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Deception in Conception, Missouri » Noble Simplicity
 
January 2, 2000

 

Noble Simplicity
 

At age 70, beard white as snow, Father Hugh Tasch looks the part of the venerable old monk. But something has put the sparkle of a fresh-faced novice in his eyes.

“I feel like a young person again,” he says with a wide grin. “This is in my bones. I feel my creative juices coming to fruition.”

At a desk cluttered with paper or in the library behind stacks of books, Father Hugh is busy at the work these days on what he considers “the most important thing I’ve ever done.” By next Christmas, he, along with Abbot Gregory Polan, Brother Michael Marcotte and Father Timothy Schoen, will complete a new Liturgy of the Hours in the style of Gregorian chant. Father Jerome Werth is translating Latin texts and Novice Carl Weckenmann is assisting in page design. By the time they finish, the monks will have written and composed hundreds of antiphons, hymns, responsories, and melodies for the singing of the Psalms. At his current pace, Father Hugh is averaging a hymn a day. “I feel like I have so much to give and I’m just pumping them out,” he says.

The monks of Conception Abbey [Missouri] were at the forefront of liturgical reform in the early 1960s, and in the early ’70s published their own English version of the Liturgy of the Hours. But no sooner was it completed than the Benedictine Order published new guidelines. Conception’s brand new office was all but obsolete within a year of publication. The community’s response was to use a supplementary book of music written by then choirmaster Father Marcel Rooney (who would later be elected abbot) and several other monks. But the task of a full-fledged revision of the Liturgy of the Hours would have to wait almost three decades.

In 1992, Abbot James Jones asked then Father Marcel, who was in Rome at the time, to request an indult from the Vatican to use the Psalm arrangement of the Abbey of Montserrat in Spain. This office features the Psalms of the Roman Liturgy of the Hours at Lauds [Morning Prayer] and Vespers [Evening Prayer] and a uniquely monastic arrangement of the Psalms at Vigils [Office of Readings] and Daytime Prayer. He received permission, but the approaching renovation of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception sidetracked the project. Finally, following the renovations, Abbot Gregory, with the old choir books falling apart in his hands, turned his attention to the next priority. A new church, now a new office. “I saw it as one of the important things in our lives as Benedictines,” the abbot said. “Time for prayer is the heart of our community. The rhythm of prayer is the rhythm of our day.”

The monks scrapped their own homespun cycle of readings for the Office of Vigils for the two-year A Word in Season, by Henry Ashworth OSB, which features translations from the early Church fathers. This was supplemented with readings from the Roman Liturgy of the Hours. “This was kind of a bold decision for us,” says Brother Michael. “Historically, Benedictine monasteries have had their own offices.” Conception’s motivation for choosing the more recognizable Roman Liturgy of the Hours was the hope that it would be more familiar to the abbey’s many guests. “My genuine hope as abbot is that people will want to come here to pray with us,” Abbot Gregory said. “We want our prayer to be both inspirational and beautiful. Beauty will always attract people because beauty is of God.”

The daunting challenge was to clothe the English language with chant-like melodies. It had been done before; indeed Conception monks have sung chant in English since Vatican II. But with a generation of English text behind them, the monks thought they could do it better. “Since the ’70s we had combined chant-like music with more contemporary music,” Brother Michael explained. “But it was difficult for the community to switch back and forth between two styles. We wanted simple music that was easy to sing.” The decision to go with nothing but the free rhythm of chant was practical as well. Becasue it has survived so many centuries, chant is not likely to go “out of style” soon. “It’s not modern,” says Father Hugh. “It’s medieval, which might turn some people off, but we think it is more contemplative and prayerful, and it has stood the test of time.” The monks also wanted more poetic chant, in which the natural accentuation of the words comes across in the music. “There was so much English chant that came out in the ’70s that had clumsy accents,” Brother Michael said. “People were obviously trying to preserve the music but not respecting the language.”

The task would be massive. Much of the music would have to be rewritten and arranged from tunes that dated to the fifth and sixth centuries. Tomes of Latin text would have to be translated and turned into poetry. Then there was data entry, editing, and page layout. Solemnities and feast days received their own special musical settings and hymns are made more elaborate. The first books were published last March to rave reviews. Seven books, featuring Lent, Easter, Advent and Christmas are yet to be completed.

“It strikes me that it is written in a way that is faithful to the tradition of liturgy and devotion in Benedictine monasteries,” said Brother Thomas Sullivan. “It is evident that there has been quite a bit of work on the part of those involved. And the result is a very singable and peaceful office.” “I think it’s beautiful,” said Brother Mark Kosiba. “Prayer means a lot to a monk, and to do it in such a meaningful way is truly a blessing.” “I think Conception Abbey has much to be proud of,” Father Hugh said. “At the risk of sounding arrogant, I have good reason to think we have one of the finest offices in the monastic English-speaking world.” Brother Michael predicts other communities may see Conception’s liturgy as a model. “In a sense we are breaking new ground. Very few communities have really taken the lead in doing this sort of thing,” he notes. “And I think there is a real desire for it.”

The future will come, but Abbot Gregory stresses that for now he hopes the new Liturgy of the Hours will simply bring his community, and its guests, closer to God. “We want our music to possess noble simplicity,” he says. “It should be easy to sing, but able to lift the heart and spirit. I think we are accomplishing that.”

Noble Simplicity:
Conception monks break ground composing new Liturgy of the Hours
by Daniel A. Madden, Director of Communications

[Note: This article appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of Tower Topics, the official publication of the Benedictine Monks of Conception Abbey (Conception Missouri).]