Norbertine nuns mark 900th anniversary of Order with biography of founder

An interview with Mother Mary Augustine of the Bethlehem Priory of St Joseph of Tehachapi, California.

"The Life of St. Norbert" was recently published by the Norbertine Canonesses of the Bethlehem Priory of St Joseph of Tehachapi, California on the occasion of the 900th anniversary of the establishment of the Norbertine Order in 1121. (Images courtesy of the Bethlehem Priory of St Joseph)

The Norbertine Canonesses of the Bethlehem Priory of St Joseph of Tehachapi, California have released a new book about the founder of their community: The Life of St. Norbert: Founder of the Order of Prémontré. The book tells the story of St. Norbert and his first followers and is released on the occasion of the 900th anniversary of the establishment of the Norbertine Order in 1121.

Norbert was born in what is today southwestern Germany, served as a bishop and was canonized by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. His Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré, or Norbertines, reside in communities throughout the world.  Some of the communities, including the one near Tehachapi, are of women, whose members are called canonesses or Norbertine nuns. The Tehachapi community was founded in 2000, and is served by Norbertine priests of St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado.

The Vita or Life of St. Norbert of Xanten (1075-1134) is one of two accounts of the saint’s life which date to the 1100s. This book, “Vita B,” is nearly twice as long as “Vita A”; it is unknown which was penned first, but the accounts come from authors who knew St. Norbert. Vita B’s original author is unknown, although he is believed to be from France. The Vita B text is based on a translation from Latin to English by Fr. Theodore J. Antry, O.Praem. (1939-2020). The Norbertine nuns of Tehachapi edited and compiled the text. The book features images of 17th-century etchings by Theodorus and Cornelius Galle and includes prayers and devotions to St. Norbert.

The answers to the following questions were provided by Mother Mary Augustine of the Norbertine nuns, with assistance provided to her by a few canonesses “who wish to remain hidden within the cloister, praying that all may be for God’s honor and glory, and the salvation of souls.”

CWR:  Who was St. Norbert and what is he known for?

Mother Mary Augustine: Even though he lived almost nine centuries ago, St. Norbert remains a powerful, compelling, and engaging figure to this day. He is a saint for all times, and perhaps most especially our times.

Wealthy, handsome, educated, charming, affable and loved by all, Norbert of Xanten was well-known in the courts of both the Archbishop of Cologne and the Emperor. He was a man of the world, desiring everything and denying himself nothing. But in 1115, at the age of about 35, his life changed forever, due to a profound conversion experience remarkably similar to that of St. Paul. When Norbert was riding his horse to an unknown destination, a storm suddenly arose and he was thrown to the ground, remaining unconscious for some time. When he awoke, he heard a voice telling him to cease doing evil and learn to do good. For Norbert, there was no going back.

After months of intense prayer and monastic seclusion, the new man emerged. Norbert was ordained a deacon and priest, and he soon became a renowned preacher, one of the foremost reformers of the Gregorian Reform, founder of the Norbertine Order and an archbishop, as well as a mystic, exorcist and spiritual man of God whose preaching drew thousands of men and women to follow Christ. It was said that no one since the apostles had inspired so many to embrace the monastic life. As reported in his Life, again highlighting his similarity with St. Paul, “He became all things to all men, in order to win over all men.”

St. Norbert founded his new order in the Prémontré Valley of France on Christmas Day 1121 (hence, it is known as the “Premonstratensian” or “Norbertine” Order), with abbeys and monasteries of Norbertine canons and canonesses, i.e., priests and nuns, existing to this day throughout Europe, United States and the world, despite the loss of countless Norbertine religious houses during the French Revolution and other social upheavals.

CWR: Why would people of today benefit from learning about him?

Mother Mary: We all need holy men and women of God to encourage us and serve as models for us in our spiritual journeys, especially in times like these, when our faith is being challenged at so many different levels. Like every saint, Norbert’s life is resplendent with incredible stories of heroic virtue, marvels that reveal what each of us can achieveor rather, what God can do through uswhen we become deeply united with Christ, the Source of all Grace. “Faith was the outstanding virtue of Norbert’s life, as charity had been the hallmark of Bernard of Clairvaux” (Roman Breviary, Office of Readings, June 6, Feast of St. Norbert). Indeed, Norbert’s faith was legendary: he did not fear any human being, whether noble or king, but did all for God alone.

A loyal son of the Church, he severely admonished the heretics and lax priests and religious of his time. He became known as a minister of peace and concord for his miraculous reconciliations of warring families and factions. His ardent devotion to the Blessed Sacrament merited him the title of “Apostle of the Eucharist,” and bore fruit in his success in counteracting a grave Eucharistic heresy of his day, in the many miracles of healing which occurred just after he consumed the Body and Blood of Christ, and in his daily celebration of Holy Mass at a time when this was uncommon. He also is known as a patron saint of expectant mothers for a good childbirth as well as a powerful intercessor for married couples desiring to conceive.

This English translation of Norbert’s life contains fascinating accounts written in the 12th century by those who knew him, including countless examples of Norbert’s perseverance in the face of fierce opposition to reform and of his striving to bring Christ’s peace, truth and charity wherever needed, with his exemplary trust and confidence in God shining through it all.

Indeed, St. Norbert is someone who has much to say to the people of today, showing each and every one of us that a deep and living faith in Christ can help to transform the world, just like his faith did for the peoples of his time.

CWR: Can you give an overview of The Life of Saint Norbert?

Mother Mary: This 900th Jubilee Year edition contains the full text of Saint Norbert’s Vita B translated from the Latin by the late Reverend Theodore Antry, O. Praem., of Daylesford Abbey. Two 12th century accounts of Norbert’s life are extant, known as “Vita A” and “Vita B, ” with the latter being the longer version.  Written by those who knew Norbert during his lifetime, Vita B has often been attributed to Blessed Hugh of Fosses, the first Abbot of Prémontré and a close companion of St. Norbert, although scholarship on this point is inconclusive.

Father Antry heartily encouraged us to publish the translation of Vita B, as only excerpts had previously been published, with the full text available only in pamphlet form, or on our Order’s website, for example. In addition to the full text of Vita B, this edition of The Life of Saint Norbert contains engravings from the studio of the Galle brothers, which first appeared in the biography of St. Norbert by Johannes Chrysostom van der Sterre in 1622, as well as an appendix of selected prayers and devotions in honor of St. Norbert. The Latin captions of the Galle engravings were translated into English by our canonesses, and the cover design, text design, book design, etc., were also done by our canonesses, who edited, compiled and published this edition, all with the kind and generous guidance and assistance of seasoned publishing friends.

It bears special note that just as advance copies of the book were about to be received last month by Father Antry, who has been described by a scholar and dear friend of his as a “kind, gentle, humble, holy and brilliant man,” the Lord called Father Antry to himself.  Please join us in praying for his faith-filled soul, without whose work this book would not have been possible.

CWR: Who might be interested in purchasing the book, and what do you think they will learn from it?

Mother Mary: Anyone with faith or seeking God would be interested, especially those who enjoy reading the lives of the saints. Written in a medieval style, it will particularly appeal to those interested in older, traditional writings. And, for those who enjoy a good adventure story, they will find The Life of Saint Norbert very engaging because the saint’s life was full of excitement, twists and turns, with never a dull moment. People who opposed him tried to murder him, hatching all kinds of plots, which were never accomplished by the grace of God. The devil tried to discourage and defeat both Norbert and his followers, through his tricks and wiles, with little effect on these faith-filled men.  Through it all, Norbert’s rock-solid faith in God brought him through every trial, and his witness drew thousands to imitate his selfless life of giving all to God, and to his neighbor for and in Christ Jesus.

In short, this book is for priests, religious, Christians, all persons interested in a model for holiness of life, in the supernatural, in a deeper union with God, in learning more about the reality of what one can accomplish with God’s grace in a life totally given to Christ and his Church, with a living faith, charity and great humility. It is the kind of book that has something to offer to just about anyone.

CWR: What was the particular role your monastery had in the production of this book?

Mother Mary: The book germinated from an idea we had years back. In our little monastery gift shop, we were regularly asked if there was a book about St. Norbert, our beloved founder. And while there were and are books that contain excerpts or commentaries on his life, or information about Norbert and his followers and the Order, there had never been a published version of the translation of either Vita A or Vita B in a stand-alone book for the general public. We felt that it needed to happen, and so with the enthusiastic support and permission of Father Antry to use his English translation of Vita B, we began work on this project a few years ago. And last year, with the 900th Jubilee Year of our order before us, we continued in earnest so as to bring it to completion, with the guidance and assistance, as mentioned above, of dear experienced friends in the publishing and printing fields.

CWR: Can you tell us a bit about your community?

Mother Mary: We have over 40 nuns at this time, with our community striving daily to be faithful in following in the footsteps of Christ and Our Lady, in our Norbertine cloistered canonical life, with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as well as our promise of daily conversion, all through our life of prayer and sacrifice.

The heart of our life as canonesses is the solemn and reverential celebration of the Sacred Liturgy together in choir, amid a monastic life of prayer within the context of the Rule of St. Augustine, as noted above. Following in the Norbertine tradition of self-support, we have a small working dairy farm with cows, goats and chickens, which supply dairy and eggs for the sisters, as well as our large greenhouse and outdoor gardens, vines and trees, which provide produce, fruits and berries for the nuns. We hope in the near future to be able to sell our cheese when the final licenses/permits are obtained.

CWR: What impact does St. Norbert have on your community today?

Mother Mary: He is a bright and guiding light to us, his spiritual daughters, reflecting the light and truth of Christ. His witness and example of a deep and ardent faith is as vibrant and living today as it was 900 years ago. A true follower of Christ, he founded his community in imitation of the first community of disciples, praying together and sharing all things in common (cf. Acts 2:42-47). We strive daily to follow in St. Norbert’s footsteps, in the footsteps of Christ, in the footsteps of his Blessed Mother who was his first and foremost disciple.

His devotion to the Sacred Liturgy and especially the Holy Eucharist (he is usually depicted in imagery holding a monstrance or chalice), and his deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, as well as his penitential spirit and zeal for the salvation of souls are some of the hallmark characteristics of our order, which we, as his spiritual daughters, embrace wholeheartedly. All of these aspects of his life are at the core and center of our spiritual and monastic life of prayer and sacrifice as well, including his selection of the Rule of St. Augustine (followed by all Norbertines) and the white habit, which some traditions say he received in a vision from Our Lady, and which he associated with the white garments of angels of the Resurrection.

CWR: Where are you in the process of building your monastery?

Mother Mary: Phase I of our monastery was completed in 2013, providing much-needed monastic living space for the nuns, including our professional kitchens, refectory (dining room), chapter room, infirmary, recreation room, dormitories for the professed and novitiate, laundry room, cheese aging rooms, etc. Phase II will include our much-needed future chapelwhich is the core and center of our monastic and canonical lifeand is our most pressing construction need at this time. Phase II will also include expanded living and working space for the nuns, since we are already nearing capacity with Phase I. We have at this time over $3 million restricted and designated for this project, with $8 million needed to break ground, and our total budget estimated at about $12 million, due principally to the deep slope on which our future chapel will be built. We continue to entrust this project to the Lord, trusting in his providential will and timing in all.

CWR: Will sales of this book help fund your community? How else may people support you?

Mother Mary: We are hoping that this book finds its way into as many hearts and hands as possible, as we believe that St. Norbert is truly a saint for our times. As our Father Abbot General mentioned in his foreword:

“Our prayer is that this book will give honor and glory to God, assist in the salvation of souls, and bring countless souls to know, love and have a deep appreciation for our beloved holy founder, truly a saint for our times: Bishop, Apostle of the Eucharist, Minister of Peace and Concord, Exorcist, Miracle Worker, Patron of a Good Childbirth (and for married couples desiring to conceive), and so much more.”

Sales of this book will indeed help to support our community, along with our other self-support activitiessuch as our monastery gift shop and our online store, hand-sewn priest vestments, dog breeding, annual Christmas fundraisers, etc.and the generous donations, monetary and non-monetary, of friends across the country and indeed around the globe. We welcome and are deeply grateful for contributions toward our future chapel fund, and our general ongoing needs, for example through our website’s online donation buttons, as well as gifts and grants received via postal mail and in person at our monastery, through regular monthly donations set up through banks or credit cards, as well as estate/trust gifts, etc.

In this grace-filled and indulgenced 900th Jubilee Year of the founding of our Order (Nov. 29. 2020, First Sunday of Advent, through the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, January 9, 2022), the canonesses also have a special Jubilee Year page on their website, which, in addition to the book, The Life of Saint Norbert, contains a number of other specialty religious items designed and made by the nuns.

CWR: What else would you like to share?

Mother Mary: This book was and is truly a labor of love on behalf of all the canonesses; we cannot say thank you enough to all those who have supported this project, and there are many. As mentioned by our Norbertine Abbot General, the Most Reverend Jos Wouters, O. Praem., in his foreword, the translator’s introduction provides useful reading keys, situating the text of the Vita B against its historical background, with this Jubilee Year edition offering three images of St. Norbert, an innovator and reformer of the canonical way of life. These images merge into each other and they reveal how St. Norbert spoke and speaks to people throughout history up to our time. We meet him as he was perceived by the first generation Premonstratensians and learn how he led and inspired the young foundation at Prémontré. In the engravings, we sense how Norbert inspired and expressed the resilience of the Premonstratensians during the time of recovery from the troubles that accompanied the Reformation. And in the appendix’s prayers and texts, we meet Norbert as he lives in contemporary devotion.

In short, there is something for everyone, the spiritual person, the historian, the artist, the linguist, the avid reader, the scholastic, the student, and so on. Just as St. Norbert became all things to all men so as to win them to Christ in his day, so he does in our day, we pray, through this account of his life.

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About Jim Graves 227 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.

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