Monday, July 28, 2008

Fantastic interview with Stift Heiligenkreuz monk

It is impressive enough that these Viennese monastery has made the top of the charts in Europe and the US with its new chant CD. But what I also find impressive is how the monastery has used the occasion of its success to evangelize for Gregorian chant and for the faith.

The monastery has been dedicated to making sure that the CD is not used merely as mood music; they are doing everything possible to draw the connection between the music and the faith. Thus is it enormously helpful that interviews such as this appear in the San Francisco Chronicle, for example.

Here are some highlights:

This is music from 1,000 years ago, sung entirely in Latin, without accompaniment. Has the popularity of your CD surprised you?

Yes, very much. When we started (the project), we thought we would sell a few thousand copies, and now it's a big success all over the world. I think what's very impressive to us is that people are interested in our spirituality — because we are just doing what we do every day, singing three hours to praise God. And that's the biggest success of all.

How do you explain the attraction of ancient, sacred music to a modern, largely secular audience?

I think it's because the music is calm. It's healthy. It's touching. And you can feel that we sing it with some religious enthusiasm. People write me e-mails, and they say: "I feel touched by the finger of God when I'm listening to your singing."

We can also see that people, even atheistic or agnostic people, are very much attracted by our way of living. Many of them come to us (the monastery) and they listen, they just sit back and listen. I think we are showing them as a religious community, by praising God, that our way of life represents something that has been lost to them. I know it's something that many people in Europe feel they have lost.

How this CD came into being is an interesting "Old World meets New World" kind of story. Should we be surprised that monks like you are posting videos on YouTube and are generally pretty technologically savvy?

I don't know what people in the outside world think about monks in the monastery, but we are men of the 21st century. We are living in a monastery, but we aren't aliens or Neanderthals. According to the rule of St. Benedict and also that of the Cistercians written 1,500 years ago, every monk has to have something to write. And now the computer is the means by which we are writing. So everybody must know how to deal with the Internet, how to send e-mails. That's quite normal for us.

Isn't monastic life generally about disconnecting from the outside world to pursue a spiritual path without distractions, like e-mail?

It is, but this happens in other ways. Our liturgy is with the big tradition of the holy Church, and we are singing the Gregorian chants in Latin — yes, we are living in a very strict way. But, of course, we use the communication that is made possible by the Internet to promote the beauty of our vocation.

Has life at your monastery changed since the music came out?

Well, it's changed for me and for Father Abbot, because we are both doing interviews with the press, and we have had some journalists at the monastery, but I think we are handling it quite well. For my other brothers life is the same. You have to believe me, none of them is really interested in where we are on the charts in England or France or Australia or the United States. I am occupied with those questions, but the other monks don't even ask me about it.

I'm very proud that my brothers are not proud about being pop stars. I'm proud of them because it shows that our young community has a very good sense of what religious life means. It means being together with God and not taking care of the things of this world.

Gregorian chants, which date to the seventh century, are a form of prayer. How are they used in religious life at your monastery?

My monastery was founded in 1133, and monastic life there has never been interrupted. Always, the Gregorian chant has been our form of spirituality as monks — it is the way we live out that continuity ... the text is from the Bible, sung in Latin, and we sing it back to God through those wonderful melodies from the first millennium. Everything is about singing thanks to God.

What's a typical day like for you? How often are you singing?

We gather in church to pray five times a day, starting at 5:15 in the morning, including Sundays and feast days. Altogether we're singing for about three and a half hours each day.

Are Gregorian chants difficult to learn?

It is not difficult if you do it three and a half hours every day. When I entered the monastery, we had no introduction (to chanting). I was put there between the other brothers, they gave me a big book, and I just opened it and started. Of course, everybody has to learn Latin before he enters the monastery. That is very important because it is not only singing for singing's sake, but you also have to understand at least most of what you are singing about.

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