The Rogation Days

This is an excerpt from The Genius of Christianity; or, The Spirit and Beauty of the Christian Religion, by François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848), translated by Charles I. White, and published in 1884.

The bells of the village church strike up, and .be rustics immediately quit their various employments. The vine-dresser descends the hill, the husbandman hastens from the plain, the wood -cutter leaves the forest: the mothers, sallying from their huts, arrive with their children; and the young maidens relinquish their spinning wheels, their sheep, and the fountains, to attend the rural festival.

They assemble in the parish churchyard on the verdant graves of their forefathers. The only ecclesiastic who is to take part in the ceremony soon appears; this is some aged pastor known only by the appellation of the curé, and this venerable name, in which his own is lost, designates less the minister of the temple than the laborious father of his flock. He comes forth from his solitary house, which stands contiguous to the abode of the dead, over whose ashes he keeps watch. This pastor in his habitation is like an advanced guard on the frontier of life, to receive those who enter and those who depart from this kingdom of wo and grief. A well, some poplars, a vine climbing about his window, and a few pigeons, constitute all the wealth of this king of sacrifices.

The apostle of the gospel, vested simply in a surplice, assembles his flock before the principal entrance of the church, and delivers a discourse, which must certainly be very impressive, to judge from the tears of his audience. He frequently repeats the words, My children! my dearly-beloved children! and herein consists the whole secret of the eloquence of this rustic Chrysostom.

The exhortation ended, the assembly begins to move off, singing, “Ye shall go forth with pleasure, and ye shall be received with joy; the hills shall leap, and shall hear you with delight.” The standard of the saints, the antique banner of the days of chivalry, opens the procession of the villagers who follow their pastor pêlemêle. They pursue their course through lanes overshadowed with trees and deeply cut by the wheels of the rustic vehicles; they climb over high barriers formed by a single trunk of a tree; they proceed along a hedge of hawthorn, where the bee hums, where the bullfinch and the blackbird whistle. The budding trees display the promise of their fruit; all nature is a nosegay of flowers. The woods, the valleys, the rivers, the rocks, hear, in their turns, the hymns of the husbandmen. Astonished at these resounding canticles, the hosts of the green cornfields start forth, and at a convenient distance stop to witness the passage of this rural pageant.

At length the rustics return to their labor: religion designed not to make the day on which they implore- the Almighty to bleat the produce of the earth a day of idleness. With what confidence does the ploughman plunge his share into the soil, after addressing his supplications to Him who governs the spheres and who keeps in his treasuries the breezes of the south and the-fertilizing showers ! To finish well a day so piously begun, the old men of the village repair at night to converse with their pastor, who takes his evening meal under the poplars in his yard. The moon then sheds her last beams on this festival, which the Church has made to correspond with the return of the most pleasant of the months and the course of the most mysterious of the constellations. The people seem to hear the grain taking root in the earth and the plants growing and maturing. Amid the silence of the woods arise unknown voices, as from the choir of rural angels whose succor has been implored; and the plaintive and sweet notes of the nightingale salute the ears of the veterans, who are seated not far from the solitary tombs.

Featured: La bénédiction des blés en Artois (Blessing the Wheat in Artois), by Jules Breton; painted in 1857.