I interviewed Fr. Cassian Folsom, O.S.B., the Prior and Founder of the Monks of Norcia, in conjunction with my review of the new CD by the Monks of Norcia, Benedicta. That album is released through the recording label De Montfort Music and distributed worldwide through Decca/Universal Music Classics. The CD is also available through Ignatius.com.
We also discussed some other important topics, including beer, evangelization, prayer, and the beauty of monastic life.
C. S. Morrissey: What does making beer have to do with chanting in Latin? What connection do you see between the two? What brings unity to the monastic life?
Fr. Cassian Folsom, O.S.B.: There’s really a fundamental theological principle at work here: The Word of God assumed all of human nature, and salvation is for the body as well as for the soul. We are not angels, but men! Singing the praises of God involves the body (making music) and the soul (which aspires heavenward). Drinking beer involves the body (for the sake of nourishment) and the soul (because if it’s good beer, it gives pleasure to the palate and cheers the heart). Monastic life is about the whole man in relation to God. It seems that even among the faithful there’s a kind of dualism, with the idea that the body is about this world and the soul about the next. But our faith is in the resurrection of the body, and so overcomes this dualism. Birra Nursia is not something foreign to the faith!
Beer and chant seem like a funny combination. But they both attract people to God. I should write a treatise entitled “Beer and the new evangelization!”
CSM: Do monks drink beer other than the beer they make? Do they drink beer only on special days? Or is there a beer fridge always handy?
Fr. Cassian Folsom, O.S.B.: In the monastery we drink the beer we can’t sell to our customers. For example, if a batch doesn’t live up to our high standards of quality control, we don’t sell it. Or if the bottling machine, at the end of the run, doesn’t fill the bottles up all the way and still puts the cap on, we can’t sell it. Of if the labeling machine messes up the label, we can’t sell it. The monks drink the “rejects”. But it’s still good beer!
In the monastic refectory, beer and wine are served in the context of a meal: lunch and supper from Easter to September, and dinner only at 3:00 pm during the monastic fast from mid-September until Lent. At recreation on second and first class feast days, beer is available also. You see, it all depends on the liturgical year. If it’s a feast day, we feast; if it’s a fast day, we fast. Beer is simply one element in this complex unity between church and refectory.
CSM: How do monks learn how to chant in Latin? Is there a particular method of pedagogy or school of chant that they follow?
Fr. Cassian Folsom, O.S.B.: The postulants and novices have chant class as part of their formation, and beyond that, they learn by immersion, since we chant in the church nine times a day! If new members have no singing experience, we also provide voice lessons, since music is such a fundamental part of our life. The community as a whole meets together once a week for chant practice, when the Choirmaster can correct sloppy habits or teach unfamiliar melodies. We have found that the old Solesmes school works very well for community singing. The new Solesmes school, on the other hand, is very helpful for more accomplished solo singing.
CSM: What is the best thing about the monastic life? When did you first know it was your calling?
Fr. Cassian Folsom, O.S.B.: I’ve been a monk for 36 years, so it’s kind of seeped into my bones; it’s very hard to identify any one thing as the “best” quality of monastic life. I love it, and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. If because of persecution I were put into prison or something (these things have happened and continue to happen) I would remain a monk until my last breath. I wanted to be a priest ever since I was a little boy, but I never even heard about monks until I was a freshman in college. I had been discerning my vocation when I first visited Saint Meinrad Archabbey (my monastery of origin) in 1974. God touched my heart in a powerful way that day, it was like “love at first sight”.
CSM: What kind of meditation do monks engage in? Are there different types of prayer that monks cultivate? Or is there one special focus?
Fr. Cassian Folsom, O.S.B.: The monks devote themselves to meditatio in the classic sense of lectio divina: that is, the rumination on Scripture with the goal of memorizing and interiorizing the sacred text. From there flows oratio and contemplatio. In addition, in the monastic tradition there is a whole body of teaching on “one-word prayer” which is found especially in the Desert Fathers. St. John Cassian recommends the verse: “O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me”. In the east, the tradition developed into the Jesus Prayer. In the west, the Hail Mary is used in very much the same way. The monks of Norcia carry a rosary in one pocket and a kombuschini or chotki [prayer rope] in the other.