June 6 – Bessarion the Great; Norbert of Xanten

Bessarion the Great (d. 466) studied hermitting under Anthony the Great (Jan 17) and monking under Macarius (Jan 15). Once at the monastery a brother was evicted for falling into sin, and Bessarion got up and left with him, saying, “I too am a sinner.” He took to living a wandering life, “borne hither and thither by Providence like a bird by the wind” as one source has it[1]. Carrying his precious Gospel book in his hand, he slept under the stars in all weather, cared nothing for shelter or clothing (I’m hoping that doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means), and was indifferent to the passions of the flesh. In over forty years of wandering he never once laid down (hey, if birds can sleep on telephone wires). If he came upon a monastery, he would sit in the gate and weep, saying he could not live under a roof until he had regained “the wealth of my house,” meaning (apparently) the heavenly inheritance that once belonged to Adam. (Which you will recall is n–1 trees where n = the number of trees in Paradise.)

One winter’s day he came upon a dead body, and immediately took off his coat and covered it. A bit later he came upon a poor, shivering man, and gave him his tunic. An army officer saw him walking naked and asked, “Who stole your clothes?” Bessarion held up his precious Gospel book and said, “He did!” On another occasion he found he had nothing to give to a beggar, so he sold his precious Gospel book. When his disciple Doulas caught up with him later, he asked, “What happened to your precious Gospel book?” Bessarion replied, “I sold it, like it says: ‘Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor’.”

A wonderworker, Bessarion once desalinated water to quench his disciple’s thirst. When Doulas wanted to take some of the miraculous water with him, Bessarion told him, “God is here. God is everywhere!” He also made it rain, walked across a river, raised a paralytic, drove out demons, and other stuff along those lines. He died peacefully and old.

Norbert of Xanten (ca. 1080–1134) became an archdeacon there, and immediately fell into a “life of pleasure.” He was then made almoner (in charge of charity distributions) under Holy Roman Emperor Henry V. He either avoided ordination to the priesthood, or did it to cynically advance his career. All this changed when he fell off his horse nearly unto death. This was analogous to the front desk phoning his hotel room to wake him, spiritually speaking. He began to take his spiritual life more seriously, and joined the Benedictines. If he wasn’t already a priest, he became one now.

He founded an Abbey and tried to “clean up” some other ones, but he was denounced at a council. He resigned his benefice, sold all his worldly paraphernalia for charity, and became an itinerant preacher and miracle worker. The Pope (Calixtus II) was impressed and ordered him to start an order, since in the twelfth century there weren’t nearly enough orders yet. This led to the Premonstratensians, also called the Norbertines. Eventually he was made the Archbishop of Magdeberg, and set about to reform the lax discipline he found there—“using force when necessary” as one source puts it. This received a forceful response in the form of several assassination attempts.

After he died the cathedral and the abbey got into a fight for his body. The emperor finally had to step in to adjudicate (the abbey won). When Magdeburg fell to the Protestants, Catholics were unable to access the body, and wrang their hands frustratedly. When the tides of war allowed, they schlepped it to Prague, where it remains. Norbert’s prayers are sought by women in childbirth, for a delivery free from complications.

[1] Clearly a source that has only witnessed wimpy birds in gale force winds.