About Sr. Fidelis

I am 46 years old, and have been a Sister at the Community of Jesus for 26 years. Having grown up here, I have been singing Gregorian chant since I was 10! I was very blessed to study Gregorian chant with Dr. Mary Berry in Cambridge, England and here at home. Recently, I have been able to do some radio and tv interviews, sharing about the blessings of Gregorian chant. I love leading chant workshops, and have been able to do that in the US and abroad.

Saint Michael, defend us!

by Sister Fidelis

Today we celebrate the feast of Michael and All Angels, or Michaelmas. This tradition began in the 5th century and became an especially significant feast in some areas.  Because it falls near the Autumnal Equinox it was associated with the shortening of days and harvest. In Scotland it became a time for sports, games, horse-races and special harvest foods. In the Middle Ages it was a Holy Day of Obligation.

In the Graduale Romanum we find special Propers for this day – of note is a beautiful Alleluia. The melody is full of energy, rising and falling in ascending patterns. It has an open and lofting feeling much as we’d imagine the movement of angels. It  is not a “gentle” piece but rather has a strength – leaps of fourths and fifths and repeated scalar passages, composed in a “major” mode and covering a large range. The text is as always the driving force of the melody and a wonderful prayer to chant:

Alleluia! Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in the day of battle; so that we perish not in the awful judgment.

Vexilla Regis

by Sister Fidelis

We celebrated the Feast of the Holy Cross last week and the hymn for Vespers that day is Vexilla regis, an ancient and very well-known piece. Written by Fortunatus, it is documented that it was first sung as part of a procession from Tours to Poitiers, France, in November 569 when a relic of the True Cross was sent from the East by Byzantine Emperor Justin II at the request of St. Radegunda.

The hymn is regularly used now for I Vespers the Saturday before Passion Sunday as well as on several Feast days through the year. The text is full of imagery and story and the tune has a flowing march-like feel. A mode I with a fairly narrow range it moves steadily from the top-most tau down to do mainly in stepwise motion or small leaps – this giving a steady movement forward. The few porecti and quilismae add a feeling of flourish. Reading the poetry reminds us again of the love that lies at the basis of our faith:

The royal banners go forth, the mystery of the cross shines,
Where, in the flesh, the creator of flesh hung on the gibbet;
Where he was also wounded by the cruel point of the spear:
That he might wash us from sin, water flowed with blood.
Fulfilled are those things which David prophesied in faithful song,
Saying to the nations: “God has reigned from a tree.”
O beautiful and shining tree, clothed in royal purple,
Chosen to handle on its worthy trunk such holy limbs!
O blessed tree, on whose arms hung the ransom of the world;
It became a balance for his body, and snatched back the spoils of hell.
Hail of Cross, only hope! In this time of the passion,
Increase grace to the faithful, and remove sin from all things.
You, fountain of salvation, O Trinity, let all living things praise together;
Cherish throughout the ages all those whom you save by the mystery of the cross. Amen.

O gloriosa Domina

by Sister Fidelis

On September 8 we celebrate the Nativity of Mary, a feast that was established as early on as the 6th century. Once again we have a collection of beautiful hymns, antiphons, and Propers, all written very specifically for this day. The hymn for Lauds is especially lovely: O gloriosa Domina, taken from the second half of a larger hymn written by Fortunatus in the mid 500s. The four verses used at Lauds have many wonderful descriptions of Mary: glorious Lady; gentle one; door of the high king; shining gate of light….

The melody of the hymn has a very simple and gentle feeling. While it covers a range greater than an octave, it moves largely in step-wise motion or leaps of a third. The second and fourth quarters of each verse have a lovely cascading pattern of pedes and clivi rippling from re to sol and landing finally on the home-tone, la.

It’s amazing to think of this piece being sung annually on this date for close to 1500 years. Several sources state that it was the favorite hymn of St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231), that the song was always on his lips, even on his deathbed (Catholic Encyclopedia).

Here below is a visual sample of the first two verses as well as a recording of Gloriæ Dei Cantores Men’s Schola singing the hymn (from the CD, The Chants of Mary).

Proclaiming the sacred texts

by Sister Fidelis

In doing some research this week I came across a quote by Dr. Mary Berry, musicologist and chant scholar who taught our community so much about Gregorian chant. I found it extremely inspirational and informative—once again a reminder that it is the text, mainly Scripture, that is the motivator in this form of prayer, and how much we have to gain by participating in it.

“The first ray of hope that came to me fourteen years ago, when I launched out on teaching Gregorian Chant and 96 came when I expected 20, has been amply fulfilled. People come because they sense in the Church a malaise which actually amounts to a crisis of faith and a positive attempt to water down the basic doctrines of Incarnation and Resurrection. I’ve told you something about the research and I’ve also hinted at the extent to which people, particularly the young, find the chant relevant to their Christian lives. In coming to the Chant they find the strong affirmation of the living Christian message in all its vitality and passion and youthful vigor. My experience is that it utterly refreshes, enriches and converts anyone who sings it. The latest researches to which I have referred have laid open, like a delicate dissection, this faith proclaimed through the intricate and superlative art of generations of unknown composers, closer in time than we are to the original revelation of God in Jesus Christ. They proclaim the sacred texts in a way that reveals the Church’s deep and traditional faith in the Son of God, made Man, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified for our sake, but also risen, ascended, glorified.” —Dr. Mary Berry, CBE, from a lecture given in 1985

The Divine Office — Vespers

by Sister Fidelis

The service of Vespers, along with Lauds is one of the oldest of the Daily Offices, and can be traced back to Jewish tradition. The word comes from the Greek hespera or Latin vesper, meaning “evening.”

Two unique elements of this service are the chanting of the Magnificat, from Luke, and also a Reading of scripture (this was introduced with Vatican II). In addition we sing a hymn, a responsory, and three or four Psalms with their corresponding antiphons. It seems in many ways that we recount the goodness and graciousness of God in this service. Traditionally we chant the higher numbered Psalms, various ones from 110–144. This includes some that are probably very familiar to most of us: 121, 127, 130,  144, and others. Not all, but many of them recount God’s goodness to us over history.

Maybe it’s the time of day, the setting of the sun, or the fact that much of the workday is through, I don’t know, but to me there is a peaceful quality about Vespers. One element particularly highlights this theme – the responsory– a short piece sung first by the Cantor and repeated by the rest of the choir. There is a different text for each day – here are a few, each with an uplifting message:

Monday
The Lord shepherds me and I will lack nothing,
He has set me in green pastures,
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday
Keep us O Lord, as the apple of your eye,
Under the shadow of your wings protect us
Glory be….

Thursday
Let my prayer be directed to you, O Lord,
As incense in your sight,
Glory be…

The Divine Office — Lauds

by Sister Fidelis

Here at the Community of Jesus we chant the Divine Office, which for us includes: Lauds, Midday, Vespers, and Compline. Anyone who has experienced the chanting of these Hours will know that each service has its own character, which together create a rhythm to the flow of the day.

We start with the morning service of Lauds, from Latin laudare, to praise. As Dr. Mary Berry wrote: “Lauds was the hour that sanctified the moment of sunrise.” One of the traditions of this service is the recitation of the “Praise Psalms” (148, 149, 150) as the last Psalms of each morning. Another element particular to this service is the Benedictus, the “Canticle of Zechariah” from the Gospel of Luke, chanted while standing as is customary for a text from the Gospels. The “Invitatory Psalm” is also a unique element, dating back to the time of Benedict. This is the first Psalm of the service, traditionally set apart as the time during which any monk who may have overslept could still run in, prostrate himself in penance and take his place in the choir!

Looking back in history Lauds is one of the most ancient Offices, borrowing from the Jewish tradition of praying three times a day. In our Christian history we trace our current form of worship back to Apostolic times. Early writers such as St. Cyprian, John Cassian, Etheria, St. John Chrystostum all mention it in their writings, and of course St. Benedict gives a lot of detail about this service in his Rule.

Starting my day with this service can be an exercise in will-power to focus on the words before me and not to let my mind wander to my own plans or worries. Or it can be the perfect launching platform for the day if I let myself be affected by the words I am saying–inspiring Psalms and the beautiful poetry of hymns dating back to early centuries. I can find myself uplifted and changed as I repeat the praises that thousands of Christians have recited each morning for thousands of years…

Text of hymn from Sunday Lauds
Behold, already the shadow of night is diminishing, the dawn of light is gleaming red:
Let us all keep on with every effort beseeching the Almighty.

May our compassionate God drive away all our anguish, bestow health,
And give us, by the lovingkindness of the Father, the kingdom of the heavens.

Grant us this, O blessed Godhead of the Father, and of the son, and also of the Holy Spirit,
Whose glory resounds in all the world. Amen.

Words from the masters

by Sister Fidelis

A group of Cantors at our community have been researching the history and roots of Gregorian Chant: a broad subject full of variety and many interesting angles. In reviewing this project I am reminded about the real purpose behind the centuries-old tradition and what has kept it alive and pertinent even today. I think we all know but sometimes forget the simple answer: to proclaim the Word.

It is easy to get caught up in minutia, rhetoric, and opinions and turn the subject of this form of worship into some sort of heady, scientific study. There is much to delve into in the learning of Gregorian chant, but in doing so let’s not forget its Life and simple purpose! This is really why it captures our hearts and has endured the test of time.

To share a few quotes from some of the Masters…

Chant is a question of bringing forth the music which the words already contain.
—Dom Jacques Hourlier (1910-1984, Solesmes monk)

The predominance of vocal music as a tool grew out of the attitude of using music to convey ideas. The vocal song of the Temple drew from folksongs of the day. People would learn the melodies and text and bring them back to their homes (thus spreading the word).
—A.Z. Idelsohn (1882-1938, Jewish musicologist and composer)

Gregorian chant presents itself as an art which continually undergoes change because it is alive.
Dom Eugene Cardine (1905-1988, Solesmes monk & Gregorian chant specialist)

Chant is like a garden….you visit it dozens of times, but always see something new and fresh!
—Dr. Mary Berry  (1917-2008, Augustinian canoness regular, choral conductor & musicologist)

Hymn for Saint Benedict’s Day

by Sister Fidelis

Today we celebrate the Solemn Feast of Saint Benedict of Nursia. Here in our Community, one from the Benedictine monastic tradition, this is an especially significant day. We begin Vespers with a beautiful hymn written by Saint Peter Damian (1007-1072 AD), Benedictine reformer, and Doctor of the Church. Found in the Breviarum Monasticum, the hymn is written in Mode I and has a lovely lyrical tune which sets off the stunning poetry. Damian uses phrases such as “precious jewel of the heavenly king”, “your heart fixed on the stars,” and “you work through the narrow beginnings of a strict life” as he recounts the life of Benedict.

Each verse begins with a stepwise melody in the lower range, blossoms in the middle with leaps of 4ths and 5ths, and then settles back to a repeat of the opening phrase. It sticks to the typical features of Mode I – beginning and ending on Re and at points hovering around La. The clarity and simplicity are the perfect backdrop for the hymn text and a beautiful tribute to a man who influenced monasticism and thereby chant in such a significant way.

Mass of the Angels

by Sister Fidelis

Missa De Angelis, or Mass VIII, is one of the best known Gregorian Chant Masses today. As with most of these Mass units the various pieces, Kyrie, Gloria, etc. were not composed together but rather grouped at a certain point in history, assigned a number and title. This particular Mass seems to have been gathered together in the 18th century, though the Kyrie is likely a 15th century Norman composition, the Gloria from the 16th century, the Sanctus again from Normandy in the 11th or 12th century and the Agnus Dei, 15th  century, from the Rouen area of N. France. Most Masses are named for a “trope” that was sung before or after the mass, but this is one is unique and takes its name from the tradition of celebrating a Mass in honor of the Holy Angels on Mondays. This was a devotion especially practiced by the Franciscans.

It is interesting to see the characteristics of the various pieces here. The Kyrie and Gloria in Mode V and the Sanctus and Agnus Dei in Mode IV. The Kyrie and Sanctus, melismatic in style with the Gloria and Agnus Dei less so. And really with the exception of the Gloria it is not a “simple” mass so it is interesting that it has become one of the well-known favorites in many churches, not to mention one of the standard Masses used in the Vatican. Having been assigned as a “Festive Mass” I think there is a certain feeling of celebration attached to it and certainly we see that reflected in the chant throughout. For example the 12-note jubilus at the outset of the Kyrie, the continuous rise and fall of smaller melismas and repeated notes in the Sanctus, and the many torculae in the Agnus Dei. In celebration of the anniversary of the dedication of our church we sang this Mass on Sunday and it brought a real sense of joy to the morning.