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.


Sister Julie said...

I have always loved references to "the heb". Thank you for so clearly explaining the role of the hebdomadary.

Do visit my blog today -- "Monday is NUNDAY" features a photo of yours truly Sister Hildegard!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this explanation! I love the tradition that comes with religious life.

I also want to thank you for sharing more personal entries on your blog. I find them very interesting.

Dina said...

Oh great post! I love learning words, especially monastic ones, and especially those used in English. Your sister-nun explanation was helpful too.

Your picture with the grandbaby is very touching.

Today is Rosh Hashanah and we start the new year 5769 A.M. (anno mundi). May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for the coming year, with many new blessings.