Archive for April, 2009

Meeting the Hebdomadary

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

There was little light, most of it coloured by its passage through stained glass, in the abbey church.  As the monks found their assigned places to sit, I found my place in the Benedictine breviary — one of two books necessary to pray the daily offices with the brothers.  I discovered that the guestmaster or his assistant had marked all of the places with coloured ribbons, which was one of a hundred examples of the hospitality enjoined by the Rule of Saint Benedict.

The printed order of the liturgy carefully set out who was to say (or sing) what when.  I was surprised to see that many of the parts in the service were to be read by the hebdomadary.  And what, pray tell, might that/he be?  My first guess was a camel with seven humps. 

Once safely back in my cell in the retreat house, I accessed the Internet and looked it up.  [Note: Reading things on webpages does not violate the monastic rule of silence, required between the last office of the day and the first office of the morning, so long as the cyber-reader does not actually say the words on the page out loud.]

According to the 2009 edition of the Random House Dictionary, a hebdomadary is, “In the Roman Catholic Church, a member of a church or monastery appointed for one week to sing the chapter Mass and lead in the recitation of the breviary” and, according to Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, the 1998 edition, “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.”

As organizations with long histories (and thus specialized vocabularies) strive to become modern, there is a tendency to simplify their language by the elimination of unfamiliar terms.  Opponents to this process refer to it disparagingly as “dumbing down.” Proponents see it as removing linguistic barriers to attracting new people. 

You can’t be much of a philatelist without learning about watermarks, selvage and perforations.  You can’t become much of a cricket fan without learning about wickets, googlies and chuckers.  You can’t do much on the stock markets without learning about blue chips, arbitrage and naked offers. 

The Benedictine brothers’ retention of the term hebdomadary didn’t put me off, nor create an impenetrable barrier to my inclusion in their worshiping community.  It created an opportunity for me to learn something and that can’t be bad. 

The Episcopal Church uses a lot of specialized vocabulary, some of which must be challenging to newcomers to the church.  One way to make the church more hospitable might be to eliminate much of that language.  Another might be to offer some good dictionaries for those willing to make the effort to learn. 

An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church: a user-friendly reference for Episcopalians, Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum. Eds, New York: Church Pub., 2000.

John N. Wall, A Dictionary for Episcopalians, Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 2000.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3d ed., F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, Eds., New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Stephen E. Moore, Church Words: Origins and Meanings, Cincinnati: Forward Movement Publications, 1996.

Worship: A Moving Experience

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009
As I slowed to stop for the red light, I immediately noticed the driver of the car stopped in the lane next to me.  The driver of the white Prius had her left hand on the steering wheel and was waving her free right hand vigorously in the air.  Upon more careful observation, I noticed that her lips were moving and that her hand stopped waving every time she stopped talking.  Still more careful observation revealed that she had a hands-free transceiving sort of device stuck in her ear (not unlike the Borg). 

At least she was not violating RCW 46.61.667 which has prohibited holding a cell phone to one’s ear while driving in Washington since 1 July 2008. 

The importance of gesture, facial expression, posture and other visual cues to oral communications has been thoroughly studied and validated.  We “say” a great deal in conversation with the parts of our bodies which do not make vocal sounds.  An arched eyebrow, a shrug of the shoulders or a thumbs-down gesture can actually reverse the meaning of what we say with our words alone. 

But there was no one else in the car with the lady using the hands-free phone … no one to SEE her right hand carving the air or stabbing a finger for accusatory emphasis.

If the driver’s gesticulations were not intended to add to the message received by the person on the other end of the telephone connection (who couldn’t see them) nor the passenger in the car (who wasn’t there), what were they for?

Perhaps they were more of the sort of gestures made when one is listening to a symphony and the listener’s hands begin to conduct an imagined orchestra which cannot see the rhythm nor the cut-offs.  Or perhaps of the sort one makes when nodding one’s head in agreement or shaking one’s head in disagreement while watching a speech on television all alone.  Or perhaps of the sort the character Tevia made in his conversations with God portrayed in “Fiddler on the Roof.” 

Not everyone makes the same type (nor quantity) of gestures when communicating.  Everyone knows someone who can be described as “unable to speak if you tied her hands behind her back.” 

The Episcopal Church is a good place for people who have a modest need to communicate with their hands and bodies in worship.  Other churches are better for those with a much greater need; still others are better for those with none.

The typical worshipper in an Episcopal service stands to sing, sits to listen and kneels to pray (although there is a great deal of variety among different Episcopal congregations).  Some Episcopalians bow toward the Book of the Gospels as the reading is being announced and concluded.  Some bow during the words concerning the Incarnation in the Nicene Creed.  Some make the sign of the cross on themselves at various points in the liturgy.  A few even genuflect, ‘tho this is not particularly common.  Vested ministers in Episcopal worship rarely move from one place to another without making it a procession.  On Palm Sunday, in most churches, everybody gets into the processional act.

For some, worship is a wholly verbal experience.  One might say that they worship in their heads.  The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (2002) says “In many places, orality fuses with kinaesthetic movement in the liturgy.  Such physical manifestations reflect a holistic understanding of the human person and the worshipping person.” (p. 32)  We may not be dancin’ in the aisles, but our orality fuses nicely with our kinaesthetic movement on our best days.