The deacon is ordained in persona Christi Servi, in the person of Christ the Servant, and the priest in persona Christi Capitis, in the person of Christ the Head. Those who aspire to these orders are first called to deep reflection and discernment, to determine whether they are called to live as Christ lived, in service and self-denial.
Reflection, discernment, service, self-denial; these are not words that one would have used to describe the man who would become Saint Norbert. Born in Germany in the year 1080 into a wealthy and influential family, Norbert was an intelligent and sophisticated young man, but was also worldly, shallow, and spoiled. He had studied for ordination, but found that he liked less responsibility and more fun, so he was content to remain a subdeacon. Ordination was for other people; Norbert enjoyed being served far too much to even consider the thought of serving.
One summer day this 30 year-old bon vivant started out for a nearby town in his usual pursuit of pleasure, along with one his servants. Caught in a sudden, violent storm, his horse startled at a nearby thunderbolt. Norbert was thrown and knocked unconscious. Coming to, he sensed the presence of God and called out, “Lord, what would you have me do?” A verse from Psalm 34 began running through his head, “Turn away from evil and do good: seek after peace, and pursue it.”
For the first time in a long time, Norbert began seriously reflecting on his life.
We read in Matthew’s gospel that once Jesus was seated on the mountain, his disciples came to him. After his own divine encounter in that rainstorm, Norbert also came to Christ. Perhaps he even recalled him saying, Blessed are the poor in spirit, because when he returned home, Norbert signed away his wealth and spent the next two years preparing for ordination to the diaconate and priesthood.
The grace of Holy Orders worked wonders within him. This newly humbled man was a great preacher. What’s more, his own conversion kindled in him a desire to reform other clerics who were now living the same high life that he once enjoyed. He would have good reason to remember Christ’s words, Blessed are you when they insult you, for many of these men had known Norbert for a long time and strongly resented his deep and newfound piety. These bitter and resistant clerics heaped insults upon him; one of them even spat right in his face.
Yet, Norbert knew that Jesus also said, Blessed are the meek. He bore every insult without resentment and offered it all up in reparation for his own sinfulness. His reward would be to inherit the land twice over. First, Norbert’s work bore so much fruit that he was asked to spread reform across both France and Germany. Second, he was given land at Premontre in France to build his first monastery. On Christmas Day 1121, he established with his growing band of followers the order known as the Premonstratensians, also called the Norbertines.
Norbert had turned from evil to do good; next he would seek after peace. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. This may have been his greatest work. He combined his intellect and social skill with the grace of his office and became famous for finding ways to broker peace where many thought it impossible. His reputation as a peacemaker was unparalleled in his time.
Norbert did not become a saint because he fell off a horse and heard a Scripture verse; he became a saint because he took a hard look at himself and realized that he had no idea what happiness is. Happiness is beatitude, or eternal union with Christ. As a young man he once aspired to imitate Christ through Holy Orders, but when that life looked difficult and a worldly one much easier, he allowed himself to settle for less. We aren’t so different. In our own spiritual lives, we sometimes try to draw closer to Christ by setting some new and ambitious goal, only to find how hard it is to do in practice. Like Norbert, we end up settling for less and allowing other more worldly things to come between us and a closer union with God.
The beatitudes teach us that Jesus did not suffer and die so that we might settle for less. God desires only our happiness, and that means union with him. The example of Saint Norbert shows us that true union with God means becoming what we were meant to be and what Christ already is: poor in spirit; mourning our sins; meek; hungry and thirsty for righteousness; merciful; clean of heart; a peacemaker; willing to be insulted and persecuted out of love for his Father and for us. Jesus settled for no less than the cross because he wanted no less than our resurrection. May we desire no less than to be like him, that we may be with him, our one true happiness.
Saint Norbert, pray for us.