The Sisters of Saint Cecilia’s Abbey
“Today, young people are drawn to a rich liturgical life which includes the singing of Mass and the Divine Office in Latin, the Church’s traditional language, and Gregorian Chant, its traditional song,” says Sister Mary David. “In the last year and a half, we have been blessed with a Solemn Profession, two First Professions, and two new entrants. Except for the most recent entrant, who is now a novice, all were in their twenties when they entered. One was only nineteen.”
Founded in 1882 in Ryde on the Isle of Wight, St Cecilia’s Abbey belongs to the Benedictine Order, part of the family of houses connected to the famous Abbey of Solesmes, France. The nuns live a traditional monastic life of prayer, work and study in accordance with the ancient Rule of St Benedict. At the heart of their life is the praise of God, expressed through the solemn celebration of the sacred liturgy.
The Sisters maintain ‘the truth of the hours,” singing the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours at the same times which have been kept by the monastic orders since ancient times. For example, the “little hours” (Terce, Sect and None), ‘sanctify the day and are a powerful help in “the return to God” that we make throughout the day,’ according to Sister Mary David.
Ceremony, a strong family spirit and pure contemplation are characteristic of the Solesmes Congregation, founded in 1832 by Dom Prosper Guéranger. For almost two hundred years, Solesmes and its daughter houses have worked to preserve what is called ‘plainchant’ in England and ‘Gregorian chant’ elsewhere.
For almost two hundred years, Solesmes and its daughter Benedictine houses have worked to preserve the haunting, ineffable strains of ‘plain’ or ‘Gregorian’ chant, the ancient music of the Church.
Why do you still have your liturgy in Latin?
“We always have the Mass readings in English. In the Divine Office we have the Patristic readings in English. But we made a deliberate choice to keep the rest in Latin for several reasons. First, the Gregorian Chant which we use for all of our liturgy was composed for Latin texts. The melodies weren’t written first and then the words fitted to them; the melodies were made for the existing texts (almost all quotations from Scripture). We couldn’t use the same melodies for English words, and they’re so subtle and beautiful that to adapt them would be to spoil them.
These chants evolved from the music of the synagogues which the first Christians adopted, and developed over more than a thousand years. There’s often a theology in the melody itself – for example, as it becomes more elaborate at the important words or phrases. Then, all the great monastic figures in the western Church wrote in Latin and it’s good to keep in touch with them. Often we’re singing chants which they would have known and prayed with just as we do. While Vatican II allowed the use of modern languages and modern music in the liturgy, it also insisted on the value of the Latin language and Gregorian Chant, and subsequent Popes have stressed that Benedictine monasteries have a particular duty and privilege to cherish and draw life from this wonderful spiritual heritage.
If girls don’t know Latin when they enter – and they usually don’t know any – they learn it in the novitiate. It is astonishing how quickly you pick it up with one-to-one teaching and singing it in the liturgy several times a day. The same is true of Gregorian Chant. Most of us are not “musical”, but our choir mistress says she has found that anyone can learn to sing the Chant. People nowadays often use discipline in posture and breathing as aids to prayer, or learn to discern the promptings of the Spirit through their memory or imagination or emotions. Learning Latin and music for the sake of praying through the Chant is just another discipline which centuries of experience have shown to be a way to deeper union with God.
For Dom Guéranger, the Benedictine is someone who ‘tends towards God’ and who invites others by his example to also tend towards God. The monk is a contemplative, and his contemplation, like that of the angels, expresses itself in a life of praise. In praising God, the monk is a sign to all in the Church of their primary duty to pray.
In a letter to the Abbot of Solesmes signed in a shaky hand just ten days before he died, Blessed Pope John Paul said “be strengthened in their commitment and in the service that they give to the world in an invisible way, keeping vigil before God in liturgical prayer. Thanks to them, the world is lifted up towards God . . . Reviving the figure of Dom Guéranger is an invitation for all the faithful to rediscover the roots of the liturgy and to give a new breath to their journey of prayer.”
Is your life very austere?
Monastic poverty does not mean living in destitution but it does mean cutting out, as far as possible, all that is superfluous. So we eat sensibly and have sufficient clothing and heating but we try to avoid luxuries. Benedictine poverty includes taking care of material things, even if they’re old and worn, and avoiding waste. We do not each plan our own finances but we can exercise responsibility about not wasting water or electricity. We do a certain amount of fasting in Lent and Advent and at certain other times, and newcomers accustom themselves to this gradually. The Abbess has to take into account St. Benedict’s principle that the regime should be such that “the strong may still have something to long after and the weak may not draw back in alarm” (Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 64).
‘Happy is he who prays with the Church. Prayer said in union with the Church is the light of the understanding, the fire of divine love in the heart. Let not the soul that is possessed with a love of prayer be afraid that her thirst cannot be quenched by these rich streams of the liturgy, which now flow calmly as a streamlet, now roll with the loud impetuosity of a torrent, and now swell with the mighty heavings of the sea. The liturgy is suitable for all souls, being milk for children and solid food for the strong, thus resembling the miraculous bread of the desert.
Anyone can try to fast from chatter or from trivia or from shutting doors noisily. Some find it an austerity to respond promptly when the bell goes for prayer or if they are asked to lend a hand unexpectedly: it’s good to remember that these are opportunities for showing love, just as a mother responds promptly to her crying baby, even if she’s not filled with a warm maternal glow at that particular moment.