What is to follow is the beginning of a rather lengthy reflection on my growing understandign of Norbertine life, charism and spirituality. Due to its length I am posting a new segment each day in seperate posts. If it doesn’t come together or make sense yet, just check back and read the next installment!
A Fifth Gospel? Yes I know, it may sound a little far out. I am not about to embark on composing a cheap knockoff of a Dan Brown novel. It goes without saying that I am prone to self aggrandizement, but I assure you I am not attempting to compose something of the scale or magnitude, or that is as divinely inspired as an actual Gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather I am wanting to speak to the movements and narratives of Christ that are already written. Where? Not some newly discovered tome, not in text, but in the lives of our communities.
So now I sound like a new-age-mystic-wanna-be. Maybe subconsciously, but as far as I know that isn’t the case. Rather, this is an attempt to put into words my lived experience thus far of our central Norbertine Charism of Communio. I recognize my experiences are short lived and limited. What I hope to share in the reflections that follow are sparkles of wisdom and understanding I have gained through the first year of formation as a Norbertine through my fellow novices, professed norbertines, instructors and through my own prayer and reflection.
To say our charism is “community” sounds at best abstract, at worse cliché. Doesn’t every religious order and congregation claim they live in “community”? It is true, most do. However, for us, and from my own experience, it is not only our path to the beatific vision but it is literally that gift of the spirit (charism) that we have been given to share with the wider Church and human family.
The Rule of St. Augustine, the foundational document for our way of life, opens by stating: “Let us love God above all things, dearest brothers, then our neighbor, for these are the chief commandments given to us.” How is that achieved? How do we follow these divine mandates? The next statement of the rule gives the kernel of insight that the rest of the document slowly unpacks. St. Augustine instructs that, “the first purpose for which we have come together is to live in unity and to be of one heart and one mind on the way to God.”
A Mild Digression….
The earliest Norbertines broke with a monastic model of soli dei or “for God alone” emphasizing only a personal relationship with and journey toward God. Our order, and other canons regular of the Gregorian Reforms, began to more strongly stress how it is that through intentionally living in and with community we can come to more fully encounter Christ. They began to seek not only the vertical dimension of a Christian life reaching directly toward God, but also the horizontal bar of the cross embracing our brethren as well not only as our duty to respond to those around us but as a part of our path to holiness. A motto of these early canon regulars was docere verbo et exemplo, or “to teach by word and example” both within and outside of the cloister. They attempted to model their lives after those of the earliest Christians as the Acts of the Apostles record,
“They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers…All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread…They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God…”(Acts 2:42-47)
“The community of believers was of one heart and mind…they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 4:32- 34)
Again, this may seem abstract, vague or cliché. That is because, in my estimation, our world and even many aspects of our own Church have lost track of that fundamental vocation to be fully Christian. In essence, our Norbertine vocation, our life in common, our communio, all points to that simple desire to love God and neighbor by living a fully and authentically Christian life. Its not a flashy vocation or charism. Our FUNDAMETAL purpose is not to run major educational institutions, it is not to have prominent and vibrant parishes, it is not to be authors, scholars, artists, musicians, scientists or psychologists, nor to serve the poor and marginalized. We do, however, do all of these things and have for many, many centuries. We do these things not because they are necessarily what Norbertines do, but because they are what Christians inspired by the spirit do and who Christians are. To be a Norbertine is to strive to be a fully Catholic Christian. Our FUNDAMENTAL purpose is to Love God and our neighbor and to do so through our unity in our community that should then spill forth to the world in which we live. If we are are living out our charism well, if we are loving God and neighbor and doing so through our communal context, then we will encounter the larger world and bring Christ to others and bring others to Christ. Simply put, our order for nearly 900 years has been striving to lead its members to heaven by the plain yet profound task of supporting one another in community to live their Catholic Christianity and to bring as many people of good will along with us as will travel on the journey.