Basil Nixen always felt a special closeness to God and now the Arizona native who became a monk is sharing that closeness with the rest of the world through a top-selling album of Gregorian chants.
Nixen took an eternal vow to live in a 10th century monastery in Norcia, Italy. At 35, he is one of the 18 monks at the monastery who live relatively solitary and secluded lives, devoted to prayer and music.
But the monks of Norcia (with an average age of 33) also have found a personal connection with the secular world. In 2012, they started a craft brewery at the monastery, Birra Nursia, which has gained worldwide fame and is their primary source of income.
They have also made their debut album of Gregorian chants called “Benedicta,” which has topped Billboard’s Classical Album list for the past nine weeks.
Nixen is the choir master of The Monks of Norcia. He was also musical director for their album and wrote the one original composition on the album, “Nos qui Christi iugum" (We who have received Christ's yoke).
Before entering the monastery, Nixen spent two years studying music at Arizona State University’s School of Music. He was only 20 when he chose the monastic route.
“I had already wanted to become a priest, but while I was studying for the priesthood, I wanted to understand more about the liturgy of the Church,” he says. “I grew to learn the chants, and this had to be the most important moment of my life. I found a community in Norcia where they lived this daily form of prayer, and this was a very big moment for me where I learned I could live my life through Gregorian chants.”
He believes his Mexican heritage played a key role for him wanting to go into the priesthood from a very young age.
“Both of my parents come from Mexico - they came from traditional Mexican families,” says Nixen. “Being Catholic was part of their heritage and identity - they passed that down to me.”
The life of a monk is no easy task. Nixen says a typical day begins at 3:30 a.m. and ends around 9 pm.
“Some might wake up earlier,” he says. “Our first prayer is at 4 o’clock ... It’s the longest and most difficult prayer of the day, but it really gets the body and the mind flowing.”
He adds that it’s a crucial element in monastic life to gather throughout the day. Including the Mass, they gather eight times to pray through chanting.
“In between those prayers, we work,” says Nixen. “In addition to the brewery, a lot of work goes into receiving guests and pilgrims. We also have a monastic store that we operate, and the normal runnings of the monastery - cooking - which I oversee as cooking master, liturgical work goes into prayer service, and then the managing finances and communications - our lives our very full.”
As far as diet, he says they follow the rule of St. Benedict who asked that they abstain from eating meat. Additionally, for half of the year (from September until Easter) they have only one primary meal in the afternoon, instead of two, as the rest of the year.
“This small expression of discipline helps us devote ourselves to God,” explains Nixen. “Our diet consists of fish, eggs, legumes, beans. We are living in Italy, so we have pasta almost every day. We are also an international community, so we might have a strong Asian meal. I come from a Mexican family, so we might have a Mexican meal.”
Nixen, who just celebrated his seventh year of perpetual vows, says he’s noticed quite a few changes since he’s joined the monastery.
“Before, the distance from your family was a much bigger sacrifice,” he says. “Now I can have Skype contact ... However, it’s still important that you have separation from the world and separation of family and friends ... It’s arranged by our superiors how often [you can contact the outside world].”
Additionally, the number of Latino Catholics have decreased. According to the latest Pew Research Center report, 55 percent of Latinos are Catholic in the U.S., down from 67 percent in 2010. However, Nixen does not show concern.
“I think the best thing that the church can do is be herself and be the living truth as given to us by Christ,” says Nixen. “The more authentically she does this, the more people will be drawn to it. Authenticity is key.”
It was authenticity after all which led to the success of “Benedicta.”
“These chants were written in a climate of prayer - an expression of somebody’s prayer and relationship with God - that’s the reason for its beauty,” he says. “You perceive some of the peace that was part of the experience. The music itself is written through an authentic experience with God.”