Sounds of the Spirit
‘Lean Into the Wind,’ another CD by the Carmelite nuns of Alhambra, set for release
By Carl Kozlowski 03/20/2014
* See bottom notation for clarification
The Carmelite Sisters came to the United States in 1927 as exiled refugees from the religious persecution raging in their native Mexico. From the original three Sisters, the community has grown to almost 150 Sisters serving in health care, education and spiritual retreats from California to Florida. Together they have built their reputation for being some of the best teachers and nurses in the San Gabriel Valley.
About 17 years ago, the sisters burst forth in song and recorded CDs of praise and worship, music ranging in style from traditional chants to contemporary-sounding tunes. Their latest, “Lean Into the Wind,” is being released on Tuesday and, according to Sister Timothy Marie, the community’s media outreach leader, the CD is in perfect tune with the times in which we live.
“This is our seventh recording, and seven is a mystical number, so it’s bound to be a hit!” laughs the sister, who notes that all CD proceeds raise money for the nuns’ numerous community programs. “And we have noticed that within the past several years, the women joining us can sing. Not only can they sing, but they can play instruments. And not only play instruments, but write music. There’s a parable in the Bible in which God talks about people not using their talents, so we wanted to use our gift to the service of the people, making a spiritual difference.“
Last year marked Sister Timothy Marie’s 50th anniversary in the order. She joined when she was 18 years old, but notes that most women go into the order during their 20s, and that the cut-off age for entering is 35.
There are currently 143 Carmelite nuns in America, with 38 living in Alhambra in addition to 11 novices and postulants — the two stages of initial formation as Carmelite Sisters. That large number of potential members is a reflection of a “spiritual awakening” in which, according to Sister Timothy, new communities of priests, nuns and brothers are experiencing rapid growth in membership.
She notes that “the word ‘Carmelite’ has the word ‘light’ in it, “and so this is meant to be a light in the darkness.” She believes that the new CD can help listeners by enabling them to “breathe deeply, relax and think about the eternal truths.”
The Carmelites know plenty about such meditation, for The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, as its is officially known, has practiced it since being established on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land in the 13th century. The Order wears traditional brown, full-length habits and is both contemplative and apostolic, meaning that the members pray together several times daily as well as reaching out to the world as God’s present-day representatives, or apostles.
The fact that the Los Angeles area Carmelites live in the hills of Alhambra is a nod to tradition as well, considering that the first Carmelites were hermits living on the slopes of Mount Carmel. Living amid quiet natural beauty, on a former orange grove with snow-capped mountains well in sight, helps the order to engage in its life of prayer.
“The Carmelite men, or friars, are cloistered people who live exclusively in monasteries,” explains Sister Timothy Marie. “We sisters are apostolic Carmelites, but we have the monastic tradition of Carmel. We come together three times a day and chant the Liturgy of the Hours. We spend four hours of prayer each day, but the Lord has called us to take our form of spirituality and take it into the world. We work in education, health care and retreats. We’re a blend — in the world, but not of the world.”
The sisters involved in performing on the CD ventured out into the world of the Studio City Sound recording studio in Studio City, where they have been guided through each of their CDs by the studio’s owner, Tom Weir. Since the sisters who sing all work at teaching and nursing outside the convent, they had to piece together the 16-song CD together over several recording sessions on nights and Saturdays.
Weir met the nuns in 1997 through his brother, veteran soap opera actor and singer Michael Damian. Damian had met a singer from Croatia and was trying to convince Weir to record her.
When Weir offered to meet the singer, he learned that she was staying with the Carmelites and was serving as their organist. He met both her and the nuns during a special picnic event and offered to record both by the end of the day.
“One sister said they’d been praying for a year to figure out how to record, and a week later we were making the first CD,” recalls Weir, who has also recorded secular artists including Rod Stewart, Kelly Clarkson and T.I. in addition to winning a Grammy for his work with Toots and the Maytals. “They’re wonderful people and easy to work with, especially in our business where rock and rap guys are walking the halls and wind up seeing the nuns and talking with them. They’re a gift to work with, and all their albums are very inspiring.”
Speaking of inspiration, it’s a fair question to wonder how the sisters found the inspiration for their CD’s title, “Lean Into the Wind.” The answer lies in the Biblical story of Elijah hearing God in the gentle breeze on Mt. Carmel, and in the fact that the Holy Spirit is often identified with the breeze or the wind.
“Leaning into the wind means surrendering to God, and saying yes to the Holy Spirit in your life,” explains Sister Timothy Marie. “We don’t do tours because we’re nurses and teachers. But we have a message for the world, a message of God’s love and peace. We want to leave them in peace, not pieces. Or if you pick up our CD in pieces, maybe we leave you in peace.”
“Lean Into the Wind” is available at leanintothewind.com. Suggested donation price is $15 per CD or $50 for four CDs, plus shipping and handling. The CD is also available at Amazon.com.
* This version of the story reflects a clarification of the history of the Carmelite nuns in Alhambra made in the first two paragraphs.