“Benedicta”: Chant to Make the Heart Glad

"Benedicta", the debut Gregorian chant CD from the Benedictine Monks of Norcia, takes the form of a concept album about the life of Mary. And it is a perfect soundtrack to prepare you for the practice of prayer.

In the midst of the day’s work, a little break is always welcome. Sometimes this takes the form of a clever YouTube diversion recommended by a friend. For example, a recent favorite of mine was a highly intelligent Latin rendition of “Let It Go” from Disney’s hit movie Frozen: “Libere.”

It got me thinking. What if a hit musical was first composed in Latin, and then only later translated into various national languages? Well, I can only wish. Having taught Latin at the university level for a decade and a half, I know how small the interest and appetite would be for such a thing.

Besides, the movie musical is a quintessentially American art form, and so it is only appropriate for the songs from Frozen to appear first in English. Nowadays, Latin translations of any pop culture phenomenon — take Harrius Potter, for example — are merely the final seal of approval bestowed by unassailable mass appeal.

But what if we could have access to a genuine cultural sensation that was in fact native to the Latin tongue? What kind of experience would that be?

Last week, the Benedictine Monks of Norcia released Benedicta, their first recording of Gregorian chant. As I have been listening to it, I can’t help but take it as the answer to those very questions.

Just as movie musicals are best experienced in the language of their birth (pace clever translators), so too are the liturgical meditations on Scripture best experienced in the Latin tongue that has sung those daily prayers for centuries.

Eighteen men strong, the Benedictine Monks behind this album have set up a monastery at Norcia, the fifth-century birthplace of St. Benedict, ancient Nursia. Impressively, the average age of these men is 33. Many of them have come from America to Norcia, where they live according to the perennially wise monastic Rule of St. Benedict.

Recently, they learned the art of brewing from some Trappist monks. And so their monastery has become famous for its delicious Birra Nursia, which is not yet available in North America, but which is nonetheless worth the trip to Umbria, Italy. The beer has a Latin motto: Ut Laetificet Cor, “To Make the Heart Glad,” which is a clever allusion to the approbation of wine in Psalm 104:15.

Scriptural allusions — made in Latin, no less — are hardly the stuff of today’s pop culture. And yet what would be more appropriate for Catholic religious who brew beer? “A cold beer never bothered me, anyway”; that may be the right sentiment, but surely Ut Laetificet Cor is the motto that is right and just.

In the same way, there is a tradition of prayer full of Latin allusions that stretches across centuries. And these monks are part of that still-living tradition. They spend hours every day chanting the Divine Office in a prayerful and meditative spirit. Just as they share the fruits of their labor with us in their beer-making, so too do they now give us, with this recording, a taste of their prayer life.

I must admit I was skeptical when I was presented with yet another Gregorian chant CD to review. The danger with such commercial releases, at least to my mind, is that they run the risk of offering nothing beyond sonic wallpaper to confused listeners. If the listener doesn’t under the liturgical origin or purpose of the chanted Latin prayers, I think it is hard to justify abstracting them for commercial consumption from their lived liturgical context.

Let me illustrate. Imagine listening to Christmas carols in Latin on your iPhone in the middle of July, and not understanding what any of the sung words meant, and not even realizing that what you were hearing was Christmas music for the Christmas season. But you listened anyways, simply because the sound was “beautiful” or “peaceful.”

Why should Gregorian chant become a commodity, a kind of background music like recordings of ocean waves or birds chirping, if there is no opportunity for the listener to enter into the deeper spirit of meditation that animates the sung prayers of true believers?

Happily, I have no such complaint with this album. This recording by the Monks of Norcia is, like their beer, a well-crafted artwork that bears the stamp of great intelligence and an effort to order things the right way. One of the first things I noticed about the disc is that it does not present the listener with a random assembly of “greatest hits” of Gregorian chant. Instead, the track selection seems to be guided first and foremost by the desire to give the listener a truly representative experience of the daily life of monastic prayer.

The album opens simply but effectively, with the monastery bells ringing on Track #1, summoning us to prayer. Then it unfolds like a concept album, as it tells the epic story of the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this regard, various chants are abstracted from their actual order within the liturgical calendar, but the abstraction is artistically justified because this decision to create something new for the purpose of the listening experience is both intelligent and highly effective.

The story unfolds as Mary’s life is reviewed in song, beginning with the Immaculate Conception, then her Nativity, then the Annunciation, and then the birth of Christ; from there, on through the sorrows of the Passion, into Easter’s Resurrection, and finally Mary’s Assumption, followed by sundry songs of devotion.

The only track that at first glance appears out of the life story sequence is Track #2, “Ave Maria, Virgo Serena,” which is a 10th-century medieval Sequence historically sung for Mass on the Annunciation, and therefore out of chronological order with regard to the next three tracks (which are about the Immaculate Conception). But this seems obviously intentional, and even well-justified, since this beautiful Sequence (“Ave Maria, Virgo Serena”) here functions as a kind of overture to the entire Marian concept album. It announces themes and ideas to be recapitulated later on in the ensuing musical narrative of Mary’s life.

Further, cradled within this intelligent musical artifact telling Mary’s story, is a nicely representative sample of the rhythm of the monastery’s chant cycles. In total, there are 17 minutes of antiphons and 33 minutes of responsories, as well as 7 minutes of hymns, and even 3 minutes of capitula. These latter are very simple chants of short Scripture readings, yet it is nice to have them represented, because they contribute to communicating to us a taste of the monks’ authentic prayer life. Instead of a showy abstraction for commercial consumption of only the most dazzling chants, we get the real deal.

All told, it is the authenticity of these chants that is their most striking feature. This fact will no doubt draw many people to be fascinated by the recording. The monks deserve to be commended for their evangelistic intelligence in simply letting real prayer speak for itself in an unedited way. Otherwise, the only obvious editorial musical decision, namely, to create a concept album about Mary’s life, is an outstanding creative choice, because it simply and effectively embodies the peaceful and humble spirit at the heart of the monks’ chosen way of life.

Once listeners are drawn to repeated listening, both by the prayerful authenticity and by the Marian concept, my recommendation for the listener who wants to go deeper would be for them to choose ten tracks that they would wish to become familiar with in a more intimate way. These ten tracks would then be ones to memorize the Latin words for, or to reflect on the English translations of, so that one can follow them closely on a daily basis in one’s own heart and mind.

If you don’t know which tracks to pick, I suggest the following playlist of ten. I assembled them myself for personal prayer, both at daybreak and at sundown. I conclude now by passing the playlist on to you.

But first, let us thank the monks for recording this lovely album, which in my experience provides a perfect soundtrack to gather oneself and enter into prayer. The monks have given us something special, available only in Latin, to make our hearts glad.

C.S. Morrissey’s Benedicta Playlist for Beginners: Chants Worth Memorizing

The album takes its title, Benedicta, from the last track. It the Latin adjective used by the angel Gabriel to describe Mary: “blessed.” I like having it right at the top of this playlist.

Track #33: Benedicta

(Unknown 19th century)

Lauds antiphon for the Immaculate Conception

Benedicta es tu, Virgo Maria,
a Domino Deo excelso
præ omnibus mulieribus super terram.

You have been blessed, O Virgin Mary,
by the Lord God on high
above all women upon the earth.

This next selection gives us the first half of the “Hail, Mary” prayer, plus a “Glory Be.” I place it next on the playlist because you will no doubt want to learn it in Latin sooner rather than later.

Track #28: Responsory Ave Maria

(Unknown, 11th century)

Lauds Responsory for the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary

 Ave Maria, gratia plena: Dominus tecum.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui.
Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto.

Hail Mary, full of grace: the Lord is with you.
You are blessed among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

The Benedicta album has one original composition by the Monks of Norcia themselves. So why not place it near the top, for ready access, as you prepare your heart and mind to pray like a monk.

Track #31: Antiphon Nos qui Christi iugum

(Original composition, The Monks of Norcia)

Devotional antiphon

Nos, qui Christi iugum conversationis sancti Benedicti Patris in Regula suscepimus,
Pia Mater suscipe, Regina monachorum,
ascendentes filios humilitatis scalam:
ut, materno tuo sanati affectu funditus a febribus superbiæ,
nihil præponamus amori Christi Domini. Amen.

Take us up, O loving Mother, Queen of monks,
who take up Christ’s yoke in the Rule of the monastic life our holy father Benedict;
take us up, your sons that are climbing the ladder of humility:
that, healed fully by your motherly love from the fever of pride,
we should put nothing before the love of Christ our Lord. Amen.

The next four tracks on my recommended playlist are the traditional four Marian antiphons corresponding to the four liturgical seasons. You too can sing (or listen) to one of them at the end of your day. Simply choose the appropriate one to match the time of year: Alma Redemptoris Mater during the Advent and Christmas seasons (i.e., from Advent through February 2), Ave Regina Cælorum during the Lenten season (i.e., from the Presentation of the Lord through Good Friday), Regina Cæli during Paschaltide (i.e., the Easter season), and Salve Regina after Pentecost (i.e., Trinity Sunday until Advent). Even if your church has a good hymnal (like Adoremus) that includes all four of these Latin chants, notice how the monks sing special versions that most likely differ from any you have heard before.

Track #14: Antiphon Alma Redemptoris Mater

(Unknown, 10th century)

Marian prayer sung at compline during Advent and Christmas

Alma Redemptoris Mater,
quæ pervia cæli porta manes,
et stella maris,
succurre cadenti
surgere qui curat populo:
Tu quæ genuisti, natura mirante,
tuum sanctum Genitorem:
Virgo prius ac posterius,
Gabrielis ab ore
sumens illud Ave,
peccatorum miserere.

Loving Mother of our Redeemer,
you that remain the open gate of heaven,
and star of the sea,
run to help this falling people
trying to rise up:
you that made nature marvel
by begetting your Begetter:
O Virgin before and Virgin after,
taking that Ave
from Gabriel’s mouth,
take pity on sinners.

Track #18: Antiphon Ave Regina Cælorum

(Unknown, 12th century)

Marian prayer sung at compline during Lent

Ave Regina cælorum,
Ave Domina Angelorum:
Salve radix, salve porta,
Ex qua mundo lux est orta:
Gaude Virgo gloriosa,
Super omnes speciosa:
Vale o valde decora,
Et pro nobis Christum exora.

Hail, Queen of the heavens!
Hail, Mistress of the angels!
Welcome, O root! Welcome, O gate,
From whom the light shines forth to the world!
Rejoice, O glorious Virgin,
Beautiful above all others:
Fare you well, most lovely one,
And pray for us to Christ.

 Track #20: Antiphon Regina Cæli

(Unknown, 11th century)

Marian prayer sung at compline during Paschaltide

Regina cæli, lætare, alleluia:
Quia quem meruisti portare, alleluia:
Resurrexit, sicut dixit, alleluia:
Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia.

Queen of heaven, be glad, alleluia:
For he whom you were worthy to bear, alleluia:
Rose again, as he said, alleluia:
Pray for us to God, alleluia.

Track #32: Antiphon Salve Regina

(Unknown, 10th century)

Marian prayer sung at compline after Pentecost

Salve, Regina, mater misericordiæ:
Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.
Ad te clamamus, exsules, filii Hevæ.
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes in hac lacrimarum valle.
Eia ergo, Advocata nostra, illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte.
Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui, nobis post hoc exsilium ostende:
O clemens: O pia: O dulcis Virgo Maria.

Hail, O Queen, Mother of mercy:
our life, our sweetness, and our hope, hail!
We cry to you, the banished, the children of Eve.
We sigh to you, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.
Ah then, our Advocate, turn those merciful eyes of yours towards us.
And, after this exile, show us Jesus, the blessed fruit of your womb:
O clement, O kind, O sweet Virgin Mary.

Up eighth on my playlist is an ancient prayer. Its words, which date back to the earliest centuries of Christianity, are even much older than the music. Definitely something to memorize and to have at the ready.

Track #26: Antiphon Sub tuum præsidium

(Unknown, 10th century)

Devotional antiphon

Sub tuum præsidium confugimus, sancta Dei Genitrix:
nostras deprecationes ne despicias in necessitatibus:
sed a periculis cunctis libera nos semper, Virgo gloriosa et benedicta.

We fly beneath the shelter of your protection, O holy Godbearer:
despise not our prayers in our time of need:
but deliver us always from all perils, O Virgin glorious and blessed.

These last two tracks close out my playlist of ten highly recommended tracks. The Virgo parens Christi is a beautiful little jewel, and the hymn Concordi lætitia is simply glorious and uplifting.

Track #25: Responsory Virgo parens Christi

(Unknown, 13th century)

Responsory historically sung at Matins for the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Virgo parens Christi benedicta, Deum genuisti:
fulgida stella maris, nos protege, nos tuearis.
Dum tibi solemnes cantant cæli agmina laudes.
Intercede pia pro nobis, Virgo Maria.
Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto.

O blessed Virgin that bore Christ, you have begotten God:
O shining Star of the sea, protect us, uphold us.
While heavenly throngs sing solemn praises to you,
intercede for us, O kind Virgin Mary.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

Track #21: Hymn Concordi lætitia

(Unknown, 14th century)

Hymn in honor of the Resurrection

Concordi lætitia,
Propulsa mæstitia,
Mariæ præconia,
Recolat Ecclesia:
Virgo Maria!

Quæ felici gaudio,
Resurgente Domino,
Floruit ut lilium,
Vivum cernens Filium:
Virgo Maria!

Quam concentu parili,
Chori laudant cælici,
Et nos cum cælestibus,
Novum melos pangimus:
Virgo Maria!

O Regina virginum,
Votis fave supplicum,
Et post mortis stadium,
Vitæ confer præmium:
Virgo Maria!

Gloriosa Trinitas,
Indivisa Unitas,
Ob Mariæ merita,
Nos salva per sæcula:
Virgo Maria! Amen.

With likeminded joy,
And sadness driven away,
Mary’s praise,
The Church recalls:
O Virgin Mary!

Who with happy joy
—For the Lord has risen—
Has blossomed like a lily,
Seeing her Son alive:
O Virgin Mary!

With what perfect harmony,
The heavenly choirs sing!
And we with those of heaven,
Compose a new melody:
O Virgin Mary!

O Queen of virgins,
Favour your beseechers’ prayers,
And after death has run its course,
Give us the prize of life:
O Virgin Mary!

O glorious Trinity,
Undivided Unity,
For the sake of Mary’s merits,
Save us through the ages:
O Virgin Mary! Amen.

 If you were to buy just these ten tracks on my recommendation, notice that once you paid the full digital download cost for the ten, the rest of the album would in effect be free. So you could start with these ten, but then still later decide from among the rest to come up with your own playlist of standbys. You can aim to find what best suits your own daily practice of prayerful preparation.

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About Christopher S. Morrissey 34 Articles
Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Greek and Latin on the Faculty of Philosophy at the Seminary of Christ the King located at Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC. He also lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University. He studied Ancient Greek and Latin at the University of British Columbia and has taught classical mythology, history, and ancient languages at Simon Fraser University, where he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on René Girard. He is a managing editor of The American Journal of Semiotics. His poetry book, Hesiod: Theogony / Works and Days, is published by Talonbooks.