Vidimus stellam

It is not unknown for Norbertines to have slightly unusual pious devotions. One of my own lesser devotions is to the Star of Bethlehem, that is commemorated this week at the end of the Twelve Days, when Christ manifested himself to the world through the Three Kings that were led to his crib by the miraculous star.

The Magi were, of course, real people; it is a catch-all term for the wise men, astrologers, sorcerers and priests of the cultic religions of central Asia and the middle east, but although references to such people are found as far away as China, they are generally associated with Persia. As with all learned men of the ancient world, they would have a great knowledge of astrology and astronomy. Although the prophets of Israel point towards the mystery of the Incarnation more perfectly, the attraction that the universe experiences towards its Creator and Redeemer is so strong that the ancients of other cultures pointed a shadowy finger in the direction of Christ, too. They may be Roman poets, Greek philosophers, Persian priests, Chinese logicians, American shamans: if there is goodness to be found in these places, it is because they were laying the foundations for the proclamation of the Gospel in their lands.

These pointers exist in nature, too (I won’t bore you with my opinion about fractal patterns). Healthy legend tells us that the forbidden fruit eaten by our first parents in the Garden was an apple. Even this piece of fruit contains within it a star-shaped pointer towards their Redeemer. Cut an apple in half along its equator, and you will see what I mean. The splendour of creation, in cosmic nebulae or in apple pips declares God’s goodness and light, revealed perfectly in the pearly flesh of the Christchild, the Light welling from Light, Lumen de Lumine.

‘Lift up your eyes, whoe’er ye be that fare the new-born Christ to see: for yonder is the shining sign of grace perennial and divine’ (Quicumque Christum quaeritis)


The particularly beautiful nebula NCG6611


Given my own amateur interest in astronomy, I feel somewhat of an affinity with the Magi who, like many ancients, whiled away their evenings gazing up at the stars. In my opinion, the cosmos (on its grand scale at least), is the most aesthetically beautiful part of the created order. Because of the Magi’s study of the universe and their love of wisdom, they were captivated by this light which shone in the dark skies, the light which led them to the crib at Bethlehem.* It is right, too, I think, to call them kings. In our post-feudal mindset (remembering that ‘modern’ feudalism and aristocracy is the invention the pagan emperor Diocletian), we tend to think of kings and queens with crowns on. Their kingship is derived not from an army or from heredity, but from their attraction to Truth, which is Christ, since those who kneel before God, no matter how low or mighty they are by worldly judgements, are truly sharers in Christ’s kingship.

‘To greet His birth the Wise Men went, led by the star before them sent; called on by light, towards Light they pressed, and by their gifts their God confessed’ (Hostis Herodes impie)

The sacred scriptures call these men the wise men from the east, and they are buried in Cologne Cathedral. Historical accident has meant that many of the great saints have ended up in Western Europe, but this is particularly fortuitous, since, as we know, St Norbert was ordained at Cologne after his conversion experience.

On the road to Freden, where St Norbert was struck down with lightening, he was presented with his own star from God. Because of this very direct call, like the call of God to the Shepherd and the Magi, Norbert was able to quickly discern his vocation and act upon it. In the lightening bolt, he saw the star in the east, and he followed it to the crib. There he slaked his thirst with the Blood of his Saviour.

But what about the rest of us, who, in all likelihood, are neither going to have a star flashing above our heads, now a divine bolt to bring us to our senses? Is God less interested in us?

“Doubtless, the star that calls men to the Christian faith is not the same for all; it shines differently; but its lustre is sufficiently visible for hearts of good will to be able to recognise it and see in it the sign of a divine call.” (Blessed Columba Marmion)

We do not see the same star of the Magi, but we have our own individual stars, that shine in ways that we, if we open our eyes, are able to discern. The Magi were probably not looking for what they found, but they were vigilant, and had their hearts open to divine possibilities. If we shut our hearts and our eyes, then we will not be able to see what God wants for us. When we shut out hearts, God has to strike us down with lightening in order for us to hear him. And even then, we often feign ignorance. If these great and wise men can humble themselves before the little crib, then so can we.

“The Heavenly Father calls us to His Son through the inspiration of His grace; but He wishes that we, like the Magi, as soon as the star shines in our hearts shall leave all on the instant: our sins, the occasions of sin, bad habits, infidelities, imperfections, attachments to what is merely created. He wishes that, taking no account of either the criticism or opinions of men or the difficulties of the work to be done, we set ourselves at once to seek Jesus – whether we have lost Him through one mortal sin, or whether, possessing Him through sanctifying grace, we are called to a closer and more intimate union with Him.

Vidimus stellam: ‘Lord, I have seen your star, and I come to you. What will you have me do?’ (Blessed Columba Marmion)

* * *

* There are not a huge number of important (or famous) Norbertines in the arena of the modern sciences, but perhaps, given our illuminating subject, it is fitting to pluck out one name from the history books, since he had a particular interest in looking at the stars. Father Johann Zahn was a Norbertine canon of Klosteroberzell in Bavaria, and is credited with the invention of the light projector (a one-time favourite of school teachers), as well as the conceptual invention of the camera. He was, in fact, a noted scientist who had a particular interest in light and its uses, and made important contributions to the application of lens technology. Although a camera obscura can be traced back as early as ancient China, Zahn’s was the first to facilitate – in principle – the ‘capture’ of an image, since his camera had separate light and dark chambers. Since Zahn died 1707, his invention did not prove useful for many decades. Norbertines have always been ahead of their time.

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1630 years since the conversion of Our Holy Father Augustine

1586 years since the death of Our Holy Father Augustine

936 years since the birth of Our Holy Father Norbert

923 years since the birth of Blessed Hugh

903 years since Our Holy Father Norbert declined the bishopric of Cambrai

901 years since the conversion of Our Holy Father Norbert

896 years since the first meeting between Our Holy Father Norbert and St. Evermode

895 years since the foundation of our Order at Prémontré

882 years since the death of Our Holy Father Norbert

873 years since the foundation of our Order in Britain

853 years since St. Frederick constructed the abbey church at Mariengaarde

823 years since the foundation of Teplá by Blessed Hroznata

813 years since the birth of Blessed Bronislava of Zwierzyniec

480 years since the suppression of our houses in England under Henry VIII

446 years since the martyrdom of SS. Adrian and James at Gorcum

436 years since the arrest and death of Servant of God James O’Mulkerin

434 years since the approbation of the cult of St. Norbert

389 years since the translation of the relics of Our Holy Father Norbert to Strahov

226 years since the closure of Prémontré

223 years since the martyrdom of Blessed Peter-Adrian Toulorge of Blanchelande

144 years since the return of our Order to England

73 years since the death in Auschwitz of the canons of Nová Řiše

12 years since the foundation of our canonry

8 years since the foundation of our house in Chelmsford


The Prior and Community of St Philip’s Priory, Chelmsford, wish all our readers, benefactors, relatives and friends a blessed and happy New Year!

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Premonstratensians and gingerbread

As the holy feast approaches, some of the most beautiful passages from the old testament are uttered in the sanctuary during the Mass. Yesterday, we heard the famous sentences from the Song of Songs, where the Bride sings to her Bridegroom, who comes to her leaping over the hills like a gazelle. St Bernard, friend of our holy father, interprets this to mean the leaping of the promise of the Lord from one generation to the next until the Incarnation; when Bernard heard the genealogy of Jesus read during  the Mass, it was to him like the Bridegroom leaping through history, over the hills of the kings and patriarchs, to join his Bride in the nuptial embrace of Calvary.

Victors Presentation of Samuel

Presentation of Samuel


And today, we heard about the Presentation of the Child Samuel at Shiloh. When Samuel is born, his mother, Hannah, sings the inspired song that Our Blessed Lady sings when she is greeted by Elizabeth: “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” Of course, it is Hannah singing the song of Our Lady, not the other way around, and so mysterious references in Hannah’s song to a new-born king are lost on the non-Christian reader. It is no co-incidence, I think, that Hannah is also the name of Our Lady’s mother, Anne (which is the same name). As the Bridegroom leaps through the generations of salvation history, so too he leaves behind in his wake the sweet fragrance of the Incarnation.

The sweet pine fragrance of our unintentionally enormous Christmas tree in the Calefactory has been joined today by the Teutonic fragrance of sugar and spice, since Brother Gregory has today constructed our traditional Gingerbread Priory. Even though it is rather warm for the fourth week of Advent, our biscuit canonry, at least, has been covered in the thick layer of snow. If he was feeling more adventurous, he would have also made a gingerbread Premonstratensian too keep guard of the doorbell (instead, there is a snowconfrere), but that can be next year’s project…


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Rorate Mass

I’m often asked, “What is your Order’s charism?”

It stumps me a little, because we are much too old to have been founded with a particular charism in mind (much like the Rosary; the second question I’m asked is “why don’t you wear the Rosary?” Simply put, Our Lady invented the Norbertine habit before she invented the Rosary”). But over the centuries, the Order has distilled the “spirituality” of St Norbert to five charismata: the sacred liturgy (or the splendour of cult), a zeal for souls, a life of penance, devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, and devotion to the Immaculate Conception of our Blessed Mother.


Last week, we celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which, in the Order, has an Octave which even trumps Advent (except on the Sunday), and this morning, we celebrated a traditional Rorate Mass.

In fact, it was not technically a Rorate Mass, since in our Rite, today is the Octave day of the Immaculate Conception, so it was a Mass of the Immaculata. A Rorate Mass, however, is traditionally celebrated in Advent, in honour of Our Lady, in the dark of the morning before sunrise, by candlelight. The Rorate refers to the first words of the introit of the Mass (much like how a Requiem Mass gets its name): Rorate caeli desuperDrop down ye heavens from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness.

In Advent, we stay especially close to Our Blessed Mother, recalling her sacred pregnancy that in that first Advent in the Holy Land. Our Lady is, after all, the Queen of the Universe, Queen of our Order, and Queen of our Little House of Poverty, so how can we, her children and her subjects, neglect her while she wanders with St Joseph through the cold winter landscape of Judaea on her way to Bethlehem? In those days, she and St Joseph slept under the stars, and awoke early in the morning before the birds, and so this morning at 6.30 a.m., we celebrated a Solemn Mass of the Immaculata in the Old Rite by candlelight, and we were gladly joined by lots of parishioners. Afterwards, we all enjoyed breakfast together in our refectory.

Tomorrow (16th) we start the O Antiphons at vespers (in our Rite, we begin the second part of Advent a day early in good mediaeval fashion, since we have extra Antiphons). The “O” refers to the start of the Magnificat antiphon each day until 23rd December, and they each refer to various titles of our Infant King. Come, Lord Jesus!

God bless and keep you all this Advent.

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Falkland Islands

Yesterday our Sub-Prior, Very Rev John Wisdom o.praem., began his 16-hour journey, via Ascension Island to the Falkland Islands where he will be for the next six months. Fr John will be on supply in St Mary’s Catholic Church, Stanley, Falkland Islands, whilst the Apostolic Prefect Mons. Michael Bernard McPartland, S.M.A., takes a break from his work in the South Atlantic, and then travels around the rest of the prefecture.

The Roman Catholic Church in the South Atlantic.

The Roman Catholic Church in the South Atlantic.

The area that the Norbertines of St Philip’s Priory, Chelmsford, serve will (temporarily) increase from our two parishes in the Diocese of Brentwood to roughly a sixth of the surface of the planet.

The Apostolic Prefecture of the Falkland Islands was established by the Holy Father in 1952 and from 1952 to 2002 was cared for by the Mill Hill Missionaries, in 2002 the responsibility transferred to the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, though the Prefect is appointed directly by the Holy See.

In 1986 the British overseas territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, , off the coast of West Africa, were removed from the jurisdiction of Archdiocese of Cape Town and became a sui iuris mission, the Apostolic Prefect of the Falkland Islands was then made the Ecclesiastical Superior of this mission.

As Fr John begins his work in the Falkland Islands we ask your prayers for him and the Catholics in the South Atlantic, and implore the intercession of Our Blessed Mother, Star of the Sea, and Our Holy Fathers Augustine and Norbert that his work might be blessed.

Very Rev John Wisdom o.praem.

Very Rev John Wisdom o.praem.

For more information on the Apostolic Prefecture of the Falklands please visit their website:

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Solemn Profession of Br Pius D Collins o.praem.

Br Pius is incorporated into the canonry and receives the canonical almuce.

Br Pius is incorporated into the canonry and receives the canonical almuce.

On Thursday, 9th July the memoria of Ss Adrian and James o.praem, martyrs of Gorcum, Br Pius Collins o.praem. was solemnly professed as a Premonstratensian canon of the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows and St Philip Benizi, Chelmsford. By solemn profession a member of the Order vows to follow the Rule and manner of life in poverty, chastity and obedience until death and becomes fully incorporated into the community.

My sincere thanks go to our Prior and Prelate, Rt Rev High Allan o.praem., and to all my confreres for their work and support. Please continue to keep me in your prayers as I prepare for my ordinations, that I may be a faithful son of St Norbert and worthy of being called by Christ.

For my photographs from the occasion please visit our Flickrstream.

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St Norbert and St John the Baptist

The nativities of only three people are commemorated in the liturgical calendar, our Lord and his blessed Mother, and St John the Baptist. Used as we are to modern (i.e. post-classical) devotional images, St John the Baptist gets much less of a look-in in the western Church than he used to. A legacy of his former position is retained in the sacred liturgy, however, since in the Confiteor, his name is mentioned immediately after those of Our Lady, and the Archangel Michael: “I confess to Almighty God, to Blessed Mary ever-virgin, to Blessed Michael the Archangel, to Blessed John the Baptist, to the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to our Holy Fathers Augustine and Norbert…”

In eastern iconography, Our Lord is often flanked by Our Lady on one side, and St John on the other.

In mediaeval times, the feast of John’s nativity marked the end of the first half of the year (later, it would be the latest date upon which the feast of Corpus Christi could fall). All the great liturgical cycles of the year occurred in this first-half of the year, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascensiontide, and Whitsuntide, all crowned by Corpus Christi, as if the Christian is being annually led through all the mysteries of his salvation in the first half of the year, that he might spend the other half contemplating it, and preparing for the next cycle. This feast falls in between the midsummer solstice and the feast of Peter and Paul: the great feasts of the last week of June were traditionally marked with great bonfires and festivities throughout the night, taking full advantage of the long, summer nights.

These celebrations are in marked contrast to the start of the year. Six months ago today, it was Christmas eve, and we were shrouded in cold and darkness, awaiting the first flicker of divine light to shine in this fallen world. As it once did on the first day of creation, so does light, but this time, a greater light, illumine the cosmos. Half-a-year later, the Benedictus has special resonance: the Orient on high has come to visit us! At the time of year when the sun is at its highest in the sky, the Son has been lifted up high in our hearts by the contemplation of his mysteries. Truly, then, this is the last day of the Christmas season! Tomorrow, we will begin to prepare ourselves to celebrate his coming once again, in joyful hope of his coming on the clouds in glory.

John the Baptist is held in special regard by the Norbertine Order, and, along with Augustine and Norbert, receives double-mention in our litanies.

The first church of our Order, the House of Poverty at Prémontré, was originally a small chapel dedicated to John the Baptist, that, when looking for a home, St Norbert recognised as a the place God intended for his community. Although the Church itself no longer exists, since the Abbey was confiscated by the godless revolutionary slaves of Beelzebub at the end of the eighteenth-century, we have never forgotten the dedication of our Mother Church, the loss of which is a thorn in the heart of every Norbertine. Prémontré herself has gone, but her spirit, and, we trust, the patronage of her own patron, St John, lives still amongst the communities of her sons and daughters spread throughout the world, who have sought to build their own Houses of Poverty in the desert of this fallen world. 

The ruins of the Chapel of St John the Baptist at Prémontré

John was the last of the ancient prophets: to him fell the task of pointing out the Messiah. He lived the religious life, since the religious life is something which preempted the Incarnation in the sacred scriptures. It was a form of life taken by the Lord, sanctified, and propagated by the Church. These celibate religious – a way of life which dates back to the time of the prophet Elijah, and possibly even before – lived in expectation of the coming of the Messiah, and, by the time he actually did arrive, they had some idea of the implications: even the holy men of the east were expecting the divine child! John himself was of a priestly family. After all, it was while he was offering incense that his father, Zechariah, received an angelic vision announcing the Precursor. The life of this hieromonk John was steeped in the liturgical spirituality of his religion, and when he sees Jesus, he immediately recognises the immolated lamb on the altar, the lamb which is annually sacrificed to take away the sins of the nation. To his fellow religious and disciples, John points at Jesus, saying: “behold, the Lamb of God!” This is the Lamb that will take our sins away, not those other lambs that we sacrifice in the Temple. This the Lamb of sacrifice that the Father himself has provided.

Along with his biblical name-sake, John the Apostle (whose head reclined on the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper, and who stood silently at the foot of the Cross with Our Lady, and became her son, all of which symbolises the contemplative life of the Church), John the Baptist is the patron of religious world-wide, especially contemplative priest-religious.

We cannot forget, either, that the feast of John’s decollation is kept the day after the feast of St Augustine. This summer, we shall be praying especially for the Synod on the Family in the autumn, the aim of which is to find truly good and Christ-centred solutions to the varied difficulties and hardships that many people face in our society. John was decapitated for speaking the truth: my he help guide the synod fathers in their deliberations, and when times of persecution return, as they surely will in our land, may we be given something of his faith and his fortitude, to galvanise each one of us to live, and die, for Christ the Lord.

It is not I that live, but him that lives in me.”

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