Notker the stammerer: A cheerful believer

How can we wake up in the morning cheerful? Some of us have difficulty grumbling a simple "Good Morning." But a cheerful smile can be an encouragement for others.
In Europe of the Middle Ages, it was a general rule that younger sons of the nobility would not inherit the father’s title nor property. So it happened that Notker, as the younger son, was sent off to the religious life in Switzerland’s St. Gall monastery. Because of a speech impediment, he came to be called “the Stammerer.” Yet this less than complimentary nickname did not sour his character. On the contrary, his persistent cheerful disposition won him the love and respect of his fellow monks.

Thoughtful and cheerful

Notker quickly distinguished himself as the monastery’s best student. He was skilled in poetry, medicine, and music. So he became the natural choice as the monastery’s librarian and physician. His poetic talent was employed at composing hymns. He understood their power for comforting the despondent, refreshing hearts of the weary, and bringing wrongdoers to repentance. He also discovered that when he sang his stammer disappeared.

Not a few anecdotes about Notker have survived in the monastic annals of St. Gall. His intelligence, for example, attracted the attention of Charlemagne’s grandson, Emperor Charles the Fat. On one occasion when the imperial messenger arrived at St. Gall for an answer to a question sent by the emperor, he found Notker in the monastic garden hoeing weeds and watering plants. After waiting a long time for some word of counsel from the monk, the exasperated messenger asked, “What shall I tell the emperor?” With a chuckle, Notker responded, “Tell him what you just saw me doing. That and no more.” When this came back to the emperor, it dawned on him after much thought what Notker was advising. He should tear the weeds of worry from his heart, replace them with justice and charity, and protect the garden of people entrusted to his care.

At another time, the emperor’s chaplain, a conceited fellow, challenged Notker with a question he thought beyond the monk’s competence. “Tell me,” he asked, “what at this moment God is doing in heaven?” Looking on his questioner with pity, Notker responded, “He is doing what he has always done. He is performing mighty deeds with his arm and scattering the proud in their conceits.”

Singing to lift the spirit

Notker is credited with composing the hymn, “In the Midst of Earthly Life, Snares of Death Surround Us” (Christian Worship 534). With this song in his heart, death did not overtake him by stealth. He fell asleep peacefully on April 8, 912, and was buried in the cathedral at St. Gall.