Music to Live Advent With Our Lady (Part 1)

Mother Cecilia of the Benedictines of Mary on Creating “Advent at Ephesus”

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By Kathleen Naab

ATLANTA, Georgia, NOV. 29, 2012 ( It’s perhaps not hard to imagine a middle-aged Mary, in a simple abode with St. John, dwelling sweetly on the memories of Jesus’ first moments in her life: the visit of the angel, Elizabeth’s greeting, even the physical strains of pregnancy and the difficult trip to Bethlehem … the memories of the first Advent.

A CD that has debuted at No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s Traditional Classical Music Chart provides, as it were, a backdrop to such images of Our Lady. “Advent at Ephesus” is a journey with a group of cloistered nuns in Missouri precisely to the home of John and Mary, which tradition holds was in Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey.

The nuns, the Benedictines of Mary, are members of a contemplative order founded in 1995. Their priory is called the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus. 

Their prioress, Mother Cecilia Snell, happens to have a bachelor’s degree in music and is a former member of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra (she plays the french horn). Perhaps that is why Kevin Fitzgibbons, in founding an organization that aims to help monastic orders market their music without betraying their identity, discovered in the Benedictines of Mary the ideal group to launch De Montford Music. He says he heard from them musical sophistication (which one might expect with a professional musician at the lead) but without a “harshness or overly affected tone to their singing.” Something that was “very pure sounding.” 

This, says Fitzgibbons, was an “unusual combination,” and one that requires “great discipline and humility.”

So with the help of Grammy® and Oscar® winner Glenn Rosenstein as producer and David Schober (Handel’s Messiah, John Rutter, Cambridge Singers, Royal Philharmonic) as engineer, the 16 tracks of “Advent at Ephesus” became a reality after three days of recording on location at the priory in Missouri.

For Mother Cecilia, though, the album is about much more than musical greatness. “We only desire the salvation of souls, and that all be done for His greater glory and the honor of Our Lady,” she said.

ZENIT spoke with both Mother Cecilia and Kevin Fitzgibbons of De Montfort Music about “Advent at Ephesus.”

The q-and-a with Mother Cecilia is below; Fitzgibbons’ will be published Friday. With Advent beginning Sunday, Mother Cecilia says there is no better time to approach Our Lady, to live with her this season, following her lead in focusing thoughts and heart on Him, anticipating with her “the moment when she could see His face, hold Him in her arms, kiss His cheek, embrace Him with all the love of a mother’s heart.”

ZENIT: Happy feast day (the feast of St. Cecilia was Nov. 22). Your patroness, St. Cecilia, is in fact the patron of music. I understand that’s quite appropriate for you — tell us about yourself. 

Mother Cecilia: I hope the cliff notes version will be enough! I grew up in northern New York, the last of five children. Though I felt from a very young age that I was to somehow give my life entirely to God, I entered Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in Houston, Texas, to further my studies on the French horn, which I had been playing since 5th grade. I received a Bachelor’s of Music in 1999, and went on to play with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago for one year. I then won a position with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in Ohio, where I settled down to a very comfortable life, with the newfound ability to buy all sorts of things including a new car, and even my own house. 

But the thought of giving my life entirely to God never left me. I was happy enough on the exterior, living “the good life” as they say, but in the depths of my soul I did not have the peace that comes when you know you are doing God’s will. So, after three years in the Symphony, I searched out a traditional religious order, and found the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. I have been a Sister for more than nine years now, and the Mother Prioress for just over two. Though I could not say that these years as a religious have been easier than my years out in the world, I can say that I truly have no regrets, as the good God is never outdone in generosity. He has given me the peace that the world simply cannot give, and so much more besides.

ZENIT: And tell us about your order: recently founded, made up of young sisters, hearing Mass in the extraordinary form, cloistered in Missouri, and dedicated to the sanctification of priests … Are you women a “sign of the times”? 

Mother Cecilia: Yes, our community was founded in 1995, though we live under the Rule of St. Benedict, which is many centuries old. As Benedictines, the liturgy is the focal point of our lives. St. Benedict tells us to, “prefer nothing to the Work of God.” This Work is the chanting of the psalms in Latin as outlined in his Rule. We come together in the chapel eight times a day to sing the praises of God, to thank Him for all of His graces and benefits, to beg mercy for the world, and in particular for the Church and the priests whose mission it is to govern, instruct and sanctify the souls under their care. 

The Extraordinary Form of the Mass is an integral part of our community’s liturgical life, and indeed that of our whole spirituality. Through it, we experience with an unmatched clarity the tremendous role of the priest as mediator in offering the Sacrifice of Our Lord on the altar to the Heavenly Father. This use of the Latin Mass, as well as a very traditional religious life (the habit, strict schedule, fasting, etc) is what has drawn many young women to our Order. 

Are we a “sign of the times?” Well, I would have to say, yes, because this is where you see growth in the Church at large. Communities that are faithful to traditional religious life as well as the teachings of the Church are growing by leaps and bounds. This is the work of the Holy Spirit!  

ZENIT: Now, speaking a little about the CD: Could you explain the title for us? 

Mother Cecilia: The CD is titled, “Advent at Ephesus.” Though I originally presumed the term Advent would be familiar to most people, it has been a revelation to me that it actually is not. Sadly, this beautiful season, a four week preparation for the coming of the Messiah at Christmas, has been largely forgotten. We pray that the hymns and chants on the CD will help souls to rediscover the sacredness of this time, which is not yet Christmas! 

Ephesus is from the name of our priory, the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus. It is traditionally held that St. John brought Jesus’ Mother to Ephesus, (an ancient city located in modern-day Turkey) when the persecutions of the Christians began in Jerusalem. There it was that the Lord willed her to spend the last years of her earthly life after His Ascension. 

Her presence within the young Church was a tremendous support to the new Christians, especially the Apostles, the first priests of the Catholic Church. Here at our Priory in Missouri, we strive to emulate her hidden life of prayer and sacrifice for the priests of our day, giving our whole lives for their sanctification. If the priests are holy, the people will be holy!

ZENIT: Could you share your own experience of living Advent with Our Lady?

Mother Cecilia: There is no better way to spend Advent than with Our Lady. It was she who lived the first one, after all! One has to simply imagine what it was like for Mary, who held within her the very One Whom the heavens cannot contain! She was a contemplative soul, with her attention ever turning toward the baby, her God, within her womb. Her thoughts were always focused on Him, her heart anticipating the moment when she could see His face, hold Him in her arms, kiss His cheek, embrace Him with all the love of a mother’s heart. 

How blessed I am, how blessed we all are, when we can enter into these intimate sentiments of Our Lady. Could anyone be closer to Jesus than her? Impossible! So, if we stay close to h
er, we will certainly be close to her adorable Son. There is no better time to spend with her than Advent, as we await His coming.

ZENIT: Advent is just around the corner, but for many Americans, these days have been  focused on Black Friday deals and getting the Christmas tree decorated. What Advent advice do you have from within the cloister, for ordinary Catholics who do not have the peace and tranquility that is part of your vocation?

Mother Cecilia: I would simply like to encourage Americans to remember that the preparation to receive God within our own hearts is far more important than the external preparations that can take up so much time and energy. While the preparation on a material level, that which goes into decorating and shopping for gifts is merely transitory, it is this preparation of the heart that will bear fruit for all eternity. What will we have gained by buying more “stuff” year after year? No amount of material goods can fulfill the deep down desire of the human heart! It is God alone Who can do that. 

I pray we will all spend time in silent prayer throughout these blessed days of Advent, taking an inventory of our spiritual lives, and ever striving to become vessels more worthy of the Lord Who will come to us as a humble babe at Christmas. 

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