“Rogation” comes from the Latin “rogare,” which means “to ask,” and “Rogation Days” are days during which we seek to ask God’s mercy, appease His anger, avert His chastisements manifest through natural disasters, and ask for His blessings, particularly with regard to farming, gardening, and other agricultural pursuits. They are set aside to remind us how radically dependent we are on the natural world, and how prayer can help protect us from nature’s ravages.
It is quite easy, especially for modern city folk, to sentimentalize nature and to forget how powerful, even savage, she can be. Time is spent focusing only on her lovelier aspects — the beauty of snow, the smell of cedar, the glories of flowers — as during Embertides — but in an instant, the veneer of civilization we’ve built to keep nature under control so we can enjoy her without suffering at her hand can be swept away. Ash and fire raining down from great volcanoes, waters bursting through levees, mountainous tidal waves destroying miles of coastland and entire villages, meteors hurling to earth, tornadoes and hurricanes sweeping away all in their paths, droughts, floods, fires that rampage through forests and towns, avalanches of rocks or snow, killer plagues, the very earth shaking off human life and opening up beneath our feet, cataclysmic events forming mountains and islands, animals that prey on humans, lightning strikes — these, too, are a part of the natural world. And though nature seems random and fickle, all that happens is either by God’s active or passive Will, and all throughout Scripture He uses the elements to warn, punish, humble, and instruct us: earth swallowing up the rebellious, power-mad sons of Eliab; wind destroying Job’s house; fire raining down on Sodom and Gomorrha; water destroying everyone but Noe and his family (Numbers 16, Job 1, Genesis 19, Genesis 6). We need to be humble before and respectful of nature, and be aware not to take her for granted or overstep our limits. But we need to be most especially humble before her Creator, Who wills her existence and doings at each instant, whether actively or passively. Consider the awe-inspiring words of Nahum 1:2-8:
Who can stand before the face of His indignation? and who shall resist in the fierceness of His anger? His indignation is poured out like fire: and the rocks are melted by Him. The Lord is good and giveth strength in the day of trouble: and knoweth them that hope in Him. But with a flood that passeth by, He will make an utter end of the place thereof: and darkness shall pursue His enemies.
Recalling these Truths, beseeching God and His Saints to protect us from disaster, and doing penance so He does not see us as His enemies are what Rogation Days are about. These days are divided between the Major Rogation — 25 April (by coincidence alone, the Feast of St. Mark) — and the Minor Rogation, which consists of the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Ascension Thursday.
The Major Rogation is of Roman origin, instituted by Pope St. Gregory the Great (b. 540) after a great plague besieged Rome. The Golden Legend, written by Jacobus de Voragine in 1275 explains:
For as the Romans had in the Lent lived soberly and in continence, and after at Easter had received their Saviour. After, they disordered them in eating, in drinking, in plays and in lechery. And therefore our Lord was moved against them, and sent to them a great pestilence, which was called the botche of impedimy. And that was cruel and sudden, and caused people to die in going by the way, in playing, in being at table, and in speaking one with another suddenly they died. In this manner sometime sneezing they died, so that when any person was heard sneezing anon they that were by said to him: God help you, or Christ help: and yet endureth the custom. And also when he sneezeth or gapeth, he maketh tofore his face the sign of the Cross, and blesseth him; and yet endureth this custom.
The Minor Rogation Days are of French origin, coming about in the 5th c., when St. Mamertus, Bishop of Vienne, Dauphiné instituted them after a series of natural calamities. According to the Golden Legend:
For then, at Vienne, were great earthquakes of which fell down many churches and many houses, and there was heard great sounds and great clamours by night. And then happed a terrible thing on Easter-day, for fire descended from heaven that burnt the king’s palace. Yet happed more marvellous thing; for like as the fiends had entered into the hogs, right so by the sufferance of God for the sins of the people, the fiends entered into wolves and other wild beasts, which every one doubted, and they went not only by the ways ne by the fields, but also by the cities ran openly, and devoured the children and old men and women. And when the Bishop saw that every day happed such sorrowful adventures, he commanded and ordained that the people should fast three days; and he instituted the Litanies, and then the tribulation ceased.
Pope St. Leo III — the Pope who crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day of 800 — introduced these days of penance into Rome in 816, the year of his death, after which they became standard throughout the Roman Church.
The liturgy for the Rogation Days, during which the priest is vested in purple, begins with Psalm 43:26 –“Arise, O Lord, help us and redeem us for Thy name’s sake” — which is followed by the Litany of the Saints (you can download this Litany, in Microsoft Word .doc format, in English or in Latin). At the Litany’s “Sancta Maria,” all stand and a procession begins, which in older times was (and still is in rural areas) usually around the boundaries of the parish, giving to the procession the name of “beating the bounds.”
The Litany is followed by Psalm 69, a series of petitions, and the Mass, with readings from James 5:16-20 and Luke 11:5-14.
Just for informational purposes, here is what the Rogation Days’ processions were like in medieval times, again from the Golden Legend. How marvelous!:
And in this procession the Cross is borne, the clocks and the bells be sounded and rung, the banners be borne, and in some churches a dragon with a great tail is borne. And aid and help is demanded of all Saints.
And the cause why the Cross is borne and the bells rung is for to make the evil spirits afraid and to flee; for like as the kings have in battles tokens and signs-royal, as their trumpets and banners, right so the King of Heaven perdurable hath His signs militant in the Church. He hath bells for business and for trumps, He hath the Cross for banners. And like as a tyrant and a malefactor should much doubt when he shall hear the business and trumps of a mighty king in his land, and shall see his banners, in like wise the enemies, the evil spirits that be in the region of the air, doubt much when they hear the trumpets of God which be the bells rung, and when they see the banners borne on high. And this is the cause why the bells be rung when it thundereth, and when great tempests and outrages of weather happen, to the end that the fiends and the evil spirits should be abashed and flee, and cease of the moving of tempests. Howbeit also that there is another cause therewith; that is for to warn the Christian people, that they put them in devotion and in prayer, for to pray God that the tempest may cease.
There is also the banner of the King, that is the Cross, which the enemies dread much and doubt. For they dread the staff with which they have been hurt. And this is the reason wherefore in some churches in the time of tempest and of thunder, they set out the Cross against the tempest to the end that the wicked spirits see the banner of the sovereign King, and for dread thereof they flee. And therefore in procession the Cross is borne, and the bells rung for to chase and hunt away the fiends being in the air, and to the end that they leave to tempest us. The Cross is borne for to represent the victory of the Resurrection, and of the Ascension of Jesu Christ. For He ascended into Heaven with all a great prey. And thus this banner that flyeth in the air signifieth Jesu Christ ascending into Heaven.
And as the people follow the Cross, the banners, and the procession, right so when Jesu Christ styed up into Heaven a great multitude of Saints followed Him. And the song that is sung in the procession signifieth the song of angels and the praisings that came against Jesu Christ and conducted and conveyed Him to Heaven where is great joy and melody.
In some churches, and in especial in them of France, is accustomed to bear a dragon with a long tail filled full of chaff or other thing. The two first days it is borne before the Cross, and on the third day they bear it after the Cross, with the tail all void, by which is understood that the first day tofore the law, or the second under the law, the devil reigned in the world, and on the third day, of grace, by the Passion of Jesu Christ, he was put out of his realm.
In addition to the penance, processions and Masses mentioned above, meditating on how devastating natural forces can be is in order. We are usually so buffered from the natural world with our cozy, modern homes, air conditioning, ability to fly through the air from Chicago to Paris in hours, and other wonders, that we can easily sentimentalize nature and see her in a Rousseauian way — taking her for granted, being condescending toward her, and exhibiting masterful instead of masterly behaviors in our dealings with her. It is rare that nature breaches the walls of civilization and technology we’ve set up around us, but breach them she can, and does, and this reality must be appreciated. Tell your children about how the elements can escape our control, and how we should remember our place as those who’ve been given dominion over nature, but never apart from God. Tell them about some of the great disasters that have fascinated and frightened us throughout History — e.g., the stories of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the Black Death, the London Fire of 1666, the great early 19th c. earthquakes along the New Madrid fault line that reversed the course of the Mississippi River, the Chicago Fire of 1871, the 1883 explosion of Krakatoa, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Yellow River Floods of 1887 and 1931…
Hear ye the word which the Lord hath spoken concerning you, O house of Israel. Thus saith the Lord: Learn not according to the ways of the Gentiles: and be not afraid of the signs of heaven, which the heathens fear: For the laws of the people are vain: for the works of the hand of the workman hath cut a tree out of the forest with an axe. He hath decked it with silver and gold: he hath put it together with nails and hammers, that it may not fall asunder. They are framed after the likeness of a palm tree, and shall not speak: they must be carried to be removed, because they cannot go. Therefore, fear them not, for they can neither do evil nor good.
There is none like to thee, O Lord: thou art great and great is thy name in might. Who shall fear thee, O king of nations? for thine is the glory: among all the wise men of the nations, and in all their kingdoms there is none like unto thee. They shall all proved together to be senseless and foolish: the doctrine of their vanity is wood. Silver spread into plates is brought from Tharsis, and gold from Ophaz: the work of the artificer, and of the hand of the coppersmith: violet and purple is their clothing: all these things are the work of artificers. But the Lord is the true God: he is the living God, and the everlasting king, at his wrath the earth shall tremble, and the nations shall not be able to abide his threatening.
Thus then shall you say to them: The gods that have not made heaven and earth, let them perish from the earth, and from among those places that are under heaven. He that maketh the earth by his power, that prepareth the world by his wisdom, and stretcheth out the heavens by his knowledge. At his voice he giveth a multitude of waters in the heaven, and lifteth up the clouds from the ends of the earth: he maketh lightnings for rain, and bringeth for the wind out of his treasures. Every man is become a fool for knowledge every artist is confounded in his graven idol: for what he hath cast is false, and there is no spirit in them. They are vain things and a ridiculous work: in the time of their visitation they shall perish.
The portion of Jacob is not like these: for it is he who formed all things: and Israel is the rod of his inheritance: the Lord of hosts is his name. Gather up thy shame out of the land, thou that dwellest in a siege. For thus saith the Lord: Behold I will cast away far off the inhabitants of the land at this time: and I will afflict them, so that they may be found. Woe is me for my destruction, my wound is very grievous. But I said: Truly this is my own evil, and I will bear it. My tabernacle is laid waste, all my cords are broken: my children are gone out from me, and they are not: there is none to stretch forth my tent any more, and to set up my curtains.
Because the pastors have done foolishly, and have not sought the Lord: therefore have they not understood, and all their flock is scattered. Behold the sound of a noise cometh, a great commotion out of the land of the north: to make the cities of Juda a desert, and a dwelling for dragons. I know, O Lord, that the way of a man is not his: neither is it in a man to walk, and to direct his steps. Correct me, O Lord, but yet with judgement: and not in fury, lest thou bring me to nothing. Pour out thy indignation upon the nations that have not known thee, and upon the provinces that have not called upon thy name: because they have eaten up Jacob, and devoured him, and consumed him, and have destroyed his glory.
The word that came from the Lord to Jeremias, saying: Hear ye the words of this covenant, and speak to the men of Juda, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, And thou shalt say to them: Thus saith the Lord the God of Israel: Cursed is the man that shall not hearken to the words of this covenant, Which I commanded your fathers in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, from the iron furnace, saying: Hear ye my voice, and do all things that I command you: and you shall be my people, and I will be your God: That I may accomplish the oath which I swore to your fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as it is this day. And I answered and said: Amen, O Lord.
And the Lord said to me: Proclaim aloud all these words in the cities of Juda, and in the streets of Jerusalem, saying: Hear ye the words of the covenant, and do them…