Guardians of the Chant
BY Jim Cosgrove
April 12-18, 1998 Issue | Posted 4/12/98 at 2:00 AM
Benedictine monks and nuns in Solesmes, France, capture the solemn beauty of Gregorian chant like no others
In the countryside of western France lie the Abbeys of St. Peter and St. Cecilia, which flourish today as worldwide centers of Gregorian chant, spirituality, and performance. Almost 90 monks belong to the Solesmes community of men, and about 35 nuns to the Solesmes community of women. Both have achieved worldwide recognition for their contributions to restoring the true Gregorian chant of the Church.
For more than a century the Benedictine monks and nuns of Solesmes have been deeply involved in the research of Gregorian chant. One of their aims is to assimilate the spiritual riches it contains into the life of prayer within the Church. Many people throughout the world are familiar with the Benedictine monks and nuns of Solesmes for their recordings and publications. Along with chant, the monks also do extensive research and writing on monastic traditions and papal teachings.
The men's monastery was founded at Solesmes in 1010 but was closed during the French Revolution. In 1833, a young priest of the local diocese by the name of Father GuÈranger purchased the men's abbey and restored the monastery to a fully functioning house under the Benedictine Order. Initiating a rediscovery of Christian tradition, the soon-to-be first abbot of Solesmes did extensive research into Church history, liturgy, Gregorian chant, and Holy Scripture. After his death, his work was carried on by the monks, and today they remain at the forefront of papal, monastic, and Gregorian chant research. During his lifetime, with the help of Mother Cecilia Bruyere, Dom GuÈranger also established the women's monastery of St. Cecilia.
As Solesmes grew in numbers, the monks founded additional monasteries. Among the first were St. Martin of Tours in LigugÈ (1853), St. Mary Magdalene in Marseilles (1865), and Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain (1880). In 1889, the nuns also expanded and established a monastery at Wisque. In 1981, they founded a monastery in the United States—the Immaculate Heart of Mary at Westfield, Vt. Today, the Congregation of Solesmes includes 21 men's monasteries with 760 monks, and eight women's monasteries with 280 nuns.
Prayer and work, the Rule of St. Benedict, orders the lives of the monks and nuns. Every day they spend four or more hours in community prayer, one hour in personal prayer, and the rest of the time performing manual labor, studying, or having periods of recreation. The Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours are the heart of community life in each abbey.
In accordance with Vatican II and the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the monks and nuns of Solesmes have “preserved the use of the Latin Language and given prominent place to Gregorian Chant” in their liturgies. Along with the chant, they also give special attention to the visual aspects of the Mass with their vestments, ceremonial gestures, and incense. The result is Solesmes’ world-renowned role in the liturgical renewal and restoration of Gregorian chant.
Today thousands of people come every year to Solesmes to hear the pure sounds of Gregorian chant. Here the solemn beauty of the sacred music renews and refreshes pilgrims and visitors alike.
With a visit to the spiritual treasure house of Solesmes, one can spend time at any of the services. As the two abbeys are located within one block of each other, it is possible to hear both the men and women monks in the same day. Each monastery offers a full schedule of Gregorian chant services.
Every morning, the Abbey of St. Peter celebrates a concelebrated sung Mass—a liturgy so beautiful it makes for an unforgettable experience.
The abbey church of St. Peter's is open from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (except during services) and for Compline (usually 8:30 p.m.). On Sundays and Feast Days it is open from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. A bookstore and an exhibit about the abbey is open (except during services) from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. daily, and from 11:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Sundays and Feast Days. The abbey church of St. Cecilia operates on a similar schedule and also runs a small gift shop.
Monastic accommodations (Villa Ste-Anne), located at the nuns'abbey of St. Cecilia, receive men and women from April to October. The guesthouse at St. Peter's, that lies within the monastic enclosure, welcomes men wishing to make a retreat. Another guest house, outside the cloister, is open to adults and youth groups. Solesmes is about 145 miles southwest of Paris. In traveling there from Paris, take AutoRoute A11 west (Paris-Nantes route) and exit at Sable-sur-Sarthe. The abbeys are located on the left bank of the river in Solesmes, two miles to the east of Sable-sur-Sarthe.
Trains run from the Paris Montparnasse train station to Le Mans, where pilgrims must change trains to complete the journey to Sable-surSarthe. From here, taxis are available for the two-mile trip to the Solesmes abbeys.
If one is interested in learning more about the abbeys'life and work, contact the association Friends of Solesmes (l'Association des Amis de Solesmes), at Minitel, 3615 Marie Reine, Solesmes, France, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on making a pilgrimage to the abbeys, contact one of the many Catholic travel organizations offering guided tours to France or contact the Father Guest Master at: Abbaye St. Pierre de Solesmes, 72300 Sable-sur-Sarthe; (tel.) 011-33-243-95-03-08; (fax) 011-33-243-95-68-79, Monastic Hotel: Villa Ste-Anne 21, rue J. Alain 72300 Sable-sur-Sarthe; (tel.) 011-243-95.45.05 (This is the monastic accommodation near the abbey of St.Cecilia.)
Kevin Wright, author of Catholic Shrines of Western Europe, writes from Bellevue, Washington.
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