Birth of a Breviary, by Sr. Cintra Pemberton, OSH

Sr. Cintra Pemberton, OSH

Sr. Cintra Pemberton, OSH

It all started so simply, but then things often do. I was sitting at my desk in the Manhattan convent in the fall of 1998 writing a letter to Scotland—or maybe it was Wales—about a pilgrimage I was planning, and Sister Linda Julian came to my desk and dropped a floppy disk on it. "I’m sick of all the masculine language in the psalter in the breviary," she said. "I’ve been doing some work with it. Would you be willing to format this so we might try using some of the psalms at Chapter?" "Sure," I said absently, without giving it much thought one way or the other, and I returned to my pilgrimage work. And that was that.

But by March of 1999, drawing on her work, I had put together a cut and paste job (using scissors and scotch tape, of course—we were a long way from doing it on the computer back then) for the Matins and Vespers offices we would be using at our Spring Chapter. The other sisters really liked it. "Give us more!" they said.

We had revised the 1976 OSH-OHC breviary in the late 1980s, taking big steps forward in inclusive language, but we had not touched the psalter itself. In our 1990 breviary, xeroxed and in a small 6 x 9 three-ring binder, the psalms and the collects had remained exactly as they were in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. So in 1999 we continued with cut-and-paste experimental use of Linda Julian’s work with the Psalter for whenever the community was gathered, but Annual Chapter in the summer of 2000 officially agreed to a major revision of the whole breviary.

We knew that would mean really big changes ahead.

However the church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music was also taking big steps toward liturgical change. Enriching Our Worship had recently come out (1997), and we took our cue from that. Besides offering an exciting range of supplemental liturgical materials, the Preface by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold was an inspiration. He endorsed the church’s efforts to provide "additional resources to assist worshiping communities wishing to expand the language, images and metaphors used in worship."

Further, there was now available a huge corpus of material in liturgical studies from many other sources—lots of new ways of describing God, many new images as well as older images being brought forward for describing God, and certainly many informative theological treatises were now available for the layperson. We would not be working just for "inclusive" language; in addition we would be working for "expansive" language. Revising the OSH breviary was exciting work.

The first breviary committee, including consultants, consisted of Ruth, Ann, Ellen Francis, ES, June Thomas, Carol Andrew and Mary Lois. I agreed to serve as convener and stayed in that capacity for the entire project. During that first year we set parameters that we never left: we agreed to follow the Book of Common Prayer as much as possible, keeping aware of revisions offered by the Standing Commission on Music and Liturgy, but not feeling necessarily obligated to follow their proposals. Always we assigned a high priority to language, working hard to produce texts that were poetic and graceful, easy to sing, and consistent with the style of language found in the BCP.

We agreed to update the language and theology of the hymns, and we proposed expanding the number of canticles in use, incorporating new ones now available in Enriching Our Worship as well as adding some from other sources. We wanted to revise and update our Calendar of Saints, paying particular attention to the collects, many of which we felt were so generic as to be almost meaningless. Always we were aware of the tension between following strict academic faithfulness to original texts versus offering a freer translation or interpretation in order to make our prayer more accessible and reflective of contemporary worship.

We were—or are—singularly blessed in the community to have among us sisters who are knowledgeable in the fields of Greek (Carol Andrew) and Hebrew (Ellen Francis); gifted in poetry (Ellen Stephen) and music composition (myself); and several fine grammarians (Ann, June Thomas and others. I did all the design and formatting on the computer and managed the master document throughout. Several sisters were eagle-eyed proofreaders.

The project took us five years. And when I say "us," I really mean the whole community. Yes, of course we had a committee to do the planning and organization and a small task force to do the actual nitty-gritty work, but the breviary itself is a product of the entire community. The large group from that first year whittled down to Carol Andrew, Ann and me for the next two years, and finally at the end just Ellen Francis and me.

But all along we also went outside the community. We asked for editorial input and proofreading from guests, friends and Associates, and we were open to comments and critique from anyone. For me as convener of the project, that may have been, overall, the most rewarding: everyone who wanted to had a part in it.

One of the first really exciting moments came when the Rev Nancy Roth, our long-time friend and Associate from Oberlin, Ohio, was visiting the convent in Augusta in the fall of 2003. She saw our work-in-process, was enthusiastic about what she saw, and put us in touch with Frank Tedeschi, Vice President and Executive Editor at Church Publishing, Inc. A year later, The Saint Helena Psalter was published by CPI and available in bookstores.

In the meantime, we were continuing to work on the full breviary for our own use, spending more time now actually praying the revised book in xeroxed three-ring binder form than working with alterations. We knew that the book needed to be lived with, and above all, prayed daily in each convent, and prayed for many months, and prayed throughout the liturgical year, before we could truly accept it. As we prayed it, of course there were still revisions, but they became smaller and smaller as more than two complete liturgical years went by.

Finally, by Advent of 2005, we had a beautiful hard cover bound book: The Saint Helena Breviary, Monastic Edition. Sister Ruth sent me an e-mail expressing her delight: "I did not think I would live to see the day we would worship out of a real book instead of a three ring binder," she exulted jubilantly.

The Office has been wonderfully enriched and expanded with updated antiphons, hymns, canticles and responds. Many women are now represented in the antiphons and readings, and their voices are heard in appropriate places. Some of the hymns and canticles sing of the cosmos and the mysteries unveiled to us in our own generation. And the pages are easy on the eye.

Our Bishop Visitor, the Rt Rev Steven Charleston, wrote the Foreword, and when I received his draft and read it aloud to the community at Chapter, some of our sisters got a bit tearful. Bishop Charleston wrote, "The Saint Helena Breviary speaks eloquently to the vibrancy and vision of the monastic life in our generation. It speaks in a decidedly contemporary voice in a language that captures both the beauty and the reality of our time. In so doing, the Sisters of St Helena have offered a gift to Christianity that is beyond words alone. Liturgy is theology embodied in worship. The theology that emerges from this breviary offers a clear image of God that is arising from deep within the monastic experience. It is a work of creative, inclusive and adaptable reality in the postmodern sense, [and] it is equally the product of ancient tradition. The Sisters of Saint Helena have shown us that the monastic vision is timeless and, therefore, an enduring gift to any of us who would sing the praises of our God."

The Saint Helena Breviary reaches beyond the strictly monastic, though. Church Publishing, Inc. has been an active supporter of our project all along, recognizing that in the wider church, regardless of denomination, there are countless people who are interested in praying the Daily Office in inclusive and expansive language, following the basic style and form of the Book of Common Prayer. So in the spring of 2006 we signed another contract with them, this time for publication of the Saint Helena Breviary, Personal Edition. This version was released at General Convention in Columbus in July 2006, and according to Frank Tedeschi, Vice President, it was one of their best sellers at the convention.

The Personal Edition is set up differently from the Monastic Edition. It contains the entire text of the monastic version, but the Personal Edition contains no music. The 150 psalms and the appointed lectionary for the Daily Office are printed in order in the back of the book, just as they are in the Book of Common Prayer, making it a much more versatile book for the average user than the Monastic Edition is.

The Monastic Edition, not surprisingly, is set up with the fixed Daily Office which we sisters use in our convents. We pray all 150 psalms on a two week cycle, loosely following a pattern set by St Benedict in the sixth century. Since we sisters routinely sing all our Offices except Matins, all the music is included, set in traditional medieval notation. The advantage to this is that everything is contained in one book; the disadvantage, of course, is that it is a big fat book of 900 pages. In the Appendix in the back is a Guide to the Daily Office which grew out of the classes which I regularly teach to our novices. There is a brief history of the Daily Office, and anyone who is interested in singing the Office and chanting the psalms, can learn how to do so.

Most monastic communities are understandably jealous about their own breviary and their own way of praying the Daily Office. The Office is such an intrinsic part of the religious life and so much a part of each community’s tradition and heritage that it is almost unheard of for one community to adopt another community’s worship book. Therefore when the Conference of Anglican Religious Orders in the Americas (CAROA) met in Sewanee in April 2006 and several communities bought copies of The Saint Helena Breviary Monastic Edition just for their communities at home to look at, and one small community actually chose to begin using it in their own worship, it was a compliment of the highest order.

We’ve now heard from many people how meaningful this breviary is to them. Copies of the Monastic Edition have been purchased and shipped all over the United States and even abroad—to New Zealand, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, Ireland, Great Britain; and the newly released Personal Edition is likely to spread even further afield. Bishop Charleston understands exactly what we were aiming for in our revisions, what we have worked so hard to achieve. Not only do we sisters experience continuing joy as we pray the daily round of offices with our new book—no more three ring binders—but we rejoice and give thanks to know that God has blessed us with the many gifts within our community which went into the making of The Saint Helena Breviary. Alleluia, let us sing to God a new song: Our prayers unite us all.

Updated: February 8, 2010