Sunday, May 20, 2012

"Nature is My Church"

As we've mentioned before, the liturgical year was much more bound to the seasons and rhythm of nature in previous times than it is now. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that it is so difficult to truly immerse ourselves in the liturgical year. It is not just that we are  separated from the traditions and customs of our ancestors. We are also detached from the soil, the dirt, the cycles and changes that used to bring the liturgy to life on a daily basis.

What do we lose in all this? First, the liturgical year becomes less fluid. Instead of a continuous flow of meaningful feasts, which are tied to things that are happening in our homes and fields, we are left with an intermittent series of detached feasts, with a few saint days thrown in here and there. Instead of a liturgical year that is embedded in our day-to-day life, we are left with an abstract calendar of important feasts, mandatory fasting days, and holy days of obligation, which are now tailored to fit into our busy modern schedules. The liturgical year does not shape our life (at least, not outwardly), and it begins to seem more and more that liturgy, like religion itself, is nothing more than a human invention, something man has instituted to make himself feel that he is a part of something beyond himself, but which, in actuality, is nothing more than a list of rules and empty rituals.

Not only does this detachment from the earth make it increasingly difficult to enter into the liturgical year, but also, and perhaps more importantly, there is a sense of gratitude and wonder that is lost. The cycles of seasons, the abundance of the harvest, inspire gratitude and even worship. This can even be seen in the primitive nature religions. When all we have are our own inventions, that spontaneous "Thank You" to God fades into the background. And yet that gratitude is one of the strongholds of liturgical piety. In this sense, people who say things like "Nature is my church" are onto something. They recognize nature's ability to speak of the transcendent, of God's majesty and grandeur.

This is not say that land on its own is enough. The land itself is caught up in the act of worship. As Cardinal Ratzinger says in The Spirit of the Liturgy, "To oppose land and worship makes no sense. The land is given to the people to be a place for the worship of the true God...It only becomes a true good, a real gift, a promise fulfilled, when it is the place where God reigns." Like the home, and in the highest sense the church and tabernacle, the land is God's dwelling place. The liturgical year has always acknowledged this relationship, despite the fact that so many customs that have their origins in the land have faded into the background.

The feast of the Ascension is one of these feasts. Technically, the feast of the Ascension is celebrated 40 days after the Resurrection, although it is now celebrated on the seventh Sunday after Easter. Traditionally, the entire week of the feast of the Ascension was filled with special customs. The Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before the feast were designated as Rogation Days, which were marked by processions to ask God for a fruitful harvest and to mark the boundaries of the parish with crosses. This particular custom, known as  "beating the bounds," was particularly interesting, as noted at Full Homely Divinity, an Anglican site that nevertheless has some great information about the history of traditional feasts:

The route of the walk was around the boundaries of the parish, which was a civil as well as a religious unit. Thus, the processions were useful in teaching people, particularly the young, their parish boundaries. Known as "beating the bounds," the processions customarily stopped at boundary marks and other significant landmarks of the parish, such as a venerable tree, or a great rock, or perhaps a pond. The priest would read the Gospel and perhaps affix a cross to the landmark. Then the boys of the parish would suffer some indignity intended to help them remember the spot. Boys were bumped about against rocks and trees, thrown into the water, held upside-down over fences, thrown into bramble patches, or beaten with willow wands--and then given a treat in compensation. In later times, the marchers beat the boundary marker with the willow wands, beating the bounds, rather than the boys...The annual beating of the bounds provided an opportunity to resolve boundary issues. It also led to the tradition of seeking reconciliation in personal relationships during Rogationtide. The sharing of a specially brewed ale, called Ganging Beer, and a mysterious pastry, called Rammalation Biscuits, at the end of the walk was a good way of sealing the reconciliation.

Traditionally it was believed that Christ ascended into Heaven from the Mount of Olives, and the comparison between Christ and a bird on the wing gave rise to the tradition of eating some kind of bird to commemorate the feast. We plan to have roast herbed chicken with dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves. Grapes were one of the traditional first fruits of the spring that were commonly eaten to celebrate the Ascension. There's a great recipe for them at this site. And don't forget about the Novena to the Holy Spirit, which traditionally starts on Ascension Thursday and finishes on Pentecost Sunday. As noted at Catholic Culture, "The Novena in honor of the Holy Spirit is the original novena, of which all other novenas are only imitations. Our Lord Himself instituted this novena when, on the day of His ascension, He sent His Apostles back to Jerusalem to pray for nine days that they might be ready on the tenth day, which was Pentecost, to receive the Holy Spirit." It's a very simple and beautiful novena, so if you missed the beginning it's easy to catch up.

From the Gospel of Luke:

"The former treatise I made, O Theophilus, of all things which Jesus began to do and to teach, Until the day on which, giving commandments by the Holy Ghost to the apostles whom he had chosen, he was taken up. To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion, by many proofs, for forty days appearing to them, and speaking of the kingdom of God. And eating together with them, he commanded them, that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but should wait for the promise of the Father, which you have heard (saith he) by my mouth. For John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost, not many days hence.

They therefore who were come together, asked him, saying: Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? But he said to them: It is not for you to know the times or moments, which the Father hath put in his own power: But you shall receive the power of the Holy Ghost coming upon you, and you shall be witnesses unto me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost part of the earth. And when he had said these things, while they looked on, he was raised up: and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they were beholding him going up to heaven, behold two men stood by them in white garments. Who also said: Ye men of Galilee, why stand you looking up to heaven? This Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come, as you have seen him going into heaven. Then they returned to Jerusalem..."


  1. At long last, I am glad to be back from my long absence and ready to fill my comment with your praises. Because, praises are due. How clearly you see, friends, and how heartily I agree.

    I sit in Mass each Sunday, as well as many weekdays, and grieve that it feels as if we are ascribing meaning to something that is rather a fossil attached to our lives. This Memorial ought to be the summit of our week together, this altar the place where we literally bring our wheat and our grapes that will become the very Body and Blood for our sustenance.

    The fact that our daily life and the liturgical expression of our faith are so disparate seems to me the fault of two parties, namely, the bishops and theologians who hacked the liturgical calendar into its present state following the second Vatican council, as well as the secularist-rationalist-etc architects of our culture of death, who very deliberately shaped our daily lives into ones ruled my machines and the dollar.

    In our home, as I know in yours, we are trying to reclaim the rich life of faith that is our heritage. We bake the bread and mark it with the sign of the Cross, we pray the Divine Office (not often enough), we celebrate saints' days. Yet, how lonely our domestic church feels very often and how I wish we could walk every evening to the church for Vespers and march in Processions and meet in fellow parishioners' homes for novena prayers. I believe that Catholic life will return that in time, but it feels very lonely as we work for it. Grace and peace to your family in this Pentecost novena!

  2. We've missed you, dear friend! But imagine life must be very busy for you...

    As usual, your comment strikes a familiar chord, especially when you talk about "ascribing meaning to something that is rather a fossil attached to our lives." You also bring up another point, and that is the tie between the land, the liturgy, and community. I laugh sometimes at our modern efforts to enforce community, and yet they are somewhat necessary in our detached state.

    On a more hopeful note, we pray that things are turning around. We've noticed a current, a desire in our Catholic friends to move towards a more authentic way to live the liturgy in day-to-day life. Even our secular/non-Catholic friends have expressed the desire to dig a bit deeper than where we are see things like community gardens, farm tours, etc. becoming more and more popular. Who knows, maybe the land will be, in the end, the vehicle of conversion. I have to believe in my heart of heart that people want more than "machines and the dollar," as you so aptly put it.

    God's peace to you and yours!