Many of our readers will already be aware of the Monastere Saint Benoit, a small and growing Benedictine foundation in the Diocese of Frejus-Toulon. Having been invited by the diocesan bishop, Monsignor Dominique Rey, the founding Prior, Dom Alcuin Reid, initially had a rocky time establishing a stable monastic life, but his efforts are beginning to show fruit with more young men joining the foundation. This of course brings its own problems. Their current building is not their own, and their church is shared with a parish and the community is at the point where if it is to continue to grow, it must find its own space. Having been incubated in La Garde Freinet, this band of monks is seeking somewhere set apart from the world in which to sing the praises of God.
These are the “real deal” when it comes to monks: they take their Christianity neat. I owe a particular debt of gratitude to the monastery as they have often invited me and my friends to spend some time in the summer singing for them, initially as a way of offering a musical gift to their host village, and subsequently as participants in the Sacra Liturgia summer schools. I have written two dissertations in their library and I have seen the effect that spending time with the monks has on singers who have had little or no exposure to the Catholic faith. With a twinkle in his eye, Dom Alcuin will sometimes claim that he doesn’t do pastoral work. In a metaphor in action, I have a habit of sustaining mild injuries when I stay with them, the monks have always patched me up. The community “get” musicians and young people, and though it takes a little while, young musicians tend to “get” them.
As monks throughout history have supported the musical arts, this community has, from its outset, had music as a part of its mission. They live within Gregorian chant, and so within scripture. When you spend a few days there, you realize that the chant is blocking out the other thoughts when you’re cutting vegetables or mopping a floor and that one line has got stuck between your ears. I’m sure many readers will have had similar experiences of meditation mediated by music, but in a monastery that is faithful to the traditional daily schedule, there is more opportunity for Jesus to speak to you in the liturgy. When a choir gets the chance to live that for a few days, they get the chance to understand what all the music we do in church is really about.
As part of their ongoing fundraising, the monastery has released a YouTube video that gives us a glimpse of their life. Whilst obviously hoping that you will take the opportunity to give to their project this Lent, I would also like to draw your attention to some of what Dom Alcuin (one of the most prominent scholars of the New Liturgical Movement) has to say.
The greatest pastoral work of any monastery is that the Divine Office is sung: day in, day out, morning, noon and night. Some people will come to us because it’s [the proposed property] an historic site and [they will] be tourists and if they encounter the Office being sung to Gregorian chant, that will transfix them. That already happens where we are when people stumble across us. It speaks of God in a very busy and secular world… After all the liturgy is the word of God living and acting in the world today. It’s not just the singing of certain notes and using of certain words; it’s Christ himself acting in the Church today. Speaking to us through the psalms, through the readings, through the gestures and rites.
Perhaps we can take something of that for our own choirs, allowing beauty to touch where truth and goodness struggle to reach.
You can see the whole video below.
Something that comes across in the video is the charm of the community that has formed its prior. That is a lesson for choirs too. We must be attractive as a group of people, as well as for our singing. These monks take the worship of God seriously, but not themselves. Singing with others knocks the corners and smooths the rough edges of all of us, including the conductor.