The following is the third in a three-part series on the intersection of sacred music and Catholic education, in anticipation of the forthcoming Sacra Liturgia conference in Rome. Thank you to De Montfort Music, producers of the highly acclaimed album Advent at Ephesus and the new Angels and Saints at Ephesus, for arranging the very rare and special opportunity to interview two of the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, about their work on the new album and the influence of a Catholic education.
Sister Miriam Esther's path from Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., to the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, near Kansas City, Mo., was marked by reverent prayer, liturgy, sacred music and the Sacraments. She says that she is indebted to the Catholic education she received while a student there.
Christendom College is recommended in The Newman Guide for its strong Catholic identity, and the liturgical life of its students is as important to them as is the academic program. It’s no surprise when graduates are called to the priesthood or religious life.
Sister Miriam Esther heard God’s call to the Benedictines while studying at Christendom College, but she never dreamed that by joining the contemplative Sisters and committing to a monastic lifestyle, she would soon be among America’s leading recording artists.
The Sisters’ Advent at Ephesus, an album of sacred music released in 2012, topped Billboard’s Classical Music Chart for six weeks. Now Sister Miriam Esther is among the stunningly beautiful voices on the new album, Angels and Saints at Ephesus, which has been No. 1 on the Classical Music Chart for the past four weeks.
Sister Miriam Esther recently spoke with Tim Drake via email. We received her responses through her superior, Mother Cecilia.
Congratulations on the new album. Is such beautiful music part of everyday life at the Priory? What does it mean that contemplative Sisters are topping the music charts?
Sacred music is very much a part of our every day life here. We chant the Divine Office in choir eight times a day and usually have a sung Mass with the Gregorian chant propers on Sundays and big feasts. Even at our daily low Mass we sing polyphonic pieces, chants from the Canticus Selecti or simple hymns. Sometimes we also learn/compose new pieces to celebrate anniversaries.
In a certain sense, it is surprising that we have had success in the commercial music industry. But, then again, there is a natural hunger in the human person for beauty, truth and goodness. In traditional philosophy, those are known as transcendentals. It's a complicated term, but we can see here on a very basic level how they can transcend cultural boundaries to stir the heart and captivate the mind. So that is one factor. Also, there is a saying attributed to St. Augustine: Cantare amantis est. Singing belongs to the lover. The call to religious life is very paradoxical. When God draws you to offer your life as an oblation to Christ and His Church, He also helps you to realize that, in this call to self-gift, you are actually receiving a gift of infinite value. This in turn inspires an irrepressible gratitude and love such as we find in the Psalms: "What shall I render to the Lord for all He has given unto me?" (Ps. 115) That sort of fullness of the heart finds a natural expression in song. It makes the music authentic.
Were you drawn to sacred music in high school or even earlier? How did music impact your formation as a young Catholic?
Yes, I was involved in choirs from a young age. It gave me an appreciation for the beauty of the liturgy. I also realized what a joy it is to sing.
Why did you choose to attend Christendom College?
I wanted to be mature in my Faith, to understand it and to be able to communicate it. It was important to me to have a wholesome environment, where I could pursue my studies peacefully without the tension of resisting an amoral culture. I developed friendships at Christendom which were really formative of my character and it was also a wonderful thing to discover in the example of teachers and their families an eloquent witness to the truths you learned in class.
What was your experience of the liturgy and sacred music while at the College? Did it help in the discernment of your vocation?
At Christendom, I discovered the divine office for the first time. My freshman year, the girls in my wing decided to pray Morning Prayer together and I also began to attend Compline chanted in Latin by some students in the chapel. The Psalms really took hold of me, especially when set to the beautiful Gregorian melodies. I think it was very important in my call to a Benedictine vocation.
Is reverent liturgy important to a Catholic education? How does it relate to the academic life of a high school or college?
We remind readers that The Cardinal Newman Society has partnered with De Montfort Music to host a student writing contest. We'll be awarding five free CDS of
Absolutely. A Catholic education ought to be formation of the whole person for a human life, which is to say a virtuous life and a happy life. In the liturgy, we express the most important truths about reality, and thus about the human person. We acknowledge that God is our Creator and we are His creatures, that we are redeemed by His merciful love and called by His grace to share His life, His holiness - to be perfect even as He is perfect. (cf. Mt. 5) Education cannot remain purely a speculative matter, purely a matter of the mind. It needs to inform the way we live, and the most important element of every human life is the relationship between the soul and God. A reverent liturgy safeguards this understanding.
Many Catholic colleges have become increasingly secular. How did Catholic identity at the college you attended help to strengthen your faith, and play a role in your vocation?
I cannot guess the extent to which I am indebted to my Catholic education. There were so many ways I benefited. Here are a few things I am very grateful to have experienced as a part of my college education:
Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament
Introduction to the riches of the Christian tradition in literature, history, philosophy and theology
Good friendships and good examples
Introduction to the beauty of the religious life and the contemplative call
Angels and Saints at Ephesus for the best essays from Newman Guide college students on how sacred music and the liturgy have been been integral to their Catholic education. The complete contest details are located here.
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