The Benedictine Monks of Norcia live a quiet life of devotion at their monastery in the pre‐Roman Italian town of Norcia, located in southeast Umbria beneath the slopes of the Sibylline Mountains. Norcia’s medieval walls embrace the first-century basilica where Saint Benedict, father of Western monasticism, was born in 480; monks have cared for the basilica built over the saint’s birthplace since the 10th century.
Monastic chant echoed off the walls of the Monastero di San Benedetto di Norcia for more than 800 years before Napoleonic laws suppressed this branch of the Benedictine order in 1810, closing the monastery. This caused a break in the continuity of the monastery, with monks not heard in Norcia for nearly 200 years. But when a Benedictine community founded in 1998 in Rome by Fr. Cassian Folsom sought a monastery, the town of Norcia welcomed the return of the monks to the birthplace of St. Benedict.
These monks have now prepared a recording of some of their chant. “Benedicta: Marian Chant from Norcia” will be released by De Montfort Music next month.
“Before I entered the seminary, I was a music student in voice at Indiana University, in Bloomington, which is a wonderful music school,” Fr. Folsom explained. “I was only there for one year, so I’m really just an amateur with a smattering of formal training. But I love music, and music is essential to the monastic life because the Divine Offices, those moments of prayer during the day, are all sung. Chant is part of the air we breathe, and since we do it so often, it becomes very natural after a few years. 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. In addition, these poetic texts have an extraordinary richness. So the combination of the melodies and the text can produce something quite extraordinary.”
The choirmaster for the Monks of Norcia, Fr. Basil Nixen, explained: “The selections [of songs on the album] focus on the life of Mary, Our Lady, by focusing on seven mysteries, or defining moments, of her life.”
For the Monks of Norcia, music is woven into a daily life of liturgy and industry. Along with their offices of daily prayer, the monks work for their self‐sufficiency – as Fr. Folsom says, “We are not angels, we are men – so we have to eat.” To that end, they operate a craft brewery at the monastery, Birra Nursia, where they produce a beer “pleasing to the taste and satisfying to the spirit.” These blond and dark brews have gained devotees from distant countries, bringing new visitors to Norcia. “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. You get up and pray, you do your work, and you go to bed. The next day, you do the same thing. St. Benedict is, in a certain sense, the patron of the ordinary. To find the presence of God in the ordinary is an aim of monastic life.”
ZENIT asked Prior Fr. Cassian Folsom about the monastery and the album.
ZENIT: The monks obviously come from diverse cultural backgrounds. Can you tell us about where you come from and how you have ended up in a monastery in Norcia?
Fr. Cassian: Ours is an international community, but two-thirds of the monks are from the States. I think that’s because in the Church in the U.S. there are examples of remarkable vitality. The other monks come from Indonesia, Brazil, Germany, Canada and Italy. As for me, I entered St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana in 1979: a monastery founded from Switzerland in 1854. St. Meinrad has always had an international outlook and I was sent to Rome to study right after ordination. That’s how I got to Italy: I was sent! I think that’s important, because in the monastic life we try to respond to God’s call, God’s initiative. I myself never dreamed of going to Rome or living in Italy. In fact, when I arrived in Rome for studies in 1984, I didn’t know a word of Italian. After getting my doctorate in Liturgy in 1989 from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute, I went back to St. Meinrad to teach in the seminary. In 1993, I was called back to Rome to teach at the Liturgical Institute (my “alma mater”), which is one of the faculties of the Benedictine university in Rome, Sant’Anselmo. With the permission of my superiors I founded a new community in Rome in 1998, and we were invited to transfer to Norcia in 2000 by the archbishop of the Diocese of Spoleto-Norcia.
I should add that I’m the only member of the Norcia community from another monastery. All the rest of the members came to Norcia as laymen, to become monks at the birthplace of St. Benedict. Having lived in an international community for many years (Sant’Anselmo in Rome) I can testify to the richness of that experience. There are linguistic and cultural challenges, of course, but the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
ZENIT: It is apparent that there is some musical background within the community- can you tell us a little bit about this?
Fr. Cassian: We are a very musical community, thanks be to God. A number of monks came with considerable musical experience already; I’m thinking of our choirmaster, Fr. Basil and his precedessor, Br. Ignatius. Others received training in chant and vocal production here in the monastery. We also have a couple of good organists.
In high school I was very involved in band and in choir, which is why I went to the Indiana University music school for my first year of college. I had a very good voice teacher that year. But I was seriously considering a vocation to the priesthood, and when I discovered the monastery of St. Meinrad, located two hours south of I.U., I decided to transfer to the college seminary run by the monks. In the seminary my music involvement became more liturgical and I learned the rudiments of Gregorian chant. When I entered the monastery, I served for some years as Assistant Choirmaster, and later as Choirmaster – all that before going to Rome for studies. At Sant’Anselmo, I was one of the regular cantors and was able to absorb much of the chant repertoire for Mass and Office. Once our new community was founded, it really became a question of “full immersion”!
ZENIT: What inspired you to record a CD and how did you choose the songs?
Fr. Cassian: Actually, this is our second CD; our first one was recorded about 10 years ago in conjunction with some local musicians who specialize in medieval polyphony. We’ve wanted to do another CD for some years now, but “monastic time” is slower than regular time, and it took us a while to get all our ducks in a row. De Montfort Music approached us at just the right moment and we began a very fruitful collaboration. The monk-musicians who form the Music Committee of the monastery researched the project with some care. We decided to do a Marian CD, because our monastery is dedicated to Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, and we know that our many friends share in our devotion. After mulling things over for a while, we decided to choose the repertoire around the theme of the Life of Mary – the various stages of her life which are celebrated in the Church’s liturgy.
ZENIT: What makes “Benedicta” different from other classical and Christian albums?
Fr. Cassian: There are lots of chant CDs out there, and we didn’t want to simply repeat what other people have done. Most of the CDs that include Marian chants focus on the Mass repertoire, which is very beautiful, and perhaps more familiar to people. We decided to focus on the Divine Office instead, and chose some very beautiful pieces that are rarely sung anywhere, and rarely, if ever, recor
ded. We included some “old favorites” as well!
Ours is a young community, and the chant shows a certain youthful vibrancy. We don’t pretend to be chant specialists in an academic sense – rather, we sing this chant all the time, we love it, and it seeps into our bones. I think that special quality comes through in the music: We believe in what we’re singing .
ZENIT: How and why was “Benedicta: Marian Chant from Norcia” chosen as the name of the album? You described the Marian aspect of the repertoire earlier but what does ‘Benedicta’ mean?
Fr. Cassian: We didn’t choose the title until after the recording was over. In fact, we discussed a number of possibilities, trying to find a title that communicated the message in a fresh, new way. De Montfort Music helped us with this selection process, as we went back and forth with ideas and proposals. In the end, we chose “Benedicta” because it’s short, direct, and memorable. It comes from the Hail Mary: Benedicta tu in mulieribus, “blessed art thou among women” – a phrase straight from Luke’s Gospel. “Benedicta” also sounds like “Benedictine” and so there is some allusion to the Benedictine monks who do the singing.
ZENIT: Why should people have “Benedicta” in their music collection?
Fr. Cassian: Our primary purpose in recording the CD was to give our friends all over the world a way to participate in the prayer of the monks. Our CD can be enjoyed on many levels: as an example of Gregorian chant, as an introduction to a new and beautiful repertoire, but especially, it seems to me, as an experience of prayer.
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