Lift high the cross? Yes, and
right to the top of the classical music charts.
With their third hit album in as
many years, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, have done it again.
They are at the top of the Billboard
Classical chart. And this time, they are proclaiming the love of Christ with a
terrific new CD that is packed full of Lenten repertoire.
The album is called Lent at Ephesus because, since 2006, these
cloistered nuns have been in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri
at the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus. The nuns, in their daily liturgical
practice, are accustomed to chanting the very best of the Church’s musical
treasures. They follow a monastic horarium
as laid out by St. Benedict in his Rule.
They chant the Divine Office together eight times a day in Latin according to
the 1962 Breviarium Monasticum.
Their first album, Advent at Ephesus (2012), spent six
consecutive weeks at number one on Billboard’s
Classical Traditional Music chart. Their second album, Angels and Saints at Ephesus (2013), spent 13 consecutive weeks at
number one on the same chart.
What is so wonderful about each
one of their CDs is that these nuns sing with such remarkable sincerity. They
thus reveal to the listener why this traditional music exists: namely, in order
to embody the lovely movements of a prayerful heart.
Pope Francis garnered much
attention when, in Evangelii Gaudium,
he condemned what he called “narcissistic and authoritarian elitism” (EG 95): “In some people we see an
ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s
prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s
faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time. In this way, the
life of the Church turns into a museum piece or something which is the property
of a select few.”
As if to illustrate precisely the
oppositehow to avoid “narcissistic and authoritarian elitism”the Benedictines
of Mary, Queen of Apostles, have made this beautiful music easily accessible
and widely available. Far removed from any sort of elitism that says that this
is the only type of music that should be heard in church, far removed from any sort
of axe-grinding ideology, the purity and sincerity of the voices of these women
shines forth again and again on their recordings. For those who would banish
women from singing the antiphonal propers at Mass (on the basis of misreading a
passage from St. Pius X’s 1903 motu proprio, Tra le Sollecitudini), the stunning beauty of this CD demonstrates
how ridiculous that attitude is.
As on their previous CDs, the
nuns sing the hymns and chant the antiphons at nice tempos. The music never
gets bogged down; it never drags. Instead, it moves right along, even in the quietest
passages. And for amateur singers, it is truly remarkable how nice their
Clocking in at 78 minutes and 43
seconds, the nuns’ new album is the perfect musical accompaniment for your
Lenten meditations this year. In fact, it is like a double album; one album
with tracks all in Latin, and another album with both original and traditional
hymns in English. On my own personal playlist, because my favorite tracks are
the tracks in Latin, I have divided it up accordingly:
THE LATIN CLASSICS Lent at Ephesus, “Part 1, Side A”
2. Christus Factus Est
5. Jesu Dulcis Amor Meus
6. Jesu Salvator Mundi
9. Pueri Hebræorum
11. Adoramus Te Christe
THE LATIN CLASSICS Lent at Ephesus, “Part 1, Side B”
12. Stabat Mater
14. Vexilla Regis
16. Vere Languores Nostros
17. Tenebræ factæ sunt
19. Adoramus Te Christe (Dubois)
20. Crux Fidelis
22. Ave Regina Cælorum
THE ENGLISH ORIGINALS Lent at Ephesus, “Part 2, Side A”
13. Divine Physician
15. Mother of Sorrows
23. My Mercy
THE ENGLISH TRADITIONALS Lent at Ephesus, “Part 2, Side B”
1. Jesus, My Love
3. God of Mercy and Compassion
4. Hosanna to the Son Of David
8. On the Way of the Cross
10. O Sacred Head Surrounded
18. O Come and Mourn
21. All Glory, Laud and Honor
This is my way of simulating my
childhood experience of listening to a vinyl double album. Although everything
is now digital, I still like to pretend that I have a gatefold LP set of two
vinyl records with two sides each. I like doing this on my playlists because it
allows me to take healthy breaks of approximately 20 minutes within my workdays.
A 20-minute “album side” is the perfect length for me, perfect both for
relaxing and for focusing, paying full attention to the music while also
quietly meditating on the lyrics. Any longer than 20 minutes would not fit my
schedule or my now digitally-abbreviated attention span.
Indeed, I find that the playlist scheme
listed above works well, but I have to move “Crux Fidelis” and “Ave Regina
Caelorum” to my “Part 2, Side A” list to get the running times to balance out
to fit the customary vinyl-side lengths: Part 1, Side A is 18 minutes; Part 1,
Side B is then 20 minutes (and note how they thus each end with a different
arrangement of “Adoramus Te Christe”); Part 2, Side A is then 21 minutes (after
moving “Crux Fidelis” and “Ave Regina Caelorum” down into it); and Part 2, Side
B is then 21 minutes.
If we just focus our attention on
the Latin tracks for a moment, notice that every single one of these compositions
is sublime. Every single one of them is a musical treasure. Perhaps some of
them may be recognizable to you from their places within the Lenten liturgy. In
any case, everyone should become familiar with them and their place within the
liturgical cycle. The nuns’ record company, DeMontfort Music, has made sure
that the CD booklet has helpful notes to this effect.
It’s hard to pick favorites. “Improperia,”
“Stabat Mater,” and “Crux Fidelis” are epic in their scope, each one being over
seven minutes in length. But if that is too much for you at first, why not
cultivate your taste by beginning with two of my favorite masterpieces. First, Palestrina’s
polyphonic version of “Pueri Hebræorum.” Second, Venantius Fortunatus’ “Vexilla
Regis,” long considered one of the greatest hymns ever written. The nuns do a nice
version that is a little bit different from the Latin you may be familiar with
Vexilla Regis prodeunt:
Fulget Crucis mysterium,
Quo carne carnis Conditor
Suspensus est patibulo.
The banners of the King go forth;
The mystery of the Cross brightly
On which gibbet hung the flesh of
Creator of all flesh.
Quo vulneratus insuper
Mucrone diro lanceæ,
Ut nos lavaret crimine,
Manavit unda et sanguine.
He was wounded by the
Cruel point of a lance
Water and blood flowed forth
To wash away our guilt.
Impleta sunt quæ concinit
David fideli carmine,
Dicens: In nationibus
Regnavit a ligno Deus.
Now is fulfilled what
David foretold in faithful song,
Saying unto the nations:
God hath reigned from a Tree.
Arbor decora et fulgida,
Ornata Regis purpura,
Electa digno stipite
Tam sancta membra tangere.
O beautiful and resplendent Tree,
Adorned with the purple of the
Chosen to hold on thy worthy
Limbs so holy.
Beata, cuius brachiis
Sæcli pependit pretium,
Statera facta corporis,
Prædamque tulit tartari.
O blessed Tree upon whose
Hung the ransom of the world,
Weighing that body as in a
And snatching away the prey of
O Crux ave, spes unica,
Hoc Passionis tempore
Auge piis justitiam
Reisque dona veniam
Hail, O Cross, our only hope!
In this Passiontide
Make the righteous greater in
And bestow grace upon sinners.
Te summa Deus Trinitas,
Collaudet omnis spiritus:
Quos per Crucis mysterium
Salvas, rege per sæcula. Amen.
May every spirit praise Thee,
O Highest Triune God!
Rule forever over those whom
Thou savest by the mystery of the
In English, the nuns have three
original tracks: “Divine Physician” (track 13) is a hymn written in 2012, in
which the chorus melody is derived from the Passiontide Responsory and its lyrics
are inspired by Mark 2:17 and Ezekiel 33:11; “Mother of Sorrows” (track 15) is
an original piece written in 2007 with lyrics adapted from the closing poem of
St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Victories of the
Martyrs; and “My Mercy” (track 23), which calls to my mind St. Faustina, and
interestingly (so the nuns inform us) “remains a perennial favorite of the
“‘My Mercy’ is an interior prayer
that was brought forth in song in 2007, with the final chorus being added a
year later,” explains prioress Mother Cecilia Snell. “It encapsulates the whole
of the interior life of prayer to which we have been called, that of imploring
Christ to pour out the mercy from His pierced Heart upon all souls.”
Of the English tracks, my own favorite
composition is the beautiful “O Sacred Head Surrounded” with music by J.S. Bach
from his “St. Matthew’s Passion” (BWV 244) and lyrics translated from St.
Bernard of Clairvaux, to whom “Salve, caput cruentatum” was traditionally
attributed. Truly, we must admit that Lennon and McCartney pale in comparison
to Bernard and Bach.
Everybody is going to have their
own personal favorites among these 23 tracks. So, my recommendation is that you
too create your own playlist from this CD for use in some daily quiet time for
reflection and meditation.
Here’s one idea: You can listen
to the nuns’ three original tracks every day, taking them to heart. Further,
you could then assign the remaining 20 tracks to the 40 days of Lent. You can
spend two days with focused attention on just one track: listen to it multiple
times and meditate on the words. Start with the Latin ones, if you find them
more difficult; this is Lent, after all.
Whenever you are learning one of
the Latin tracks, follow along directly in the Latin text at first, and then
get to learn the meaning of it in English line-by-line later on. You will find
that this simple exercise will be time well spent. And you will have highly appropriate
Lenten music filling your heart and mind for the whole season.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, in the
first volume of his The Glory of the
Lord: A Theological Aesthetics: Seeing the Form (Ignatius Press, 1989, p.
We no longer
dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more
easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for
itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she
will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without
taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be
sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois
pastwhether he admits it or notcan no longer pray and soon will no longer be
able to love.
not show some courage and decision? Why not make the truth, goodness, and
beauty offered to us by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, part of
your daily Lenten meditations this year? What better way is there to spend Lent
other than like the nuns of Ephesus? In prayerand in love.