San Francisco Chronicle (www.sfgate.com)
Yet that's what happened to the monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz, a 12th-century Cistercian monastery near Vienna, whose CD of Gregorian chants has become a runaway hit.
After its European release in May, "Chant: Music for the Soul" became the top classical album in Britain before crossing over to the pop charts, at one point outselling recordings by Madonna and Amy Winehouse. Even before its U.S. release on July 1, the album became the most popular classical recording in this country, thanks to copious downloads on iTunes.
Call it divine intervention, or perhaps clever marketing on the part of Universal Records, which signed the monks to a recording contract after launching a search in Catholic publications in February. The record company had wanted to capitalize on the growing sales of chant music — which were due in part to the popularity of the video game Halo, which uses chantlike melodies in its soundtrack.
Universal found the monks after their spokesperson, Father Karl Wallner, who also runs their theological academy and Web site, sent in a link to a YouTube video of their chanting that he had posted last September following a visit to the monastery by Pope Benedict XVI.
I spoke with Father Karl, 45, last week by phone about the growing interest in Gregorian chants, their spiritual significance and how he and his brothers are handling all the publicity.
This is music from 1,000 years ago, sung entirely in Latin, without accompaniment. Has the popularity of your CD surprised you?
Yes, very much. When we started (the project), we thought we would sell a few thousand copies, and now it's a big success all over the world. I think what's very impressive to us is that people are interested in our spirituality — because we are just doing what we do every day, singing three hours to praise God. And that's the biggest success of all.
How do you explain the attraction of ancient, sacred music to a modern, largely secular audience?
I think it's because the music is calm. It's healthy. It's touching. And you can feel that we sing it with some religious enthusiasm. People write me e-mails, and they say: "I feel touched by the finger of God when I'm listening to your singing."
We can also see that people, even atheistic or agnostic people, are very much attracted by our way of living. Many of them come to us (the monastery) and they listen, they just sit back and listen. I think we are showing them as a religious community, by praising God, that our way of life represents something that has been lost to them. I know it's something that many people in Europe feel they have lost.
How this CD came into being is an interesting "Old World meets New World" kind of story. Should we be surprised that monks like you are posting videos on YouTube and are generally pretty technologically savvy?
I don't know what people in the outside world think about monks in the monastery, but we are men of the 21st century. We are living in a monastery, but we aren't aliens or Neanderthals. According to the rule of St. Benedict and also that of the Cistercians written 1,500 years ago, every monk has to have something to write. And now the computer is the means by which we are writing. So everybody must know how to deal with the Internet, how to send e-mails. That's quite normal for us.
Isn't monastic life generally about disconnecting from the outside world to pursue a spiritual path without distractions, like e-mail?
It is, but this happens in other ways. Our liturgy is with the big tradition of the holy Church, and we are singing the Gregorian chants in Latin — yes, we are living in a very strict way. But, of course, we use the communication that is made possible by the Internet to promote the beauty of our vocation.
Has life at your monastery changed since the music came out?
Well, it's changed for me and for Father Abbot, because we are both doing interviews with the press, and we have had some journalists at the monastery, but I think we are handling it quite well. For my other brothers life is the same. You have to believe me, none of them is really interested in where we are on the charts in England or France or Australia or the United States. I am occupied with those questions, but the other monks don't even ask me about it.
I'm very proud that my brothers are not proud about being pop stars. I'm proud of them because it shows that our young community has a very good sense of what religious life means. It means being together with God and not taking care of the things of this world.
Gregorian chants, which date to the seventh century, are a form of prayer. ...
How are they used in religious life at your monastery?
My monastery was founded in 1133, and monastic life there has never been interrupted. Always, the Gregorian chant has been our form of spirituality as monks — it is the way we live out that continuity ... the text is from the Bible, sung in Latin, and we sing it back to God through those wonderful melodies from the first millennium. Everything is about singing thanks to God.
What's a typical day like for you? How often are you singing?
We gather in church to pray five times a day, starting at 5:15 in the morning, including Sundays and feast days. Altogether we're singing for about three and a half hours each day.
Are Gregorian chants difficult to learn?
It is not difficult if you do it three and a half hours every day. When I entered the monastery, we had no introduction (to chanting). I was put there between the other brothers, they gave me a big book, and I just opened it and started. Of course, everybody has to learn Latin before he enters the monastery. That is very important because it is not only singing for singing's sake, but you also have to understand at least most of what you are singing about.
How did the monks at your monastery become such accomplished singers, other than the fact that they are singing three hours a day?
We have a lot of young brothers who have good voices, and I think that is one reason. We also at the moment have a very good religious atmosphere. These young monks really have in their hearts a burning fire to do this service, and you can hear it in the recording.
I've read that some monks at Stift Heiligenkreuz worried that putting Gregorian chants into a commercial product amounted to a kind of profanity. I take it that you do not agree.
Well, I did not know what Universal Music was when I started this project. I was really naive. But some of our brothers — who had lived in the outside world and knew that Eminem or some artists like that who are not Christian or are living very far from the way a Christian man should live — they were very concerned. They told me, "Don't do this." But when they saw that Universal Music was just promoting our spirituality (by releasing the CD), they all agreed, and now everybody is happy.
Does that money that you raise go to the monastery?
Yes, but it's not so much. Many people think that now we are going to be rich like Michael Jackson or something. That's nonsense.
You were chosen by the rest of the monks to act as their spokesperson. They call you the "press monk." Why did they choose you?
Because I already have some experience. In 2007, I was responsible for organizing the visit of the Holy Father to my monastery, and so I am used to speaking in front of cameras and TV teams and talking to journalists. Also I love it very much that people are interested in what we're doing. I'm really in love with this style of living.
What do you like best about monastic life?
For me, the most beautiful thing is to pray in the morning. I love to get up early. Then the whole day is clear in front of me. In the evening, I am always tired, and my head is full with all of the thoughts of what I did that day. But when I start in the morning, I have a clear head, and that is the best time for me. I love to walk through our medieval monastery into the church. Then we start at 5:15, yeah, and all is so new.
You have lived at the monastery since you were 19. Have you always wanted to be a monk?
No. I did not plan this life. I always thought I would study biology, get married, have children. I was very surprised when — I always say that I fell in love with God, as a boy falls in love with a girl. And this love still continues.
What was the turning point?
I did not know how to pray until I was 18. Then I started to pray, and it happened that God immediately became the biggest reality, the most beautiful reality in my life. I learned to say "you" to Him. It started to be a personal thing for me, and I think I fell in love with Him.
You say that you didn't know how to pray — I'm not sure what you mean. Was your family religious?
My family is very faithful. But of course, I was a young man who wants to have his own ways, as many young people do, and I'm very happy that my parents at that time — they prayed a lot for me, and I'm very grateful for this, because then I could meet God.
I was told that you don't like to appear in any photos. Why is that?
Yes, because I'm just a speaker, and I think a priest should not be so much in photos because it is against humility. But indeed I cannot always avoid it.
Some people believe that Gregorian chants have healing properties. I read one press release in which a neuroscientist was quoted as saying that chanting has been shown to lower blood pressure and increase levels of the performance hormone DHA, etc. What do you make of that?
I suppose it could be right. But that is not the main reason why we are singing Gregorian chants. The most important thing is, we want to give a voice to the whole of all creation. And by our voices, everything — animals, plants, the planets, are praising God. That is what monastic praising of God means, that we give voice to all beings to praise God because He is worthy to be praised by all that He has made.
Of course, some people may just enjoy the music on its own merits.
Yes, of course! In the Gospel it is written that everybody who is in the monastery is chosen by God, but those who are listening to our Gregorian chant do not need to be monks. They do not even need to be Catholics. This is music for everybody.
Will the monks be recording more albums?
It depends. I would like it very much. But it is not my decision. If God wants, we shall do it. If He does not want it, we shall not weep a tear about it.
David Ian Miller writes "Finding My Religion" for the San Francisco Chronicle. This column is used with permission.