Priory of St. Norbert

The Sovereign Military Order of the Temple of Jerusalem ®

Overview

Saint Norbert was born in Xanten on the left bank of the Rhine, near Wesel, in the Electorate of Cologne. He grew up there and was also educated there. His father, Heribert, Count of Gennep, was related to the imperial house of Germany and the House of Lorraine. His mother was Hedwig of Guise. Through the influence of his family he obtained a financial subsidy from the parish church of St. Victor at Xanten when he accepted ordination to the subdeaconate. His only task was to chant the Divine Office at the Church, but he apparently paid someone a small fee to take his place in the choir, because he gained an appointment as a chaplain (religious counselor) to the emperor, Henry V in Cologne. The salaries from the Xanten fund and the royal treasury were enough to equip him to live in the style of the nobility of the times.

He avoided ordination to the priesthood and even declined an appointment as bishop of Cambrai in 1113. One day in the spring of 1115, as he rode his horse to Vreden, a nearby village, a thunderbolt from a sudden storm struck at his horse’s feet. The animal threw him and he lay unconscious for nearly an hour. After this near-fatal accident, his faith deepened, he renounced his appointment at Court and returned to Xanten to lead a life of penance, placing himself under the direction of Cono, Abbot of St Sigeberg, near Cologne. In gratitude to Cono, in 1115, Norbert founded the Abbey of Fürstenberg, endowed it with a portion of his property, and made it over to Cono of Siegburg and his Benedictine successors. Norbert was then in his thirty-fifth year. He was ordained to the priesthood soon afterward. St Norbert was a great devotee of the Eucharist and Our Lady.

He also adopted an asceticism so fierce that it killed his first three disciples. This may account for the failure of his attempts to reform the canons of Xanten, who denounced him as an innovator at the Council of Fritzlar in 1118. He then resigned his benefice, sold all his property and gave the proceeds to the poor. He visited Pope Gelasius II, who gave him permission to become an itinerant preacher and he preached throughout lands in what is now western Germany, Belgium and northern France, being credited with a number of miracles. In settlement after settlement he encountered a demoralized clergy, lonely, often practicing concubinage and feeling that the official Church cared little about them.

In Paris he would have witnessed the Canons of St. Victor, who had adopted the ascetic ideals of William of Champagne. At Clairvaux and Citeaux he would have beheld the Cistercian reforms of the world among the monks. He also became acquainted with the Cistercian administrative system that created an international federation of monasteries with fair amount of centralized power, though local houses had a certain amount of independence. These reforms, written up in their “Charter of Charity” would affect him significantly in his own future work.

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