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What will you reap? An Anglo-Saxon tradition to help us take stock

A cider-maker brings in the harvest (Getty)

August 1, in the traditional calendar of the Roman Rite the feast of St Peter in Chains, is also in the English agricultural calendar Lammas Day. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon for “Loaf-Mass”, commemorating the old custom of baking a loaf of bread from the first grain harvested at this time, and having it blessed at Mass. Similarly, “corn dollies” would be made of the first sheaves and blessed. The similar Irish observance was called Lughnasadh; in their zeal to de-baptise the old folk customs of the British Isles, modern neo-pagans love to seize upon these sorts of practices and annex them. Nevertheless, the judgement of folklorist Ronald Hutton remains: these sorts of customs do indeed represent survivals of the “Old Religion” – but that religion was pre-Reformation, not pre-Christian.

In any case, Lammas-tide signals the beginning of the harvest. For all that summer’s heat may last another month or more, the countdown toward autumn – and after that, Christmas – has begun. What was sown (or born) in spring, and carefully tended during the heat of summer, comes to fruition anywhere between Lammas and Martinmas (the wine harvest), according to region and species. The parade of observances that the Liturgical Year in all the varied rites of the Church provides during this time is at once impressive and sublime: the Transfiguration; the Assumption; the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin; the Feast of the Holy Cross (“Holy Cross in Harvest”); Michaelmas; Our Lady of the Rosary; Christ the King; Halloween; All Saints; All Souls; and St Hubert – patron of hunters – are among them. Even the secular observances during this times, such as Columbus Day, Remembrance/Veterans’/Armistice Day, and Thanksgiving lend themselves to this general theme of ingathering and recollection. So too do innumerable harvest festivals and the like.

But significant as these observances are in marking the year, their lessons have a wider application than the calendar. For the iron rule that we reap what we sow recurs continually in the life of mankind. It is certainly true in institutions. The drivel that was sown in the Church in the wake of Vatican II (and before, if we are to believe Ven Pius XII in his encyclicals Humani Generis and Mediator Dei) has borne bitter and ridiculous fruit indeed, in such farcical events as the forthcoming Amazon Synod. The moral degradation and decay that dominates the nations of the West to-day is the result of the ethical implosion that rocked developed countries during the same era. The sacramentalisation of contraception and abortion has created the population decline that no politician can directly address, although they frantically attempt to counter the resulting shortages in labour and consumption with measures that themselves contribute to our increasingly lethal political atmosphere. We are already reaping a foul Lammas harvest in Church and State – one trembles to think of where we shall be when the figurative St Martin’s day arrives.

But the reaping of what we have sown is also true in local communities as well; here we can see a much brighter picture here and there – even as some farms are better tended than others, depending on the skill and drive of the particular husbandman. Some dioceses, religious orders and houses, and parishes reflect zeal for doctrine, liturgy, and devotions, even as some towns and even counties or the equivalent show more interest in local affairs on the part of their leaders and populace than others. In the latter case, schools, libraries, and cultural resources stand out from the common run of these things and provide a better temporal life for their citizens, even as the former groups offer a firmer spiritual ground for their clergy, religious, and laity.

The iron law of reaping and sowing is also true of us as individuals as well. If we have sown love and concern in our daily lives with friends and family, then in old age the young shall cluster around us, providing comfort and solace; if we attempted to follow Christ’s commands and sow virtue rather than vice in our lives, then age shall find us with lessened fear and disappointment. In a word, if we have tried to live for others rather than ourselves – that is, for God and our neighbor – our personal harvest shall be rich, indeed.

The truth is that sowing, tending, and harvesting are at once metaphors and realities for each of us on every level in which we live our lives. Whether we have lived all of our lives on farms or – as with this writer – we are exclusively the products of major cities, this is unrelentingly true. But where the farmer is stuck with whatever seed he has lain in the ground, and must await whatever comes after Lammas Day, the rest of us – either institutionally or individually – are not. For us we constantly are given a choice of seeds, and so a choice of harvest.