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Awake, My Soul, Awake

On Christmas Day in the year of Our Lord 1121, a hush descended on a busy compound as a small band gathered in their church to profess their solemn vows and commit to a life together: a life dedicated to the service of God and their neighbors. From that event, history dates the beginning of a Church-changing, world-changing religious order, enduring and relevant. This year, the Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré – the Norbertines – rejoices in its 900 years together with God among the people.

A day in the life of an abbey begins
He wakes before dawn. Blinking in the 5 a.m. darkness of eastern Pennsylvania, the Rev. Andrew Ciferni ’64 of Daylesford Abbey in Paoli may be the first Norbertine awake in America. But as the new day slowly blooms west across the United States, it will engulf other priests in multiple time zones: men like the Rt. Rev. James Herring at Bayview Priory in Middleton, Del., and the Very Rev. Brad Vanden Branden ’09 of St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere; and the Rev. Eugene Gries ’62 and the Most Rev. Joel Garner ’62 of Santa María de la Vid Abbey, in Albuquerque, N.M.; and the Very Rev. Chrysostom Baer, prior of St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, Calif. And it will start all over again – a day in the life of a Roman Catholic order that is 900 years old.


That’s how long since that headstrong young preacher, Norbert of Xanten, established the first Norbertine abbey, in Prémontré, France, in 1121. On Christmas Day this year, Norbertines around the world join in celebration of the order’s 900th anniversary.

The story of the Norbertine order, however, is best told not in years but in days – those that define and are defined by the lives of the people who keep the order vital, from the time they get up in the morning to the time they go to bed at night.

As Ciferni writes a letter of recommendation for a student at St. Norbert College, where he is chair of the board of trustees, Herring – in the next time zone over – is waking, saying a prayer, making his bed and getting dressed. And as Herring is drinking his orange juice and coffee, Ciferni is saying a morning prayer and Garner is getting out of bed and beginning to exercise – “in an attempt,” he says, “to keep my aging body functioning as well as it can.”

At 7:30 a.m. EST – 6:30 his time – Herring is settling into his prelate’s office, checking his calendar, email and voicemail, and following up on the previous day’s work.

A good day with a fine ending
From the perspective of the Eastern time zone, the day continues to play out like this from abbey to abbey: a shared rhythm marking the hours to a common beat of prayer and ministry that characterizes the order in the 21st century just as it did in the 12th.

7:45 a.m. EST
It’s 6:45 a.m. in Vanden Branden’s world. He’s getting up, showering and brushing his teeth.

8 a.m. EST
Vanden Branden is praying the Office of Readings, imbibing the words of scripture day by day.

8:30 a.m. EST
It’s 7:30 for Herring. He’s praying the rosary and Office of Readings in the chapel or walking outside.

Vanden Branden is singing Lauds with his community. Psalm 57 sticks with him: “My heart is ready, O God; my heart is ready. I will sing, I will sing your praise. Awake my soul, awake, lyre and harp, I will awake the dawn.”

9 a.m. EST
Vanden Branden, for whom it’s now 8 o’clock, eats breakfast. His usual: a bowl of oatmeal with a large spoonful of creamy peanut butter mixed in, two pieces of wheat toast, a hardboiled egg. And, of course, coffee.

Garner goes to morning prayer followed by the Eucharist, then eats breakfast: It is still 7 a.m. for him.

Herring, for whom the time is 8 a.m., goes to chapel for Community Morning.

9:30 am. EST
In Albuquerque, where the time is only 7:30 a.m., it’s now Morning Prayer.

Vanden Branden arrives in his office and chats with his assistant about the day.

10 a.m. EST
Herring goes back to the office.

Vanden Branden meets with the communication manager to discuss an upcoming release of the abbey magazine. They make final decisions on suggestions for the layout editor.

Later, Vanden Branden meets with the abbot to talk about immediate needs in the community. One of their members is going in for surgery soon, so they work out the details for a celebration of the Anointing of the Sick during Vespers the evening before.

11:30 a.m. EST
Herring goes to chapel for Community Mass.

12 p.m. EST
Ciferni is at Noon Prayer.

Herring is going to the chapel for Community Angelus and Midday Prayer. Then comes lunch.

1 p.m. EST
It’s noon for Vanden Branden. Time for a nap.

Gries is preparing a homily for the weekend.

Baer is praying.

4:30 p.m. EST
Ciferni says Vespers.

5 p.m. EST
For Herring, it’s time to go to the chapel for Community Evening Prayer. Then comes dinner.

7:30 p.m. EST
In Albuquerque, where it’s 5:30, the time has come for Vespers.

9 p.m. EST
After Vespers and dinner, Garner spends time in his office and watches “a little news and sports.”

Herring says a private night prayer and goes to bed.

1 a.m. EST
Garner goes to bed.

How will the day end for Gries? He has a one-word answer: “Fine.”


Nov. 5, 2021