic of a pilgrim before donning his priestly vestments. He would trade his horse for a humble mule and make his way across the countryside without any food or money, preaching the Gospel wherever he went. He lived the life of a wanderprediger, or wandering preacher, attracting a small group of men along the way. His severe asceticism, which included little food and meager clothing in freezing weather, killed some of his early followers.
His first attempt at reform sputtered badly, as religious who had known him as a worldly young man balked at the way he hectored them to live up to their vows. Eventually, Pope Calixtus II urged him to establish a new order, which he did around an abandoned chapel in the remote location of Premontre, France. Thirteen followers, among them St. Evermode and Blessed Hugh, built the new order from the ground up. Norbert hit the road to gather followers, seeking people, as Kunkel writes, to “lead a communal life based on the prayerful, humble, Gospel-witnessing example of Christ’s apostles.”
The life of the Premontratensians evolved from the rule of Augustine, made more austere, Kunkel notes, with “absolute silence, routine privation and great regimentation.” They adopted their distinct white robes as a testament to purity and the power of the Resurrection. The Eucharist became the heart of the order, an element that would lead to a revival of their fortunes during the Reformation, when the Church needed people with a strong Eucharistic devotion to defend against Protestant heresies. Uniquely, Promentre was a “double monastery,” with men on one side and women on the other. Within a few years of its founding, more than 1,000 women were sharing the space.
Kunkel tells of all this and more in a brisk and vivid narrative designed to introduce readers to the unique story of Norbert’s life and the spiritual charisms of his order. It’s written to be accessible to college students, but takes the time to weigh the claims of various sources from the original vitae to current scholarship. The result is a quick and engaging life of a saint more people should know.
Church history tells us this much: When the challenge comes, a Benedict, Francis, Claire, Dominic, Ignatius or Teresa arises. Given our current crisis, that means another Norbert walks among us, and Man on Fire reminds us why that should be of great comfort.