The Conversion of St. Norbert

The Conversion of St. Norbert from a window at Park Abbey

It happened one day that Norbert was hastening secretly to a place called Freden. He was dressed in silk, accompanied by a single servant. While on the way a dark cloud overtook him, lightning flashed, thunder roared, and much more inconvenient, there was no house for shelter nearby. Whole both he and his companion were unnerved, suddenly the terrifying sound and sight of a thunderbolt struck the ground opening it to the depth of a man’s height. From here steamed forth a putrid stench which fouled him and his garments. Struck from his horse he thought he heard a voice denouncing him. Returning to his senses and now repentant he reflected on the words of the Psalmist: “Turn from evil and do good.” Thus motivated, he returned home. Back home, caught up in the spirit of salvation through fear of the Lord he put on a hair shirt beneath his outer garments intending to do good deeds and penance for his past life.  – From the ‘Vita A’

The conversion of Our Holy Father Norbert was a decisive moment in his life and vocation. It marked the turning point from his life as a wealthy and noble courtier to turning entirely to Christ and living for Him alone. This event was to lead to St. Norbert’s years of wandering preaching and penance and built the ground on which his Order would be built. Naturally our minds compare this conversion experience of St. Norbert to that of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Interestingly our tradition has it that the bishop of Laon, Blessed Bartholomew, vested Norbert in the white habit on the 25th January – the Conversion of St. Paul.

If at the beginning of his conversion, at the time of the fall from his horse, the question was, “Lord, what should I do?”, then during his lifetime this becomes the basic question and basic option to seek the will of the Lord in his particular situations, in positions, and circumstances. We notice several interruptions and initiatives in Norbert’s life, but the basic component is this seeking after the will of God, placing his life entirely under his direction. And his fundamental concern remained the same in all phases of his life: to build up the Church and to renew it, first of all through his own conversion and renewal of heart and the framework of his life; then through the incentive of a new religious community, through the direction of a specific local church, through unprecedented involvement in the highest ecclesiastical and political levels. Henri de Lubac once said that Norbert had something restless about him, “an incurable restlessness”. Always driven by the Spirit and an immense love for the Church of Jesus Christ, he sought after new forms of realization for ecclesiastical life. – from the Message of the Abbot General for the 875th anniversary of St. Norbert’s death

Detail from the pulpit at Mechelen (J. Smets)

The conversion of St. Norbert was taken up in ecclesiastical art and architecture, especially in Belgium where the scene has been depicted on impressive pulpits. Two notable churches contain large baroque depictions of Our Holy Father’s conversion as the form for their pulpits. The first can be found in the Cathedral of Mechelen, St. Rombaut’s. It was designed by Michael Vervoort and executed by Theodor Verhaegen and J. F. Van Geel from 1720-1730. The pulpit was originally to be found in the convent of the Premonstratensian canonesses at Leliendaal but was moved to the Cathedral during the Napoleonic Wars. The second such pulpit can be found in Sint-Pieterskerk in Leuven (Louvain). Like the pulpit in Mechelen this pulpit was also originally designed for a Norbertine abbey – Ninove. It is the work of Jacques Berger and was built around 1742. The abbey of Park – just outside of Leuven also boasts a well known image of the conversion of St. Norbert. This depiction appeared in prints that were used to illustrate vitae of St. Norbert – especially in P. Godefroid’s “Vie illustrée de Saint Norbert“. The window in Park depicting the same scene is brightly coloured and is part of a series of windows depicting the life of St. Norbert.

Let us pray that through the intercession of St. Norbert we may all be led to ever-continuing conversion of heart in the service of God.

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