Monday, May 11, 2015

Rogation Monday

In the old calendar, today would have been Rogation Monday - the first of three consecutive days before the Ascension when a quasi-penitential procession was traditionally held while the Litany of the Saints was sung. Although I am old enough to have been around to experience such things, and I can remember "Rogation Days" on the wall calendar and in my Missal, I never actually experienced their celebration at all. They just weren't part of ordinary, mid-20th-century, American, urban parish life. Perhaps they were still observed in more rural areas, but I really don't know.  

Never having had any actual experience of Rogation Days made me mildly indifferent to their post-1969 elimination from the Church's calendar. In retrospect however, I am fairly convinced that their elimination may not have been such a smart idea, after all. Like the seasonal Ember Days, the Rogation Days highlighted how the switch from paganism to Christianity did not change pre-modern people's consciousness of their dependence on nature or their need for a successful harvest or the value of ritualizing those needs on traditional days. In light of our own modern alienation from the natural world and the environmental catastrophe this has caused, it might make some sense for us to reacquaint ourselves with those ancient rituals of neediness and dependence that remain at the heart of our human experience in a world which is in its own way just as threatening and challenging as was that of our ancestors.

Unlike the "Greater Litanies," formerly celebrated on April 25, which were unambiguously of ancient Roman origin, the "Lesser Litanies" before the Ascension were Gallican in origin, supposedly introduced by Mamertus of Vienne at a particularly catastrophic time around A.D. 450. Thus, along with the seasonal aspect, these Rogation Days highlight the sense of struggle against danger (which even in more peaceful periods is always an inevitable dimension of Christian life).

The centerpiece of the Rogation Days was, of course, the procession during which the Litany of the Saints was sung. Speaking personally, I love litanies, because they are such a great vehicle for large congregations can participate actively and fully in communal prayer without needing either advance preparation or individual texts (since only the leader needs the text.) I especially like the Litany of Saints because of its antiquity and complexity, its multiple invocations that highlight our dependency and neediness, and its dramatic role in some of our more spectacular ceremonies such as ordinations. Nowadays, when ordinations are no longer associated with Ember Days and have largely lost any vestige of their traditionally quasi-penitential character, the litany may be the last link with that ancient tradition and ancient sensibility.

Just last week, at, the always interesting Fr. Hunwicke called the Litany of the Saints "the great, majestic, formal supplication of the Western Church. Especially in times of trial."

It might seem like pointlessly nostalgic liturgical romanticism to recommend rogation-day processions in our urbanized, industrialized world but there is nothing nostalgic or romantic about the neediness and dependence that motivated them and that are reflected and expressed in the rogations rituals and the petitions of the litany. If I were involved in preparing the Holy Father's forthcoming climate encyclical, I'd probably put in a good word for recovering observances like  rogation and ember days as part of a much needed spiritual retrieval of a more balanced relationship with the natural world and a more humble acknowledgment of neediness and dependence on God, on one another in society, and on the earth itself. 

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps it's worth noting that the 2002 edition of the Paul VI Missal still requires of each episcopal conference that, "in the drawing up of the calendar of a nation, the Rogation and Ember Days should be indicated..." (GIRM 394) This adaptation allows for the variations in climate around the world. The bishops of each country just need to do their job and make the necessary indications, especially in this age of environmentalism.