Tucked away off a rocky road in Gower in rural Missouri, a small community of cloistered nuns has just come out with a new Christmas album.
Their music, which started as private prayer, has become a musical balm for a weary world in search of peace. Their sweet harmonies are the fruit of their faith and they have chosen to share it with the world.
Chances are that this new album, “Caroling at Ephesus”, will be a hit. Though the Sisters live quietly in near obscurity, their singing is well known. Four of their previous albums have topped the music charts.
The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles at the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus range in age from 18 to 92. They have chosen to leave the world and spend their days working in silence – except for when they are singing sacred music.
While many consumers crave simpler holidays, these women, young and old, have made an art of simplifying holidays and keeping them holy.
The Sisters are drawn to a divine rhythm – which to the outside and commercial world may seem out of rhythm. They have left their families to follow Jesus.
The community has grown to 31 Sisters and draws women from all over the world, including Germany, Netherlands and Kenya. One member is an Algerian-Canadian, and there also women from Texas, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
“We are in a sense reaching back through time and conserving that way of life for the future,” explained Mother Cecelia, prioress. “These women really want to be a part of it. It is 1,500 years old, this Benedictine way of life and it has given the Church thousands of saints. They aspire to this and want to pass on that ideal.”
The nuns milk cows, gather eggs, make vestments and nurture the souls of weary priests. One of their specialties is making church vestments by hand.
When they kick the straw off of their boots and go into the chapel, they align their hearts and voices – and create harmony.
“We work in silence; it’s a full silence, we are waiting there for something very beautiful to come. The voice of our Lord, comes to us in whispers, so we have to be quiet so we can hear it,” Mother Cecelia said.
On Christmas Eve, in the still of the night, they will gather by the Christmas tree for a little ceremony before midnight Mass, with Sister Emmanuel uncovering a baby Jesus figurine to be laid at the foot of the tree. They will sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” one last time.
At midnight, the women will process into their tiny chapel, singing, “O Come Divine Messiah,” and the youngest woman in the growing community will place the baby Jesus in the waiting manger in the creche.
“Then Mass starts with its Gregorian chant and carols to follow. It’s enough to put a shiver down every spine,” Sister Scholastica said. “There are frequently tears at the end of midnight Mass, hearing Christmas carols sung with so much interior joy, and for the first time all year.”
The nuns spend the 12 days of Christmas enjoying one another’s company. With a little extra recreation and time together, they often spend the days singing Christmas carols around the fire.
They draw one another’s names at the beginning of Advent. The Sisters are not allowed to own anything and they do not exchange much in the way of material gifts. They exchange spiritual gifts instead, praying in a special way for the Sister whose name they chose.
“It really enhances the celebration of Christmas because we are reminded that true Christian charity is not a matter of gifts, but of love, and helping each other get to heaven behind the lead of the Christ Child,” the Sister explains.
The Sisters chant in Latin every day. When it came time to choose carols for their new album, they looked for music that expressed devotion to the Christ Child most beautifully, according to Sister Scholastica.
This latest album includes the debut of their eldest Sister, 92-year-old Sister Wilhelmina, who sang with them as they recorded “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
The Sisters are in the process of raising money to build their priory church and they thought a Christmas CD would be fitting.
Sister Scholastica said: “We are seeking to build a house for Our Lord, and remembered that on Christmas night he had no place to lay his head.”