These are the sisters who surprised even Oprah. Exuberant and radiant, the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist have been shining their light in the most surprising cultural venues. Oprah herself was amazed to learn about how young women have been attracted to this vibrant community, bursting with vocations, where the average age is under 30. Now as always, vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience bear fruitful witness. A life fully devoted to prayer and apostolic service is ever beautiful.
Capitalizing on that earlier media attention from daytime television, the sisters have just now released Mater Eucharistiae, a highly successful album of sacred music that has quickly ascended the classical charts since its release in August. Its calm and contemplative beauty brings the listener into the aural space where the sisters themselves pray daily. By sharing some of their favorite sacred music with the world, they make striking use of modern media to issue a special invitation. They want everyone to open their hearts to the peace and joy that they have discovered. This music is the way of beauty by which they make their appeal.
The sisters are a community of consecrated women canonically established in 1997 by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist follow the monastic observance given to them by their tradition. This Dominican tradition encompasses both common life and cloister. Thus they experience times of silence on a daily basis, as well as sing the Divine Office and attend daily Mass. In addition, the sisters have an active charism that blooms forth in their love for education and the formation of the young. They teach in and administer small, private Catholic schools, such as the Spiritus Sanctus Academies in Michigan.
Clearly, these Dominican sisters have used prayerful discernment and deployed their gifts wisely and judiciously with their album release. This simple and humble offering of a selection of music—a musical window into their life of joy—has obviously moved many people. I hope you will buy copies not only for yourself, but also as quiet and unassuming gifts to give to anyone. You never know what response a surprise gift may evoke. The sisters’ music could stir up a surprising response in someone’s heart.
What will someone hear when they play this album? Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the recording is the lovely echo in the sisters’ chapel, which gives their voices an ethereal quality. Unlike other albums, which make use of studio wizardry to process sounds with the latest flashy gimmickry, this album simply captures the sisters in their natural, prayerful environment. Remarkably, the chapel’s acoustics give us the sense of being in an unusual and unfamiliar space, yet at the same time the sound affords a unique experience of intimacy with the sisters, who have let us into a space where we could not otherwise go.
Grammy-Award winning classical producer Blanton Alspaugh became a fan of the acoustical beauty of the vaulted chapel where he, working with conductor Scott Piper, recorded the album with the sisters in three days. “It has a combination of clarity and warmth and a longer reverberation decay. It reinforces the sound after you’ve sung. There’s a little something that keeps going after you’ve made your sound,” he remarked.
Providentially, the album itself is also a special memento of the election of Pope Francis on March 13, 2013, right in the middle of the Sisters’ recording project. A marvelous YouTube video put up by the sisters captures that moment of joy and excitement. They have also put together a very short “making of” documentary that will give you delightful images that you may wish to call to mind whenever you listen to the album.
The album follows a winning formula that avoids monotony, serving up variation so that everyone can find some sacred sound that suits them. A cappella tracks alternate with tracks that include organ accompaniment (and even trumpet). Plainchant alternates with polyphony. It is an intelligent musical program with a refreshing diversity of traditional and modern. Five of the tracks are in English, while ten are in Latin. Three of the English tracks are original compositions by the sisters’ organist and music director. The judicious use of organ accompaniment with chant is, as always, something particularly praiseworthy.
Personally, my favorite tracks are the 10 tracks sung in Latin. But the others are admittedly more easily digestible by the average listener. So I have hope that they will entice people to stay awhile and then return frequently to this sacred audio environment. Then, after repeated listenings, they will be eventually won over to the Latin backbone running through this album, some musical staples which every parish can fruitfully deploy in divine worship.
Prime examples are Tracks 10 and 14, two Eucharistic masterpieces by St. Thomas Aquinas that ought to be familiar to every Catholic: Pange Lingua and Adoro Te Devote. Perhaps you recognize the last two stanzas of the former as the Tantum Ergo sung before Benediction. But why not take advantage of having a recording like this handy on your playlist, so you can eventually commit all of Aquinas’s incomparably beautiful Latin words to memory? (Full disclosure: I teach ecclesiastical Latin at a Catholic liberal arts college!)
A nice feature of the sisters’ recordings is that they do not drag the pace of their chant. Both of these Aquinas chants move along at a nice clip, which is especially important for audio recordings, which cannot afford to slow down like live worshippers may (when they are excusably immersed in the time-dilation effect of contemplation). Indeed, slow and plodding is a mortal sin in an audio recording. Perhaps slow and plodding is a venial sin in a parish setting; but then again, sin is sin. Follow your choir director.
Yes, beauty from the Catholic tradition is worth recovering, if your parish has lost it. Why deprive yourself of the holy pleasure to be found in the many Gregorian gems? This album provides a lovely sample. Permit me to call your attention to a few that you can choose to adopt into your own heart. They are worthy of the admiration that their genuine beauty evokes.
Some Catholics do not know Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus, but surely every Catholic should. Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum,ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus. “As the deer longs for running water, so longs my soul for you, O God.” The sisters save Palestrina’s short but mind-blowing masterpiece for Track 8, after they have won listeners over by seven varied tracks and some easy listening.
Track 6 is a bracing one minute and fifteen seconds that can be played again and again with satisfaction. Quid retribuam Domino pro omnibus quae retribuam mihi? Calicem salutaris accipiam: et Nomen Domini invocabo. “What return can I make to the Lord for all he has given to me? I will take the chalice of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.” Such is the opening of Psalm 115, as recited by the priest immediately before Holy Communion. These words have been the subject of many Gregorian chant renditions; moreover, several composers throughout the centuries have set them to music. Here, the Sisters sing the version of Oreste Ravanello (1871–1938).
Track 12, Ave Maris Stella, is one of my favorite Gregorian melodies. I can’t understand why more people don’t appreciate it. Many people protest that it is too hard to sing, which seems ridiculous to me, since there is much repetition in it. Perhaps if we start acclimatizing children to it from a young age, by continually playing them recordings like this one, we can do an end run around any old fogeys who find its subtle and celestial charms incomprehensible.
Track 13, Angelus Ad Virginem, is such a marvelous treat. It has inspired very many other songs about the angel Gabriel coming from heaven to the Virgin Mary. I don’t know why the sisters only sing the first two verses here—and then simply repeat those same two. All five should be sung, because the Latin lyrics are amazing, and certainly worth learning by heart. Let me give you four of the five here; you can hunt down the missing fourth verse on your own (and thereby enjoy the pleasure of that discovery):
1. Angelus ad virginem
Demulcens, inquit: ‘Ave!
Ave Regina Virginum!
Coeli terraeque Dominum
Tu Porta coeli facta,
2. ‘Quomodo conciperem
Quae virum non cognovi?
Quod firma mente vovi?’
‘Spiritus Sancti gratia
Perficiet haec omnia.
Manebit in te pura
3. Ad haec Virgo nobilis
Respondens inquit ei:
‘Ancilla sum humilis
Tibi, coelesti nuntio,
Tanta secreti conscio,
Factum quod audio,
Parata sum parere
5. Eia Mater Domini,
Quae pacem reddidisti
Angelis et homini
Cum Christum genuisti;
Tuum exora Filium
Ut se nobis propitium
Vita frui beata
Post hoc exilium.
1. Gabriel to Mary came,
And entered at her dwelling,
With his salutation glad
Her maiden fears dispelling,
‘All hail, thou queen of virgins bright!
God, Lord of earth and heaven’s height,
Thy very Son,
shall soon be born
The Saviour of mankind.
Thou art the gate of heaven bright,
The sinners’ healer kind.’
2.‘How could I a mother be
That am to man a stranger?
How should I my strong resolve,
My solemn vows endanger?’
‘Pow’r from the Holy Ghost on high
Shall bring to pass this mystery.
Then have no fear:
Be of good cheer,
That still thy chastity
In God’s almighty keeping
Shall all unsullied be.’
3. Then to him the maid replied,
With noble mien supernal,
‘Lo! the humble handmaid I
Of God the Lord eternal!
With thee, bright messenger of heav’n,
By whom this wondrous news is giv’n,
I well agree
And long to see
Thy gracious prophecy.
As God my Lord doth will it,
So be it unto me!’
5.Hail! thou Mother of the Lord,
Who bring’st of gifts the rarest,
Peace to angels and to men,
When Christ the Lord thou barest!
Do thou, we pray, entreat thy Son
For us our long’d redemption
Himself to win,
And from our sin
His succour for to give,
That, when we hence are taken,
We too in heav’n may live.
Track 15 closes the album with a special treat from the sisters’ own Dominican tradition. It is the Salve Regina, but not sung either in the Simple Tone version (which we sing at my Catholic college after daily Mass from Trinity Sunday until Advent) or either of the Solemn Tone versions that some of you may know from The Parish Book of Chant (pages 117 and 118). Instead, it is the Solemn Tone Salve Regina from the Dominican Rite. It is a work of great power and beauty. How fitting and just for the sisters to conclude with this treasure of theirs. They have served up beauty so that we, like them, may open up our hearts to God in ever deeper ways. Dignum et justum est.