Easter at Ephesus is a new album from the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, released by DeMontfort Music. It’s currently #1 on Billboard’s Classical Traditional Chart, as well as a whole host of other bestseller lists on Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble. This is the fourth release from the Missouri-based Catholic sisters. Mother Cecilia Snell, prioress of the community, talks about the success of the album, Holy Week, and Easter. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What does Easter in Ephesus look like?
Mother Cecilia: Being avid gardeners, it is an exceptionally beautiful time from the visual standpoint. Everything begins to burst into bloom. We gather up flowers for several days preceding the Easter Vigil, and on Holy Saturday afternoon, we place as many as we can fit on the altar, in front of statues, and on the table on Holy Saturday in anticipation of the Easter vigil. When all the lights come on at the Gloria during the Vigil Mass, the beauty of the sanctuary after the starkness of Lent is overwhelming! It is a visible underscoring of the renewed hope and joy that Our Lord gives us in His Resurrection.
Lopez: What do you most look forward to during Holy Week? During Easter?
Mother Cecilia: Benedictines’ first love (even more than gardening) is the liturgy. The liturgy of Holy Week and Easter is one we look forward to all year. The Church goes from her most heart-rending and poignant recollection of the Passion to jubilant chants and cries of joy. The most exquisite scripture passages come out and give expression to what our souls cannot otherwise speak. In a way, there is no recovery from the Passion in the music that we sing, but ironically it sharpens the joy. So too, Holy Week being typically the hardest and most penitential week of the year suddenly explodes into the exuberance of Easter and its Octave.
Lopez: What do you make of being a Billboard success story?
Mother Cecilia: It’s really not a story within these walls, as we never speak about it. Fame can very easily lead to an unhappy end, which is one reason we pay no attention. We need not the distraction of it, or the pride and exaggerated self-importance that can easily accompany it. We would much rather be successful at living well in the presence of God. The explanation for the popularity? At all times, souls will be searching for beauty and truth. God has made us to seek these things, as they ultimately point to Him, who is Beauty and Truth Himself.
Lopez: How do these albums come about? How do you choose what goes in? How much of the time of the sisters does it take?
Mother Cecilia: Well, because we are singing nine times a day, we are really used to each other’s voices! I have heard it said of the Andrews Sisters that they sang together so much, they could anticipate each other’s mistakes. That’s a bit how it is for us, having rubbed elbows with each other for the rest of the 24 hours when we are not singing. So when it comes time to making a CD, we are already “in form.” We choose a theme, draft up hymns that we already know and sing, and then set to work tweaking and arranging. We have a lot of fun, and the effort draws us closer together as a community. It usually takes about six weeks of preparation time and six weeks of brushing up parts. Early on, we’ll start practicing for an hour or so a couple of times a week, and as the recording date approaches, the rehearsal time increases little by little.
Lopez: What are the clouds of night?
Mother Cecilia: “The Clouds of Night” is one of our favorite hymns, one we have sung for many years at Easter. “The Clouds of night” in the opening line refer to the darkness of sin expelled by the Lord’s rising. It was originally called “Laßt Unz Erfreuen Hertzlich Sehr” in a Jesuit Student Hymnal in Cologne, and was known as such by our producer, Chris Alder, who lives in Germany.
Lopez: What is “Haec Dies” all about?
Mother Cecilia: “Haec Dies” is sung at least ten times on Easter, from Psalm 117:24, translated as “This is the day that the Lord has made.” It is the Easter song, as Easter is the day that has changed all our days since the Resurrection took place. It is truly the first day of the new Creation, when all the world was made anew by Christ’s rising. We sing three versions on the recording: one in English, and two in Latin, one in four parts and another in eight parts.
Lopez: How about “Exultemus et Laetemur,” another one of your tracks?
Mother Cecilia: “Exultemus et Laetemur” are the very next words after “Haec Dies” in Psalm 117, so I am glad this was the next question! This is the Day in which “we will rejoice and be glad!” We included the lovely Medieval chant in the album which recalls the events of Easter morning. It is a cry to all Creation to remember Who it is that renews it. This is only natural in supernatural love: We want even His inanimate creation to proclaim His praise.
Lopez: Why is the “Regina Caeli” so important?
Mother Cecilia: “Regina Caeli” is the hymn to Our Lady, sung or said four times a day at Eastertide. It was a prayer that was traditionally first sung by the angels, telling Mary to rejoice because her Son who was dead is now risen.
Lopez: Who do you sing for?
Mother Cecilia: A priest once gave the whole community a salient piece of advice some years ago: Sing for an audience of One. I might extend that a little, because while we truly sing for Our Lord, it is in the company of His Mother, and all His angels and saints. One young sister joked before the recording fame that if anyone ever asked her what she did, she would say: “I am a vocalist. I sing each night for the King of Kings! It’s a full house each night.” That is really the spirit. We give our voices first to our Maker. That others now hear it is incidental. I do not mean that in a high-handed way. It is beautiful that others can hear these songs of love without our going out to them, but we are singing first for Him Who first loved us. In time, and after we are able complete our planned construction project for a proper Church, we hope to welcome anyone who wishes to hear the Divine Office sung eight times each day.
Lopez: Who are the Benedictines of Mary? What gets you up in the morning? What motivates you? What do you give to the world, besides bestselling albums?
Mother Cecilia: We are a fairly new community, deeply committed to preserving Gregorian chant and the traditional liturgy our monastic forefathers have carried on for centuries. That is a big motivation to get us up in the morning to be sure, but the One Who called us still calls us down to the chapel each morning to spend our first waking two and a half hours in song. He asks that we participate in the work of His mercy by being instruments, which allow Him to use us to pour out grace upon the whole world. This is a much bigger ambition than being at the top of the charts. Holiness is the biggest challenge of life, but it is the one that is rewarded in the life to come.
Lopez: How many are you? What do vocations look like?
Mother Cecilia: At present, we are 25 in number with an average age of 28. Thus far we have seven young women set to join us in the fall, with an average age of 19. There may be a few more, but these seven provide a very good snapshot of vocations to the community: zealous and devout young women who come to give themselves to God alone. None of the seven heard about us through the CDs, but five of the seven come at the recommendation of priests who know our community. I think this is very beautiful considering our special charism to pray and sacrifice for priests. Perhaps it is an indirect fruit of our life of prayer that young women come forward through the influence of priests to give themselves to a life of prayer for priests.
Lopez: Is there another album coming?
Mother Cecilia: We certainly hope so, if the good God wills it!
(See an earlier interview with Mother Cecilia, where I ask questions like: Who would ever want to be a cloistered nun today? And more about monastery life at Ephesus.)
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.