Institution of the Order of Our Lady of Premontre, Lancaster, England, by St. Norbert in the year 1120, after a revelation from Our Lady.
The Order of Canons Regular of Premontre, also known as the Premonstratensians, White Canons, or the Norbertines, are a religious order founded at Premontre in 1120 by Saint Norbert, who later became the Archbishop of Magdeburg.
Saint Norbert was not a particularly pious young man until he had an encounter with God similar to that of St. Paul. While riding through the countryside one bright day in the year 1115, Norbert had not gone far with the sky darkened due to a sudden storm. A bolt of lightning struck the ground near Norbert, causing his mount to rear and throw him to the ground. Norbert lay unconscious for some time, but when he awoke he went to his knees, calling out: “Lord, what dost thou wish that I should do?” A voice was heard to respond: “Avoid evil and do good.”
At that, Norbert was a changed man, determined to obey the heavenly command. He made a spiritual retreat and became a priest, giving away his estates and retiring to a life of rural solitude, applying himself to a life of prayer and contemplation. Saint Norbert left his hermitage from time to time to preach in France, Belgium and Germany, begging for his bread along the way. In time, a few good men were drawn to his sanctity and began to follow him.
During this time Saint Norbert befriended Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, and it is thought that Saint Bernard’s example inspired Saint Norbert to form a similar community for canons. A remote place in the marshy forested lands of Premontre was selected to be the place where they decided to make their place of retreat, devoting themselves to the chanting of the Divine Office, prayer and meditation. Soon they had a simple monastery and church in the wilderness.
Saint Norbert prayed that he might know the will of God for his order, and he had a vision of Saint Augustine, who gave him his rule and said: “I am Augustine, Bishop of Hippo; behold here the rule which I have written; if your fellow-brethren, my sons, shall have observed it well, they shall stand without fear in the presence of Christ on the terrible day of the last judgment.”
Saint Norbert had a tender devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She herself, Our Lady of Premontre, appeared to him in a vision, giving Norbert the white habit that he and his brothers in religion were to wear.
Guerenus wrote in his commentaries on the Canticle of Canticles that: “Saint Norbert, with his holy Order, was raised up by Divine Providence to render conspicuous in his day two mysteries, the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady.”
In only a few years there were nine houses and the order had papal approval from Pope Honorius II. By the middle of the 14th century there were over 1,300 monasteries and 400 convents stretching from Palestine to Norway while nourishing all of Christendom. This was the time of the High Middle Ages, creating the foundation for Western Civilization.
A little below Lancaster, England, stand the ruins of what was once Cockersands Abbey, also known as Our Lady of the Marshes, and Our Lady of Premontre, because the Premonstratensians were responsible for its erection, changing the bleak and barren lands into fertile, profitable ones. When the dissolution of the Lancashire monasteries began in 1537, the Abbey seal was broken and the gold and jewels stolen by King Henry VIII. Furniture and goods were stolen and sold, and the monks’ quarters stripped of their lead and left to fall into ruin and decay. Some who live around the ruins claim up to this date that at midnight the chant of the monks can be heard amid the cries and moans of the desolate.
Since this monastery had been dedicated to Mary, at least one monk was set aside as the “Mary priest” whose special duty it was to offer daily or two or three times a week a votive Mass in honor of Our Lady of Premontre. He also rang the “Mary Bell” morning and evening and kept her shrine decked with flowers and lights and saw that the best vessels and finest linens were used on her feast days. Going on a pilgrimage to Mary’s shrine, people would be “measured” for a candle by taking their length and breadth in the form of a cross and candles were made to equal the sum of these two numbers. The candles were coiled and carried to burn either in supplication or thanksgiving before Our Lady’s image. On her feast days large candles, “wreathed with flowers” were burned in profusion. They were called “Gaud-candles” meaning joy and beauty; now the word degenerated from “gaud” – gaudy, means crude, loud, ugly.
Hough de Pourte in 1318 left a yearly rent “to maintain a 3-pound candle to burn before Our Lady’s altar daily at her High Mass,” whilst John Baret at Bury requested in his will that at his burial and Requiem Mass five men should follow the coffin dressed in black to represent the five wounds of Our Blessed Lord, and five women dressed in white to represent the five joys of Our Blessed Lady. Each “must hold a candle of clean wax.” Another man left a half acre of ground to purchase “Lady” candles to burn yearly to “lighten Our Lady’s way.” Countless more of these requests could be enumerated.
And why this love of candles and light? Because like so much in the Catholic Church is symbolic. A light is put to the wick – the hard wax melts and overflows and is drawn downward with blessing from Our Lady; the light illumines our darkness of mind and soul – when our hearts are lit with God’s love and that of His Blessed Mother, they soften, become filled with God’s grace and light, and inevitably shine before men.
May the candles of Our Lady of Premontre continue to lighten Our Lady in our souls and make us more and more Mary-like each day. May the number of votive Masses in Mary’s honor increase and may there be again those who will be proud to style themselves “Mary priests.” May hearts glow with love of her. Only through her intercession may we ever hope for the conversion of our land which is so rapidly falling prey to the mighty evils of these modern times in which we all need our Heavenly Mother more than ever before in the world’s history.