WWND – What Would Norbert Do?


I am sure that most of us have heard the phrase, “What Would Jesus Do?” and have seen it in a variety of forms on bracelets and other wearable items. Intended to be a reminder when we are faced with a decision, these four words pose a simple question for us that often has more complex decision-making that goes along with it. What if we consider altering the question a bit and ask, “What Would Norbert Do?” As we consider our charism as a school community founded in the Catholic Norbertine tradition, it is important to consider this question as it relates to the decisions we make as leaders, adults, and role models in an educational institution.

Saint Norbert was born in the town of Cleve near Xanten, now present day Germany, to royalty in the year 1080, during the High Middle Ages. We know that Xanten was a flourishing trading city, and that Norbert, as the third son, was destined to have a life in the Church, having a place among the canons (or priests) of Saint Victor Church in Xanten. Apparently very intelligent and eloquent, Norbert was educated at the prestigious school in Laon, France, and was later given a position in the court of Henry V. Interestingly, today we do not have any writings of Saint Norbert, so all that we know of him comes from what has been written by his followers after he founded the religious order of Norbertines in Premontre, France, in 1120. However, we may be able to discern from his actions and from his travels what Saint Norbert considered to be most important: to live a religious life and a life consistent with the teachings of Jesus.

We know that while he was a part of the court of Henry V, the Holy Roman Emperor had a disagreement with the Pope about who was allowed to invest priests. Henry V wanted the power to do so from the Pope; however, the Pope believed that it was the Church and his role to invest priests. The disagreement was settled when Henry V’s army encircled the Vatican, forcing the Pope to confer the right of investiture on Henry. Norbert was disillusioned with Henry and he left the court. Not knowing what to do, he began preaching, and, due to his persuasiveness and eloquence, he attracted people to him, but he still did not know exactly what his life’s work should be.

It is told that on the road to Freden, he was caught in a storm, and, when a bolt of lightening struck nearby, he was thrown from his horse. As he regained consciousness, he heard the words of Psalm 33, “Turn from evil; do good: seek and strive after peace.” These words inspired retreat to the Abbey to pray and reflect on what he was to do with his life. He had been preaching about reform in the Church, believing that religious life needed to be simpler and detached from the world, a life devoted to poverty, chastity, and obedience. He was disillusioned with the opulence many of the communities of canons (priests) associated with Churches that he visited during his three years of preaching. Finally, while he was staying with his cousin, Bartholomew, who was Bishop of Laon, the city where he had studied in his youth, he was shown a small hermit’s chapel, tucked away in the woods near Laon. There, Norbert prayed through the night, and decided that he needed to establish his own religious community that would follow the Rule of Saint Augustine, and live both a communal life, where all things would be shared in common, but also a ministerial life of service to the community around them. In fact, Norbert’s vision included religious men and women working together with laymen and women, an innovative idea for the early 12th century.

Nearly one thousand years later, we know the impact of that one decision from one man. Thousands of religious men and women became members of hundreds of abbeys over the centuries in Europe and around the world. These Norbertine priests, brothers, and sisters touched the lives of thousands of others. Because of Norbert’s bold decision to begin a new religious community at the age of 40 – a fairly advanced age for a man in those days when the average life expectancy was 42 – we have been influenced by his charism through his followers.

So what qualities can we consider in Norbert that we might use in our decision-making?

We know that by his preaching, while he was critical of the status quo and advocated for reform and change, he was a reconciler and peacemaker. He advocated for change not by force, but through dialog, shared understanding, and compromise. He had RESPECT for individuals and points of view.

We know that Norbert believed that living in community, where all possessions were shared according to each person’s need, was a reflection of the way Jesus and his apostles lived. Individuals, as a family, cared for one another and shared talents and resources with each other, creating a COMMUNITY that was stronger than the sum of its parts.

Norbert’s travels suggest he was passionate about his beliefs. He did not settle down in one place, but spent his life moving from one town to another, searching for his life’s work. Even after he founded the Norbertine Community in Premontre, France, he was called upon to become Bishop of Magdeburg in Germany in 1126, a position that he dutifully accepted until his death in 1134. Through his travels and his lasting impact on various communities, we can imagine that Norbert had tremendous ZEAL for his work.

From the time he served in the court of Henry V, we know that Norbert loved the liturgy of the Church. He advocated for daily Mass, something that was not common in the Church at that time. He also advocated for inspiring liturgical environments – beautiful fabrics and pristine linens and altar cloths. When he established the Norbertine Community, the liturgy and daily Mass were important to the life of the community. Norbert instilled a sense of REVERENCE in his followers.

Finally, we know that Norbert had gifts of intelligence, eloquence, and affability. He studied at prestigious schools and had opportunities at court and abroad to preach and teach. Even though he was an intellectual, he had cultivated a deep spirituality, as well. Reconciling the two, he searched for meaning and purpose in his life that allowed him to be critical of the Church he served and loved, only to recreate within it a renewed vision based on the apostolic vision of community advanced by Jesus himself. Norbert went directly to the heart of the Church, and from there, using the WISDOM of those who preceded him and who influenced him as his teachers and contemporaries, built a new vision for the Church.

So when we are faced with an issue that requires a decision, what is a well-crafted answer to the question, “What Would Norbert Do?” Perhaps if we consider Norbert’s character as defined by the five words – RESPECT, COMMUNITY, ZEAL, REVERENCE, and WISDOM – and associate questions with each as it relates to our issue, we will arrive at a pretty good answer.

We at Archmere have embraced these five words in recent years as a way to talk about and share our common experience. The ongoing dialog of how to define and interpret each of these words is important to the evolution and growth of the school community. In doing so, we learn more about one another and gain insight into the founder and visionary of the Premonstratensians Fathers – Saint Norbert.

During this month of all saints and all souls, we especially pray, “Saint Norbert, pray for us!”

Saying “Yes” Every Day

Where has summer gone? After a busy start of the school year in August, and event-packed September, who can remember the summer as October begins?

Fortunately, we have the opportunity to pause each year on October 7 – the Feast of the Holy Rosary – to pray the Rosary with Father McLaughlin in the formal garden before the statue of Mary. This year, the rain forces us to take our prayer into the Patio Music Room before the painting of the Assumption of Mary.

The Battle of Lepanto, Paolo Veronese

The Battle of Lepanto, Paolo Veronese

Along with 35 or so mothers of current and former students, I enjoy joining in the Rosary that reflects on moments in the life of Jesus – joyful, sorrowful, glorious, or luminous mysteries of Christ. In 1572, Pope Saint Pius V established October 7 as the Feast of the Holy Rosary in thanksgiving to God for the victory of Christians over the Turks at Lepanto – victory that prevented Islam from spreading into Western Europe. Pope John-Paul II added the Luminous Mysteries, or “Mysteries of Light,” in his 2002 Apostolic Letter entitled, The Rosary of the Virgin Mary. The five reflections are “The Baptism of Jesus,” “The Wedding at Cana,” “Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom,” “The Transfiguration,” and “The First Eucharist.”

While the central figure of the October 7 feast day is Mary, the great prayer of the Rosary underscores Mary’s “yes” to God, and focuses our prayer to Jesus through Mary. Originally attributed to Saint Dominic, the Rosary is thought to be modeled after the 150 psalms with 150 “Our Father” prayers followed by decades of the “Hail Mary.” Hypnotic and meditative, the prayer requires us to consider the events in the life of Christ as we pray over and over again two great prayers of our faith.


I first recall praying the Rosary in grade school, remembering how sometimes I was distracted by the heat in the classroom or how I became drowsy after just having had lunch and recess. The prayers seemed so repetitive and boring as a child. Only after I grew older do I now appreciate the contemplative power of the Rosary. I am especially grateful for it on anxious nights before bed when my mind cannot rest. I begin the prayer and feel as though I am resting my head in the arms of Mary. That image and feeling of complete resignation offer me the peace and comfort I seek in those sleepless moments.

In recent weeks I came across an alternative idea about the life of Saint Norbert that helped me consider how conversion of our hearts and God’s call in our lives might really come about.

In speaking with Father Ted Antry, O.Praem., after a Mission and Heritage meeting at Archmere, we started to discuss Norbert’s call by God. The account, found in Chapter 1 of The Life of Saint Norbert, Vita A, explains that Norbert was on horseback on his way to Freden when a storm arose and a bolt of lightening scared his horse, throwing him to ground. It was then when Norbert heard the words of Psalm 33 spoken to him, “Turn from evil and do good.”

The Conversion of Norbert

The Conversion of Norbert

Father Antry suggested that the conversion of Norbert may have been articulated in that final defining moment on the way to Freden. However, Norbert may have been considering a call to conversion, to a different way of life, several years before when he was at the imperial court of Henry V. Norbert became disenchanted with Henry’s use of force against the Pope, and he left the Court along with his position as the son of noble parents. In other words, a study of Norbert’s life may suggest that his conversion was a process of discernment over several years, culminating in the vision of establishing a new religious community.

I like this explanation of Norbert’s conversion because I find it more plausible based on my own personal experience. I do believe that many of us have not had that singular defining moment – “the thunderbolt” that completely changes our lives. Rather, discernment happens over time. This discussion about Norbert’s conversion also led me to consider the story of how Mary said “yes” to God’s call during the Visitation of the angel Gabriel.

After Saint Gabriel told her that she would be the Mother of God, I would like to believe that her affirmative response was not a simple one. I would like to think that Mary, as an example for us today, had to have prevailing faith to learn more about the plan of salvation for humankind that included her. Not just once, rather each day, she had to say “yes” to God with a blind faith that each of us would very likely find difficult to manage.

When I consider the 501 students enrolled at Archmere this year, their families, and all those who support our community as parents of graduates, alumni, grandparents, and friends, I am overwhelmed with joy by our responsibility to make sure Christ is present in our words and actions, so that transformative experiences are possible every day. In the coming weeks, we will be welcoming to campus the grandparents of our students, our alumni celebrating class reunions, and other alumni, parents of graduates, and friends who will be attending the events of this year’s Homecoming. These lasting relationships are the signs of transformative experiences – ones that allow us to share our mutual belief in God and make us want to care for one another – loving God and neighbor, the two greatest commandments.

During this month of the Holy Rosary and of Respect for Life, I hope that all of us may take the time to offer prayers to God through the intercession of Mary for the courage to say “yes” to God’s call – a call to serve within our families, the Archmere community, our local communities, and the world.