It is easy for those of us who live in the modern west to develop a naive view of nature. She seems to be safely at a distance to our minds, if not actually helpless, weak, and in need of our protection. Think of all the ‘save the earth’ and ‘protect the environment’ memes (a topic for another time).
That is to say, it’s easy for us to forget how very, very powerful she is and how vulnerable we are.
Easy, that is, until, say, an earthquake a hurricane comes by to level a city, or a blight strikes the crops, leading to a shortage, or, well, any one of a hundred things. Or, even if it isn’t a society-wide calamity, we may find our comfortable little worlds suddenly disrupted by a storm or a cold snap or what have you that breaks our pipes, shuts down our power, and leaves us to make the best of what we have left.
The fact is, for all our technological and engineering accomplishments, we remain ultimately small and weak before the power of nature. Indeed, we are so dependent upon our delicate infrastructure that we may find ourselves in a worse state than we imagine, should retribution rain from the sky or the seas.
And, of course, we’ve recently had a nice extended illustration of how far we can rely on our official caretakers in a crisis.
In any case, even apart from the ever-present potential for disaster, there is the ever-present question of food. Though modern fertilizers, chemicals, and industrial farming produces an enormous surplus (whatever else may be said of it), yet it remains farming. The food we eat comes from the earth; it cannot come from anywhere else. We therefore, disguise it as we will, remain dependent upon the harvest, and upon that harvest being able to reach us.
With all that in mind, the Church has traditionally had special observances related to the courses of the natural world; the changing of seasons and the course of harvest, and so on. Among these are the Rogation Days (from the Latin ‘Rogere’: to ask). These are days of fasting and penance in the midst of the Easter Season to ask God’s mercy and blessing with regards to the natural world, in particular for the aversion of natural disasters and blessings on the crops that are now being planted.
The Rogation Days have their origins in the chaos of the fifth and sixth centuries: Pope St. Gregory the Great instituted the Major Rogation day, observed on April 25th, in response to a plague that swept through Rome during Eastertide. The Minor Rogation Days, which are the three days immediately before Ascension Thursday, were instituted by St. Mamertus, the Bishop of Vienna in the 5th century, after facing a storm of earthquakes, lightning, plague, and other disasters. Pope St. Leo III – who crowned Charlemagne – made these observations universal in the Church.
During these days, men fasted from flesh meat and masters were required to exempt their servants from labor so that they could participate in the days’ observances. The day consisted of a Mass, followed by the Litany of the Saints, invoking the Heavenly Court to implore God’s mercy, and specifically asking protection from plague, famine, earthquake, and other disasters. While chanting the Litany, the priest led the people in a procession, usually around the boundaries of the Parish in rural areas. These processions could last upwards of six hours, the people walking barefoot as humble suppliants. When the priests grew tired from the chanting, the women of the parish would take it up.
We are told that Charlemagne himself joined in these processions, walking barefoot and with bowed head from his palace to the churches. St. Elizabeth of Hungary, the holy princess, did likewise, walking among the poorest women of the district.
Alas, this is a custom that has largely fallen off in the Church. Though with so many disasters and so much sin abounding in our world, one might argue they are more necessary than ever. In any case, it may be a good thing to start to revive the observance.
For, as I say, most of us forget how small we remain before nature. We forget the potential for disaster, and we forget our utter dependence upon the earth and its crops. It would be a good thing to bring this to mind. Moreover, extending the concept somewhat, we may also take it as an opportunity to pray for financial stability and well-being for the coming year; blessings on our metaphorical ‘crops’ as well as the literal ones.
If, as is likely the case, there are no public observances in your parish, you must make do with private devotions. On April 25th, you might proclaim a fast in your household, abstaining from meat and sweet things, and pray the Litany of the Saints. You might take the opportunity to read up on where your food comes from, and explain to your children about farming and agriculture, the process of raising crops and livestock and the responsibilities that come with it. Then you might tell them stories of the great disasters that have struck mankind throughout history, often with little warning: of Mt. Vesuvius and the Black Death, of the Lisbon Earthquake and Tsunami of 1531 and the London Fire of 1666, of Johnstown and San Francisco, of hurricanes Andrew and Katrina.
As you relate these stories, emphasize that these are not things to be in constant fear of, but reminders that we must respect the power of nature, and show humility before God and His creation.