Rogationtide: The Wendell Berry Days of the Church Year

The Rogation Days will arrive as my small vegetable garden begins to look nice. I’ll be digging around in my raised beds, feeling like Wendell Berry may be modestly pleased with me and wondering if he knows about the Rogation Days (because I imagine he would approve).

A few years back, since it was not obvious to me what the Rogation Days were about from the name, I started mentally subtitling them “The Wendell Berry Days.” Now Rogationtide is tangled up in my mind with quotes about the importance of agriculture and of preserving (seemingly) anachronistic traditions tied to the order of the world.

What are the Rogation Days?

Dating back to 470 AD, Archbishop Mamertus instituted the Rogation Days – the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Day – after a period of natural disasters had ravaged the people of Vienne, France. He proclaimed days of fasting and processions of prayer around the freshly-sprouted fields, asking God for mercy in the growth of the crops. “Rogation” comes from the Latin ‘Rogare,” “to ask,” and the Gospel lesson for the Sunday before (which came to be added onto the days of Rogationtide) was from John 16 – “Ask and ye shall receive.”

Since these were pre-industrial days, everyone realized that they lived or died based upon agriculture and so the Rogation Days quickly spread. Gradually, they also became a time of festival to celebrate the coming of spring, renew parish boundaries, and settle neighborly disputes.

In England, the church would “beat the bounds,” processing around the parish borders, carrying crosses and flags. At key landmarks such as a huge tree or pond, young boys were boisterously recruited to suffer indignities – held upside down over fences, thrown into brambles, beat with willow switches, etc. This fixed parish boundaries into the minds of all participants, especially the young (“Ah yes, that was where young Adam was cast into the pond”). Gradually, the willow switches were hit upon the boundary markers instead of the boys – hence, “beating the bounds.” In terms of food, these traditions were accompanied by “rammalation biscuits” (a baking mystery) and ganging beer.

George Herbert gave the following reasons to observe the Rogation Days: 1) a blessing of God for the fruits of the field; 2) Justice in the preservation of the bounds; 3) Charitie, in living, walking and neighbourliy accompanying one another, with reconciling of differences at that time, if they be any; 4) Mercie, in relieving the poor by a liberal distribution of largess which at that time is or oght be made.[1] 

In the 20th century, as life became increasingly disconnected from the land, the Rogation Days started to be forgotten or dismissed as anachronistic. But in these, our own days of plague, asking for God’s blessing upon our sources of food as well as taking time to focus upon “mercie, in relieving the poor by a liberal distribution of largess” seem strikingly relevant. Wendell Berry reminds us, “No matter how urban our life, our bodies live by farming; we come from the earth and return to it, and so we live in agriculture as we live in flesh.”[2] And, perhaps, by how vegetable seeds and baby chicks are flying off the shelves, people are remembering that.

Rogationtide Today

In years past, observing Rogationtide meant following my priest and acolytes in procession behind the crucifix through our church’s inner-city neighborhood. We chanted psalms and prayed for little urban gardens, accompanied by the bass of rap booming in passing cars. This year, with appropriate social distancing, that may or may not be a possibility. Regardless, here’s what we’ll also be doing at home:

Pray Blessings Upon Our Little Garden

Though I am by no means a real gardener, I’ve learned that if I don’t get overwhelmed by information and start small, by the grace of God, seeds grow! I love the prayers and blessings available at Full Homely Divinity. We’ll probably make some sort of homemade cross with sticks and put it into our garden when we pray and print out the prayer flag bunting available on the Homely Hours.

Take a Neighborhood Walk

One of our daily walks will become our Rogation procession. While beating our children to teach them their boundaries may be authentic, I think it’s safe to say the purist impulse should be resisted. I’ve thought about placing on our neighbors’ porches some seed packets hot-glued to a short explanation of the Rogation Days and a prayer of blessing.

Partake of “Rammalation Biscuits” and “Ganging Beer”

No-one knows what “rammalation biscuits” are and every year I think it would be lovely to have a church competition to decide by vote on an official parish recipe. Since this probably will not be the year, we’ll keep enjoying the broad potential afforded by “biscuit” and the fact that it can refer to cookies. We will probably serve our favorite chocolate chip cookies, with some sort of improvised rammalation twist. “Ganging beer” also doesn’t seem to have a specific recipe; it was just beer brewed for the day (So, if you’re a home brewer, you have a Rogationtide task before you. And if you’re not, you have a liturgical excuse to buy your favorite six-pack).

Reconcile Differences and Distribute “Largesse”

These are days to reconcile any differences that come from infringement upon boundaries. We’ll consider and confess our trespasses, whether in our small family or in our larger circles. Additionally, we’ll consider ways we can distribute “largesse” (especially in light of the government stimulus money) and other opportunities to be generous.

To conclude, since the pandemic began, I have been thinking frequently of another quotation from Wendell Berry, that relates to anachronism, agriculture, and the Rogation Days:

Contemporaneity, in the sense of being ‘up with the times,’ is of no value. Wakefulness to experience — as well as to instruction and example — is another matter. What we call the modern world is not necessarily, and not often, the real world, and there is no virtue in being up to date in it. It is a false world, based upon economies and values and desires that are fantastical — a world in which millions of people have lost any idea of the materials, the disciplines, the restraints, and the work necessary to support human life, and have thus become dangerous to their own lives and to the possibility of life. The job now is to get back to that perennial and substantial world in which we really do live, in which the foundations of our life will be visible to us, and in which we can accept our responsibilities again within the conditions of necessity and mystery. In that world all wakeful and responsible people, dead, living, and unborn, are contemporaries. And that is the only contemporaneity worth having.[3]

In the Rogation Days, we accept our responsibilities and our boundaries. We make visible the “foundations of our life.” Joyfully anachronistic, we make our processions in the company of saints, remembering we live by the providence of God through the fruit of the earth.

  1. George Herbert, The Country Parson, (1633; repr., New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 109.
  2. Wendell Berry, “The Body and the Earth,” in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977) p. 97.
  3. Berry, Wendell. “The Specialization of Poetry.” The Hudson Review, vol. 28, no. 1, 1975, pp. 11–27. 

Amanda McGill lives in Southwest Ohio with her husband Jon and two young daughters. In 2015, she and her friends started link The Homely Hours, a liturgical living resource in the Anglican tradition. She is music director at her church, Christ the King Anglican Church in Dayton Ohio. If she has any free time, she’ll spend it reading and writing (after running).

'Rogationtide: The Wendell Berry Days of the Church Year' have 2 comments

  1. May 7, 2020 @ 2:28 pm Jennifer

    Thank you for this lovely post. I am reading a book called “Word from Wormingford,” about life in a Sussex Village. The author, Ronald Blythe, (not a priest but very involved with 3 parish churches) has two small chapters on the Rogation Sundays and how they are observed in his town. It’s a lovely description; I think you’d enjoy it. He also laments the modern agricultural amnesia that Wendell Berry discusses.


    • May 9, 2020 @ 9:39 am Amanda McGill

      Thank you for the recommendation, Jennifer! I just put that book and The Circling Year in my Abebooks cart.


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