St Norbert of Xanten (c. 1080-1134)

Isaac Padinjarekuttu

One of the creative ways of responding to the crisis in medieval monasticism was the vita apostolica, groups of people who wanted to follow the way of life of Jesus and the apostles, who wandered about in simplicity and poverty and preached the message of the Kingdom of God. Many felt that life in the monasteries was a sheltered existence, far removed from the life of the people. Many clergy, too, took up this challenge to combine some form of monastic observance and pastoral care. Many canons, the clergy belonging to a cathedral church bound to a common life there, began to adopt a semi-monastic way of life, especially when the Gregorian Reform began to enforce clerical celibacy and they came be called “canons regular” – those clergy who lived under a rule, mostly the Rule of Augustine. Thus they were really a hybrid order of clerical monks. This was an attempt to free the clergy from worldly entanglements and to impress upon them their sacred calling. It was believed that the discipline of community offered the best hope of achieving these ends. In response to this, houses of canons regular began to appear – groups of clergy who had renounced private property and lived a fully communal life observing a monastic time table and sharing a common refectory and dormitory.

The Norbertines or the Premonstratensians, were a particular branch of canons regular who got the names from the mother house of Premontre and the founder Norbert of Xanten. The younger son of a noble family of Xanten, near the Rheinland in Germany, Norbert became a subdeacon and canon of the cathedral in his native town, but led a worldly life. He was converted in 1115 when in danger of death during a thunderstorm. He renounced all his benefices and fled to solitude at the abbey of Siegburg near Cologne. There he was ordained priest and having taken the monastic habit endeavoured to reform his brother canons at Xanten which was unsuccessful. So he organized a group of hermits and preachers, for which he obtained permission from Pope Gelasius II and travelled as an itinerant preacher and soon became renowned for his eloquence and his miracles. In 1120 he founded the Order of the Premonstratensians in the valley of Premontre. They took formal vows to live according to the Gospel and sayings of the Apostles and the rule of St Augustine. They adopted a simple white dress, which also gave them the name “white canons.” For him the vita apostolica meant a combination of community life organized round the ideal of austerity and poverty with active missionary preaching. His model was Jesus who with His disciples went about preaching. The community laid special stress on preaching, pastoral activity and evangelization but all under the control of the Church. At a time when such movements were considered heretical it was important that it was placed under the supervision of the Church. They also used the services of lay brothers and sisters and some of the early foundations were double monasteries but this experiment was stopped in 1135. He travelled throughout Europe preaching everywhere and successfully fighting heresy. Early in 1126 he obtained recognition of his order from Pope Honorius II and in the same year was appointed Archbishop of Magdeburg. His zeal for reform made him many enemies but he always enjoyed the confidence both of the emperor and the Pope.

Thus a new orientation came into consecrated life, stressing wandering preaching and the insecurity and poverty that accompany it, abandoning the stability and security of the monastery. The ideal was no more the community of Acts but Jesus who moved from place to place with His disciples proclaiming the Kingdom. Scripture passages such as Mt 10:5-15; Mt 19:29; Lk 9:1-5; Lk 9:58; Lk 10:1-12 etc. were used to justify their life style. Such movements increased in number in the 12th century and came to be called “Poverty Movements.” In these groups the difference between monks, priests, canons regular, and the laity disappeared because irrespective of their status and gender all could be their members. Some of them preached unorthodox doctrines and were declared heretics, like the Waldensians, the Humiliati etc.

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