Music + Culture
10:28 am
Tue February 11, 2014

Monastic Life At The Top Of The Charts

When the sisters of Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles aren't hard at work on the monastery grounds, they're topping the charts with albums of sacred music. The group's Angels and Saints at Ephesus topped the Billboard classical charts, and now it's releasing its latest, Lent at Ephesus. Mother Cecilia, prioress of the abbey in rural Missouri and the group's arranger, tells NPR's Renee Montagne, "We're not fabricating anything; this is just music we're pulling from our life, our everyday life."

"We're hard workers," Mother Cecilia says. "We really follow the rules of St. Benedict very closely — his ora et labora, which is 'pray and work.' And we have a small farm. We have a cow to milk twice a day, rain or shine, whether it's 100 degrees or 20 below. And then, of course, the processing of the milk; we make all sorts of dairy products for our table. And, of course, the recreation and our meal times fill up the day."

Mother Cecilia, 10 years prior, played French horn with the Columbus Symphony.

"God's ways are very mysterious, aren't they?" Mother Cecilia asks. "The poet Francis Thompson has termed God 'The Hound of Heaven' in one of his famous poems, and that's the best way I can describe how he was just after me my whole life, since I was a young girl. And for many years, I didn't even really want to think about it or face it, and I think it came out of dormancy with a couple of very profound episodes. One was my exposure to sacred music. ... It just lifted my spirit to God, and made me think on eternal things, up out of the petty things of life."

The success of the album, the profits from which will be used to pay off the abbey's debt and aid in expanding the monastery grounds, has not distracted the sisters from their ora et labora.

"The CDs are something that God has allowed to happen," Mother Cecilia says. "It's a wonderful thing insofar as it brings souls closer to God, and in the meantime helps us pay our debt, but other than that, life just flows along at the priory just the same way it did before. And that's the way we love it; that's the way we want. No tours, no concerts, you know? Just simple monastic life."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're going to hear now the voices of the group of cloistered nuns whose music has risen to the top of the classical music charts. The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles reside in the Missouri countryside.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In 2012, they were discovered almost by chance just as they were praying for help in paying off the mortgage on their priory, Our Lady of Ephesus.

INSKEEP: Their first album and then a second hit number one on Billboard's traditional classical charts.

MONTAGNE: They're now out with a new album that celebrates the season of Lent.

BENEDICTINES OF MARY, QUEEN OF THE APOSTLES: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: The 22 nuns are young, mostly in their 20's and 30's. Their prioress and music director is Mother Cecelia. It's rare that the sisters let outsiders into the priory, so they made quite an exception to allow our producers in for this interview.

Mother Cecelia, welcome to the program.

MOTHER CECILIA: Thank you very much for having me this morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about a piece that's early on the CD. It's "Improperia." For Catholics this would be a familiar piece. Tell us about it a bit.

CECILIA: It is sung at the Good Friday liturgy. It's very ancient and it's just a very moving piece that the church has put on the lips of our Savior: My people, what have I done to thee, what have I done to thee, why have you treated me like this? I've given you good things. I brought you forth from Egypt and you gave me a cross.

So it's if this kind of sentiment coming right from the heart of our Savior on the cross.

APOSTLES: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: What is going on there, musically?

CECILIA: I'm not sure of the technical term for it. We call it a drone, if you're talking about the note that's just held.

MONTAGNE: Yes, yes.

CECILIA: And it's actually something that we added on right before the recording actually. I heard a little bit somewhere and it just was so striking. And I thought there's a reason we can't do that because it just adds this ethereal quality, this very haunting quality that's just right from the heart. You know?

MONTAGNE: You, the sisters there, you spend your days in silence pretty much except for when you are singing, am I right?

CECILIA: That's right. We're hard workers.

(LAUGHTER)

CECILIA: We really follow the rules of St. Benedict very closely. An ora et labora, which is pray and work. We have a small farm. We have a cow to milk twice a day, rain or shine, whether it's 100 degrees or 20 below.

(LAUGHTER)

CECILIA: And then, of course, the processing of the milk - we make all sorts of dairy products for our table. And, of course, the recreation and our meal times kind of fill up the day.

MONTAGNE: I think it's fair to say that many people would be surprised to hear that before you joined this Benedictine order, you played professionally, French horn with the Columbus Symphony.

CECILIA: That's right.

MONTAGNE: How did you go from playing French horn in the Columbus Symphony to being the prioress of this order?

CECILIA: You know, the poet Francis Thompson has termed God The Hound of Heaven in one of his famous poems. And that's the best way I can describe how he was just after me my whole life, since I was a young girl. And for many years, I didn't even really want to think about it or face it. And I think it came out of dormancy with a couple of very profound episodes.

One was my exposure to sacred music, which I really didn't grow up with - classical, yes but not Palestrina and Allegri and Verdant(ph) and some of the most beautiful music. It just lifted my spirit to God, and made me think on eternal things, up out of the petty things of life.

MONTAGNE: You have spoken, just now, sacred music. Is there something you can choose that we can play right at this moment to give a feel for that?

CECILIA: I think probably the closest would neither Palestrina piece, the "Pueri Hebraeorum." It's one of the joyous - more joyous ones for Palm Sunday.

APOSTLES: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: You did professionally play the French horn. But in terms of this music, why voices only?

CECILIA: What is true, that is the only instrument that God has made, directly. I always remember the voice majors wearing shirts that said that.

(LAUGHTER)

CECILIA: Something like that when we were in school. I think part of it is the fact that we don't have an organ right now.

(LAUGHTER)

CECILIA: But I think we very much like the sound. There's nothing really to like this. I mean we're not fabricating anything. This is just music that we're pulling from our life - our every day life. And that doesn't include instruments, so why would we on the CD, you see?

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: I was interested, though, to that of these traditional or classic pieces, there are several that are original to you all. Is there one that you could pick out and just tell us a little bit about it?

CECILIA: Maybe "Mother of Sorrows," the words for this one were adapted by St. Alphonsus Liguori. And this piece speaks of the sorrow of Our Lady as she's looking upon her son dying on the cross.

APOSTLES: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: How aware are the sisters of all the success?

CECILIA: I'm really the only one who has any idea of, kind of, what's happening. And I don't - we don't really talk about it. But the thing is we don't really care.

(LAUGHTER)

CECILIA: I mean - and I don't say that in a snotty way or anything like that. I just - you know, that's nice but we go on with our monastic life. We didn't come here to record music or to top charts - that wasn't our purpose in leaving the world. And it's beautiful. The CDs are something that God has allowed to happen and it's a wonderful thing, insofar as it brings souls closer to God and, in the meantime, helps us pay our debt.

But other than that, life just flows along at the priory just the same way it did before. And that's the way we love it. That's the way we want it. You know, just simple monastic life.

APOSTLES: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: Well, I want to thank you, especially, for allowing us in.

CECILIA: Thank you so much. God bless you.

APOSTLES: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: That's Mother Cecilia, prioress of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. Their album, "Lent at Ephesus," is out today.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

APOSTLES: (Singing in foreign language) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.