Meeting the Hebdomadary

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.

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