Benedicta: Chant to Make the Heart Glad | Christopher S. Morrissey | CWR
Benedicta, the debut Gregorian chant CD from the Benedictine Monks of Norcia, takes the form of a concept album about the life of Mary. And it is a perfect soundtrack to prepare you for the practice of prayer.
In the midst of the day’s work, a little break is always welcome. Sometimes this takes the form of a clever YouTube diversion recommended by a friend. For example, a recent favorite of mine was a highly intelligent Latin rendition of “Let It Go” from Disney’s hit movie Frozen: “Libere.”
It got me thinking. What if a hit musical was first composed in Latin, and then only later translated into various national languages? Well, I can only wish. Having taught Latin at the university level for a decade and a half, I know how small the interest and appetite would be for such a thing.
Besides, the movie musical is a quintessentially American art form, and so it is only appropriate for the songs from Frozen to appear first in English. Nowadays, Latin translations of any pop culture phenomenon — take Harrius Potter, for example — are merely the final seal of approval bestowed by unassailable mass appeal.
But what if we could have access to a genuine cultural sensation that was in fact native to the Latin tongue? What kind of experience would that be?
Last week, the Benedictine Monks of Norcia released Benedicta, their first recording of Gregorian chant. As I have been listening to it, I can’t help but take it as the answer to those very questions.
Just as movie musicals are best experienced in the language of their birth (pace clever translators), so too are the liturgical meditations on Scripture best experienced in the Latin tongue that has sung those daily prayers for centuries.
Eighteen men strong, the Benedictine Monks behind this album have set up a monastery at Norcia, the fifth-century birthplace of St. Benedict, ancient Nursia. Impressively, the average age of these men is 33. Many of them have come from America to Norcia, where they live according to the perennially wise monastic Rule of St. Benedict.
Recently, they learned the art of brewing from some Trappist monks. And so their monastery has become famous for its delicious Birra Nursia, which is not yet available in North America, but which is nonetheless worth the trip to Umbria, Italy. The beer has a Latin motto: Ut Laetificet Cor, “To Make the Heart Glad,” which is a clever allusion to the approbation of wine in Psalm 104:15.
Scriptural allusions — made in Latin, no less — are hardly the stuff of today’s pop culture. And yet what would be more appropriate for Catholic religious who brew beer? “A cold beer never bothered me, anyway”; that may be the right sentiment, but surely Ut Laetificet Cor is the motto that is right and just.
In the same way, there is a tradition of prayer full of Latin allusions that stretches across centuries. And these monks are part of that still-living tradition. They spend hours every day chanting the Divine Office in a prayerful and meditative spirit. Just as they share the fruits of their labor with us in their beer-making, so too do they now give us, with this recording, a taste of their prayer life.
I must admit I was skeptical when I was presented with yet another Gregorian chant CD to review.