I have always really enjoyed Gregorian Chant. Something about the voices of the men filling the old churches of their monasteries seems both ancient and filled with holiness. There’s not a lot of demand for Gregorian Chant with people of my age, in fact, the only person that I know personally who would take the time to pursue actively this music is a professor of History whose concentration is Early Christianity. However, the foundation of my interest in Gregorian Chant is because of my age. I am sure many of the members of the Latin Community can remember when the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos released an album in 1994 named “Chant” that was highly marketed, had a trendy album cover art, a book was also released with the album, and it became somewhat of a cultural phenomenon here in the United States. I remember after that Gregorian chant being paired with electric guitars, drums, EDM on the radio. I dare say mainstream secular culture here in the United States treated this holiest of music with sacrilege.
During my college years, I did a few papers and presentations on Ambrosian Chant and Gregorian Chant. Gregorian Chant, which is also known as plainchant, takes its name from Pope Gregory the Great. One of the first posts of this blog was on “Veni Redemptor Gentium” from St. Ambrose, and is probably the predecessor to the style of Gregorian Chant that many are accustomed to today in traditional liturgies. My interest is always peaked when I hear monks chanting, so when I saw about a year ago that the Monks of Norcia (Nursia in Latin) released a new album “Benedicta” focusing on Marian chants with a bit good marketing. I was skeptical of the album from my experience with “Chant” in the 90s.
However, after a bit of research on the Benedictine monks of Nursia, I learned that the Nursia monastery is located in the birthplace of St. Benedict in Norcia (The Italian spelling). St. Benedict was born approximately 480 A.D. in Nursia (Latin spelling), and is largely famous for being the Father of Western monasticism. The Benedictine community was founded in 1998, and over time, after several trials, the monks would finally be relocated to the Birthplace of St. Benedict. So I finally purchased the album. It is a fantastic compilation of Marian chants. What truly stands out is the recording quality of the material. The material was not recorded in the studio but instead recorded in the monastery’s Church where the monks normally chant. The acoustics of the sound are chilling as one can certainly hear the echoes of the sanctuary.
The abbot of the monastery at Nursia, Fr. Cassian Folsom, gives another fantastic example of why the chant acoustics feel so sanctified and exudes a quality that appears lost on other albums. In a video interview on the show “World Over” on EWTN, he explains that “The monks believe what they are singing”…”And that they are young, and you can hear that in the voices.” A few members of the Latin Community, and readers, will find great joy that what Fr. Cassian explains is the reason that their particular monastery attracts young monks is that they practice traditional Catholicism. In the monastery, the monks celebrate the Tridentine which Fr. Cassian explains is a “patrimony, not a museum piece—but something that is alive. And it draws young people, because…it’s about God, and that’s powerful.” Fr. Cassian when challenged that these ways repel young people replies, “Come and See, check it out… the average age of the monastery is 33.”
Fr. Cassian also explains another vocation that the Monks of Nursia that perhaps these monks are more famous for production is beer making in the Trappist monk tradition. The Monk’s beer is called Birra Nursia, and it appears if one is interested in the brew that you can buy individually, 6 to 12 packs, or join their brew club. For more information visit: https://birranursia.com/purchase/general-information/
A person not familiar with the monastery traditions of brew making may ask, “Why would Monks make beer?” Fr. Cassian explains that the monks first started to produce the beer as a way to make a living for their community. He also explains it as a way of evangelization for those who may not have faith but enjoy exceptional beers. I have a lot of experience with evangelizing in this manner myself. I am a fan of the Trappist brew, Chimay, which allows me to share with friends, and while I do, I often tell them about the history of the Scourmont Abbey and the monks vocations there. Fr. Cassian, in regards to the Benedictine Monks of Nursia, explains, “Beer, good beer especially, is a bridge between the monks and the rest of the world. So, even if people have no faith, and they love beer…we can start a conversation, and pretty soon they’re starting to talk about more serious things…It’s a tool of evangelization.”
The Monks of Nursia produce two great things that can help us as Catholics evangelize in the world, let us pray for their continued success and use them wisely to evangelize the world.
Full interview with Fr. Cassian here: