BURLINGTON, Vermont – The Benedictine monks of Weston Priory never intended for their music to travel beyond the wooded confines of their monastery. Then some friends approached the brothers about using the music in their parishes.
“I felt very humbled” brother Elias said, who joined the priory in 1964.
(Members of the priory don’t capitalize “brother” or use their surnames.)
He remembered people telling him, “it’s so joyful, it’s so meaningful,” and appreciating the way “it talks about God in terms of ‘you’ rather than ‘he.’”
While the brothers emphasize that their ministry is prayer and community in a monastic life, rather than producing music for others, the community thinks their approach to liturgical music could create peace and unity where it is needed in American parishes today.
Weston Priory has become a cherished source of liturgical music for American parishes in the decades following the Second Vatican Council. Songs like “Hosea” and “Come to Me” are featured regularly in hymnals, and the brothers also sell 20 different CDs which document the development of their style over time.
Before Vatican II, the monks at Weston Priory sang their liturgies with Gregorian chant, in the traditional Benedictine style. However, the tide shifted when some brothers started holding a book of English translations alongside their book of Latin prayers to better understand what they were praying.
“After a while, [the Abbot] said, ‘now wait a minute. This is not something we should be doing,’” Elias told Crux. “Either we do it all in English or all in Latin.”
As a result, the brothers started composing new music in English for their prayer.
“It was nice, there was a beauty in the Gregorian chant,” Elias said. “But to know what one is praying and singing? To me, that’s the key to a prayerful life.”
Even though the monks no longer sing Gregorian chant, the method with which they compose music is still rooted in the principles of chant. The brothers sing simple melodies in unison with the two-choir structure used by monasteries since the medieval era.
“The rootedness of it is the single voice,” brother Michael said, who currently writes music for the Priory. “There’s no harmonies, and also Gregorian, like all our music, has a certain scale to it. It doesn’t go very high; it doesn’t go very low.”
Then, Michael demonstrated this concept by singing the first lines of “Hosea” – a memorable tune with only a few notes.
“It doesn’t get much simpler. And people love to sing it,” he said.
However, the simplicity of the music demands cooperation, the brothers said.
“We try to listen to one another. If I can’t hear the brother on my right and my left, I’m singing too loud,” Elias said. “We try to sing with one heart.”
While singing with one heart breeds good monastic community, the brothers hope it can also build unity at a time when liturgical music can divide American parishes.
In simpler music, “you have elements to bring about reconciliation when there is such a division,” brother Daniel said, who joined the Priory in 1986. “But it’s work. And it’s not just musical work, it’s spiritual practice.”
In the same way that the ‘Our Father’ is a powerful yet basic prayer, Elias believes simple music, which can be learned and replicated with ease, makes communal prayer more heartfelt.
“It’s not very elaborate, everybody knows it. If we can say it in a reflective way, it’s very meaningful,” he said.
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