Life at the Poor Clare Convent at Arundel in Sussex, England, is one of prayer, work, silence and solitude.
Unexpectedly, the religious community has now become a chart-topping sensation with the release of its debut CD, Light for the World.
That album has now spent an astonishing six weeks at the No.1 spot in the U.K. “Specialist Classical” chart. In addition, the album is enjoying classical chart success internationally, reaching No. 3 in Belgium and No. 5 in Canada; it also hit No. 9 on the overall iTunes albums chart in Germany and No. 6 on the Amazon U.S. “Bestsellers” chart.
This overwhelming response from the public has come of something as a surprise to the community. One of the nuns, Sister Gabriel Davison, said, “We are thrilled that our music has touched the hearts of the public and has reached No.1 in the classical chart. We hope Light for the World will bring peace, joy and a sense of calm as [the world] copes during these difficult times of isolation and stress.”
In light of the last comment, perhaps it is not so surprising that as 2020 ends an album of a variety of monastic Plainchant and other religious pieces reorchestrated for a modern audience should touch hearts.
Brought to Light
Light for the World’s producers and composers were husband-and-wife team Juliette Pochin and James Morgan. Although they, too, were pleasantly surprised by the success of the album, further reflection suggested the possible reasons for that success. Speaking to the Register, Pochin observed: “When we think about it, if ever the world needed some peace, some spirituality, and some calm, it has been in 2020.”
The album came about by chance. Morgan had been head chorister at London’s Westminster Cathedral. Today an established record producer, he retains a love of Gregorian chant. He wondered how to make an album that would bring chant to a new generation who were largely unaware of it. Pochin explained, “James’ mother suggested he approach the Poor Clare Sisters, as her friend’s cousin was a member of the community. James went down to meet and listen to the nuns and knew he’d found the right community to work with straightaway.”
In this case, however, the recording studio had to come to the recording artists, not vice versa, as normally happens.
“There were quite a lot of practical things like bringing down recording equipment to the convent and setting it up in their beautiful chapel each week,” explained Pochin of the logistics. “We were also very keen not to impact on the [sisters’] lives too much, so we had one recording session each week when they normally have choir practice anyway. But that meant it took quite a few months to record. We then had lockdown sprung on us in March, so we had to down tools and cancel any remaining sessions.”
The album proved a collaborative endeavor on the part of both nuns and producers. “We really enjoyed collaborating on possible texts to set to music,” said Pochin. “They made lots of suggestions, as they were very keen to use some of St. Clare’s words and other texts which mean a lot to them as a community. I don’t think St. Clare has been set to music very much in the past. Singing is very much part of the sisters’ day-to-day life, and they seemed pleased that I was able to give them some vocal tuition and training to help improve their singing.”
She added, “There is also an authenticity to this album: The sisters sing with such focus and attention on the texts.”
Poor Clares’ Rich Life
The Poor Clares, officially the Order of St. Clare (Ordo Sanctae Clarae) were the second Franciscan branch of the order to be established. Founded by Sts. Clare and Francis of Assisi on Palm Sunday in the year 1212, the order follows the Rule of St. Clare approved by Pope Innocent IV the day before St. Clare’s death in 1253. As of 2011, there are more than 20,000 Poor Clare nuns following several different observances, organized into different federations, in more than 75 countries throughout the world.
The Poor Clares came to Arundel in Sussex in 1886 and have been there ever since. Today the community comprises 23 women of varying ages and different nationalities. When not recording chart-topping musical albums, the sisters’ horarium is as follows:
5:30am Rise: A quick breakfast is followed by time for personal prayer, reading and study.
7:30am Morning Prayer is followed by spiritual reading.
8:30am Holy Mass is followed by the Office of the Passion (A short prayer written by Francis of Assisi) and then work is done until 11:50.
Noon Office of Readings is prayed. Part of the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours, the office is composed of Psalms and two readings, one from Scripture and one from a Christian teacher or saint.
12:30pm Lunch is followed by the short Office of None and then some free time.
2:15pm Work period begins.
3:30pm Tea is served.
4pm Short prayer is said together in the refectory.
5:50pm Evening Prayer commences.
6:30pm Supper is followed by an hour of personal prayer until 8pm
8pm Compline is prayed.
(On Wednesday evening and Thursday morning there is no office celebrated in common. The sisters have what is termed a “hermit” time, with each praying alone.)
In October 2020 the major record label Decca Records released Light for the World. As the label had released similar albums in the past, the producers found the concept of an album of monastic chant a relatively straightforward pitch. Sharing the sisters’ experience of working with Decca Records, Sister Gabriel said, “We were so impressed by the openness and respect Decca showed [us]. Our fears and insecurities of making our songs and work public were quickly allayed.” She continued, “We find deep joy in our chants and now hope that our music will reach many lives, bringing peace, love and a sense of well-being to all who listen. Making the recording was a great adventure.”
It proved an equally easy experience for Decca Records. Speaking to the Register, Tom Lewis, co-managing director of Decca Records, said, “It has been quite extraordinary to watch how this beautiful album has touched listeners around the world. Whenever people encounter the Poor Clares, the album rockets up the charts. We haven’t seen a reaction like this for years!”
He, too, senses serendipity in the timing of this release. “It feels like there is something within this music that connects to something very deep, profound and ancient within us all. It is helping people to find peace during the most trying and uncertain of times.”
Although Pochin’s husband and co-producer was brought up a Catholic, Pochin did not know what to expect when embarking on this project. “I must confess that I had some preconceived ideas of what it might be like to be inside a convent and what the sisters might be like themselves to work with,” she said, “but I was not prepared for how much fun we all had. Their joy is so infectious.”
She was also not prepared for how much the sisters were “in touch with what is happening in the world, so interested in people’s lives, so concerned about the pressures on our young people” or how “warm and welcoming” the monastery proved. “We made real friends recording this album and came away from each recording session saying how much their way of life has to offer.”
Good News Broadcast
Speaking to the Register, world-renowned soprano Catherine Bott, who is also a presenter on the United Kingdom’s Classic FM radio station, said that Light for the World is “good news, as the Poor Clare sisters of Arundel are bringing the language of prayer into so many homes this Christmas with music that has a timeless simplicity that goes straight to the heart, no matter how much — or how little — listeners know about plainchant and its liturgical purpose.”
The broadcaster went on to add: “This year especially, we’ve all had to live, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘out of the swing of the sea’ [Heaven-Haven]; but that’s not where any one of us has ‘asked to be,’ so there’s comfort in listening to the voices of women who have chosen a life of prayer. The singing on this album is heavenly. I can only repeat Light for the World is good news.”
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