Rogation Days were first instituted in the 5th century by Saint Mamertus, bishop of Vienne in France. He lived through a period of humanitarian crises: of sickness, natural disaster, and war. One night, when the village was overwhelmed by a raging fire, and the whole place was aflame, Mamertus is reported to have prayed this prayer:
“that God will turn away the plagues from us, and preserve us from all ill, from hail and drought, fire and pestilence, and from the fury of our enemies; to give us favorable seasons, that our land may be fertile, that we may have good weather and good health, and peace and tranquility, and obtain pardon for our sins.”
This prayer of Mamertus has been close to my heart these past weeks, as more and more details of the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico have come rushing into my consciousness.
There is, as you know, oil rushing constantly into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate no one’s really able to say. Estimates have ranged between 5 and 60 thousand barrels per day, and efforts to stop the leak have been, for over a month now, unsuccessful. There are massive plumes of oil in the mile-deep water over the leak. That oil, and the oil at the surface is spreading every day, into the habitats of plants and animals who call that ocean their home and provide the livelihood for an entire culture of fishing people. It’s spawning season in the Gulf, and that ecosystem will not be the same for a long, long time, if ever.
When I was a child, at home on a bay in the Gulf of Mexico, my mom and I would go fishing with my cousins for specimens to keep in our salt water aquarium. We have a short seine net — a rectangular net with brown square mesh — with floats on the top and weights on the bottom. Each end has a pole attached. In shallow sea grass, wearing our bathing suits in the warm water of the bay, she would hold one pole and I the other. I would stand in the shallows, at the edge of the grass, while she ventured out into the deeper water.
As she walked, the water inched up her waist until she stood nearly neck deep. She turned and looked at me, and we would start to walk parallel to the shore, she a little ahead of me, so that fish scared by our steps and swimming out to the deep would be caught nonetheless in our net. The grass got caught in our toes.
When the net was full, I would plant my pole and she would swing in toward the shore so we were both facing the beach, the net between us bulging with the baby animals that call this estuary bay home. We would pull the net up to the shore, lift it, and, surrounded by a little crowd of cousins, set it on the sand to see what we had caught.
The children, my cousins, who call the beach home where my mom and I would go fishing, would gather around after we had pulled in the net to see baby grouper, fat and black; little puffer fish, prickling like pineapples; needlefish, wriggling snake-ily; mounds and mounds of shiners, the bait-fish that are silvery with yellowish stripes; and every now and then, for the luckiest searchers, a tiny seahorse, clinging to the grass that got pulled in. That was the most precious of all finds. For a brief moment when I saw a seahorse, hidden among the seaweed in the net, I swear it felt like the kingdom had indeed come.
We would collect what we wanted for the aquarium in a bucket, and throw the rest back, to swim free in their ocean home. It was an exhilarating introduction to the variety of life that exists in God’s great wide world. But after the oil disaster in the Gulf, hope of seeing the seahorse this summer will be, I imagine, hard to muster. The fecundity of that bay is unlikely to persist as the oil comes to shore.
So these fishing memories have been surging up as I wonder and worry what the future holds for that bay, and as I studied some texts that articulate God’s incredible promises to us. In one revelation to John, John sees the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. In this holy city flows the river of the water of life, water that is bright and clear as crystal, water that flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. What a strange city this is, where water, bright as crystal, flows through the streets, its source a throne. On the banks of this lovely river grows the tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.
In this city, the river is clear and bright as crystal. In this city, the nations and all their wounds are healed. In this city nothing accursed will be found anymore. In this city there is no darkness, nor need for sun or moon because the glory of the Lord God is its light.
The promise of this city, of its water bright as crystal, and its trees that grow leaves that will heal the nations, has been difficult for me to believe lately. The bay where my parents live is under threat, and though I believe that God’s promises are good beyond what we can imagine, sometimes the best I can imagine is fishing in the bay with my mother. A person has to wonder if it will ever be the same.
But the Gospel of John also describes God’s incredible promises to us. Jesus tells the disciples, gathered at the Last Supper, that after Jesus returns to the Father, that he and God will come to the disciples and make their home among them. He tells the disciples that God will send them another advocate, the Holy Spirit, to teach them everything, to remind them of all Jesus had said to them. He tells the disciples “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
We are disciples of this man full of promises. And Jesus promises us that He and God will come to make their home with us. Jesus promises us that He will send us an advocate, that the Holy Spirit will teach us everything, and Jesus promises us that He will leave us with the gift of his peace.
These promises have not yet been fulfilled. We live in a world that remains unperfected, marked by sin and disaster, and full of unexplained suffering.
But we have been sent the advocate, the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. The spirit is breath and wind and fire. The spirit is with us and in us and around us. The spirit creates beyond the limits of life, the spirit breathes new realities. The spirit speaks.
Rogare, like rogation, means to ask or propose, and we ask God to fulfill God’s good promises — to give birth to the heavenly city, to give us water clear and brilliant as crystal. And the spirit is our advocate as we ask, because the spirit nurtures our relationships: with each other and with God. The spirit enables us to live together beyond possibility.
For me, it is impossible to reconcile the love I have for the Gulf Coast with the devastation that is coming. But when I asked my mother if it made her sad, if the possibility of havoc in a place she and my dad have loved so well and worked so hard to care for was heavy on her heart, she said it was; but she also said that they have experienced much in that place, much beauty, much care, much joy, much grace, much goodness, and much love. She said that those experiences and that love are what will enable the work they do now and in the years to come for the bay and its life. We may not hope for seahorses this summer, I think she must have meant, but we might hope that our lives will be faithful to the gifts we have already received.
Life among us, your life, and my life, and our life together is both a gift from the Spirit and a promise that the Spirit will be our advocate. Let us remember God’s gifts and ask God for the blessing that God has promised.
Alda Balthrop-Lewis is a former intern at Speaking of Faith and is a graduate student at the Divinity School at The University of Chicago. She will be returning to the Gulf Coast for the summer and pursuing her studies. Look for more posts from Alda in which she reflects on her home and its evolving state.