What do Fifty Shades of Grey, Downton Abbey, Andrea Bocelli, have in common with Benedictine nuns in Missouri? Billboard, and guess who’s been in the lead? Angels and Saints at Ephesus, a recording of hymns sung by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, released by De Montfort music. Over the last months, Angels and Saints enjoyed a 14-week stay at No. 1 on the classical traditional chart and is currently No. 10. Mother Cecilia Snell, the prioress of the northwest Missouri monastery, played the horn with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in Ohio before entering contemplative religious life. Mother and her 19 sisters on the recording are cloistered and yet have found a way to engage the culture, by providing a window into the sounds of their daily life (they chant eight times a day). Mother Cecilia, who arranged many of the songs on Angels and Saints talks about the music, the vocation, and the in and outside priory walls.
KJL: How did you come to the title “Angels and Saints at Ephesus”?
MOTHER CECILIA: When we were contemplating a theme for this recording, we realized that we knew many pieces in honor of the angels and saints, or written by the saints themselves. This was a plus with regard to the minimal amount of time needed to learn music, and would also provide a CD that could be listened to all year round. We were privileged to create this musical tribute to honor our powerful intercessors in heaven.
KJL: How did you and your nuns find yourselves called to an Ephesian focus? You’re nowhere near Turkey.
MOTHER CECILIA: It is true that we are physically very far from Ephesus (the city to which St. John brought Our Lady), but the spiritual connection is very much in our hearts. Our Lord left His Mother behind after His ascension as a gift to the Church, whose members would be in great need of the encouragement and strength that her presence and prayers would bring. In our daily lives here at the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus, we strive to imitate Our Lady during her days after the ascension by our loving and prayerful yet hidden presence for the bishops and priests of our times — our modern day apostles.
KJL: Did you know anything about Fifty Shades of Grey and Downton Abbey before you beat them on the Billboard classical chart?
MOTHER CECILIA: The only shades one will find around the monastery are black and white. We happily do not follow the latest trends of our pop culture, a culture which does frighteningly little to make people aware of their dignity as children of God.
KJL: How is making a professional music CD in keeping with your calling? Are you getting used to your sisters being Billboard hits?
MOTHER CECILIA: We only agreed to make a professional recording with the condition that the world would not creep into the monastery, which would only compromise our life of prayer and solitude. Our community has always sought and appreciated beauty as a means of drawing closer to God, whether it be through the crafting of silk vestments, sacred art or music. After being encouraged to share our voices as a means of bringing others closer to God, we had no doubt that was in keeping with our calling, which is none other than seeking a life of union with God, the author of all beauty. Once we record the music, little more is spoken about it; we don’t follow the Billboard charts, and so the conditions of strictly maintaining our hidden life of prayer and sacrifice are met.
KJL: How did you choose the songs for the album? Which song has the most meaning for you?
MOTHER CECILIA: As we chose the songs, we looked to honor as many saints as we could on one CD while maintaining a good variety of Latin, English, chant and polyphony. This was the cause of some regret, as there are multiple hymns and chants in honor of particular saints — I think particularly of the many beautiful ones written for St. Joseph and St. Cecilia. I would say that the piece we wrote in honor of St. Therese (using her own poetry) probably had the most meaning for us. Our community had prayed a novena to the Little Flower last year, asking her to help us with our debt. It was during that novena that we were approached by Monica and Kevin of DeMontfort Music. They wanted to make our sacred music available to more souls, which at the same time would be an answer to our prayers.
KJL: Why do you include St. Joseph?
MOTHER CECILIA: How could we possibly leave St. Joseph out? He is the Guardian of Virgins and Protector of the Universal Church; the greatest saint after Our Lady — the one whom God chose from all eternity to be the father on earth of His only Son. Let us go to St. Joseph for all our needs, as the holy St. Theresa exhorts us to do!
KJL: Why should all mortal flesh keep silent?
MOTHER CECILIA: Silence is so often the only appropriate response to the Divine mysteries of our Faith. We are taught this most sublime truth by Our Lady, who, when confronted with the realities of the Incarnation, “pondered all these things in her heart.” She responded to the wonders of her Lord by opening her heart rather than her mouth. What a lesson for the rest of us poor sinners, clothed in mortal flesh as we are!
KJL: What is the secret of “Est Secretum,” one of the songs on the CD?
MOTHER CECILIA: The courageous and valiant St. Cecilia, who had consecrated her virginity to God, told her husband Valerian on the night of their nuptials that she had a secret, and made him swear that he would respect it. According to Dom Gueranger’s Life of St. Cecilia, she said, “I am under the care of an angel whom God has appointed protector of my virginity. If thou shouldst violate it, his fury will be enkindled against thee… If on the other hand thou wilt respect it, he will favor thee with his love, and obtain for thee many blessings.” Valerian did indeed respect her vow of virginity, and according to Cecilia’s instructions, went to St. Urban who baptized him that very night. Upon his return, Valerian was rewarded for his faith and trust by being allowed to see with his own eyes the angel of whom Cecilia spoke. He was there next to Cecilia in all of his dazzling splendor as she was lying prostrate in prayer. Along with Valerian’s brother, Tiburtius, Cecilia and Valerian both received the palm of martyrdom soon after.
KJL: Your previous CD was on rediscovering Advent. It won’t be long before we are there again. Why does the world need to “rediscover Advent”?
MOTHER CECILIA: The world desperately needs to rediscover the season of Advent, because Christmas has been hijacked by the materialistic culture in which we live, and the monster of consumerism feasts during the weeks (even months!) prior to Christmas, leaving hardly a moment to consider what it is really all about. How each of us sorely needs to make interior examinations and preparations for Our Lord’s coming! In Her unfailing wisdom, the Church has given us this precious season before Christmas to take stock of our spiritual life, and do what is necessary to welcome the Child Jesus with pure minds and hearts.
MOTHER CECILIA: We wanted to do something to honor Our Lady’s expectancy and the Redeemer within her. The chorus is taken from the Office of Our Lady which we sing every Saturday. The lyrics were written by a Sister who was in the hospital at the time. When put to music, we hoped it would convey the melancholy tone of the prophets who had waited for the Messiah for so long, coupled with the triumphant hope of Our Lady, who finally brought the Redeemer into the world. She in turn strengthens hope in us, as well as faith to see God who was once the unborn child in her womb. She is truly the “channel of all grace,” and will never fail to fulfill our hope.
KJL: You were founded in 1995? Aren’t nuns supposedly dying off?
MOTHER CECILIA: Well, this is perhaps a bit of a delicate question! While it is true that many communities are no longer receiving vocations and therefore dying out, it is just as true that there are a good number of communities blossoming with young sisters and will continue to grow in the coming years. The difference is this: Communities which adhere to Church teachings and strive to live traditional religious life will flourish. Those that do not will fade away. Forgive me for being so blunt, but this is the truth! Young women truly desire authentic religious life and all that accompanies it: the habit, communal living, a regular life of prayer, reverent liturgy, and even a strict rule of life to follow.
KJL: Why would a modern American woman ever want to be a cloistered nun?
MOTHER CECILIA: It is not so much about a woman choosing the contemplative life, as it is about God choosing who He wills to be His alone. Our Lord never ceases to call souls to Himself, even in this modern world where often one must strain to hear His voice amidst so much noise. When a soul is attuned to the voice of God, Who speaks in the silence of the heart, she is able to discern if she is one who is chosen for a life of intimate union with her Lord. If indeed she is, then she is merely saying yes to the all wise and all holy will of God, which is something each one of us is called to do, no matter our vocation.
KJL: Could a prioress of a cloistered convent ever be a role model for modern girls?
MOTHER CECILIA: If the role of prioress is understood correctly, then indeed she could be a role model for girls of our day, especially considering what our modern pop culture offers. The position of superior in any religious community is not one to be sought after, but a heavy burden to be accepted, and then only when it is the clear will of God. A good prioress must be willing to completely empty herself in order to be a channel of God’s grace, allowing her to be all things to the particular souls entrusted to her care. It is not a position of dictatorship, but one of love and service. Yes, there is no doubt that if faithful religious became the role model for young women, our world would rapidly become a very different place in which to live, for the better!
KJL: How can Mary be accessible or relevant to the modern woman?
MOTHER CECILIA: A modern mentality has foisted a false image of femininity on our generation in such a way, that we have forgotten what it means to be a woman. Our Lady’s gentleness, hiddenness, and joy in being so, makes her a model of what we ought to be. In Our Lord’s public life, she recedes in silence, and lays hold of the most powerful means of evangelization: contemplative prayer. By her interior attentiveness and faithful response to the Lord, she did more good for the Church and the world than all of the Apostles with their many grueling labors put together. Mary can teach us that our good is not to be found in climbing the social ladder or landing a successful job, but in our fidelity in corresponding with God’s grace.
KJL: What would you like the world to know about life at Ephesus, Missouri?
MOTHER CECILIA: I think some folks who come here are a little taken aback by what they see. Young women who come to discern their vocations have expected to experience time thick with music practices, vocal training and music writing. That is not what they find at all. The recordings that we have put out are totally nonessential to our monastic existence. Nevertheless, they convey something that is essential: our seeking the source of beauty, God Himself, and letting Him perform His miraculous work of beauty on our souls. We live a simple life, following closely the Rule of Saint Benedict with its peaceful alternation of singing God’s praises eight times a day in our oratory, and living out that same praise in silence and manual labor. We are a supremely joyful family that the Lord has called together from all walks of life and all over the country, whose hearts are bound tightly together by Him.
KJL: How are your Benedictine sisters “Love in the heart of the Church”? Can anyone be?
MOTHER CECILIA: The physical heart is unseen by men’s eyes, yet it is the prime mover of life-giving nutrition, pumping life and health into all parts of the body. In like manner, contemplative souls who are united in love to God’s own Heart, vivify every member of the Church, which is nothing less than Christ’s mystical body. Though we contemplatives are hidden from the eyes of the world just as the physical heart is, we too are indispensable for the supernatural life that flows throughout the Church. United to Christ, our love takes on eternal value, and becomes all-powerful. Our Lord pours out this love upon the Church, and most especially on our priests, the dispensers of His sacramental grace. While all souls who are united to God by sanctifying grace make up the streams of love in the Church, I don’t think I am mistaken in saying that it is the contemplative soul who more completely buries herself in the depths of the Church’s heart, as she has made a complete and total holocaust of her entire being, vowing to God that she will live in and for Him alone. And how the good God will make use of this little offering of her life she will only know in heaven!
KJL: What’s the Benedictine difference and how can this encounter with the culture lend the rest of us some aid?
MOTHER CECILIA: The Benedictine answer has been throughout the centuries: “be the change you want to see in others.” We live the life of the Church at a microcosmic level. The life of the Church is exercised principally through her liturgy. The Mass takes pride of place, and the chanted hours of the divine office emanate from and orbit around it. This prayer is truly the center of “culture,” which is derived from cultus, worship. It is the core of our monastic existence, and dictates the rest of our actions, our silence, and our charity toward one another. The Liturgy is exercised in the course of life, an even balance of prayer and work, of feasting and fasting to the rhythm of the liturgical cycle. It restores order to the soul, and by this devotion to prayer and to work, Benedictine monasteries have sanctified their surroundings and civilized nations, revitalized agriculture, stabilized economies and fostered genius in art and science by keeping everything centered on God and the proper worship of Him.
KJL: Is there more music to come?
MOTHER CECILIA: We currently have plans to record a third album with DeMontfort Music for the season of Lent. Perhaps all of your readers could pray for the success of this latest endeavor. May our dear Lord use these little instruments as He pleases, to bring many souls close to His Heart, the source of all our good!