Premonstratensians

The saints and the fundamental texts

The Augustin rule

Augustine did not cease from a restless search for the truth. Whilst he was an orator and a converted philosopher, a bishop and a theologian, he was also a monk. After his conversion, he desired nothing more than to be a “servant of God”, an expression which to him meant first and foremost being a monk. After being ordained priest, he still remained a monk. After his consecration as bishop, he continued to live in the same style, together with the priests of his diocese. As the author of the oldest western monastic Rule, he exerted great influence on the concept of the Christian ideal of religious life and greatly contributed to the development of western monasticism.

Over the centuries, different texts of the monastic rule have been attributed to Augustine. Thus, in the twelfth century, there were attributed to him, inter al, a præceptum Rule and a monastery rule, the ordo monasterii. St. Norbert, when obliged to give a rule to the Premonstratensians, initially chose the second of these, which appeared to him to be the more austere, but which was not, so to speak, adopted anywhere. At the request of the Pope, he finally chooses the “praeceptum”, which, according to recent research, is the only one, which can authentically be attributed to Augustine.

Augustine wrote this Rule in around 397. It was the fruit of experience, which began at Thagastum ten years earlier shortly after his baptism and which was, to a large extent, inspired by the lifestyle of the Pythagorean “philosophical communities”. On becoming a priest, he founded in 391 a lay monastery at Hippo and a nunnery which he entrusted to the direction of his sister and then, on becoming a bishop, he converted his episcopal residence into a monastery of scholars. It was there that he wrote down the lessons he had learned over the ten past years. In doing so, Augustine became part of a movement of which Egypt, with St. Anthony and St. Pachomius, was the cradle and which continued to develop in the East, thanks, in particular, to St. Basil, Bishop of Caesarea. From 370 onwards, monastic life also emerged in the West and its first regulation was due to Augustine. A good century later, Benedict of Nursia (480-547) wrote his well-known Rule, which drew on the traditions of both the East and West.

Until the end of the first millennium, the Rule of St. Augustine was passed on, always being integrated into an organised body of rules and monastic documents. This “Patristic tradition” constituted a well, from which the religious drew their inspiration. Between the ninth and the eleventh centuries, the Rule of St. Augustine acquired, for certain groups of religious, the status of a rule of life. This was a period of reform of religious and priestly life.

The rule strikes one by its conciseness; eight chapters (the Rule of St. Benedict has seventy three) the reading of which is enriched if considered in the context of the whole of the works and the doctrine of St. Augustine.

Some important precepts drawn from the Holy Scriptures appear there. There are eight references to the Old Testament and twenty seven to the New. The fundamental principles of the Rule are based on the ideal of the first Christian community of Jerusalem, described in chapter four of the Acts of the Apostles (verses 32 to 35): “The multitude of believers has only one heart and one soul and nobody calls any property his own, but places everything into common ownership.... with everyone receiving according to his needs”. Communal life is identified with charity. The monk (monos, one, single, solitary) is not here primarily an individual, but the community, which is welded together so as to be a single body. This is why Augustine has few detailed rules but goes to the foundations of things which touch the hearts of men. And this, too, is why he speaks little of asceticism, since the target of spiritual struggle is essentially egotism. One could define the Rule of St. Augustine as a call to recognise the equal dignity of all men according to the Gospel. Augustine makes himself the interpreter of the Christian requirement of perfect brotherhood, which is called upon to become universal. From that point of view, yesterday like today, the Rule of St. Augustine is a work of social criticism.

Saint Norbert, the fondator

Norbert was born around 1080 at Xanten in the north of Cologne. Springing from the petty nobility, French on his mother’s side and a cousin of the Holy Roman emperor on his father’s side, he was placed in the care of the scholastic canon of the chapter of Xanten. As a boy chorister, he began his studies for the priesthood in Laon.

He became then chaplain to the archbishop of Cologne and a member of the imperial chapel.

Overwhelmed by a lightening conversion, Norbert began to examine his conscience in depth, did penance, went into retreat and then applied to become a deacon and shortly afterwards a priest. He persevered in his conversion and sought to make his brethren, the canons of Xanten, do likewise. His life in the chapter becoming intolerable, he sought a regular way of life, visiting neighbouring Benedictine abbeys (Siegburg), canons regular (Rolduc) and the hermit Ludolph, wholly given to Gregorian reform.

Norbert, the Itinerant Preacher

After being released from his Xanten canonry, Norbert shared out his property among the poorest. He received from the Pope the mission of an itinerant preacher. His special charisma appeared to enable him to assist petty or powerful lords who were engaged in feudal struggles, in becoming reconciled. At Valenciennes, his encounter with Hugh of Fosses, chaplain to the bishop of Cambrai, proved to be of decisive importance. Hugh embarked on a friendship with Norbert and never again left his presence.
Norbert continued his work of preaching, passing through Hugh’s native country of Fosses-la-Ville, Gembloux, Corroy and then Laon, where he found his friend bishop Bartholomew and an old Xanten schoolmate, Evermode.

Bartholomew first tried to place Norbert at the head of the chapter of St. Martin of Laon, but the canons there did not want him. Bartholomew looked for a church where Norbert could, together with the first disciples who accompanied him, form a chapter which would devote itself to contemplation and preaching in the context of communal life. After a good deal of searching, their choice fell on a derelict stone chapel in the forest of Saint-Gobain, dedicated to St. John the Baptist and owned by the Benedictines of the Abbey of St. Vincent of Laon, a desolate spot called “Prémontré”.

Norbert at Prémontré - the Founding of Floreffe

To Norbert, Prémontré was a base from which he went out to preach, but his first care was that of building a new abbey on the Cistercian model, comprising a church, a cloister and outbuildings, whose central point was the sanctuary and its altars.

Accompanied by Hugh, he returned to the Rhineland to ask for and receive relics destined for the consecration of altars.

Norbert in Floreffe and the return to Prémontré

The return journey proved a real procession of relics. He stopped overnight at the castle of the Counts of Namur. Countess Ermesinde received the pious cortège generously and gave Norbert a richly endowed foundation : Floreffe, on the Sambre. Ermesinde and her husband wanted a “new” community devoted to Gregorian reform to serve Floreffe. The date was 27 November 1121.

At that time, there were as yet at Prémontré neither professed canons nor a properly organised abbey. Thus, on his return to the place of the foundation, Norbert organised, during preparations for Christmas, a retreat which had as its conclusion a profession of faith during the midnight mass. Participating in it were the brethren who had accompanied Norbert from Cologne and those whom Hugh had assembled.

It is thought that some 80 clergy made their professions and donned the white habit chosen by Norbert (made from undyed wool as a sign of poverty). A church and the religious, however, were not enough to form an Order. After a certain amount of hesitation, the choice fell on the Rule of St. Augustine.

Norbert, Archbishop of Magdeburg

Norbert, however, hardly lived at Prémontré at all.
He rapidly resumed his travels within the Holy Roman Empire, and in the Low Countries.

On 16 February 1126, Norbert received in Rome from Pope Honorius II, the ratification bull “Apostolicae disciplinae”. His adoption of the Rule of St. Augustine was approved, the property of Prémontré was confirmed and all his foundations were recognised. In the same year Norbert was appointed Archbishop of Magdeburg and arch-chancellor of the Holy Roman Empire. This prestigious position enabled him to reconcile Pope Innocent II with the new emperor, Lothar III, giving Europe a lasting and fruitful period of peace. Earlier, in Magdeburg, Norbert had founded new communities. The need to appoint local superiors to direct them led him to detach himself from the community of Prémontré in favour of the see of Magdeburg and he designated Hugh of Fosses as his successor. Hugh drew up the ordinary, a code of the liturgy and statutes supplementing the Rule of St. Augustine. In carrying out this task, he was assisted by his brethren of Prémontré and the annual assemblies of representatives of the entire Order.

On 6 June 1134, Norbert died, exhausted, at Magdeburg. Eight days later, he was buried in the Church of Our Lady close to his brethren, the Prémontré canons. On 27 July 1582, Pope Gregory XIII, issued a Bull sanctioning the worship of St. Norbert and at the same time that of SS. Romuald and Bruno. In 1625, his body was moved to the monastery of Strahov in the hills overlooking Prague, where it has ever since been venerated and watched over by his spiritual descendants.

The Constitutions

Saint Norbert was wholly persuaded that without order or rule, as without the patristic institutions, it was impossible to observe apostolic and evangelical precepts to the full. These aids are provided for us by the Rule of St. Augustine and by the constitution of the Premonstratensian Order and it is from them that the churches of our Order draw inspiration and organisation, in order to live according to the Gospel of Christ and the apostolic institution.

The constitutions remind us in a preamble that “God created man in His image and His likeness according to his essence, which is charity” (l John 4,8). God calls on us to share in the joy of the union and love, which reside in Him. It was in order to perfect that close union that God Himself became man, waiving the rights and dignities which are divine attributes. In fact, in Christ, God came to us as one of us and abased Himself by assuming the condition of a slave... He humbled Himself by being obedient unto death on the Cross. This was why God exalted him (Philippians 2,6.9). By His resurrection, God changed the destiny of mankind; the first of a multitude of brethren among all those who receive Him through faith and charity... He institutes a new brotherly communion by the gift of His spirit in His body, which is the Church, in which all members serve one another, according to their abilities.

In fact, Christ, although rich, made Himself a pauper for our sakes (2 Corinthians 8,9) and became our servant; rather than accept the fortune which was offered to Him, He accepted the Cross (Hebrews 12,2), so as to gather by His love into a single body all those whom sin had scattered. This choice of Christ must be that of His Church and that of every one of us. By His example, Christ has shown the course of human existence, commanding us to live in a like manner: “he who would be the first among you, shall be your servant; the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life for the redemption of the multitude” (Matthew 20,27-28).
He who would be a disciple of Christ, must die in order to produce much fruit of charity, otherwise he shall remain alone (John 12,24).

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