The joyful power of music

'Our highest business is our daily life' - John Cage
He may have been a student of Zen Buddhist and a self-proclaimed anarchist. But the thinking behind John Cage's words applies across all faiths and philosophies. In Christian monastic orders the business of daily life is defined by the Opus Dei. These are the Holy Offices during which all the Psalms are sung in rotation in a never ending affirmation of faith. Music is central to the liturgy. Again John Cage is surprisingly in tune with the contemplative life. He was famously influenced by the Indian musician Gita Sarabhai whose definition of the purpose of music explains why singing is central to monastic worship:
'The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.'
Probably the most moving of the Divine Offices is Compline. This is the last of the daily cycle and it celebrates the completion of the day. Compline is sung in darkness, and ends joyfully with the singing of that most moving of Marian antiphons, the Salve Regina. As the reverberation from the final O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria dies away the monastic community is transported into the Great Silence, which will be broken by the bell calling the faithful to Matins the following morning.

Attending Compline is a life-affirming experience, whether as a guest of a monastic community or as a visitor. When travelling we always try to visit nearby monasteries, and a couple of weeks ago we were able to attend Compline at L'abbaye Notre-Dame de Belval near Arras in northern France. The visit was particularly poignant as next year this community of Trappist Cistercean nuns will leave the monastery that has been their home since 1893. Decreasing numbers of postulants means the ageing community cannot continue to live in their present large monastery.

In 2010 the Sisters are moving 120 miles to L'Abbaye Notre-Dame d' Igny near Reims where they will also be joined by nuns from L'Abbaye Notre-Dame de la Grace Dieu from the Doubs region near the Swiss border. There will be around 70 Sisters in the combined community at Igny, and this number should make the continuation of their contemplative life possible. Accompanying this article are three photographs which show the nuns in their current monastery at Belval. The Abbey is famous for its cheese which can be seen being made in the photograph below. Harrods is among the famous stores that sell Belval cheese, and one of the varieties is flavoured with Trappist beer.

We drove to the rural monastery for Compline at 8.15pm on a dark and wet March Thursday evening. The visitors entrance to the monastery was in complete darkness, and in the Abbey Church we joined just two others in the congregation. The community at Belval has dwindled to just twelve ageing Sisters. Compline was sung in French in line with Vatican Two, and there was a judicous use of the organ to reinforce the voices. This is one occasion when I am not going to complain about the use of subtle amplification which allowed the fragile but beautiful singing of the twelve Sisters to fill the cavernous Abbey. As the concluding Salve Regina was intoned in the darkened church there was no doubt that Gita Sarabhai was right, and music does indeed makes us susceptible to divine influences.

As we walked through the darkness back to our car I felt that I had just witnessed something very special. The commitment of the Sisters to continue the celebration of the Divine Offices while handling the complex practicalities of relocation to a new monastery is quite remarkable. But equally as special is the role that music has played in maintaining the vigour of the community. If faith is the bricks from which the community at Belval is built, music is the mortar that cements it together. These words by the neurologist Oliver Sachs were written in 1985. But, oh, how they apply in 2009:
'The power of music ... is one of the greatest practical and theoretical importance ... What we see, fundamentally, is the power of music to organise - and to do this efficaceously (as well as joyfully!), when abstract or scematic forms of organisations fail ..'.
I have described how the Sisters from L'Abbaye Notre-Dame de la Grace Dieu will join the monastery at Indry. While at Belval I bought a 1995 CD from Art & Musique, a label which has featured here before. Recorded by the nuns of L'Abbaye Notre-Dame de la Grace Dieu, the disc of Easter music (sleeve below, but now deleted) is notable for its settings by Jacques Berthier (1923-94), who is best known for his music for the Taizé Community.

Brother Roger of Taizé shared with Saint Gregory an understanding of the power of music, and Jacques Berthier's chants played a vital role in creating the beacon of hope that Taizé is today. From the evidence on this CD there is no doubt that the nuns of L'Abbaye Notre-Dame de la Grace Dieu also understand how music how can, to quote Oliver Sachs, 'efficaceously and joyfully organise'. Let us hope that the new combined monastic community at Indry prospers. For, as the Hindu saying tells us ~ 'Nada Brahma' - Sound is God. Which is where this post started.

Related resources:

* The Benedictine Guide to Music by Katharine Le Mée (ISBN 0809141787). An excellent introduction. But Katharine Le Mée has disappointingly negative views on John Cage and other contemporary composers, and she is not completely objective on the work of French physician Alfred Tomatis and 'Mozart effect' champion Don Campbell.

* Christian Music by Andrew Wilson-Dickson (ISBN 0745951198). Very useful survey of the whole body of Christian music including monastic and Taizé liturgy.

* A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor (ISBN 978159017244-5) Quite the best book on monastic orders, and also a classic of English literature.

More on the music of Taizé here.
The three photographs of Belval are by Jean-Pierre Lagarde. They were created by scanning postcards purchased from the monastery. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


I was wondering When Fermor's book might appear on the path...well done with this one
Pliable said…
Patrick Leigh Fermor -
commenter said…
As someone who has followed many of the same overgrown paths, musical and monastic, over the last thirty years (inspired by Patrick Leigh Fermor, I have visited St Wandrille and Le Barroux, as well as many other French Benedictine and Trappist houses, from the time when I was a student travelling by bike), can I just say thank you for this thought-provoking post?

Readers might be interested in the following link to a new monastic foundation in Norcia, Italy (where St Benedict lived and founded his monastery):

If you follow the link to "Tenebrae 09", you will find a fascinating series of audio recordings and photos from this year's Holy Week. Tenebrae is the office of Matins and Lauds for the final three days of Lent.

At about 15 minutes into the first audio file is the extremely moving series of readings from Jeremiah (the Lamentations) which are punctuated by the letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, sung to a strange and haunting melisma. In between each reading, a solemn responsory is sung, commenting on an aspect of the Passion story.

Unfortunately the texts of the office aren't yet available on the web (although if anyone knows a link, please post it!), but the recordings are still an eloquent witness to the power of monastic liturgy.
Pliable said…
Commenter, thanks for that.

When I was staying at Le Barroux last December two Italian architects, who were working on the new monastery at Norcia, were also in residence. They were studying the layout and function of the monastic buildings at Le Barroux so as to incorporate best practice into the new buildings.

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