St Chrodegang and the canonical life

Today is the feast day of St Chrodegang, the 8th century Bishop of Metz.

Although St Augustine had established a rule of life for clerics at the end of the 4th century, by the middle ages, clergy who lived together (such as in Cathedral Churches) did not, on the whole, choose to abide by it. They were not bound by a rule of life, but they were bound by the usual canons that govern priestly life.

After the death of St Boniface, the leadership of the German church fell upon the shoulders of Chrodegang (literally, in the form of a pallium). He was aware that, in order for this nascent church to succeed, he needed priests who were holy – or at least on the way to holiness! – and lived as lamp-stands for Christ, shining brightly in this dark world of ours.

He composed a rule for his cathedral clergy, that bound them to the celebration of the sacred liturgy and to prayers in common, to common meals and dormitory, to public penance and to rigorous formation. He permitted, however, his clergy to retain the right to own property, and to maintain other independent incomes. This was of life was, 50 years after his death, extended to all clergy in the empire (the updated rule was known as the Rule of Aachen, after the synod that mandated its implementation) that lived in common, thus creating secular canonries.

Xantener Dom

The Collegiate Church of St Victor, Xanten.

It was this Rule of Aachen that governed the secular clergy of the Xantener Dom, where St Norbert received his formation as a Canon of St Victor; after his conversion, 900 years ago this year, he returned to Xanten and unsuccessfully tried to convince them to live a religious life, and eschew the private property that Chrodegang had historically permitted canons to have.

It was St Norbert, however, and not the Canons of Xanten that was thinking with the Church. The Gregorian Reforms of the eleventh-century had encouraged the adoption of this way of life. There was a great revival of the original Augustinian way of life, crowned, of course, by the presentation of the rule by Augustine himself to Norbert at Prémontré.

This is the apostolic way of life that St Luke records for us in the Acts of the Apostles (2:42-47):

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Here we see our religious way of life, just a couple of weeks after Jesus had ascended into heaven! As Christians, we must be of one mind and one heart on our way to God. Take courage, reader, and ask yourself if this apostolic life is what God wants for you, too.

You can contact the vocations director at: community@praemonstratensis.co.uk

* * *

An interesting note for pedants: Metz was the capital of the Duchy of Loraine (Lothringen), which was annexed by France on the eve of the Revolution. A large portion of the modern-day province of Lorraine was incorporated by the Prussians into a new German empire in 1871, restoring, it seemed, the territory (along with Alsace, which had been part of France for much longer) to its original German roots which had been severed only 95 years previously. After the Great War, these territories were restored to France, but, because they had not been part of the Republic during the Church-State separation in 1905, the relationship between the Church and State in these new territories were governed by the original Napoleonic concordat of 1801. This persists even to this day, and so the Bishop of Metz, Chrodegang’s successor, is not part of the French hierarchy, and is subject directly to the Holy See. Moreover, the Bishop himself is elected by the President (with the approval of the Holy See), and his clergy are given a state income, and Catholic religious instruction is given in public schools. 

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Lent Talks 2015

The Holy Family

Not only would I say that the family is important for the evangelization of the new world. The family is important, and it is necessary for the survival of humanity. Without the family, the cultural survival of the human race would be at risk. The family, whether we like it or not, is the foundation. – Pope Francis’s Address on Radio Catedral, 27th July 2013

This year the Lent Talks at Our Lady Immaculate Chelmsford will centre around the Synod on Family Life. There is Mass at 7.30 pm at Our Lady Immaculate Church, Chelmsford, and the talks will begin at 8pm in the parish hall at OLI.

  • 25th February – Fr Graham Smith, Chaplain for Marriage and Family Life, Brentwood Diocese – “Patience with the Synod Process”
  • 4th Mar – Dr Jane Deegan “The Human Person in the Catholic World View”
  • 11th Mar – Edmund Adamus, Director for Marriage and Family Life for Westminster Diocese  – “Speaking on Humanae Vitae”
  • 18th Mar – Dr Charles O’Donnell – “Proclaiming the the ideal of Christian Marriage to the young – and not so young.”

If you’re able and near please come along, if not please keep the Synod Fathers and families in your prayers.

Posted in Parish/Apostolate

Preparing for Lent

We are very fortunate this year that the readings at Mass have coincided perfectly with this season of preparation for Lent. We have heard of the creation of the world, the fall of man, and today, we heard the beginning of the story of the deluge.

In our own Premonstratensian rite, we hear these stories every year in the Office of Matins in the season of Septuagesima, the two-and-a-half week season of pre-Lent. We sometimes complain that Lent suddenly appears like a thief in the night, it can take a while to get into the right gear of this holy penitential season, which is why, of course, the Church in her wisdom established the practice of preparing for Lent, so that we did not waste the season.

The first few chapters of the Book of Genesis explain who we are and why we are here: importantly, they also tell us why we are the way we are. Why do we fall in love? Why do we suffer? We come to realise how fallible we are, and how foolish we must be to rely on solely ourselves or indeed anything other than God. People can spend their whole life thinking up answers to the question: “what is the meaning of life” without realising that it’s already written down there from chapter one, verse one: we were made to be loved, and to love.

I have a great devotion to Adam the Patriarch, our first parent. He knows rather a lot about human nature, and so he’s a goodly patron to talk to sometimes. Genesis says that he lived to a ripe old age of 930. These historical details are shrouded in mystery. We see his descendants dying at ever younger ages, until, by the time of Noah, no man lived more than 120 years. The years are irrelevant, what is important is that the further away we travel from Almighty God (in this case, symbolised by time from the Fall), the more the decay sets in. Just before the start of Septuagesima, we celebrated the feast of the Purification of Our Lady, or Candlemas, the last day of Christmas. History has left us a wonderful Candlemas sermon by St Sophronius, one of the eastern fathers, who said that Simeon and Anna in the Temple are shadowy representations of Adam and Eve grown very old. They devote themselves to God in the Temple (symbolic of Eden), living a life of penance for the sin which condemned their whole race. When Simeon takes hold of the Baby Jesus in his weak and wrinkled arms, it is as if Adam himself is taking the Babe in his arms, and he weeps, and says: “At last all powerful Master, you give leave for your servant to go in peace, according to your promise. For my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared for all nations. The light to enlighten the Gentiles, and give glory to your people Israel.” In this little Baby, Adam has realised, at last, that he has been forgiven: he can now rest from his wearisome toil, his exile from paradise. Of course, this old Adam recognises his God. He used to talk to him and walk with him in the garden. In the flesh, that same God now falls asleep in his arms; in the spirit, it is Adam that rests in God once more.

NOAHS ARK

Noah’s Ark, which is Holy Mother Church.

In Lent, we begin to experience that realisation for ourselves, too. Noah has just built his ark. Noah’s Ark is the Church. It is our shelter in our exile; while creation is washed clean, we are saved from drowning in the tempest of the world by her sacraments.

One important part of the story of Noah is often missed out. Why did Noah collect only two of the unclean animals, but seven of the clean animals? The clean animals are the animals which are set aside for sacrifice to God. And when Noah comes into land, he sacrifices those animals to the God who has saved. And in response, God promises not to destroy his creation again. When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple, what did they bring to sacrifice? Two turtledoves, as the law permitted instead of a lamb for the poor; Noah sacrificed birds on the first altar of the washed creation. But what else did Mary and Joseph bring to sacrifice? They not only brought birds, but they also brought the Lamb Himself: the light that will enlighten the Gentiles and give glory to Israel when His Sacred Heart burns on the Altar of Calvary. Another deluge covered the earth that day, but it was not a deluge like that of Noah’s time: it is a deluge of Blood that gives life to those who quench their thirst when they drink It.

photo-2

Our Lady of Sorrows, surrounded by her seven dolours: the Prophesy of Simeon, the Flight into Egypt, the Three Day’s Loss of Jesus, the Meeting with Jesus on the Way of the Cross, the Crucifixion of Jesus, the Body of Jesus is placed in the arms of His Mother, the Body of Jesus is placed in the Sepulchre.

Today, this last day before Lent, the Church celebrates the feast of the Seven Holy Founders of the Servite Order (although in our own calendar today is the feast of St Evermode; Shrove Tuesday is also the feast of the Holy Face of Jesus, but lest we over-egg the pancake, we’ll revisit devotion to the Holy Face over the next few weeks). Our house in Chelmsford was once a Servite house, and so we are especially bound to these saints in our community. Indeed, our canonry is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, a devotion propagated by the Servites, and which we have gladly adopted as our own, for our Sorrowful Mother at the foot of the Cross was the first to be drenched in the Precious Blood. Over a hundred years after the death of Our Holy Father Norbert, these seven doves sacrificed themselves by allowing God break their hearts. Over this holy season of Lent, may we too allow God to break our hearts, and wash away the detritus of sin and decay that has accumulated within us. Walk with Jesus in the desert, and remain close to his Sorrowful Mother, and may you be brought safe into harbour by the burning flame of the Paschal Candle on Easter Eve.

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The Lourdes of England and the Norbertines in Lincolnshire

In the first century of the post-Reformation Norbertine mission in England, our confrères ran several parishes across the country. One of those parishes was Spalding in Lincolnshire, which became home to a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of a devoted son of St Norbert, Father Clement Tyck.

Abbot Guedens and Father Thomas Aquinas van Biesen

Father Martin Guedens (seated), who opened the Spalding mission, and Father Thomas Aquinas van Biesen, its first parish priest.

On the feast of the Immaculate Conception 1875, Father Guedens and Father Dockx from the Abbey of Tongerloo in Belgium, who were working in the English mission, travelled to Spalding and celebrated a solemn Mass in a room of a ramshackle set of buildings that the mission had recently acquired to transform into a new Church. An architect from Sheffield was commissioned to build the new Church, to be dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and St Norbert; the church was opened in 1877. Thomas Aquinas van Biesen was appointed parish priest, where he remained until his retirement in 1903.

Immaculate Conception and St Norbert

The interior of the Immaculate Conception and St Norbert, Spalding

He was replaced by Father Clement Tyck, who had struggled living in industrial Manchester. Immediately, Father Tyck poured himself into the parish. As well as his normal parish duties, he wanted to encourage traditional devotions, particularly to Our Blessed Lady (unlike industrial Manchester, the Fenland Spalding was in an area of the country well-known for its anti-Catholic sentiment), promoting local Catholic associations and children’s groups, and he set about making arrangements for the consecration of the Church. Even the local paper had become enthusiastic, for Spalding had not seen such spectacle before: “there ceremony will be a most imposing one. The white marble altar table, the possession of which is necessary before the ceremony can be performed, has been placed in position, and it is an additional ornament to the interior of one of the prettiest Catholic Churches in the country.” The Bishop of Namen (Namur), who was formerly the Abbot of Tongerloo, Thomas Heylen had travelled to Spalding to consecrate the Church in September 1904, assisted by  Father Guedens, who was now himself the Abbot in the English mission.

Consecration of St Norbert Spalding 1904

The consecration of the Church in 1904.

By 1907, Father Tyck was keen to commemorate the anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady in Lourdes, which would fall the following year, and so it was decided to build a replica grotto. which was opened in September 1908. To quote the parish priest: “The Norbertine Abbot of Leffe, himself an admirer of the wonderful events of Lourdes, performed the ceremony of the blessing, and sang the Pontifical Mass. Three o’clock was the appointed time for the more public ceremony of the procession… It was evident that all were struck at the earnestness and fervour of the processionists, especially of the Irish harvestmen, three hundred in number. The procession came to a standstill in Ayscoughfee Gardens, where Prior Higgins spoke to five thousand people.”

CNV00027

Father Clement Tyck (left) pictured with Father Gabriel Bertram (with autograph), who served as curate in the 1890s.

A grand procession took place every year in honour of Our Lady, even throughout the war, during which the Catholic Church in Spalding spearheaded the opening of a refugee centre; the town was awash with Belgian refugees throughout the war. But with the departure of Father Tyck in 1921 (who was by now blind), and as the leading figures of the foundation of the parish had started to trickle away from their earthly pilgrimage, the popularity of the procession waned. The last one was held in 1922, and Father Tyck’s “Little Boy’s Band” which had annually provided the music for the festival was ignominiously disbanded. Fortunately, in 1940, a new parish priest, Father Norbert Ellis arrived in Spalding with a mind to reinvigorate the community. With the help of Polish servicemen who were living in the area, he restored the Church and shrine to its former glory. A grand procession was once again held in honour of Our Lady in 1976. After Father Tyck retired to Tongerloo, he once again visited Spalding on his way to Manchester in 1934. He died on the 9 February 1950.

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I thirst

Living-Waters

As a hart longs
for flowing streams,
so longs my soul
for thee, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
– Ps 42:1-2

Thirsting is linked to the restlessness of spirit, that Br Gregory wrote about previously. To continue this theme in the Year of Consecrated Life I offer a few thoughts on thirsting and the religious life.

My soul thirsts for God, the living God.
We are a thirsty people. Like the land of Israel we are dry and thirsty. Every human being longs to have his thirst quenched, and for many people this search occupies their whole lives without them having identified what it is they want or even that they want. People fill their lives with good things, and bad things, not realising that the good is meant to bring us closer to God and not be an end in itself.

For us Christians though we know that we thirst, and we know why. We know that we were made by God and for God and we thirst because we do not enjoy the relationship with Him that we were made for.

Recognition of our thirst for God is the first, and crucial step, that every Christian must take when we co-operate with God’s grace and accept the death that Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered on the cross for us and the salvation by possible by this. In recognising that we thirst, we recognise that we are not complete, we recognise that we cannot fill all our desires by a sheer act of the will. This is humility, this allows our relationship with God to flourish, and it is a pre-requisite for a life of virtue. The proud man who thinks he has everything in fact has nothing because he depends only on himself, whereas the humble man who realises the poverty of his state can have everything if he relies on the love and mercy of God Almighty. It was humility that allowed Our Lady to give her fiat, and it is only through our humility that we can be saved.

Our thirst, then, our humility, is a gift in itself and the foundation of all virtue.

maryHeart

Blessed are those who thirst (Mt 5:6).
Our thirst for God is a sign of our beatitude. How then do we quench it? We cannot. On earth our thirst cannot be quenched because we are not meant to reside in this world forever. Our unquenchable thirst orientates us to our eternal life, and it is this eschatological orientation that is at the heart of all religious life.

When we as religious make our vows we prostrate ourselves before God and before men. We accept that we thirst for God, and we accept that the only way we can hope to quench our thirst for God in heaven is to forsake the world and ourselves and trust only, and completely, in God. Our vows strip of us things that are good in themselves and plunge us into a life of complete reliance on God, so that we may never have our thirst quenched, or seemingly quenched, in this life. Rather, in turning our minds to the end of the world, and the end of our lives, we hope that we will serve Christ more perfectly here on earth and in His mercy He will call us home to His Father’s house.

As we are reminded often by our superior, Fr Hugh Allan, we are religious for the sake of our souls, because we could not live in the world and hope for our salvation. We need religious life, not because we are the greatest of men, but because we are the smallest of all men.

Ora pro eo.

Ora pro eo.

Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.” (Jn 7:37)

I thirst (Jn 19:28).

Praised be the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar and the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Amen.

Praised be the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar and the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Amen.

As Premonstratensians we live the mixed life of contemplation and apostolate. We pray and live together in our monasteries, and work with zeal for the salvation of souls. We realise that in our life our closeness to the Lord in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in the Divine Office, and in our service of the poor and needy our thirst for God deepens. As Our Holy Father Augustine wrote, “I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you.”

In our lives we hope, as do all Christians, to imitate Christ. We desire to be like our Lord, we desire to be “poured out like water” (Ps 22:14), and in so doing that we may be of use to God here on earth, or at the very least that in loving Him, in imitation of Our Lord, He might look on our little efforts and smile.

We have a strong intercessor in the founder of our order Our Holy Father Norbert. St Norbert embodied and lived humility in casting of the pomp of the world and imperial court to serve God in the sanctuary. He was docile to the will of God and the movement of the Holy Spirit, but not to the vainglories of the world and those men who set themselves against God.

It would be wrong, I think, to say that religious life will satisfy your thirst. However, I do think that the Premonstratensian life based, as it is, on the life of the apostles, and centered on the worthy celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the salvation of souls, can be a means by which God may be pleased increase your thirst for Him. The vows we make and the life we live can be judged by how much we thirst for Him, and how much we seek to bring others to waters of life.

After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the scripture), “I thirst.” John 19:28

Our Holy Father Pope Francis has dedicated this year as the Year of Consecrated Life so we must think of ways in which we can participate in this. I offer three suggestions:

  1. Ask God for the grace of humility. To this end pray the Litany of Humility, written by Cardinal Merry del Val;
  2. When you receive Holy Communion, or have your sins forgiven in the Sacrament of Confession, ask God to increase your thirst for Him;
  3. Pray for religious vocations, remembering our Norbertine community, considering also how you can serve God and His Holy  Church.
St Augustine gives the Holy Rule to St Norbert

St Augustine gives the Holy Rule to St Norbert

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.  You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
– OHF Augustine, ‘Confessions’

 

Posted in Uncategorized, Year of Consecrated Life

O God: rouse Thyself! Do not forget mankind, Thy creature!

Today is designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls every year on the anniversary of the liberation of the 48 extermination, concentration and labour camps at Auschwitz in modern-day Poland. Today is the 70th anniversary of that liberation.

Five of the million or so faces that today look down upon visitors when they walk silently through the empty buildings were members of our own family, our brothers, sons of St Norbert. And so, out of love for our confrères, we will share a little of their story, and ask that you pray for them, and to call upon them in your own prayers to further the cause of their beatification. Their names are:

Abbot Paul Soucek, aged 66

Lawrence Novotny, aged 69

Sigismund Zabehlicky, aged 73

Norbert Hrachovsky, aged 63

Siard Nevrkla, aged 32

Three others survived. One of them, Hermann Joseph Tyl, later wrote an account.

Since the year 1211, in the hills of Moravia, half-way between the great cities of Prague and Vienna, the Abbey of Nová Říše has sat peacefully; Mass has been offered up daily, novices have been clothed in the white habit, priests and brothers have been laid to rest in the ground, prayers said, dinners eaten, laughs heard and tears shed.

Until 1942. The doors of the chapel burst open on the evening of May 29th during vespers, and the brethren in choir were arrested by the German SS and Gestapo officers. The occupying forces had been told by a disgruntled former novice called Francis Kriz, that the abbey was sheltering enemies of the state, and hiding weapons for the resistance. Since, only two days before, the German governor in Prague had been shot and lay dying in hospital, the Gestapo were looking for lambs to inflict their revenge.

The canons, still in their choir dress, were led into the cloister, and were told to line up and face the wall. Their goodly abbot, Paul, stood behind them and blessed them.

Paul had already been a priest when he joined the abbey in 1904. He became abbot in 1929 just shy of his fifty-third birthday, and he had received the vows of thirteen of the canons that now had their faces pressed against the hard stone wall.

After he had blessed the brethren, he was led away to the Prelature, when he was interrogated and tortured all night.

When the butchers had finished scourging him, he was led to a car outside. Before he took his last steps out of the abbey, however, he knelt down and kissed the floor. He was kicked, and fell to the ground.

Several of the brethren were taken to a nearby town and kept in prison for three days, and then to Brno (Brünn), before being taken to Auschwitz on a cold Hilarymas morning in 1943. They were sure to make their confessions to each other in the back of the lorry on their journey into “Hell” (as Father Hermann Joseph called it).

Abbot Paul became very sick, and so, two weeks after their arrival, he was put to death on the octave day of St Agnes. We are not certain whether he was murdered in the gas chambers, although it seems likely. His remains were quickly cremated. His three confrères that lived through Hell had to wait two years (minus one day) until their diabolical bondage was loosened.

Four other Canons Regular of Prémontré, whose names are listed above, were murdered and cremated within a month of their Abbot.

After the Germans stormed the abbey, they confiscated the property and converted into the local Hitler Youth headquarters, but the surviving canons returned after liberation – but their freedom was short-lived. A new tyrant had come to power in Czechoslovakia, and the horror continued unabashed. The godless socialists again stormed the abbey in 1950 and arrested the canons. They were all put on trial and imprisoned in labour camps, a fate that awaited many clergy and religious in communist Czechoslovakia.

The abbey became part of a military camp until 1991, when it was given back to the Order, and today canons once again sing God’s praises as the holy martyrs before them did.

pope auschwitz

Pope Benedict prays at the execution wall in Auschwitz in 2006. These stones were the last earthly thing seen by many men and women, priests and religious, holy martyr saints, cruelly murdered.

The last words will be left to Pope Benedict, here taken from an address he gave when he visited Auschwitz in 2006:

We cannot peer into God’s mysterious plan – we see only piecemeal, and we would be wrong to set ourselves up as judges of God and history.  Then we would not be defending man, but only contributing to his downfall.  No – when all is said and done, we must continue to cry out humbly yet insistently to God: Rouse yourself!  Do not forget mankind, your creature!  And our cry to God must also be a cry that pierces our very heart, a cry that awakens within us God’s hidden presence – so that his power, the power he has planted in our hearts, will not be buried or choked within us by the mire of selfishness, pusillanimity, indifference or opportunism.  Let us cry out to God, with all our hearts, at the present hour, when new misfortunes befall us, when all the forces of darkness seem to issue anew from human hearts: whether it is the abuse of God’s name as a means of justifying senseless violence against innocent persons, or the cynicism which refuses to acknowledge God and ridicules faith in him.  Let us cry out to God, that he may draw men and women to conversion and help them to see that violence does not bring peace, but only generates more violence – a morass of devastation in which everyone is ultimately the loser.  The God in whom we believe is a God of reason – a reason, to be sure, which is not a kind of cold mathematics of the universe, but is one with love and with goodness.  We make our prayer to God and we appeal to humanity, that this reason, the logic of love and the recognition of the power of reconciliation and peace, may prevail over the threats arising from irrationalism or from a spurious and godless reason.

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An incurable restlessness

“Lord, what should I do?”

This is a question that God hears rather a lot.

Really, we should ask it every day. Not as a way to fill the gaps in the diary that day; rather, the question should be asked as if one is asking: “What am I doing here, Lord? Where am I going? Who do you want me to be?”

In each of us there is a certain degree of restlessness. Some people travel thousands of miles across the world to ‘find themselves’. Others whittle away the hours acquiring new technologies, or seeking bodily satisfactions, or in drunkenness of various kinds. They experience many joys, no doubt, and have many ‘laughs’. They live like little kings: kings of their own hearts, but in reality, behind the throne are unruly powers.

Our restlessness makes more sense if we allow God into the picture. By daily enthroning Him as our King, rather than our passions (however difficult that might be), our joys are made more joyful, our sufferings are given purpose and value, and our restlessness has a destination. Conversion to Christ, our daily conversion, doesn’t make life any easier (far from it), but it sets it on the one direction that will truly quench our spiritual thirst. Conversion doesn’t blot out our crosses: in fact, it does the opposite. Sometimes it even reveals crosses that we hadn’t quite noticed before. But we’ve been shown, after all, that the only way is over the hill called Calvary.

“Lord, what should I do?”

“Come to the Cross with Me.”

Conversion of St Paul

The Conversion on the road to Damascus, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio – the second painting of this subject by the artist. This later version is in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.

This year of Consecrated Life which the Pope has asked the Church to commemorate is also a celebration of the ninth centenary of the Conversion of St Norbert.

St Paul in his writings that we hear often at Holy Mass can seem a bit distant and inaccessible to some of us. It seems as if he is writing about very specific circumstances in more exotic parts of the world than our own, to a people very different from us, a long time ago. But if one were to summarise St Paul (if such a thing is possible!), to read him, as it were, with a “key”, then we do well to recall Paul’s own “incurable restlessness”: a restlessness for the coming of the Lord, for a fulfillment of His promises, to be united with Him in heaven. For in this last epoch of the history of our salvation, this time after the battle is won, after Christ the Lord paid the price of our redemption and made all things new, but the time before the return of the Saviour, before the effects are fully revealed, before the the new heaven and the new earth, we are commanded to prepare ourselves, to grow in holiness, to work out how we individuals fit into this great plan of salvation: to enthrone God as King and Lord in our own poor and broken hearts before He enthrones Himself in our midst in a creation recapitulated in Him.

The grace of God our Saviour has dawned on all men alike schooling us to forgo earthly thoughts and worldly appetites and to live in this present world a life of order and of justice and of holiness. We are to look forward, blessed in our hope, to the day when there will be a new dawn of glory: the glory of the great God, the glory of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, Who gave Himself for us to ransom us from our guilt, a people set apart for Himself, and ambitious in noble deeds… to be ready for every good work. (Titus 2: 11-14; 3:1)

Christ’s redemptive action has an effect on each one of us: we are bound in love to respond to it. Not to live in mediocrity, but to grow in Christ, and so become more ourselves. St Paul realised this very quickly, because of a personal revelation: immediately he changed his life, he converted and re-orientated himself. Paul had been so sure of what was right, he did not notice that he had become blind: and so God made him physically blind, He knocked him down physically and removed from him all that made him great and powerful in the eyes of the world. And with the eyes of his flesh closed to the world’s vanities, the eyes of his soul were opened to all that is truly beautiful. Paul fell in love, and for a quarter of a century, he poured himself out in love, as lovers are wont to do. He encouraged others to fall in love too, to the extent that he was led to the scaffold, and submitted his neck to the cold blade of the Roman sword.

So too with St Norbert. He was “plodding along” in the world, not quite satisfied but content to be mediocre, comforted by the earthly satisfactions of good living, fashion and intrigue; like St Paul, he was awoken from his spiritual fatigue by a bolt of lightening, and so he realised for whom his heart was thirsting.

There is a passage (that co-incidentally we might have heard at Holy Mass today) in St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that sounds pretty bizarre to those of us brought up in the liberal democracies of the western world. In it, the Apostle says:

The time is short. It remaineth that they also that have wives, as though they had none; and they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as if they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; and they that use this world, as if they used it not: for the fashion of this world passeth away. But I would have you be without solicitude. He that is without a wife, is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided… And this I speak for your profit: not to cast a snare upon you; but for that which is decent, and which may give you power to attend upon the Lord, without impediment. (I Cor. 7: 29-33; 35)

Here Paul is not saying that marriage is a bad thing, that we should all go wild and look into the sky for the Lord, forgetting the consequences (far from it!): “Both he that giveth his virgin in marriage, doth well; and he that giveth her not doth better.” (I Cor. 7: 38)

Rather, rightly read, he is allowing for the possibility that those who desire to set themselves apart from earthly concerns, to dedicate themselves to God alone, and the service of His holy people. These people – consecrated men and women Religious – are signs of what is to come, that this life is not all that there is, that there is something greater still yet to come. In a sense, the Religious are like a leaven, to ferment the people of God, so that each one of them might daily turn towards the Lord God again and again, in hopeful expectation of the life to come, when our tears will stop flowing and our tiredness will cease.

It is on this day in 1121 that St Norbert chose to be solemnly clothed in the white habit by Bartholomew, the Bishop of Laon, the same white habit that Our Lady had revealed to the saint that would remain for ever the vesture of his spiritual sons, to be worn in honour of her Immaculate Conception. She, of course, is our model when we ask the question, “Lord, what should I do?” She said “yes”. She allowed her whole life to be about the Lord. And so she was watered with the Precious Blood of her Son at the foot of the Cross. In her joys and we can find our joys, and in her sorrows, we find also our tears.

We are reminded daily as we put on this white habit every morning of the need also for our own daily conversion, to put off the old self and clothe oneself instead with Christ. We cannot help but be reminded of what the Immaculate Conception teaches us: that the dominion of sin has been vanquished, and Christ the Lord is on His way. Even though our earthly exile is a sorrowful toil, we live not in the darkness, but in the light: watchful and sober, wearing the breastplate of faith and charity, and the helmet of salvation. (cf I Thess. 5: 6; 8)

May Almighty God daily give us the grace to keep for us this armour light and joyful to wear, for either without it, or if we make it heavy for ourselves, we will be overtaken by the thief in the night. Our King, our Hope, is a little baby in a land of exile: keep watch, wait, and adore, for in His own good time, He will cure our restlessness.

Posted in Uncategorized, Year of Consecrated Life