St. Norbert was born at Xanten in the Rhineland, about the year 1080. The early part of
his life was devoted to the world and its pleasures. He entered upon the ecclesiastical
state in a worldly spirit.
The thunderstorm had boiled up suddenly as Norbert was out riding. Norbert, who had always
chosen the easy way, would never have deliberately gone on a journey that promised danger,
risk, or discomfort. He had moved easily from the comforts of the noble family he was born
into at about 1080 to the pleasure-loving German court. He had no hesitations about
joining in any opportunity to enjoy himself, no matter what the source of that pleasure.
To ensure his success at court, he also had no qualms about accepting holy orders as a
canon and whatever financial benefices that came with that position, although he did
hesitate at becoming a priest and the implied responsibilities that came with that
But now high winds pushed and pulled at his fashionable coif, rain slashed at his fancy
clothes, and dark roiling clouds pressed night down upon his light thoughts. A sudden
flash of lightning split the dark and his horse bucked, throwing Norbert to the ground.
For almost an hour, the still form of the courtier lay unmoving. Even the rain soaking his
clothes and the howl of thunder did not bring him back to consciousness and life. When he
awoke his first words were, "Lord, what do you want me to do?" -- the same words
Saul spoke on the road to Damascus. In response Norbert heard in his heart, "Turn
from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it."
He immediately returned to the place of his birth, Xanten, to devote himself to prayer and
penance. He now embraced the instruction for the priesthood he had avoided and was
ordained in 1115. His complete conversion and new ways caused some to denounce the former
courtier as a hypocrite. Norbert's response was to give everything he owned to the poor an
d to go to the pope for permission to preach.
With this commission in hand, he became an itinerant preacher, traveling through Europe
with his two companions. In an extreme response to his old ways, he now chose the most
difficult ways to travel -- walking barefoot in the middle of winter through snow and ice.
Unfortunately the two companions who followed him died from the ill-effects of exposure.
But Norbert was gaining the respect of those sincere clerics who had despised him before.
The bishop of Laon wanted Norbert to help reform the canons in his see, but the canons
wanted nothing to do with Norbert's type of reform which they saw as far too strict. The
bishop, not wanting to lose this holy man, offered Norbert land where he could start his
own community. In a lonely valley called Prmontr, began his community with
thirteen canons. Despite the strictness of his regulation, or perhaps because it, his
reforms attracted many disciples until eight abbeys and two convents were involved. Even
the canons who had originally rejected him asked to be part of the reform.
In Norbert's community we have the first evidence of lay affiliation with a religious
order. This came about when a count Theobald wanted to join Norbert. Norbert realized that
Theobald was not called to holy orders but to marriage and worldly duties. But he did not
entirely reject Theobald, giving him a rule and devotions as well as a scapular to wear to
identify him as part of the community.
It was on the trip accompanying Theobald to his marriage, that Norbert was spotted by
Emperor Lothair and chosen as bishop of Magdebourg. Legend has it the porter refused to
let Norbert into his new residence, assuming he was a beggar. When the crowd pointed out
to the flustered porter that this was the new bishop Norbert told the porter, "You
were right the first time." Norbert carried the love of reform that he had found in
his own life to his new diocese. As usual, this made him many enemies and he was almost
assassinated. Disgusted with the citizens desire to keep to their old ways, he left the
city, but was soon called back -- not because the citizens missed him but because the
emperor and the pope pressured them.
When two rival popes were elected after the death of Honorius II, Norbert helped try to
heal the Church by getting his admirer the emperor to support the first elected, Innocent
II. At the end of his life he was made an archbishop but he died soon after on June 6,
1134 at the age of 53.