The ancient city of Norcia in central Italy is known for its wild boar sausages and black truffles, but now it’s known for something else: Its singing monks.
“We sing the praises of God nine times a day. So if you add all that up, it’s probably five hours every day, rain or shine, 365 days a year,” said Cassian Folsom, the American-born priest who leads St. Benedict’s Monastery in Norcia.
People no longer need to travel to this birthplace of St. Benedict to hear the monks, because their chants and hymns are on a CD that’s topped the Billboard charts this summer in classical, traditional music.
“There’s a great hunger and thirst that people have, even non-believers, for something or other which they generally call spirituality,” said Folsom, 63. “If the CD can respond to that need, then we’d be very pleased.”
The gentle tones of a Gregorian chant—and the many voices singing as one—creates a calming, ethereal quality that at its core is not a performance—it is prayer.
“You have to believe in what you’re singing,” said Folsom, who studied voice at Indiana University when he felt the call to life in a monastery.
The monks’ CD, Benedicta, is music based on Scripture, especially Psalms and the life of the Virgin Mary, plus passages from the 1,500-year-old guide for monastic living, The Rule of St. Benedict.
“Some of these are very, very dear to us and very familiar prayers,” said Basil Nixen, 33, an Arizona-born priest and choirmaster of the monastery. “I simply hope that the beauty, the order and the peace of the music will lead all who listen to it to seek the source of that peace.”
Christopher Alder, a Grammy-winning producer from England, traveled to Norcia to oversee the recording sessions.
“The chant that we record means something to them,” Alder said. “You can hear that in the sincerity of their singing. It does have something in the best sense that’s hypnotic, or meditative. It has something eternal to it.”
Although Norcia is a centuries-old city nestled beneath the mountains of Umbria, no monks had lived there for nearly 200 years — until they moved back 15 years ago.
In the early 1800s, the monks were evicted under Napoleonic laws in a wave of anti-clericalism. About 15 years ago, nearly everyone in the city—about 5,000 people— signed petitions asking the global leader of the Benedictines to bring them back.
Of the monastery’s 17 monks, 12 are American.
“The townspeople, they look to the monks if they have problems, if they want to talk to somebody about their family life,” Folsom explained. “To have the monks back after almost 200 years helps to complete the identity of the town.”
For more information on St. Benedict’s Monastery, visit here.
To sample their chant, click here.
The rebirth of a medieval Cistercian monastery building here on a patch of rural Northern California land was, of course, improbable. William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon, brought the dismantled Santa Maria de Óvila monastery from Spain but failed to restore it. The City of San Francisco, after some fitful starts at bringing the monastery back to life, left its stones languishing for decades in Golden Gate Park. The Great Depression,World War II and lethargy got in the way.
A medieval chapter house was rebuilt using stones from a 12th-century Spanish monastery. The monks spent years pursuing the project, even teaming up with Sierra Nevada Brewery, in nearby Chico, to produce Trappist-style premium beers.
The house’s stones were bought in Spain by William Randolph Hearst in the 1930s, then abandoned in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for decades.
But an aging and shrinking order of Cistercian monks in Vina, California, have accomplished what great men and cities could not: the reconstruction of Santa Maria de Óvila’s most architecturally significant building, a 12th-century Gothic chapter house. The monks ascribed the successful restoration to their faith, though years of tenacious fund-raising, as well as a recent alliance with a local beer brewer, also helped.
“The meaning that this holds for us, and the link to hope, is that it may take generations,” the Rev. Paul Mark Schwan, the abbot of the New Clairvaux monastery, said of the restoration. “What appears dead, or almost dead, rises again.”
With the major work complete, the chapter house was opened to the public last year.
“We got into possession of the stones, and they’ve come home — a long ways from Spain, but back on Cistercian land with Cistercian monks returning it to sacred space,” Father Schwan said on a recent chilly afternoon, standing just inside one of the arched entrances, his voice resonating off the limestone walls and vaulted ceilings. “I look at this, and it’s remarkable we’ve come this far, that this is actually all put back together.”
With two-thirds of the original stones and modern earthquake-resistant reinforcements, Óvila’s chapter house now sits, perhaps incongruously, in an open field near the abbey’s modest church and vineyards, a couple of hours north of Sacramento.
It was in 1167 that King Alfonso VIII of Castile founded Santa Maria de Óvila in the province of Guadalajara, an area that he had reconquered from the Moors and that he hoped to populate with Christian settlers. For centuries, the monastery thrived as a home to Cistercian monks, a Roman Catholic order that hewed to the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict and its emphasis on self-sufficiency, manual labor and prayer.
The monastery declined, however, and by the time it was shuttered by the Spanish government in 1835, there were only four monks left. The monastery fell into disrepair — the chapter house was being used as a manure pit — and was forgotten until it caught the eye of Hearst’s art dealer, Arthur Byne, in 1930.
Hearst, the larger-than-life newspaper publisher, wanted to build an eight-story medieval castle facing the McCloud River, and parts of the Spanish monastery would fit right in. According to American Heritage magazine, Spanish farmers and laborers from surrounding villages were hired to dismantle and haul the monastery’s most important buildings. A rail track was laid, and roads and a bridge were built to transport the massive stones. Eventually, 11 ships containing much of the monastery arrived in San Francisco.
But Hearst, whose fortune was dented during the Depression, ultimately abandoned the project and gave the monastery to San Francisco. The city’s plans to use it as part of a museum of medieval art in Golden Gate Park went nowhere. They could not raise the money for the project.
Over the decades, the monks here had watched the situation with growing despair. A chapter house serves as the heart of an abbey, the place where monks gather daily for readings and meetings. What’s more, Cistercian architecture, in its simplicity and austerity, was a reflection of the order’s faith.
“Our architecture was considered part of our prayer, and it still is,” Father Schwan said. “It’s not just the matter of a building. It expresses that vision of what we desire to strive for in our relationship with God.”
After years of lobbying, the monks in 1994 persuaded San Francisco to give them the stones on the condition that they begin the restoration work within a decade.
It was not easy. Like other Cistercian abbeys in developed nations, this one was losing members. When Father Schwan, now 56, entered the monastery here in 1980, there were 35 to 37 monks. Now there are 22, with half of them 80 or older.
“When I entered, there were two people buried in the cemetery,” he said. “We’ve got 16 or 17 in the cemetery today. I’ve actually helped bury every one of those monks, except one.”
Workers broke ground on the reconstruction in 2004, and the monks eventually raised $7 million for the project. A couple of years ago, the monks also teamed up with Sierra Nevada Brewing, in nearby Chico, to produce a series of premium Trappist-style beerscalled Ovila. To cut down on costs, the monks chose to buy limestone from Texas instead of Europe to supplement the original stones.
Though the monks are working to raise an additional $2 million to put the finishing touches on the restoration, they are already able to use the chapter house the way their Spanish predecessors did.
For more infomration on the Abbey of New Clairvaux visit here.
I write these words on the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton, one of the greatest spiritual writers of the twentieth century and a man who had a decisive influence on me and my vocation to the priesthood. I first encountered Merton’s writing in a peculiar way. My brother and I were both working at a bookstore in the Chicago suburbs. One afternoon, he tossed to me a tattered paperback with a torn cover that the manager had decided to discard. My brother said, “You might like this; it’s written by a Trappist monk.” I replied, with the blithe confidence of a sixteen year old, “I don’t want to read a book by some Buddhist.” With exquisite sensitivity, he responded, “Trappists are Catholics, you idiot.”
The book in question was The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton’s passionate, articulate, smart, and deeply moving account of his journey from worldling to Trappist monk. Though much of the philosophy and theology was, at that time, over my head, I became completely caught up in the drama and romance of Merton’s story, which is essentially the tale of how a man fell in love with God. The book is extraordinarily well written, funny, adventurous, and spiritually wise. In one of the blurbs written for the first edition, Fulton Sheen referred to it as a contemporary version of St. Augustine’s Confessions, and it was fulsomely praised by both Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Moreover, it contributed massively to the startling influx of young men into monasteries and religious communities across the United States in the postwar era.
I was so thrilled by my first encounter with Merton that I dove headlong into his body of writing. The Sign of Jonas, a journal that Merton kept in the years leading up to his priestly ordination, became a particular favorite. That work concludes with an essay called “Firewatch: July 4, 1952,” which Jacques Maritain referred to as the greatest piece of spiritual writing in the twentieth century. In this powerful meditation, Merton uses the mundane monastic task of walking through the monastery checking for fires as a metaphor for a Dantesque examination of the soul. The Sign of Jonas is marked by Merton’s playful and ironic sense of humor, but it also gives evidence of the enormous range of his reading and intellectual interests. To devour that book as a nineteen year old, as I did, was to receive an unparalleled cultural education. For many people of my generation, Merton opened the door to the wealth of the Catholic spiritual tradition: I first learned about John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, Bernard of Clairvaux, Odo of Cluny, the Victorines, Origen, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Hans Urs von Balthasar from him.
Perhaps the central theme of all of Merton’s writings is contemplation. What he stressed over and again in regard to this crucial practice is that it is not the exclusive preserve of spiritual athletes, but rather something that belongs to all the baptized and that stands at the heart of Christian life. For contemplation is, in his language, “to find the place in you where you are here and now being created by God.” It is consciously to discover a new center in God and hence at the same time to discover the point of connection to everyone and everything else in the cosmos. Following the French spiritual masters, Merton called this le point vierge, the virginal point, or to put it in the language of the fourth Gospel, “water bubbling up in you to eternal life.” In his famous epiphanic experience at the corner of 4th and Walnut in downtown Louisville, Merton felt, through le point vierge, a connection to the ordinary passersby so powerful it compelled him to exclaim, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”