Fr. Cassian Folsom is the founder and prior of the Monks of Norcia, an order of Benedictine monks in the Italian hometown of Saint Benedict and his sister Saint Scholastica. The monks — who, by the way, brew beer — have issued a new CD, produced by DeMonfort Music. Fr. Cassian, an American from Massachusetts who attended Indiana University’s School of Music, talks about Benedicta: Marian Chant from Norcia.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s ever ancient, ever new about Benedicta?
Fr. Cassian Folsom: The repertoire of Gregorian chant that you hear on the album is from different periods of the tradition. Some pieces go back to the first documented sources of the eighth century, others come from the High Middle Ages, and one piece is a new composition by our choirmaster, Fr. Basil. The chant, for us, is not a museum piece, but a living, dynamic tradition that speaks to us today.
Lopez: Why are there so many Americans over in your monastery in Italy?
Fr. Cassian: The Church in the U.S., for all of its challenges, shows areas of amazing vitality. There’s also a certain pioneer spirit in the American character that doesn’t shrink from charting a new path, from starting out on a new journey. Refounding the monastery at the birthplace of Saint Benedict has required lots of pioneer qualities!
LOPEZ: What does the U.S. look like from over there? Do you miss “home”?
FR. CASSIAN: There are big cultural differences between the U.S. and Italy. After living in Italy for a long time, I’m able to see both the positive and negative aspects of both sides of the Atlantic. To tell the truth, I miss hamburger! The American monks are also fond of peanut butter, a food which Italians find very strange indeed.
LOPEZ: You make beer with a slogan suggesting it makes the heart glad. Is that really true?
FR. CASSIAN: The motto of our brewery is ut laetificet cor, “that the heart may rejoice,” which is a citation from Psalm 103. The original context is talking about wine, but we’ve adapted it to refer to beer! The psalm praises God’s providence in giving good things to his people: bread, wine, and oil. In the Mediterranean and European cultures, wine or beer accompany a meal, and thus make up an important part of civilized life. Our beer is very good, and can be enjoyed for its own sake. But it’s even more enjoyable in the context of a common meal with confreres, family, or friends.
LOPEZ: How important is Saint Benedict to the life of you and your brothers? How important should he be in the lives of all Christians?
FR. CASSIAN: Saint Benedict is an extraordinary teacher and guide. He’s wise. He knows human nature, so he can’t be fooled. He is both loving and strict, compassionate and demanding. His Rule is truly remarkable. In the life of all Christians, how we long for wise guides, how we need a rule of life! There’s a whole body of contemporary literature on applying the teaching of Saint Benedict to ordinary life.
LOPEZ: You’ve referred to Saint Benedict as the patron saint of the ordinary. How can people outside the monastery be made holy in the ordinary things of life?
Fr. Cassian: Saint Benedict admonishes the cellarer to treat the tools of the monastery as though they were the sacred vessels of the altar. How profound that is! It means that material things have a sacramental meaning, and point beyond themselves to God, to divine realities. In our culture, we’re accustomed to being stimulated all the time, especially by television and the Internet; for that reason we look for excitement. Saint Benedict is not interested in excitement. In fact, we deliberately strive to reduce sensory input in the monastery, precisely so that we can see ordinary life not as something boring, but as the sacramental communication of God’s presence.
LOPEZ: Why is chant so important in your life?
FR. CASSIAN: The monks spend hours every day chanting the Mass and the Divine Office. It’s part of the air we breathe. There’s a lot of pollution in our world, and so the pure oxygen of Gregorian chant is like a breath of fresh air. The chant is beautiful, and our souls need beauty in order to grow and thrive. The chant is the Church’s love song to her Lord; it expresses the love-longing of the monk’s heart. Now monks are ordinary men, and what we experience is, in a real way, the experience of Every Man. I’m convinced that this beautiful chant will give spiritual nourishment to those who listen to it.
LOPEZ: And music has always been important in your life?
FR. CASSIAN: In high-school days, I was heavily involved with the school choir. In fact, when I went to college, I was a music major in voice at Indiana University’s music school before transferring to the seminary. I’ve been choirmaster in the monastery. I’ve been a cantor for decades. Even when I pray the Divine Office alone, I sing it. I love to sing.
LOPEZ: When did you know and how did you know God was calling you to this life?
FR. CASSIAN: I wanted to be a priest even as a little boy, but I never heard of monks until I was in college. My first experience of a monastery, St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana, was a powerful experience — like falling in love. I’ve been in the monastery now for 36 years, and I’m very grateful to God for leading me on this path.
LOPEZ: Is this CD a love letter to Mary?
Fr. Cassian: There is a tradition from the Middle Ages in which monks considered themselves as knights for Christ, and Mary then became their “lady love.” In terms of personal piety, however, my devotion to Our Lady is inspired rather by her consent, her fiat. The monk’s vows are his “Yes” to God, and Mary’s consent is a powerful example.
LOPEZ: Why is Mary so important in your life? In the life of Christians?
FR. CASSIAN: In addition to the extraordinary example of her consent to the message of the angel, Mary is also the model contemplative; she pondered all these things, meditating on them in her heart. This is the model for lectio divina, the contemplative rumination on the Word of God. As an example par excellence of following God’s will unreservedly, and as an example of prayer, Mary is fundamental for the life of Christians.
LOPEZ: How do we know she is the Virgo prudentissima — Virgin Most Wise?
FR. CASSIAN: Saint Leo, citing Saint Augustine, says that Mary conceived Our Lord first in her heart, then in her body (primus mente quam corpore). What could be more prudent that that? Prudence involves weighing options and making wise decisions. Cardinal Sarah recently published a book entitled Dieu ou rien: “God or Nothing.” Those were the choices for Mary too. And she chose wisely!
LOPEZ: How exactly does “Dominus possedit me” — God possess me? Given some of the things people are known to do in the name of God, is that desirable?
Fr. Cassian: The phrase is taken from the Book of Proverbs 8:22. The Douay-Rheims translates the text: “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways.” The RSV has it: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work.” In either case, it is Wisdom that is being personified here. The liturgy is using the Old Testament personification of Wisdom as existing with God before the creation of the world. In the liturgy, Wisdom is considered a “type” or “sign” of Mary, who is Seat of Wisdom. The text, therefore, should be interpreted typologically, not literally.
LOPEZ: How does one possess “nihil inquinatum” – nothing impure? Is that a prayer? Are all these songs? How can Mary help with this?
FR. CASSIAN: The text of Nihil inquinatum is also taken from the Wisdom literature, this time from the Book of Wisdom 7:25–26. Regarding Wisdom, the Scripture says: “Therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her.” Once again, this is typologically referred to Mary’s Immaculate Conception: No stain of sin was found in her from the moment of her conception. The saints, including Our Lady, are held up for our imitation. How can we, who are impure, imitate her who is pure? That’s the nature of Christian asceticism, that through compunction and repentance, we might strive for purity and sinlessness.
LOPEZ: Can you end the widespread confusion about the Immaculate Conception for Mary once and for all?
FR. CASSIAN: There is sometimes confusion about whose immaculate conception we’re celebrating in this feast: that of Christ or that of Mary? Of course, Christ was sinlessly conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. But that’s not the object of this feast. Rather, we’re celebrating Mary’s Immaculate Conception, who, by the merits of Christ’s passion, was preserved free from all stain of sin. We get tangled up, perhaps, at the affirmation that the merits of Christ’s passion work backward in time, but of course, God acts both within time (which he created) and outside of time. God the Father wished to prepare a perfect dwelling place for his Only Begotten Son, hence Mary is conceived without the stain of original sin.
LOPEZ: Why is — or should be — the Salve Regina prayer so important to Catholics?
FR. CASSIAN: I have often been at international meetings, I have been in churches in many different countries, I’ve heard the Salve Regina sung in all of these places. It’s one of those Latin chants that has entered deeply into popular piety and taken root. It’s a Marian chant that unites us and expresses our common faith.
LOPEZ: Why and how is Mary Star of the Sea, to note another of the songs on your CD?
Fr. Cassian: Saint Ambrose, in the hymn “Aeterne rerum Conditor,” describes the joy of sailors when the dawn comes, and the seas become calm enough to put into port. That’s the image that comes to my mind when I think of Mary as Star of the Sea: the morning star, a sign of hope to weary sailors that Christ the Sun of Justice is soon to dawn upon the world.
LOPEZ: Does the CD make you happy?
FR. CASSIAN: The beauty of this music, and the experience of singing these chants, brings a deep joy. I hope that those who listen to the CD will experience the same thing.
LOPEZ: What do you pray people get out of the music?
FR. CASSIAN: A respite from the struggles of life and a resting in the presence of God.
LOPEZ: What are you most grateful for?
FR. CASSIAN: When we sing the Te Deum we praise God not only for what He has done for us, but for what He is. That’s a distinctive quality of monastic prayer: gratuitous praise. I’m grateful to God because He is, and I’m enormously grateful that he has brought our community into being and has showered our monastery in Norcia with so many blessings.
LOPEZ: What do you hope God says to you when you see His face?
FR. CASSIAN: I really hope — although I don’t want to be presumptuous — that He will say: “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Master.”