“Where God Happens”

June 16: Anniversary of the Dedication of the Church of St. Norbert AbbeySt. Norbert Abbey

On June 16, 1959, the long-awaited dedication and consecration of the “new” St. Norbert Abbey began. Two more days of festive celebrations were to follow. Finally the Norbertines of De Pere had a home where the full canonical life could be lived out.

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By Fr. John Bostwick, O. Praem.

Fr. John Bostwick, O. Praem.

Fr. John Bostwick, O. Praem.

In 2017 it’s been 58 years since the dedication of the church of St. Norbert Abbey. I find myself sitting in my choir stall pondering what makes this place holy. It isn’t necessarily the austere beauty of the building with its shining marble and brilliant stained glass. It isn’t necessarily even the fact that this place was solemnly consecrated with walls and altar anointed with Sacred Chrism.

This place is holy because it is a place where God happens. “Where God happens.” The phrase is not my own; it comes from a work by Rowan Williams where he sees God manifest in the interaction of persons—God made present in encounter. I like the image because of its dynamism and its rootedness in experience.

Recall the story of Jacob in the 28th chapter of Genesis: Jacob lays down to sleep, using a rock for a pillow. That night in a dream he has an experience of God’s presence and God’s promise. When he wakes, he’s overwhelmed by the awareness that “Truly, the LORD is in this place and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16). Jacob took that stone pillow, set it up, and poured oil on it. He called it Bethel, House of God, as the memorial of that encounter with the Divine.

The church of St. Norbert Abbey

The church of St. Norbert Abbey

A place is holy because it is there that we encounter God. This is certainly not limited to officially-designated places of worship, for the Spirit of God is “everywhere present and filling all things.”

Yet the abbey church is a holy place precisely because it has been for many people a place of encountering God. It is manifest in the continuous worship throughout these 58 years: the daily celebration of the Eucharist, the Psalms recited or chanted by the community in a continuous river of praise and intercession. Most Norbertines received the habit and professed their vows in this place. Many were ordained here.

… we give hearty thanks for the gift of this place

—Fr. John Bostwick, O. Praem.
The church of St. Norbert Abbey

The church of St. Norbert Abbey

And there’s more to this history of encounter than the public rituals celebrated here. There are the countless acts of prayer and praise of individuals: community members and visitors, retreatants and guests. There is an ongoing flood of petition, confession, tears of repentance and of mourning, as well as tears and smiles of joy and expressions of love.

The abbey church is a safe place where one is free to encounter God without hiding and in doing so, to discover one’s true self. So we give hearty thanks for the gift of this place and the spiritual resonance of roof, walls, and windows steeped in the beauty of human faith and longing in the awareness of Divine Love made manifest in the abiding presence of Christ in the reserved Sacrament.

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