And Other Outlandish Questions For the Monks of Norcia
FATHER BASIL NIXEN IS THE CHOIRMASTER of the Benedictines at Norcia, Italy. Their chant CD is now #1 Best-seller at Barnes &Noble in the US as well as debut #1 Classical Traditional on this week’s Billboard Chart, #1 Classical Amazon US and #1 Classical iTunes US. Nevertheless, Fr Nixen demonstrated great patience and answered some pretty elementary questions from REGINA Magazine this week – all about chant.
REGINA: Do you have to be an accomplished singer to sing chant?
Fr. Basil Nixen: One does not have to be an accomplished singer to sing chant. Certainly it helps to have a pleasant voice and some basic knowledge about singing. But no expertise is required…what is required, and what must come across in singing it, is a deep reverence for the chant borne of religious conviction, this makes the chant come alive and makes it something totally beyond a museum piece or simply an aesthetically pleasing piece of music.
REGINA: The Monks of Norcia chant sounds very otherworldly and beautiful. Is it a prayer?
Fr. Basil Nixen: The chant is without a doubt a prayer! The fathers would say bis orat qui bene cantat, that is, he who sings well prays twice.
REGINA: What kind of prayer?
Fr. Basil Nixen: One of the preferred means of monastic prayer is lectio divina, the careful and meditative reading of the Scriptures. This kind of prayer is a sort of dialogue: we read the sacred text but then after reflecting on what it says we turn to God and pray. St. Jerome says that when we read, God speaks to us, when we pray, we speak to Him.
REGINA: So is chant an ancient prayer?
Fr. Basil Nixen: yes, I think that Gregorian Chant is inspired precisely because it was written in this climate of Lectio Divina. The sacred chants are the response of someone meditating on the Word of God. They are the result of this prayerful dialogue in which the Scriptures penetrate the heart. This is why these melodies have an otherworldly character. Singing them or listening to them transports us to the climate of prayer in which they were inspired and composed.
REGINA: Do you find it confining to only have to sing chant?
Fr. Basil Nixen: I must admit that years ago when I first entered the monastery I did find it confining to sing exclusively chant. At times I yearned for the rich harmony of polyphony or Eastern chant and even looked at Gregorian Chant as lacking something due to its monophonic character. And I can see how somebody might feel like this. But now I certainly do not feel like this. Now, after ten years or so of a diet of liturgical prayer consisting exclusively of it, I’ve come to experience the richness and depth inherent in Gregorian Chant and I see its monophonic character as a jewel– certainly not as a defect. It just takes time for it to sink in. Our musical palate has to become accustomed to it. I think that as with all fine things in life, and above all with prayer itself, Gregorian Chant is an acquired taste.
REGINA: Is it true you get up in the middle of the night to chant? Why?
Fr. Basil Nixen: The ancient monks used to get up in the middle of the night to sing the Psalms. They did this because in the Psalms themselves the prophet says to God media nocte surgebam ad confitendum tibi, that is, I rose at midnight to praise you. So they got up in the night to praise God in imitation of the psalmist, but after their prayer was finished they went back to sleep.
St. Benedict modified things a bit and required his monks to get up very early, towards the end of the night so to speak, but to stay awake afterwards, not to go back to bed. As Benedictines we follow this latter practice and thus rise at 3:40 a.m. for our first prayer at 4:00 which is chanted in the Church (on Sundays and feast days we rise 20 minutes earlier).
REGINA: Are your monks Italian? Did your monks know Latin before they entered?
Fr. Basil Nixen: Most of the monks in our community are not Italian. We come from all parts of the world, about half of us from the United States. Most of us knew some Latin before we entered but there are a few who have had to learn it here. But this does not pose too great a problem because the language is easier to learn due to the fact that we pray in it and thus use it very frequently.
“We rise early for the same reason, to praise God in the midst of the night, not only because it is fitting that He be praised at all hours of the day and night, but in a special way to ask mercy for the world and to pray for all those who suffer during the night.” – Fr. Basil Nixen
REGINA: Really? So you are praying for people who are suffering in the night?
Fr. Basil Nixen: It is during the night that some of the most terrible things happen–people are killed, lives are damaged through violence or drug abuse or other addictions, and many people despair amidst so many sufferings. At that moment we try to bring some balance to the world and thus counter this suffering through the praise of God, asking Him to pour out His peace on the world.
“IT IS NOT EXCESSIVELY DIFFICULT TO LEARN THE AMOUNT OF LATIN OR CHANT NECESSARY IN ORDER TO PRAY AS A MONK IN OUR COMMUNITY. Certainly they both require discipline and study, and as with anything, mastery of these subjects requires much dedication and labor. For Latin this means continually learning new vocabulary or delving deeper into the complexities of the grammar. For chant this means studying the pieces from a theoretical point of view to see the richness they contain. It means getting to know the chants like familiar friends, knowing their complexity and beauty. I remember as a novice applying myself to this kind of study of the chants for hours on end. I am grateful for that study because now I feel that I know the musical language of the chant almost as well as the languages I speak. “ — Fr. Basil Nixen