At the age of ninety-nine, His Royal Highness Prince Philip, died – leaving his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and of course his wife of more than seventy-three years – Her Majesty the Queen. Many from across the nation, the Commonwealth, and the world, watched as he was laid to rest in the crypt of St George’s Chapel. In this, they join the sorrow of those who have lost loved ones to the current pandemic that we are hard at work to vanquish.
Despite his honours, and ranks, and titles – he was not spared death. Even in death, he was not immune from the social distancing necessitated by this pandemic that has defined this second decade of new millennium, much like the impact of the Spanish influenza not too long before the birth of Prince Phillip. Though humanity has advanced tremendously in science and technology throughout his lifetime, yet as with every age before his birth, natural calamities and famine and pestilence still affect us significantly.
In fact, in his encyclical Laudato Si’, His Holiness Pope Francis has said, ‘A sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention … is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and more grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.
It seemed in a round-about way that the reading during the funeral was aware of this tenuous reality, that we are still beholden to the forces of nature, even with all our advances to combat such forces. It is taken from the book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as the Wisdom of ben Sirach (Sirach for short). It talks about how our Lord, as the master of all creation, wielding the forces of nature:
Look at the rainbow and praise its Maker; it shines with a supreme beauty, rounding the sky with its gleaming arc, a bow bent by the hands of the Most High. His command speeds the snowstorm and sends the swift lightning to execute his sentence.
To that end the storehouses are opened, and the clouds fly out like birds. By his mighty power, the clouds are piled up and the hailstones broken small. The crash of his thunder makes the earth writhe, and, when he appears, an earthquake shakes the hills.
At his will the south wind blows, the squall from the north and the hurricane. He scatters the snowflakes like birds alighting; they settle like a swarm of locusts.
The eye is dazzled by their beautiful whiteness, and as they fall the mind is entranced. He spreads frost on the earth like salt, and icicles form like ointed stakes.
A cold blast from the north, and ice grows hard on the water, settling on every pool, as though the water were putting on a breastplate. He consumes the hills, scorches the wilderness, and withers the grass like fire. Cloudy weather quickly puts all to rights, and dew brings welcome relief after heat.
By the power of his thought, he tamed the deep and planted it with islands. Those who sail the sea tell stories of its dangers, which astonish all who hear them; in it are strange and wonderful creatures, all kinds of living things and huge sea-monsters. By his own action he achieves his end, and by his word all things are held together.
Note how visceral the words used to describe these forces are, painting a vivid picture to reflect the majesty God has bestowed upon His creation.
Now, why do I bring all of this up? In the splendid tradition of the Catholic Church from antiquity, there was a custom of Rogation Days [which fell on the 25th of April (Major Rogation) and the three days before Ascension Thursday (Minor Rogation)].
As the name suggests (taken from the Latin ‘rogare’, which means ‘to ask’), we ask our Lord for His mercy to be spared the chastisements inflicted by natural disasters. It was also a time to ask Him for his blessings, particularly in agricultural pursuits. In times of yore, processions were made around parish boundaries, and priests were called upon to bless livestock and crops – the sustenance of his flock.
This may seem laughable at times, as modernity often makes us think as masters of nature, manipulating it at our will - such as when we reclaim huge swathes of land from the sea, produce crops with greater yields, and eradicate whole diseases with vaccines.
However, look at where we are today, and we are still beholden to nature. A global pandemic has forced us to distance ourselves from each other, even the members of the Royal Family grieve and are beholden to these measures necessitated by the global pandemic. Surely, it is a bit of a wake-up call to not assume that we have complete control over the elements – and forget He who has true control over these!
One cannot help but draw parallels to when God confronts Job: ‘Where wast thou when I laid up the foundations of the earth? Tell me if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof if thou knowest? Or who hath stretched the line upon it? Upon what are its bases grounded? or who laid the corner stone thereof, when the morning stars praised me together, and all the sons of God made a joyful melody?’ Here, it is very clear indeed that God, not humanity, is the true master of nature.
Going back to what Pope Francis has said in Laudato Si’: ‘The human family has received from the Creator a common gift: nature.’ Though odds are that we are not involved in growing our own crops and livestock for food, we cannot deny the many blessings from nature God has granted us – and that as a part of His creation, we are still subject to its ever-changing forces and are also subject to the one Whom all such forces answer to. We need only look at the Gospels to see when Christ calmed the tempest after being awaken by His disciples who were afraid that their barque might sink into the deep.
Therefore, this Rogationtide, let us remember the many blessings God grants us through His creation, how He has kept us safe in this pandemic, and how He shall continue to do so by his mighty power.
~ K. Richard