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!”