By Lori Berg
To thee, O Lord, we cry and pray;
bless this sprouting seed, strengthen it in the soft winds,
refresh it with the dew of heaven, and let it grow to full maturity
for the good of body and soul.
(From Rogation Day and Feast of St. Isidore Blessing and Procession)
Chanting the litany of the saints while processing through the farm fields, the Cistercian nuns of Valley of Our Lady Monastery in Prairie du Sac, Wis., have revived an ancient practice that draws deeply from the rich liturgical life of the Catholic Church. The celebration of the Rogation Days dates back to as early as the fifth century, when Catholics fasted and prayed three days prior to the Ascension, consecrating the soil and offering solemn supplication for a bountiful harvest.
The feast of St. Mark, April 25, is the Major Rogation; the three days preceding the Ascension are considered Minor Rogations. These days often coincide with the feast of St. Isidore, who is recognized as the patron of farmers due to his faithful attendance at daily Mass before going out to labor in the fields. He and his wife Maria were intensely spiritual and devoutly committed to family, love for the land and service to the poor. These virtues form a fundamental communion between agrarian and monastic life, a link that makes it fitting for the nuns to return to the observation of the Rogation Days.
For the second year in a row, after a twenty-five year hiatus, the nuns gathered on their property with their farming neighbors to bless the land, seeds and bees. A plot of rich, fertile soil nestled amidst the bluffs and rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin, this property will be the location of a new monastery designed to accommodate the community’s growing numbers. The nuns currently rent acreage to neighboring farmers, whose cultivation, planting and harvesting produce a natural rhythm that cooperates with God’s own creation and re-creation. The rite of blessing rekindles awareness of the harmony between the humble elements of the earth and the labor of the farmer, a communion that God blessed by giving mankind the mandate to till the land.
This communion between God, man and land resonates deeply within the Cistercian tradition. St. Stephen Harding, one of the founders of the order, aptly described those called to monastic life as “lovers of the rule and of the place” (Exordium Parvum, 17:12). Taking to heart the spirit embodied in this description, the cloistered nuns embrace a life of prayer and work in the place to which they are called. Their deep awareness of the importance of both liturgy and labor has led them to revive this age-old custom, which cultivates a sense of thanksgiving for the bounty of the land along with a profound understanding of stewardship.
Proper stewardship, tilling the soil and bringing forth sustenance in service of mankind, expresses praise and worship of the God whose Goodness diffuses itself in creation, yielding both beauty and nourishment. Such stewardship enkindles a peaceful and beautiful way of existence, for it gives rise to both tilled fields and tilled souls. This peace and beauty in turn witness to the One whose presence permeates and unites both agrarian and monastic life.
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Lori Berg is a freelance writer and teacher based in the Twin Cities.