Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Professional Language of Monastics

Who's the "Heb" This Week?

That's "heb" with a short 'e' sound. Stands for hebdomadary. That's my job this week. Yes, even contemplative nuns have a "professionalese" vocabulary that often stumps visitors. But the "professional" language of contemplative nuns and monks is an ancient one with many strands of tradition woven throughout.

What is a hebdomadary anyway?

n. [LL. hebdomadarius: cf. F. hebdomadier.](R. C. Ch.) A member of a chapter or convent, whose week it is to officiate in the choir, and perform other services, which, on extraordinary occasions, are performed by the superiors.

In normal language this role is that of leader of prayer. The heb begins each praying of the Liturgy of the Hours in the prescribed manner and in accord with the traditions of the monastery. It is customary here for the leader to knock twice on a wooden pew or chair to signal the beginning of prayer and for most Offices to say, "O God, come to my assistance." To this the nuns respond, "Lord make haste to help me." At the first Office of our day, the Office of Readings, the leader begins with the words, "Lord open my lips" and the nuns reply, "And my mouth will proclaim your praise."

The heb also writes up the Office, preparing a sheet of directions for the Office especially if the day has a memorial of a saint or is a feast or solemnity. The sheet will also include the hymns chosen for the day. Other sisters will have other jobs at the Office. Here we call the list of these assignments the "planche".

This comes from the French influence on the foundations made from France, then to Belgium and then to England and Ireland in the 19th century. Our foundation traces its life back to England where many of the French terms survived. Thus the "planche" or the board or list of assignments.

Another puzzling word to visitors is the "turn". In old monasteries visitors spoke to a sister through a cylinder in the wall that conveniently turned so packages could be left in it by the visitor. The sister assigned to see to the "turn" would make the cylinder revolve so that she could remove the package. I have heard stories of newborn babies being placed in the "turn" to be passed around and kissed by all the sisters on the other side. Today, we still speak of the sister assigned to answer the door and phone as "being on the turn".

Being the Leader of Prayer is a wonderful gift and responsibility, only assigned to sisters in vows. It can be a great chore sometimes - like this week with the Feast of the Archangels tomorrow and three more memorials of saints. One must know how to juggle their breviary and put the correct antiphons or prayers in the right places. Sometimes I need a 'cheat sheet' to make it all come out right. But there is something very special about being the one to first break the great silence of the night by inviting my sisters into prayer. This prayer is, after all, what we are about each day of our lives as contemplatives.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Monastery Notes - A Potpourri

1. Our Associates

On the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, ten of our lay associates renewed their commitment and two made their commitment for the first time. We were honored by the presence of Father Philip Dabney, CSsR. In the morning Father Philip offered a wonderful reflection entitled "Living the Graced Life Through Relationship." Later he was presider at the mass during which the associates made their pledge. Father Dabney would be grateful for your prayers as he leaves the position of Vocation Director for the Congregation and begins ministry at Mother of Perpetual Help (The Mission Church) in Boston, Massachusetts.

Our Associates meet once a month (1:30pm every second Sunday) to share faith and stories, to received prepared input from one of their members or a sister of our community. Although they are not contemplative nuns, their strive to live our charism in their own lives as mothers, grandmothers, workers and citizens. We are also very grateful for the encouragement and support they provide for us.

2. What's Current?

We are in the middle of our annual 'leisure week', a time when we suspend the normal schedule and enjoy doing some 'touristy' things together. Yesterday, three of us attended a Vespers Service at the nearby Episcopal Monastery of Holy Cross. The content of the Vespers included a Bach Cantata sung by an extraordinary choral group, Kairos, a piece by Archangelo Corelli offered by astounding violin, cello and harpsichord. The Bach (translations of the German provided) was a meditation on death. We were moved and enchanted.

The day before I drove three sisters to the motherhouse of the Sisters of St, Joseph of Brentwood (Long Island) where they visited with old friends. One of our sisters was formerly a member of that community. I had the privilege of visiting with the sister who taught my CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) class in eighth grade! She will celebrated her ninety-fifth birthday next month. Her blindness is a great cross since reading was her constant pass time. To be with her is an inspiration.

These days I am also continuing to develop our new website. Things are going well but the 'proof of the pudding' will be a smooth transition to the Internet. Stay tuned for an announcement of its launch.

3. Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa!

As some of you have undoubtedly noted I am terrible at proof reading. I am often so enthusiastic about posting that this step in the process gets short shrift. Mea culpa! This is especially unfortunate these days now that you can subscribe to this blog. When I post a poorly edited piece you get it automatically. I am trying to remember to be more thoughtful about the process. By going directly to the blog itself, you will, I hope, find a properly edited version. I am keeping my fingers crossed.

How Awesome God's Love

"Unconditional Love" Jonathan and son Benjamin

Blessed Assurance
Matthew 20:1-16

Reflecting upon the scripture readings of the day in meditation or lectio divina is an ancient monastic tradition, providing an anchor to ones day of prayer whether a contemplative nun or busy person beyond the monastery walls. My own reflection this morning was pure gift as is the message of today's Gospel.

How utterly wonderful that God is like the compassionate, generous landowner in this story. Whether the day laborer was hired at dawn or mid-afternoon he receives the same wage, the wage necessary to keep him and his family fed for one day. What was Jesus trying to illustrate by this story? There are many layers of meaning. But one in particular filled my heart this morning.

God's love for me is as great as the love God has for the perfect saint! Even though I came late to square to present my labor for hire; even though I have done a fraction of the work that others have contributed; I will receive the same reward! It hardly makes sense. What a consolation this is in a world where much too often love is given, if at all, in scant quantity, slowly, ever so slowly emerging as if from an eye dropper unwilling to give up its contents. Expressions of love are so frequently doled out with great parsimony and capriciousness. To find a human being capable of generous, unconditional love is the gift of a lifetime.

In my morning meditation Jesus gave assurance of God's love not only for our consolation but also as example of how we are to be. As much as we rejoice to be the recipients of such largess, we are, in turn, to open ourselves to pour out such generosity upon others. God's love is the instrument of our freedom, the balm that salves the wounds which bind us, so that we hold everything so close in fear that if we give it away there will be nothing left. This new way can be the work of a lifetime but we can never cease trying.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Current Blogger Topic

Nuns Vs. Sisters

Courtesy of Google Alerts I learned that there has been some inquiry and discussion in the blogosphere about the difference between nuns and sisters. We commonly use the terms interchangeably but technically they are very different. Yes, nuns are contemplatives whose life centers around prayer in the monastery usually under the regulations of Papal Enclosure. These may also be called cloistered nuns. We like to use the phrase contemplative monastic.

The technical difference between a nun and a sister is that nuns, usually belonging to an order, take solemn vows of poverty chastity and obedience. Sisters, on the other hand take simple vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and usually belong to congregations. So in Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church the words nun, sister, solemn, simple, order and congregation have very specific definitions. The greatest difference between solemn and simple vows, as I understand it, seems to come in the vow of poverty. If a sister in a congregation, like the Sisters of St. Joseph and others, who has taken simple vows should inherit money, that money is held in the treasury of her congregation. The principle cannot be touched without her permission. The interest may be used by the congregation and she may suggest uses for it. She may even request the use of some of the money for herself. Should she leave the congregation, any interest accrued remains with the congregation but the principle goes with her. This is called her patrimony. If a nun in solemn vows should inherit money or property it must go directly to her community. Should she leave the order she will not receive any of those funds. They have become the property of the monastery. Another way to think about this is that any vowed religious in an order is a nun and in solemn vows. Any religious under simple vows in a congregation is a sister. At one time in history political authorities in Europe banned solemn vows for religious because monasteries were becoming too wealthy as hey incorporated doweries and inheritances into their holdings.

To carry this out further, an order is usually composed of autonomous monasteries in which the superior, a prioress or abbess, has the authority equivalent to that of the general superior of a congregation of sisters. Therefore, among other things, a prioress or abess can dispense a nun from first vows (before solemn vows) without consulting any other authority. A sister asking for dispensation from first vows must go beyond her local superior to the general superior of her congregation.

Was that enough canonical trivia for you?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Great Feast for Redemptoristine Nuns

Chapel Cross St. Walburga Monastery, Elizabeth, New Jersey

Solemnity of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Love of the cross is essentially love and imitation of Jesus Christ. Jesus has freed the world by embracing our painful death so as to transform it into His redemptive death. He passed from death to life, from the fragility of the flesh to the supreme glory of the resurrection…In the contemplation of Christ crucified we find the grace to accept, in communion with Him, the trials and contradictions of our own life…

Constitution and Statutes of the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer, #57, 58

Our community of contemplative nuns is busy preparing for a great feast. The Exaltation of the Holy Cross has double significance for us because is the day on which our foundress, Maria Celeste Crostatrosa, was born into eternal life. In addition, it is the day, each year, when our lay associates make their commitment to live as they can the charism of the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer; to become a living memory of Jesus Christ.

A reflection which I prepared can be read on the web site of the Baltimore Province of the Redemptorist Priests and Brothers.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


O God, Tender and just,
We come together today
To commemorate the events of
September 11, 2001.

We come to mourn and to
be comforted,
to reflect and to be challenged;
to look toward the future and
to offer our labor to your reign of peace.

We come to know your will, O Holy One,
revealed to faithful people through the
Bible, Torah and Koran;
and disclosed to us, your faithful hristian people,
in our beloved Incarnate One, Jesus the Christ.

Come, Holy One, maker of peace.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Letting Go and Letting God

Father Patrick K. McGillicuddy, CSsR - Missionary
Serving Adult Street People in Curitiba, Brazil

Lessons in Free Falling

Began the day with a meditation that took me to how difficult is it for me to let go and let God. That contemplative nuns should encounter difficulty in achieving abandonment to divine providence may strike you as strange. Speaking from my own experience and my own self-knowledge, I can assure that contemplatives fall prey to the same control issues that plague all human beings. Seems that our DNA is hardwired for management! It doesn't help that for years I managed a career, home, and family as a single parent. Now that required management!

However difficult, trust in God and self-abandonment to divine will for my life must be cultivated on the spiritual journey. It can also be said that such a movement of the heart not only benefits the soul but also the psyche. Ask anyone who lives according to the 12 Steps popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous.

So this morning I thought about the metaphor of the circus high wire acrobat whose routine requires that she let go of the trapeze bar high in midair and TRUST that her partner's hands will be there to grab hers. Now that is what I call TRUST. Years ago I found that image very unappealing. I have a great fear of coming down from heights. As a youngster on a roller coaster for the first time I cowered at the bottom of the little two-seater car as it careened down the steep incline of the track. As an adult I almost broke my legs trying to get off a toboggan as it made its way down hill.

I preferred the image of ballroom dancing and trusting your partner to guide and protect you as you glided backwards on the dance floor. But this morning I had to admit that this metaphor is much to safe. Terra firma is always underfoot. A fall just means embarrassment and a bruise that heals. Trust in God, at least the kind of trust I need now, is much more of the flying trapeze kind; a willingness to hang out there in midair.

And how was my meditation and prayer for greater surrender rewarded? Divine synchronicity provided two experiences. A visitor to the monastery this weekend shared with us the video of her first experience of sky diving! And later in the afternoon this wonderful Redemptorist priest, Father Pat McGillicuddy, came to tell us about his missionary work with adult street people in Brazil, especially 18-year old young men, all of whom have been living on the streets, abandoned by their parents at the age of four, five or six. It took Father Pat a long time to to follow the call to do this work but once he received permission to do it he was off and running but without a dime. However, time and time again he had a need, a plan for the young men, a place that needed to be built, beds that needed to be bought, property necessary to acquire without the financial means to carry out the plan. Yet, each and every time, the money came, often miraculously, in the exact amount required. Over and over again he gave a lesson in letting go and letting God. In less than twenty years he has established: The Perpetual Help Project, a help and feeding center which serves female prostitutes; The Sarnelli Community School to which 18-year old young men come (no government services for street people after the age of 18) and present themselves to be educated from the ground up and prepared for eventual admission to university; and the Congregation of the Brothers of Our Lady of Perpetual Help dedicated to serving adult street people in Curitiba, Brazil. The school has a double A rating by the Brazilian government and begins with teaching the boys to read and write, to live in a home, to dress properly, to contribute to the daily running of the house. In five years they go from no education to the equivalent of our high school diploma.

Father Pat quoted Mother Teresa, "I always receive just what is needed and not more. That is to keep me from becoming dishonest." Evidently, Father Pat is an expert in letting go of the trapeze. I am so grateful for the lessons God provided for me today.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

What Are Contemplatives All About?

The Apostolic Work of Prayer

So many people, including Catholics, have no image in their random access memory to attach to the words contemplative life, monastery or cloister. Such images have faded from the radar screen of our culture. There was a time when you could mention Carmelites, St. Therese of Lisieux or Teresa of Avila to help people focus the lens of association. Those words draw blanks now. People ask, “So what work to you do?” And you know they don’t get it.

Then I explain that the life of contemplative nuns is enclosed (confined to the monastery) in service to the apostolic work of prayer; communal prayer in the regular recitation or singing of the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) and daily private prayer. Such concentration requires that we stay close to home. Our enclosure is no longer the ancient protection against invaders, nor a necessary shield from any violation of precious virginity. It is not a barrier preventing contamination from things and people of the world. Enclosure is rather a withdrawal to the center, enabling constant focus on the monastic search for God. This is the ambiance of recollection. It is the means by which we can maintain silence and solitude and attain the interior peace and grace for prayer and the spiritual journey. Our enclosure is permeable; the door to the monastery swings to open wide to those who wish to experience, in one way or another, this way of life with God. We walk out through the door to satisfy the practical needs of our lives and to educate ourselves in ways essential for personal, communal, and spiritual development and support. But the work of prayer constantly recalls us to the center, to a constant striving for greater intimacy with God and fidelity to our vows.

Monasteries of contemplative nuns invariably become the nexus for expression of human needs and desires before the throne of God. In our daily prayer we give special voice to the needs, ministries and protection of our Redemptorist brothers, members of the Congregation of the Holy Redeemer, with whom we have a special relationship. These days we are praying for the political process working its way in our country, that the wisdom of the Holy Spirit will be poured out upon those seeking to serve and that the “better angels of our nature” will prevail. We are praying for a wide variety of global human needs; for peace and justice, for refugees and those enduring violence of man or nature, for undocumented immigrants, for the poor and the homeless, the addicted and depressed. The list is very long. We also pray for Zachary, a six year old, dealing with treatment for leukemia; for Christine struggling to hold on to her unborn twins until they are mature enough to enter this world; for Riley Jo born very prematurely, now only thirteen inches long and fighting for survival; for friends enduring chemotherapy; for those suffering with depression and other psychological illnesses. This list too is long.

Never far from the prayer of petition is a song of praise in the melody of gratitude. It begs a voice at the sight of rolling hills and flowing river; in realization of the gift of one’s own life and the gift of lives constantly intertwined with mine; in appreciation of gifts received and the ability to use them for good; in gratitude for faith, for the call to religious life and for the gift of community. Such is the blessed context of our prayer.

Much of my own prayer is a conscious coming into the presence of God carrying these prayers and praises and many more; of sitting with them in the sight of God and begging God’s mercy and care. And finally, asking for the grace to accept God’s will in all things.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Another Contemplative CD

Stefan at Jade Music out in California has sent me another CD; one that could be called 'Sounds for Contemplation.' Jade produced the CD of the soundtrack of the documentary film Into Great Silence by the German film maker Philip Groning which was such a hit last year. This new CD is a recording of Sunday Matins, three Nocturnes and Lauds (Offices of the Liturgy of the Hours). The monks enter the choir at quarter past midnight to chant this Office of the Night. Absent is the sanitized purity of studio recordings. The sound of foot steps, coughs, creaking floor boards, and knees hitting wood are the ambient noises accompanying the other worldly Latin chant of the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery in France. Close your eyes and you are in their midst. It is a sound not just for the souls of contemplative nuns and monks but for those who wish to be transported into another world designed only to support the search for God.

Along with the CD comes a booklet in which all the of Psalms, hymns and readings appear in Latin and English should one wish to pray along. An introduction entitled "Who Is a Monk?" concludes with these words:

Because of his small but significant part, the Carthusian monk

is a canal of life: a very thin artery that has the capacity

to spread the spiritual energy of the divine grace

all over the surface of the earth and even in the whole body of Creation.