Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

This is becoming a habit. Angels and Saints at Ephesus, the sacred music album from the Missouri-based Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles (their first hit being the well-received Advent at Ephesus), is now holding the #1 spot atop the Billboard Magazine’s Classical Traditional Music Chart for 13 consecutive weeks. With that recording flying higher than Sally Field as Sister Betrille, the market is clearly seems to be there to support another sister act.

So, to fill that demand, comes another group of singing nuns. The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist hail (God) from Ann Arbor Michigan. Their first collection of devotionals entitled Mater Eucharistiae is set for release next Tuesday (8/13). Like the Ephesus CDs, it’s produced by De Montfort Music, a label that specializes in chant, polyphony and all areas of Sacred Music.

I recently had the opportunity to speak Sister Maria Suso, one of the angelic choir voices heard on Mater Eucharastiae. You may also recognize her from her appearance (with two other order members) on the GSN hit game show The American Bible Challenge. More on that that later but, first, more about the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

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JWK: You’ve appeared on Oprah Winfrey‘s show and The American Bible Challenge, as well as other media outlets. What has that experience been like for you?

SISTER MARIA SUSO: You know, John, I did not expect when I entered religious life that I would be in the media. I know that some of our sisters have been in the media before, on news channels. We’ve done some things with EWTN which is the Catholic station. So, it wasn’t an impossibility but certainly (wasn’t expected) to this extent and I think it’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience.

First off, I believe that it’s God’s will for me because when we enter religious life one of our vows is obedience. It’s very much a positive understanding that God calls us and He engages our freedom and he wants to invite us into the life that he has planned for us. When we’re asked to do things in our life we know that it’s coming from God and we say “Yes!” joyfully. So, going into it with that attitude — knowing that all of these experiences have been God’s will for me — has made me open to them. It’s been beautiful to be able to witness to the life that God has given to me — to the joy He has given to me, to my faith in Christ and the love that there is in this community. I think it’s been an overwhelmingly positive reception by the public and I hope that God is using all that I and my sisters do in the media to touch souls for Him.

JWK: How did Mater Eucharistiae, your new CD, come about?

SMS: We actually know Kevin and Monica Fitzgibbons who started a recording label called De Montfort Music. They had come to our vespers. We have evening prayers open to the public on Sundays. They had come and heard our music. De Montfort Music is dedicated to using the music of religious communities and so they thought it would be a beautiful thing for people to hear. They talked to our community and we discerned that God was indeed calling us to participate in this. De Montfort got us together with Decca Records so that it could be produced and distributed widely to not just Catholics or Christians but the wider culture.

JWK: How long have you been in the order?

SMS: I’ve been in the community four years.

JWK: Did you have any sort of musical background when you went in? What was your life like before that?

SMS: I’ll start with the musical part…My father had been a singer his whole life. He was part of a singing group when he was younger. So, we always sang together. It was quite natural.

JWK: What was the group?

SMS: It was called the Street Lights but it no longer exists. It was a doo-wop acapella group. They would do local presentations. But, anyway, we always sang together. So, it was natural (that) when I was in about second grade that I joined the church choir. I was involved in a church choir pretty much consistently from second grade through college. In college I also took classes and was in choirs there…I never took any formal vocal training but I received a lot of choral training over the years. It’s something that’s very special to me.

JWK: Do the other sisters also have a background in singing? I mean it’s amazing that all of you are called this religious life — and all have these great voices.

SMS: Well, some have more training than others. Most of the sisters have some training. Few come in with no training but we do also in our community have choir practice once a week. The younger sisters who are in what is called the novitiate –the first few years of formation — they take a choir class where we learn particularly the songs that are special to our community. All of the songs on the CD were chosen because they’re representative of songs that are very special to us.

JWK: I was going to ask how the songs were chosen. What was the process like of deciding what would be on the album?

SMS: I was not personally involved in choosing the music although I’m not surprised by any of the titles. All of these songs — and, of course, there are other songs that are special to our community — reflect our devotion, first of all to Mary and to Jesus. We’re very much devoted to Mary and that’s because she always leads us to Jesus and she’s a perfect model of faith for us.

So, for example, the first song on the CD is Holy Mary, Mother of God. It’s a prayer that Mary will help us to make our hearts ready for her Son. And then many of the songs about the Eucharist which we believe is the Body and Blood of Christ that we receive at mass and (is an important part of) our devotion to Jesus. They…are also reflective of our joy in our religious life.

So, for example, Quid Retribuam is from Psalm 116 and it’s “What can I return to the Lord for all the good that He has done for me?” And then it goes on to say “My vows to the Lord I will repay.” We have so much joy in our religious life that we want to give back to the Lord our whole lives — everything that we can. Our vows are the way that we do that. So, in all of these songs and hymns, these are special hymns and songs that we pull out on special days for great celebrations. It’s a great representative selection of our community.

JWK: What would you says differentiates Mater Eucharistiae from other Christian albums?

SMS: That’s a good question. I think one thing is that a lot of Christian albums are very beautiful. We have some modern hymns (but) we also have a lot of very old music…I think our oldest hymn (goes) back to the 4th century — the Te Deum…And it goes on up, the 9th century, 14th century. So, I think there’s a lot that many people haven’t heard that is from the Church’s tradition…That’s exciting because we didn’t sing it in such a way that it’s old. We sing it in a way that it’s new. The Church’s music is always new when it’s sung with a heart full of the meaning of the text. When it’s really a prayer then that music comes alive. So, that’s one thing.

Another thing is that this music is representative of our community and the specific message that we’re being called to bring to the culture which is a message of really what Mary did which was giving herself completely to Christ when she said “Let it be done to me according to your word.” Mary gave her entire self in faith to God and to whatever He wanted of her and, in doing so, she was able to bring Jesus to the world. And that’s what we want to do.

JWK: How was the CD title chosen?

SMS: Mater Eucharistiae means Mother of the Eucharist. It is part of our community’s theme, so that’s primarily the reason. We also have a newsletter by the same name. Again, it’s very reflective of who we are.

JWK: The album was produced a Blanton Alspaugh who is a multi-Grammy Award winner. What was it like to work with him?

SMS: It was wonderful to work with Blanton. He was a very humble person, very kind. He did a lot to help us to clarify and to bring out the beauty of the music and enhance it without changing how we sing our hymns and our songs. It was very natural working with him. He just helped us to bring out the best of what we were doing.

JWK: I found it amusing that the engineer on the album is named John Newton which, of course, also happens to be the name of the guy who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace. Maybe you can do that on your next CD — which leads me to the question, are you planning another CD?

SMS: Well, you know, we’re open to whatever God wants but there’s nothing in the works as of yet.

JWK: By the way, I watched The American Bible Challenge. How did you master your incredible spoon ability?

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SMS: I would encourage everyone to try it for themselves.

JWK: So, this is one of those things that — exercising basic caution — you could actually say “Do try at home.”

SMS: Oh, yeah, I think it should be tried at home. We’ve actually played around with it here after the Bible Challenge. It’s fun.

JWK: Is there anything you’d like to mention that I haven’t asked you about?

SMS: I was kind of afraid you’d ask me what my favorite song was but now I kind of want to tell you.

JWK: That’s a good question. You should be doing the interview.

SMS: Okay, let’s rephrase it. I’m not going to tell you what my favorite song is but I will say a couple of things about a few of the songs that were really special.

One song that is very special to me personally is Jesu Dulcis Memoria because it’s a hymn about the name of Jesus. Dominicans were historically part of the movement in the 12th and 13th centuries for devotion to the Holy Name because, as you know, very often the name of Jesus is used irreverently and so Dominicans were helping to spread a devotion to the name of Jesus. This hymn is about that and I think it’s a very beautiful hymn. It’s Number 2 (on the CD).

Number 3 is the Te Deum. Something that’s very special about this, we sing it at vows and at very, very big moments…It’s a hymn of praise that s also part of the liturgy of the Church. It’s always sung at the election of the new pope. I don’t know if you saw it but we were recording the CD and working on the Te Deum when Pope Francis was elected. There’s a video running around on the internet because the people working on the press pack were here taping that day. So they caught it all on tape. They caught the sisters coming in and saying “There’s white smoke!” and all the sisters go rushing out to go watch it — and we were singing the  Te Deum at that moment. So, that was very special.

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SMS: And then I think the other one that I’d like to mention is Sicut Cervus which is, again, very special to our community. Often we sing it at our vows and our procession ceremonies…It (says) “As the deer longs for running streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” I think it’s a very apt way of saying the desire that we have for God, how we feel when He draws us to religious life and draws us to give ourselves completely to Him, that we long for Him like the deer longs for water.”

JWK: Beautiful.


Note: Mater Eucharistiae goes on sale next Tuesday (8/13)

Additional Note: Encore presentations of the first two seasons of The American Bible Challenge, including the editions featuring the sisters, can be found on UP TV.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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