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Deep In The Desert, Monks Make Transcendent Music
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Deep In The Desert, Monks Make Transcendent Music

Music Interviews


If you drive roughly about an hour and a half north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, into a place called the Chama Canyon, you might hear this in the distance.


MARTIN: ...the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. The monastery was founded in the 1960s and is home to a community of Benedictine monks. They spend their days in prayer, work, meditation and music.


MARTIN: For years, the monks have generated revenue for the monastery by making and selling beer and handicrafts. But now they've launched another venture: sharing their distinct sound. They've recently released an album of Gregorian chants, and the album is appropriately called "Blessings, Peace and Harmony."


MARTIN: Abbott Philip Lawrence and Brother Christian Leisy from Christ in the Desert Monastery joined me from Stepbridge Studios in Santa Fe. Thanks to both of you for being with us.

BROTHER CHRISTIAN LEISY: We're happy to be here, Rachel.

ABBOTT PHILIP LAWRENCE: Rachel, it's a blessing to be here with you and to be able to talk with you.

MARTIN: Brother Christian, may I ask you what role does this music have in your day today life at the monastery?

LEISY: Rachel, sometimes people think that we spend all day in the church praying or singing or chanting. We don't. We spent part of the day and we come to the church throughout the day as a community to pray and sing. It's a wonderful expression of joy, of petition, of even sorrow, but of offering one's thoughts and all of one's deeds outside the time in church to God.

And one of the best ways to do it, in our tradition throughout the ages, has been through singing. And not just in the Catholic tradition or even just in the monastic tradition, but to chant, to saying engages one's whole being, really.


MARTIN: Abbott Philip, you have written that chanting in this way actually affects the brain. What effect does this kind of meditative music have on the brain?

LAWRENCE: There are actual scientific studies that show you can lower your blood pressure with this kind of thing. You can live a more peaceful life. You live longer generally, if you're in our kind of life. And the chants are different, you know? I spent some time in a Bon monastery - this is the indigenous religion in Tibet before Indian Buddhism arrived - and their chanting is really deep.


LAWRENCE: But you could feel the same effect.

MARTIN: Can you describe what happens physically?

LAWRENCE: When I'm really getting my best self to the chanting in the church, my whole body relaxes. My voice takes on a different resonance. But more importantly, within the mind, there's a peacefulness that can come there. And it allows me simply to center myself in the divine. And that's a physical effect that if I pay attention to it, I can feel it happening in my body.

MARTIN: Is that the same for you, Brother Christian?

LEISY: Oh, sometimes I fall asleep...


LEISY: ...because I'm so relaxed.

MARTIN: And then, Abbott Philip says, Brother Christian, wake up.

LEISY: No. No, he's way too far on the other side of choir. So he wouldn't even see it, maybe.


LEISY: But that does say something about the relaxing quality that he's describing. You know, that we take all our cares to God, we say in our prayers, in our chanting even. But also, we entrust them to God.


MARTIN: Some of these harmonies are very intricate. I imagine you have to be listening quite carefully to your neighbor, the monk standing next to you to make sure you're matching breath and cadence and tone.

LAWRENCE: One of the things where chant mirrors life is that you learn how to breathe as a unit. You don't dare all breathe at the same time 'cause you would break the flow of the chant. And so you may feel you need a breath but you hear your brother is starting to take a breath, so you have to hold on just a little bit longer.


LEISY: That's...

LAWRENCE: It's learning to learn as community even in the singing, you know. And you have to adapt your voice to your neighbor's voice. You know, we shouldn't hear - in a good chant recording, you shouldn't hear one voice dominating it too much.


LEISY: It's good to use the word listen also, Rachel. That's the first word of the rule of Saint Benedict that we monks have been following since the sixth century. And the word is listen, obsculta, to really hear what God is saying, what our community is saying, what our superior is saying. But it relates very much to the chanting, as well.


MARTIN: I wonder when you have young men or even middle-age men who come to the monastery and inquire about what it takes to commit to this kind of life, what distinguishes someone for you; someone who has what it takes - for lack of a better phrase - to become a Benedictine monk?

LAWRENCE: You know, it's a process because as often told, even our own community, out of all the people who apply, maybe 10 or 15 percent will actually persevere. It's a very distinct life and it's not for most men. It's easy to be a monk for two weeks.


LAWRENCE: And after that you begin to find out that monastic life is purposefully monotonous. But the monotony is to bring you to develop your inner life, and that's very different from how most men get their identity, which is doing something externally.

MARTIN: We think of monastic life as being closed off to a degree from the rest of the world, intentionally to create that sacred space to connect with God. But to make a CD, you are clearly trying to share this music, to get it out. What do you want people to get from it?

LAWRENCE: Peace, harmony and blessings.


LAWRENCE: But actually, we received an email asking us to record for Sony. We were so shocked, we presumed that it was SPAM. Apparently somebody in Sony had felt that the world was not really getting any better, and that they should try to work with a community that might deal with some of the peace elements.

One of the great models of the Benedictines is pax in Latin, which is peace. Chanting can bring peace. And so, if we could do anything to help promote peace in individuals, in countries or in the whole world, that's a wonderful gift that we can give.


MARTIN: Brother Christian Leisy and Abbott Philip Lawrence joined us from Stepbridge Studios in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The monks' CD is called "Blessings, Peace and Harmony." It is available now.

Brother Christian, Abbott Phillips, thanks so much. It's been a pleasure.

LAWRENCE: You're very welcome, Rachel, nice to speak with you.

LEISY: Thank you, Rachel.


MARTIN: And you can hear more from "Blessings, Peace and Harmony" at

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.


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