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Rays of Musical Light: Cloistered Nuns Share Record Label With Elton John

By Sonja Corbitt
July 29th, 2010
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

"[O]ur music appeals to a wider audience, secular and non-secular. The words have a very profound meaning that is coming from the Sacred Scripture. The singing in our daily lives is very important for us. It is our prayer," said Sister Raphael of the major record deal recently landed by her community of Benedictine nuns. It is a contract with a label the nuns now share with Lady Gaga, The Rolling Stones, and Elton John.

NASHVILLE, TN (Catholic Online) - "The whole world, compacted as it were together, was represented to [Benedict's] eyes in one ray of light" (The Life of Our Most Holy Father Saint Benedict, Pope Saint Gregory the Great).

It seems the cloistered, self-sufficient community of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Annunciation near Avignon, France, also sees the world through a Benedictine ray of light, and is about to diffuse a radiant love all over the world through the slow, soaring movements of their Gregorian chant.

Benedictine vows include Stability, Fidelity to the Monastic Life, and Obedience, and their communal life is centered around the eight canonical hours of the Divine Office. The Benedictine Divine Office is one of the most ancient daily observances of any kind anywhere in the world, and Gregorian chant is the oldest music ever written down.

Originating in the ancient Jewish prayer tradition, Benedictines continued the practice of daily singing of the psalms (meaning, songs) and have conducted the Divine Office for the 1500 years since St. Benedict first wrote and compiled his Rule. The Benedictine sisters at the Abbey of Our Lady of the Annunciation, following the Liturgy of the Hours, sing eight times a day.

Ora et Labora, Pray and Work

The mystery and poetry of Scripture at its earthly best, Benedictine prayer rolls on, as daily as parenting, washing dishes, and marriage. Its chant is a living, lived-in song, a relationship with God and Church revealed and expressed in ordinary, but sacred, words and music. It is benediction.

It is this blessing, this work of prayer at the Abbey of Our Lady of the Annunciation, France that attracted the attention of a talent scout for Decca Records. "When you hear them chanting, it's like an immediate escape from the stresses, noise and pace of modern living," he said of the prayer of Benedictine nuns cloistered there.

Decca Records is part of Universal Music, a British label which also produces albums by The Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga, Eminem, Amy Winehouse, U2 and Elton John. After chant first gained secular popularity through Enigma's chart successes in the 1990s, and the last Gregorian chant album released sold over a million albums, Decca Records went on a worldwide search for the finest female Gregorian chanters.

Their anxious ears finally came to rest on the lilting prayer of the Benedictine sisters in Avignon who were chosen over more than 70 other convents worldwide. Typically, prospective pop stars cannot garner enough publicity, but this group is slightly different.

Hidden Life

"We never sought this, it came looking for us," said the abbey's Reverend Mother in a statement released by Universal Music, and indeed, their seclusion posed some challenges for both the record label and the religious community.

"Before starting the recording we were a bit nervous," said English speaking Sister Raphael in an interview. She expressed the whole community's concern for the extraordinary project:

"We were a bit afraid of what was going to happen to our cloistered life, so we confided this to St. Joseph in our prayer: that if this was going to help people to pray, if it was going to help people find God, if it's going to help people find peace, [he should] make this go through."

And "go through" it did, presumably under his patronage and special protection. In accordance with St. Joseph's lifelong, heroic protection of the consecrated, Decca took exceptional measures to protect the isolation the nuns vow until death.

The album contract was passed to the sisters for their signature through the beautiful wood-worked partition that secludes them from the outside world, and recording engineers were only allowed into the convent when the nuns were in different parts of the abbey.

After setting up microphones in the chapel, they retreated to a separate room when the sisters sang, remotely directing the recording. To promote the album, the sisters filmed their own television commercial and photographed the album cover.

"We had to give the cameras to the nuns, because they had access to the more beautiful parts of the monastery," a Decca spokesperson remembered fondly, "so we had to actually hand everything over to them. And they were making their own TV advert, they were making their own CD cover, and it was a very interesting and different way of working."

A Ray of Musical Light

They have no access to newspapers, TV or radio, but the sisters are now on Facebook and YouTube, and their album, Voice: Chant from Avignon, will be released early this November. Remarkably, although the nuns never leave the convent, the whole world will feel the radiant peace of their singing.

"I think that our music appeals to a wider audience, secular and non-secular. The words have a very profound meaning that is coming from the Sacred Scripture. The singing in our daily lives is very important for us. It is our prayer," said Sister Raphael, conveying the heart of her community. It has been said that other than the Bible, the Benedictine Rule was the most influential book in the development of western civilization, a light in medieval darkness.

"It's not quite a question of how we feel when we sing, but who we are, and for whom we sing," the sisters confirm. Indeed, the chanted Office is a song of Love, and they consider this song as one way to contemplatively bring sacred, musical, Benedictine light to a dark, frantic, noisy world.

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Sonja Corbitt is a Catholic speaker, Scripture teacher and study author, and a contributing writer for Catholic Online. She is available to speak on the New Feminism, current events and your preferred theme. Visit her at www.pursuingthesummit.com for information and sample videos.

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