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Were the Stars Out That Night? Christmas at Prémontré in the Year of Our Lord 1121


“Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” Daniel 12:3

Were the stars out that night, as they were on the very first Christmas of all?

When I ponder those first Norbertines, the little band who gathered with Norbert of Xanten to profess their solemn vows that long-ago Christmas at Prémontré, I find myself asking questions like these.

Stars figure so profoundly throughout all Biblical literature as being ways to guide us and to describe who we will become. I think back even to Old Testament times, and the promise to Abraham: “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” I wonder if those first Premonstratensians sensed that guiding light: if it moved them, if that kind of steeled their resolve to commit their lives in this way – as if, somehow, the stars and the whole cosmos were aligned in a new constellation that encompassed their brand-new undertaking.

We Norbertines have been prefiguring this anniversary date throughout our 900th Jubilee year, but when we gather in church this Christmas it will be 900 years to the very day since that 12th-century Prémontré feast day when those very first of our own forebears in religion professed their solemn vows – 900 years to the day since our order began.

How late did those newly professed stay up, that night in 1121? Was this a Midnight Mass? Was this deep into the night? Was it a full moon? And did they stay there until the sun rose? I’ve got a million such questions, and they fill my brain with images.

Was it snowing? How cold was it? I think about that, because that would affect how they were attired. This is northern France in the depths of winter: Were they freezing? Were they warm somehow? I think all of this conditions the moment.

I’m always inspired by the Ignatian contemplative practice of meeting God through story – an exercise by which prayer develops as you live into a Scripture story with all your senses and imagination. And so I think through this Christmas profession at Prémontré with all my senses. Was there incense, you know, on this holy night? And if there was, what was the fragrance? The beeswax candles lighting the chapel would have had a fragrance all of their own. Maybe a blizzard was blowing that night. Maybe they were hearing the wind and they thought this was the Spirit itself.

Because I don’t know the footprint of this structure where they found themselves – this abandoned chapel of John the Baptist at Prémontré – I wonder: Was there a crush? Were they shoulder-to-shoulder, these brothers, in the moment of making their vows? Were they keeping each other warm by the sheer chemistry or physics of their presence as well as by the burning intensity of their conviction?

Was there Mass celebrated? It would have been in Latin, of course. And so, one wonders if one could have repeated those very words along with them. There are things that we know by heart. I think there’s power in that.

Was anybody in earshot? Were there any attendants forming a congregation of sorts, were there any helpers, or were there only those making their profession present that night?

Were they all able to wear the white habit, so recently bestowed by their bishop, at this early moment in our history? So were these first members of the community attired liturgically, or was it Norbert alone who was able to wear his priestly vestments? And so, I try to imagine this … .

Who brought the wine? Did they fast before and did they feast afterwards? One wonders, how did their hunger affect this – or did they even notice their worldly hunger? Were they so excited they didn’t even notice it, because what they were doing was so amazing? So, I think about these things, a lot.

There are walls of this original chapel still visible at Prémontré today. These stones still exist, and there is this idea that stones absorb the prayers and longings of those they shelter. Was it a stone floor, was it pounded earth? I get the feeling this is a round chapel from images I’ve seen of it. This would be Romanesque, of course: I think that there is sort of a curvature in the architecture. And, of course, just looking at that inclines me to think this astounding event took place in the round. Nature delights in the circle. I think of being enclosed within this circle, in this exquisite shape that imitates the moon and the sun. … I love that!

What was the age range of the men that were there? Did they encompass the elderly and the noble youth, or were they all about the same age: Were they all Norbert's peers? Who were these men who had been drawn to be with his community at this particular moment?

Well, those are the ancestors. They’re connected with we who serve the order today, with all those who have made possible the professed life that I myself have enjoyed for the last 35 or 40 years. There is profound gratitude in knowing that what they were doing at that very moment 900 years ago would come to influence even the course of my own life. If there were some way I could have joined them there, I think I would have been overwhelmed by the beauty of the event. There’s something just so profoundly significant about it. Coming with my 21st-century sensibilities, I’d be disoriented for sure. But there would be things that were very, very familiar and beloved. Communion would be exactly the same, totally the same. Holy Communion: Ideally, theologically, spiritually, the sacrament defies time and space. Things are suspended in a once-and-forever moment … I can’t imagine that Communion would be any different at all, which would be wonderful and lovely!

All ground is sacred ground but, for our community, this place, with its memories of this 12th-century night enclosed in stone, is most particularly consecrated.

And so, we pause in wonder. We look up at the stars. And we celebrate.


The Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré – the Norbertines – celebrates its 900 years of existence this Christmas, remembering and honoring the memory of those early followers of Norbert of Xanten who professed their solemn vows in the context of their new community at Prémontré, France, on Christmas Day in 1121.

Dec. 14, 2021