Most of us pay no heed to the Rogations or ‘Rogationtide’. Most Anglicans observe these three days, Monday-Wednesday before Ascension, by not observing them. Or simply noting a different collect from Sunday and a shift from the lectio continua and round of Psalms in the Prayer Book lectionary for Morning and Evening Prayer. Everything has an origin. In this case, fifth-century Gaul.
St Mamertus (Bishop of Vienne, d. ca 475, brother of Claudianus Mamertus) introduced the Rogations, as we read in Sidonius Apollinaris (430-89) in a letter to his friend Aper:
The solemn observance of these [Rogations] was first inititaed, and introduced to us by the father and pontiff Mamertus, who thereby set an example worthy of all reverence and launched a most salutary venture. Before this the public prayers (with all respect to the faith, be it said) were irregular, lukewarm, sparsely attended, and, so to speak, full of yawns; their purpose was frequently obscured by the disturbing interruptions for meals, and they tended to become for the most part petitions for rain or for fine weather; indeed, to put it mildly, the potter and the gardene ought not to have attended them together. 3. But in these Rogations, which the aforesaid chief priest has both made known to us and made over to us, there are prayer and fasting, psalmody and lamentation. I beg your presence at this festival of humbly bowed heads, this fellowship of sighing suppliants; and if I am a true judge of your spiritual leanings you will come all the more promptly now that you are summoned not to a feast but to tears. Farewell. (Letters 5.14; trans. W.B. Anderson, Loeb Classical Library)
Sidonius also mentions the Rogations in a letter to Mamertus, saying that they are a consolation to the people of Auvergne in the impending invasion of the Goths (Letters 7.1), saying later in the letter:
This people of Clermont, knowing that these calamities all came upon your people of Vienne before your intervention and have not come near them since, eagerly follow the lead of your hallowed instruction, diligently entreating that one so blessedly supreme in spirituality may grant the support of his prayers to those to whom he has now sent copies of the Rogations.
Later in the century, Alcimus Ecdicius Avitus, Bishop of Vienne (ca 494 – ca 518) preached homilies on the Rogations. Avitus says:
The bishop therefore tested the initial enthusiasm, being particularly concerned to hold the prayer of the first procession at the basilica which was then nearer the walls of the city, so that the observation should not immediately become contemptible at its inception, with few supporting it, on account of the slowness of the people to take it up. It went with great speed, large numbers and the greatest remorse, so that the procession truly seemed short and narrow to the tears and labours of the people. But as soon as the holy bishop saw signs of greater things from the effect of the lesser ones, there was instituted on the following day what we are about to undergo first, i.e. tomorrow, if God assents. The churches of the Gauls subsequently followed the action that set such a pleasing example, but in such a fashion that it was not celebrated among all on the same days on which it had been instituted among us.
… And if we ought assiduously to confess that we have sinned, there is a need for the duty of confessing and of the humility of repenting – above all because the compunction of the united populace can thus be combined with the incitement of good works, so that the recalcitrant may blush yet more appropriately, if, contradicting the whole multitude in the solitude of his own mind he does not lament his sins or vice along with the weeping populace. It is therefore necessary to conspire in good work. Each takes from the other either an example from humility or solace in confession. Excessively dangerous and for the few is that lonely combat, in which the strength on the other side is tested. But truly, when the approval of the multitude fights against the common enemy, the courage of another man drags along even the timid soldier. (Homily 6 on the Rogations, trans. Ian Wood for Translated Texts for Historians)
The 511 Council of Orléans uses the fantastic adjective quadraginsimalis to describe the Rogations — ‘Lent-like’. The penitential character is thus key, along with public prayers to God (litanies), combined with processions. By the 590s, Gregory of Tours seems just to assume that the Rogations are a regular part of liturgical life.
I shall not trace the history farther because it would take me too long to learn it. Nonetheless, the practice spread from Gaul; it likely went to England with the Roman missionaries who had a lot of contact with Gaul (recall that Augustine of Canterbury was consecrated by the Metropolitan of Arles). Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Christianity interacted a lot in the Early Middle Ages, and then England got conquered by William the Bastard in 1066, himself from France.
As I say, I don’t know any congregation that practices this Late Antique solemn observance, although they probably exist. Whether they do processions, who can say? Nonetheless, for the past three days, I’ve prayed the Litany at Morning Prayer, as well as this Collect:
Assist us mercifully, O Lord, in these our supplications and prayers, and dispose the way of thy servants towards the attainment of everlasting salvation; that, among all the changes and chances of this mortal life, they may ever be defended by thy most gracious and ready help; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
We may no longer see natural disaster as God’s judgement for our sins (and no good Augustinian should!), but we should nevertheless live lives of repentance as well as intercessory supplication. The Rogations are as good a time as any to readjust our focus, and in observing them we can join with our forebears in the faith back to the year 473.