An Advent Memory at Solesmes

A few years ago I was privileged to celebrate the First Sunday of Advent at the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes. I arrived just in time for First Vespers on Saturday evening. It was a joy for me to be able to celebrate the beginning of the holy season entirely in Latin chant. As always, the hospitality of the monks was warm and gracious. Though they keep strict silence in the hallways, each monk of the community went out of his way during my days there to offer me a Pax greeting and a quietly whispered “Mon père.”

Either between Vespers and supper, or between supper and Compline, I forget which, I was invited to community recreation. Monks gathered around the piano and song sheets were handed out. To my surprise, they sang Christmas carols! Lovely French melodies, mostly unknown to me. Rather like “Une jeune pucelle” or “Noêl nouvelet.” Texts full of “nativité” and “naissance.”

I think my facial expression betrayed my shock that they sing Christmas songs before Christmas season had come. It was explained to me that it was an ancient custom in France for families to sing Christmas carols in the home throughout Advent. Founding Abbot Prosper Guéranger insisted in 1833 that the monks are a family and thus should keep this custom.

Not what I expected of these monks so well known for cultivating the liturgical spirit and celebrating the liturgy entirely in Latin chant. But quite lovely.



  1. One day, going by Solesmes, I stopped there for vespers. It is so famous that I was curious to hear the monks. I went in and got a little book to follow the prayers. All in Latin, as expected. The books did have a French translation, but on different pages, and I discovered that it was impossible for me to listen to the prayer, read the Latin, read the corresponding French, and understand it in time to stay in sync. After vain attempts to participate, I gave up on understanding and ended up vaguely listening to the sounds mouthed by the monks. It was a big disappointment. My friends, who had also been looking forward to discovering that form of liturgy, were equally disappointed although it took a little while for everyone to speak their mind – each person was hesitant to acknowledge that the famous chants had left them mostly cold. Maybe we are just not old enough to know what to make of a liturgy when we cannot understand the words.

    Solesmes is an acquired taste. It is not for the desultory amateur.

    1. Solesmes is an acquired taste. It is not for the desultory amateur.

      That is for sure. I think it must be a consequence of monastic discipline, that visitors are welcome but must deal with the liturgy on its own terms.

      Solesmes certainly seems to have its following, however. On the one occasion my wife and I were able to visit, 3 years ago, we found the abbey church SRO for Sunday solemn Mass on a cold morning just after Christmas. Large numbers of young people and families were present, who seemed to have the routine down very well. I wish we could have stayed longer.

  2. But I am sure that if we had known Latin well or if we had been more familiar with those psalms, it would have been a much more rewarding experience.

  3. Singing Christmas carols at home throughout Advent or at least toward the end of it is a custom here too (USA). Of course Protestant churches in my neck of the woods decorate their churches and sing Christmas carols beginning the First Sunday of Advent or right after Thanksgiving if they don’t call the season Advent. Many who come into the full communion of the Catholic Church from these traditions feel like the Catholic Church is cheating them of Christmas music during this season. And of course many radio stations now start playing Christmas music non-stop even before Thanksgiving. There is clearly a disconnect between what “home churches” “secular institutions” “non-liturgical Protestant denominations” and the Catholic Church do during this season. What a holy mess. 🙂

  4. Oh, Fr Anthony! (gasp) re: Your report about Christmas carols at Solesmes. From here on every pastoral musician in their ministry who have valiantly resisted the pressures from their choristers, the choristers’ families, the parish councils, un-informed peer group musicians, the leadership of Catholic schools, many pastors, many curates, parish environment teams who see no problem in erecting the creche right after Thanksgiving–then what’s the problem with singing Christmas carols the next Sunday. After all-if its good enough at Solesmes it should be good enough for the universal church. Sigh. Now, where is my copy of “Venez, divin Messie” or at least, “Les anges dans nos campagnes.”

  5. Hi Claire,

    I have had the same problem, not at Solesmes, with the chant totally in Latin, and me desperately find and keep my place vis-avis the translation. Eventually I just gave up, and now relax myself from head to toe, and let the chant envelop me, and I turn what was frustration into a meditation. Doesn’t always work, but most of the time it does.

  6. Claire – for the psalms, so long as you have the number, keeping a copy of the bible with you would help or reflecting later on the meaning by reading it separately as a reflection on what you earlier sensed. Also, Latin isn’t that hard to follow for an English speaker to follow, with or without recourse to a French translation. you won’t catch every word, but you’ll catch the drift. If the translation is not side by side I find myself getting very distracted if I go thumbing through pages looking for it. So, my suggestion: go with the sense, note the numbers, and look up the psalms later. delayed gratification can sometimes be worth the extra small sacrifice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *