“Our labour here is brief, the reward eternal; thus what is bitter will be turned into sweetness.”
These little-known words of Saint Clare to her sisters, shortly before her death in 1253, are now being heard across the 21st-century world, thanks to a Franciscan community of women in the rural countryside of southern England. The verses are featured in Light for the World, an album of spiritual music helping to heal people through the pandemic. Made by the Poor Clares of Arundel, the disc became the UK’s bestselling classical artist debut of 2020 and was nudging Bruce Springsteen in the Amazon UK bestseller list. It’s doing extremely well in many other countries and is now climbing the charts of the North American market.
The 16 tracks in Latin and English—each without exception hauntingly beautiful—not only incorporate ancient plainchants, psalms, and hymns such as Veni Creator Spiritus, Creator Alme Siderum, and In Paradisum, but also the hidden dictums of Francis and Clare: “Gaze, consider, contemplate as you desire to imitate him,” words Clare wrote to Queen Agnes of Bohemia to encourage her spiritual quest. Clare (her name means “light”) also pleaded with her: “Love Him, love Him, totally love Him. Who gave Himself totally for your love.” There are also fragments from Saint Francis’s attempt to articulate the wonder of God as he prayed on a Tuscan mountain: “You are love, you are wisdom, you are charity. You are patience, you are sweetness, you are beauty . . .” Now these and others, culminating with Oh Lord, Hear My Voice (Psalm 27), have been exquisitely set to music, each melody lifting the heart at this time of uncertainty and confusion.
For the parish priest of Saint James, Pettswood, in Kent, England, the CD has come at exactly the right time. “Feelings of anxiety and fear have taken hold of most of us during Covid-19,” said Father David Camilleri. “I have used the CD many times before the start of the Mass to help people get into a place of contemplation and mystery. I think it is an excellent way to envelop us in God’s loving reassurance of his presence among us. In their own way, the sisters are transmitting Julian of Norwich’s words—“All shall be well”—to us during this time.”
The 23 sisters, who live according to a form of life drawn up by Saint Clare of Assisi in 1253, have a convent in the village of Crossbush, West Sussex. They say they hope the CD will bring peace, joy, and a sense of calm as the world faces unprecedented times of stress and isolation.
“When we agreed to make this CD, Covid-19 was unheard of and, by the time we had completed it, we were entering the first lockdown,” Sister Gabriel Davison told me. “So many have felt cut off, isolated, alone, and afraid with little hope. We wanted to say through our music: ‘You are not alone. We are here walking this path with you, whether you know it or not, whether you have a belief in God or not.’ We believe that everything is held in God so our job is to help people discover that.”
But Sister Gabriel also disclosed that the decision to proceed with the project took some discernment. “We had to ask ourselves: ‘Why? Why do it? Why us? What is God asking of us? Can we say yes? Can we take a risk?’ But all the obstacles we thought were there were removed and then we had to trust, let go, and jump.”
Very few of Saint Clare’s texts have ever been set to music. “We wanted something of our spirituality, something of our inspiration, to be at the very heart of the album,” said Sister Gabriel. “We wanted Francis and Clare to speak for themselves. So I looked through their writings and we came up with what you hear now. Of course they are only snippets but they are beautiful words, timeless really. Clare and Francis lived through such turbulent times and they have something to teach us of our own.”
The CD was produced with creative instrumental work by composers James Morgan and Juliette Pochin for the Decca label. They would arrive at the convent on Wednesday afternoons when the weekly music practice was taking place. Usually the sisters would rehearse two songs, then record one of them. They were gently insistent that the making of the album should flow naturally into the rhythm of their life, rather than take it over, which is why it was compiled over the course of several months. They also chose to record in the chapel, the heart of the community, where the San Damiano crucifix hangs above the tabernacle and where the community prays for the needs of the world day by day.
“Recording was a joy for us,” Sister Gabriel enthused. “We had great fun. It was a community project and we were all in it together. Juliette and James worked so hard and they brought the best out in us.”
But, as the pandemic began to spread, the team had to down tools and cancel the remaining sessions. “We’d been recording since September 2019 and then suddenly, the following March, the country went into lockdown,” Juliette Pochin explained. “Fortunately, we felt we had enough material to put together the album in our home studio. We then had to send mixes to the nuns to listen to and then they emailed back their comments and input. It wasn’t ideal but we made it work. When you record signed artists, who are trying to make a living from the record industry, you and they are always trying to second-guess what will sell, what will be popular, not necessarily what you really want to compose, sing or produce. The community isn’t bound by any of these constraints and, although the record company obviously had to have half an eye on the commercial side of the industry, they allowed us to take our time.”
Managers at Decca Records said that when they first heard the demos they were transfixed. They’ve now released a digital deluxe version with added beats and “chill” mixes. Although primarily geared for the market of escapism, the music is having a more profound effect on some listeners.
Dr. David Torevell, a Catholic liturgist from Liverpool, who was recuperating from an operation when he received the CD for Christmas, commented: “I was recovering from hernia surgery and used to wake up in pain the middle of the night. But I found that, when I listened to this CD, the pain receded. As soon as the chant began, I was transported to a celestial bliss. The tonality and harmony of the female voices are exquisite, while the scriptural foundations and associations with Franciscan spirituality make the songs unique and inspiring. A person who is suffering from physical and mental discomfort will find this album soothing and healing because it will take them away from their unsettled body and mind.”
Catholic educator Sylvia Kennedy, who lives in Devon, first learned of the CD when she saw the sisters being interviewed on television. “The transparency of the sisters’ hope and joy shone a light in the darkness that had turned off so many lights, in some cases life itself,” she recalled. “What is it about some religious that radiates, in faces animated and in repose, something beyond our own reality? Indefinable as it is, I find myself wanting to share in it.”
Kennedy, who had a teaching career in Catholic education with responsibility for the English curriculum and pastoral care, noted that within the album several forces come into play. Centuries of medieval plainchant is delivered in a new way, while the familiarity of biblical refrains becomes powerful and consoling: O Lord Hear Our Prayer is a plea and an imperative “for the compassionate ear of our Father, timeless yet particularly pertinent to this moment in our time.” Agnus Dei and Pange Lingua may be well known, but the sisters’ rendering is “fresh, direct, beginning with a purity of sound that pierces the air and then moves on to choral adoration.
“But this album amounts to more than therapy in times of trouble. To listen to it is, for me, to be brought nearer to the presence of God. As a compilation of pieces from the sisters’ daily office with psalms that speak to us of our longing for God, and prayers written by Saint Francis and Saint Clare, it takes us into the glorious possibilities of that relationship.”
Michael Ford is an author and theologian in England, where he worked in BBC news and religious broadcasting for many years. His articles for TAC reflect spiritually on his life as a journalist and writer. The photo accompanying this piece is by Chris O’Donovan.