The Apostolic Life: Christian Life at Maturity
“A mature and profound Christian life cannot be improvised, because it is the result of the growth of God’s grace in us. In the Acts of the Apostles we find the early Christian community described in a single sentence, brief but full of meaning: ‘and they continued steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles and in the communion of the breaking of the bread and in prayers.’
“This is how the early Christians lived, and this is how we too should live: meditating the doctrine of our faith until it becomes a part of us; receiving our Lord in the Eucharist; meeting him in the personal dialogue of our prayer…. These means should become the very substance of our attitude. If they are lacking we will have, perhaps, the ability to think in an erudite manner, an activity that is more or less intense, some practices and devotions. But we will not have an authentically Christian way of life, because we are all equally called to sanctity. There are no second-class Christians, obliged to practice only a ‘simplified version’ of the Gospel.”
St. Josemaria Escriva
Christ is Passing By, 134
A quick glance at a priestly-monastic religious Order founded in the 12th century might suggest little relevance for the laity of any century, much less that of the 21st. Yet it may well come as a surprise that the Order of Prémontré (also known as the Premonstratensian or Norbertine Order) is credited for having engendered the first Third (or Lay) Order in Church history. Although St Norbert of Xanten (1080-1134) laid the foundations for what would become the Canons Regular of Prémontré (i.e., priests who live according to a monastic rule), he also attracted multitudes of lay people to adopt a reformed way of life—modeled on the vita apostolica, or the apostolic life of the early Church.
One famous example from an early biography shows how Norbert recommended to Theobald II of Champagne (d. 1152), a “very noble French prince,” that he remain in the world, marry, and beget heirs who would inherit his vast domains. Since Theobald was so generous with the poor, the biographer explains that, “[Norbert] did not presume to change this man’s holy way of life…. However, he persuaded this count of France, who supported the needy with his goods, to possess all as though having nothing.”
The significance of Norbert’s influence here should not be undervalued, since Theobald was no obscure French prince. He had what many considered to be the strongest case for succeeding to the throne of England. Upon the death of King Henry I in 1135, Theobald refused to seek the kingship, which eventually went to his younger brother Stephen. St Norbert had advised Theobald to take great care not to become ensnared by the riches of this world–his advice may even have influenced Theobald’s refusal of the crown, so fraught with peril for one striving to live a truly apostolic and evangelical life.
Norbert was a luminary in the general reform movement of the 11th and 12 centuries initiated by Pope St Gregory VII. He became such an inspiring figure as both an itinerant preacher and then archbishop of Magdeburg that he drew many of the laity to make a more radical commitment of themselves to the demands of the Gospel. His first biographer records that as St Norbert traveled about preaching in villages and towns, “People came to him in droves” to hear his words of exhortation at Mass and were, moreover, “amazed at this new style of life, namely, to live on earth and seek nothing from the earth.”
This plainly suggests that people had not seen this kind of radical Gospel living in a very long time–so long, evidently, that it appeared to be a novelty. Yet, as in every age, people are drawn almost irresistibly to the radicality of the Gospel when they see it lived authentically. This is why St Josemaria insists that the laity should seek to imitate the earliest Christian communities: To live as the Apostles lived is the surest way to living out all of the fundamental demands of the Gospel. St Norbert was equally uncompromising–not only with respect to the obligations of the clergy, but also to those of lay Christians, because, “There are no second-class Christians, obliged to practice only a ‘simplified version’ of the Gospel.”
A contemporary of St Norbert, Herman of Tournai, wrote of him, “From the very time of the apostles there has been no one who in so short a time and by his own instruction has inspired so many imitators of the life of perfection in Christ” (PL 156, 996-997). The Liturgy of the Hours also presents this attractive dimension of St Norbert’s charism in the Office of Readings for his feastday (June 6): “Inspired by the practice of the early Church, Norbert exhorted the faithful to join the monastic life in some capacity. So many men and women responded to the invitation that many asserted that no man since the apostles themselves had inspired so many to embrace the monastic life.” Since the monastic life was universally viewed at this time as the paradigm of apostolic and evangelical generosity for all Christians, it was only natural that the laity flocked to Norbert’s side, desiring to grow and mature under the inspiration of his own radicalism.
The elements of “a mature and profound Christian life” indicated by St Josemaria in the above passage take us back directly to this Apostolic ideal, commonly called the vita apostolica. The Founder of Opus Dei takes for granted that the “apostolic life” of the primitive Church is the norm for serious Christian living. In fact, it has always been the reference point of any authentic reform or renewal movements that have arisen in the Church throughout the centuries: “They continued steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles and in the communion of the breaking of the bread and in prayers” (Acts 2:42), a verse which St Josemaria himself had inscribed in the oratory of the Jenner Street residence in Madrid in 1939.
It is a structured life, because “A mature and profound Christian life cannot be improvised.” St Norbert’s earliest biography records his words: “Without order and without rule… we cannot really embrace the apostolic and evangelical life and its demands” (Vita A, 12).
In seeking to live the Apostolic life in all its maturity, St Norbert and St Josemaria were kindred spirits when it comes to identifying the principal means to achieve such Christian maturity as manifested by the first Christian community in Jerusalem. Using St Josemaria’s own summary of what the vita apostolica means for the faithful of Opus Dei (and all serious Christians), we may highlight several points of continuity between his spirit and St Norbert’s.
1. “Meditating the Doctrine of the Faith Until it Becomes Part of Us”:
A significant portion of the traditional monastic day is taken up with lectio divina, literally, “divine reading,” wherein the religious reads (or listens to) primarily the words of Scripture, or the Fathers and Saints, and internalizes them via prayerful meditation. One medieval source describes the lectio practiced by the Premonstratensians in graphic language, showing how sacred doctrine becomes ‘part of us’: “Chewing the cud, the word of God, with the teeth of your interior man and subtly grinding it down so finely that you can swallow it and commit to memory…”.
An essential part of internalizing the doctrine of our faith is, of course, continuing “steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles,” which means that the apostolic life is lived in close communion with the Roman Pontiff and the bishops in communion with him. The Magisterium guards and keeps the living Tradition that reaches back through the centuries to the Lord and the Apostles. The Church in its capacity as mother and teacher faithfully interprets and hands on the words, deeds, and teachings of the Lord Jesus as normative for all.
St Norbert was, alongside St Bernard, among the most famous defenders of the Roman Pontiff in his day. St Norbert worked tirelessly to have Innocent II restored to his throne which had been usurped by the antipope Anacletus II. And when Norbert finally accompanied Innocent to Rome in 1133, and the newly enthroned pope began to waver and concede some of the Church’s rightful liberty to the Emperor, St Norbert withstood him to his face, publicly reminding him, “The chair of Peter demands the works of Peter.”
2. “Receiving Our Lord in the Eucharist”
The vita apostolica operates according to the rhythms of the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. Reverence about the altar and in divine worship was for St Norbert an essential element of the apostolic life. Devotion to and care for the sacred liturgy are indicated by this purity about the altar of God. St Norbert, like St Josemaria, did not consider the care and cost put into the sacred liturgy and its furnishings to be in any way an extravagance. One telling remark from his biography reveals that although he himself wore a haircloth next to his skin, “in the sanctuary and wherever the Blessed Sacrament was to be handled or celebrated, he wanted them to use linen on account of cleanliness and respect. This last he decreed to be done at all times.”
In this is shown not only an external fittingness in beautiful appointments and architecture, but also a clear sense of priestly identity and purpose. Liturgical prescriptions, from vestments and vessels to words and gestures, form the priest in a spirit of piety and obedience. His devotion in turn edifies and instructs the faithful who see in him not only a man of the Church, but the true icon of Jesus Christ, in whose Person the priest ministers at the altar. St Josemaria used to express this in the strongest possible terms: “When I am at the altar, I am not the ‘president’ of anything. I am Christ – ipse Christus.”
St Norbert came to be known as the Apostle of the Holy Eucharist for the emphasis he placed on this great mystery of our Faith. After his dramatic conversion at age 35, he was ordained a priest and became a wandering preacher, traveling barefoot even in the snow and always carrying on his back what he needed to celebrate Mass: he refused go anywhere without being able to celebrate the Eucharist daily.
Once while celebrating Mass in a grotto, a large and apparently poisonous spider fell into the chalice after the consecration. Though he could have removed the spider, St Norbert preferred to consume it lest even a drop of the Precious Blood of Christ be lost. He lived to celebrate many more Masses.
3. “Meeting Him in the Personal Dialogue of Our Prayer”
The “prayers” mentioned in Acts to which the earliest Christian community devoted themselves were certainly liturgical–the Psalms, hymns, and lectionary of the Temple and synagogue were the matrix out of which formal Christian prayer developed. But the interior dimension is also its organic counterpart. In fact, it is clear from the literature of the ancient Fathers that there was little distinction made between properly formal prayer and the prayer of the heart–the heart being the sanctuary where the liturgical prayer puts down its roots and flourishes. “You have got to be a ‘man of God,’ a man of interior life, a man of prayer and sacrifice. Your apostolate must be the overflow of your life ‘within’” (The Way, 961).
The apostolic ideal of the Premonstratensians encompasses the sacred liturgy in its totality and, as an overflow, gives place to the interior growth that formal prayer engenders in the Christian soul–as we have seen from the centrality of the Mass, the Divine Office, and the contemplative exercise of lectio divina. Those desiring to live the apostolic life must embody all of these dimensions if they would fulfill an important aspect of their mission in the Church, which is to share the fruits of their contemplation in the apostolate. The Breviary reading for June 6 highlights this aspect of St Norbert’s spirituality: “He spent many hours in contemplation of the divine mysteries and fearlessly spread the spiritual insights which were the fruit of his meditation.”
St Josemaria is recorded to have said many times that the effectiveness of the apostolates carried out by Opus Dei, corporately or individually, depend upon one’s interior union with the Lord. To paraphrase the Founder: The members of the Work will not sanctify anyone or anything unless they first sanctify themselves.
From the Apostolic model as it has been lived throughout the centuries, we see clearly and with great continuity from St Norbert to St Josemaria that God wants to be served in sure and definite ways—not in an “improvised” way. The laity who joined themselves to the many Norbertine monasteries established throughout Europe during the life or after the death of St Norbert, did not cease to be lay people, but continued their lives in the world undergirded by the spirit of the evangelical counsels, fidelity to the See of Rome, while sharing the liturgical life of the Premonstratensian abbeys. The laity of Opus Dei inspired by St. Josemaria so many centuries later were living the same essential reality and relying on the same essential means.
The content is published by the St Josemaria Institute for the free use of readers and may not be copied or reproduced without permission from its author © Fr. John Henry Hanson, 2013.