An Earful of Peace: Monks of Norcia and Their Benedicta Album
One of the great comforts in the weeks that followed my son's unexpected birth four weeks early was an album that arrived for me to review, Benedicta: Marian Chant from Norcia from the Monks of Norcia. In this album, I found a soundtrack for a peacefulness that I so needed then...and a peacefulness that I continue to need. I find myself able to let go of stress when I'm listening to the monks. It's as though I'm transported into a type of prayer I'm not able to achieve any other way, even if I just have it on in the background.
There are 33 tracks on the album, a mix of hymns, responsories, and antiphons. It's a Marian themed album, with tracks that I recognized, including Ave Maria, Regina Caeli, and Salve Regina. What I didn't recognize was as lovely, though, as what I did: new notes for my soundtrack of peace! There's one piece, “Nos Qui Christi Iugum,” (“We Who Have Taken Up Christ’s Yoke”), that is an original, composed by the monks themselves. Some of the tracks are sung by a full group, others by solos, and still others by smaller ensembles.
The monks' choirmaster, Fr. Basil Nixen, was the music director for this album project, and he explained the selections and how they relate to Mary:
“The selections try to look at Our Lady’s life by focusing on seven mysteries, or defining moments, of her life and include pieces that many people would be familiar with and could connect with as well as some pieces that are a little less known and more musically challenging and complex but also very beautiful. Many of these chants are familiar prayers that we [the monks] sing often and that are very, very dear to us.”
This is the monks' first album, but don't let that fool you: they sing nine times a day in the Gregorian chant that is part of their prayer life in their monastery, in the small town of Norcia, Italy, on the ruins of the home of St. Benedict and his sister, St. Scholastica.
The founder of the Monks of Norcia is American Fr. Cassian Folsom, who was enrolled at Indiana University's music program before he became a monk.
“Music for the monastic life is an essential part of our prayer," according to Fr. Folsom. "The Divine Office, as well as the Mass, are moments of prayer during the day which are all sung, so chant is part of the air we breathe and since we do it so often, it comes naturally. We wanted to do a recording, focusing on chant only.”
De Montfort Music, the label that carries the monks' music, has been in conversation with the monks for a number of years. Pulling all the pieces together has been a "labor of love," according to Monica Fitzgibbons of De Montfort, that started in 2007. The album was produced and engineered by the multiple Grammy Award-winning team of Christopher Alder and Jonathan Stokes.
The average age among these monks is 33, which I can't help but see as a sign of hope in many ways, among them the hope that there will be another album someday to add to my playlist. The order itself is young too, founded in 1998, and is guided by the Rule of St. Benedict, "Ora et labora" (work and pray). They not only sing the Divine Office in Latin, but also the Mass and their meal prayers.
They also have their own brewery and are known for a signature beer called 'Birra Nursia.' It's part of how they strive for self-sufficiency, because they still have to eat.
“A lot of people have perhaps a romantic idea that monks sort of float around in the cloister all day long,” says Fr. Folsom. “But in fact, the monastic life is quite ordinary. Music is important to us, especially for the sake of the prayer. Even someone who listens to this without any background will be drawn to it, I think, by its pure beauty and its mystical quality. This music has been sung over centuries and centuries.”
It's a combination that makes me smile: young men chanting and singing and making beer...and sharing it with all of us!