DE PERE — St. Norbert College President Emeritus Tom Kunkel announced prior to his retirement in 2017 that he planned to write a book about St. Norbert of Xanten. Kunkel, who became the college’s seventh president in 2008, said that he knew, after a few years in the position, that a resource about St. Norbert was necessary.
“The Norbertines operated for most of their history in Europe, so their presence in North America is nothing like the Franciscans or the Jesuits,” he said. “We did not have an accessible source about Norbert. The seed was planted early. This is something I could do, would enjoy and it would be a contribution to the college.”
“Man on Fire: The Life and Spirit of Norbert of Xanten,” written by Kunkel and illustrated by Benedictine Br. Martin Erspamer, was released on May 8. The book is available on amazon.com or from snc.edu/bookstore.
Kunkel said that while much has been written about St. Norbert, the texts primarily were designed for internal use by an academic audience. He wanted to write a biography about the life of St. Norbert in “every-person language.”
Norbert of Xanten was born into great wealth in Germany in 1075. He became a wandering preacher and founded the Norbertine order after a conversion experience. Legend is that a thunderbolt struck at the feet of his horse causing him to be thrown to the ground. The near-death experience is credited with deepening his faith.
“It’s definitely a story that he told widely, but there are no witnesses or historical records,” said Kunkel. “The Norbert story has strong overtones to the story of Paul on the road to Damascus. Historians indicate that he, no question, had some sort of catalyzing incident, but they also say that he was well along in his discernment.
“He was always a Catholic. He was a subdeacon in the church, but never looked like he was going to go on to the priesthood,” Kunkel added. “We talk about conversion in his spiritual commitment. Something dramatic definitely happened.”
Kunkel explained that Norbert is strongly identified with the defense of the Eucharist.
“In that capacity, he was truly one of the most famous people in Europe at the end of his life,” he said. “When he passed (in 1134), the order was growing, but Norbert’s star was fading. There was not a great push at the time for sainthood. It was only 500 years later, when the Reformation arose, that the church was desperately looking for examples to hold up. People remembered Norbert’s defense of the Eucharist. He became very useful to the church at that point.”
Because of his defense of the Eucharist, most artistic representations of St. Norbert show him with the monstrance although the liturgical vessel was not in widespread use until several hundred years until after he died, added Kunkel.
Norbertine Fr. Andrew Ciferni, former director of the Center for Norbertine Studies at St. Norbert College, suggested Br. Erspamer as the illustrator for the book. Kunkel reviewed Br. Erspamer’s liturgical art online.
“It sort of has that Romanesque, Gothic feel, but in a modern way. I loved it,” said Kunkel. “I live just outside Evansville, Ind. Martin is at the Benedictine community at St. Meinrad, which is 30 minutes from where I live, so Andrew and I went to see him. We knew it was going to be 10 chapters, so we decided to do an illustration to open each chapter as well as artwork for the cover.”
The book is planned to be used in a number of classes at St. Norbert College, said Kunkel, including some of the introductory course work for first-year students.
“Whether it becomes a regular first-year book will be up to the college and the faculty,” he said. “My sense is it is going to be pretty ubiquitous throughout a lot of the curriculum.”
Kunkel is pleased to have the book available in advance of the 900-year anniversary of the Norbertines. The anniversary will be marked beginning in Advent of 2020. The author is open to translations of the text.
“We are starting to ship some to Europe,” he explained. “It will be interesting to see if some of the Norbertines over there want to translate it into their vernacular. They would certainly be welcome to, because they were very helpful to me.
“Nine hundred years later, his legacy still exists,” added Kunkel. “Norbert was a medieval person, but he had a lot of modern sensibilities. He would rather ask for forgiveness than permission.”