Catholic Activity: Assumption, Blessing of Herbs, Wheat, Grapes and Flowers
August 15 marks another harvest feast. Florence Berger describes her family's preparation and celebration of this feast, with some suggestions for your own holyday celebration. This day marks the blessing of herbs, flowers, grapes and/or wheat, depending on what area you live. The quotes from the blessing are from the old Roman Ritual. The blessing is changed, but still in the new Ritual.
August 14 had crept upon us unawares. The whole family was stretched out on the grass in the warm summer night. A red, ragged moon had risen over the eastern hills as we were weeding our rows of beans, but now it was as white and smooth as an alabaster plate. We were tired, all of us, and even the voices of the children had lost their sparkling sharpness. The continual murmur of the night had dulled the giggles and filed off the squeals until all our talk had fallen to the cadence of the insects.
"Remember last year this time?" asked daddy in a noncommittal sort of way. One hardly knew where to expect the answer — from the moon, from the insects or from us.
"I suppose we were in Wisconsin," I ventured in half a doze.
"Why, mother, we were. Remember. We were getting ready for the feast day at Lake Geneva," recalled Ann with her big blue eyes all wide-awake.
"Is tomorrow the 15th, the Assumption?" I asked, still unbelieving.
"It must be," Mary declared. "Remember how we gathered herbs in the woods and brought them to decorate the chapel, and made bouquets of herbs for the bishop to bless, and boutonnieres of herbs for everyone to wear."
"I'll bet if you'd been home you'd have used them to eat, too," interrupted Freddie, slyly.
"Of course we would," I rushed to the fray, "and we would have had them to drink, too."
"All right, mother, you win," laughed Freddie, "but why just herbs on Our Lady's Day?"
"It wasn't just herbs, Freddie, but wheat and grapes and fruit and flowers," countered Ann. "They were all blessed before the High Mass."
"Do I remember the wheat," groaned daddy as he rolled over. "I think your mother and I went into 10 farmhouses up there in Wisconsin and every farmer that opened the door said, `Nope, no wheat, it's all oats.'"
"But you did get some," interrupted Mary, "because it was beautiful on the altar and the sheaves of wheat in the offertory procession made sense. After all, we don't eat oat bread here."
"That's right, Mary," answered her father, "but by rights we should have brought the oats to Church, too, because in Wisconsin the farmers are thankful for that harvest. As the Virgin Mary was the first and best fruit of all mankind to be gathered into the heavenly barn, so today each one can offer his first and best to God in thanks."
"Let's gather our harvest now," suggested Ann, jumping up and pulling on my skirt.
"Now — in the dark!" I hesitated on my knees.
"It's not dark, it's moonlight. And we won't have time before Mass tomorrow. And we haven't anything ready for the feast. And it will be fun," she bubbled without taking a breath.
"And the herbs give more perfume at night anyway," I laughed as the plan progressed.
"But we can't take them to Church here," I added, "because in our parish the custom of blessing the herbs is forgotten."
"That's all right," said Freddie, who saw some sport afoot. "We'll gather them anyway and let daddy bless them."
So it was decided that Freddie and daddy should pull the vegetables. Beans we had a-plenty and golden corn and red tomatoes. Mary and Ann were sent to fetch the choicest peaches, pears and grapes. Kathy and I went to pick the herbs.
If you have ever gathered herbs in the moonlight on a still summer night you will know why I shall never forget that night of August 14. As I stopped to pick a spike of lavender, I was enfolded in an ancient spell of legend and story. From the past a voice of some old herbalist spoke out. The Mother of God was very fond of lavender flowers "because of their virtue in protecting clothes from dirty, filthy beasts." She also loved this herb "for the reason that it preserves chastity." And periwinkle or joy-of-the-ground should be blessed on Our Lady's Day, for "who" ever carries this herb with him on the skin — the devil has no power over him." Take clary, too, for these flowers are the "eyes of Christ." Kathy's little feet were crushing the creeping thyme in the path and the pungent odor reminded us to pick a whole family of thymes. We must have mints, too, for they were strewn on the streets and Church aisles for the Virgin's procession. The cooking herbs were not forgotten. If I am to be Christ's cook, I must use God's herbs "for the service of men." "In pottage without herbs there is neither goodness nor nourishment."
Soon our aprons were full of a potpourri of fragrant sprays, and Kathy and I joined the others. We had gathered the best of our harvest. We made a diadem of our first fruits for the coronation of our Queen, for the day of the Assumption, the crown of all feasts in honor of Our Lady.
The next morning with the poetry of the psalmist we counted our blessings and gave thanks to God.
Thou hast visited the earth and plentifully watered it: Thou hast in many ways enriched it. The river of God is filled with water, Thou hast prepared their food: for so is its preparation. Fill up plentifully the stream thereof, multiply its fruits: it shall spring up and rejoice in its showers. Thou shalt bless the crown of the year with Thy goodness; and Thy fields shall be filled with plenty. The beautiful places of the wilderness shall be fat: and the hills shall be girded about with joy. The rams of the flock are clothed and the vales shall abound with corn: they shall shout, yea, they shall sing a hymn.
The verses followed with a kingly rhythm:
For the Lord shall give goodness And our earth shall yield her fruit Thou waterest the hills from Thy upper rooms The earth shall be filled with the fruit of Thy works Bring forth grass for cattle And herb for the service of men That thou mayest bring bread out of the earth; And that wine may cheer the heart of man: That he may make the face cheerful with oil And that bread may strengthen man's heart.
We blessed the harvest as best we could with the same words the bishop had used the year before, with the same words which had been used centuries ago to bless herbs and fruits on the feast of the Assumption. We acknowledged and thanked God for "the power inherent in these plants," which sustain us in health and cure us in sickness. But we asked Him to add to these material powers "a new blessing." We asked Him to spiritualize these foods and medicines so that they might "be a protection against all sickness and tribulation when we use them for man and beast in Thy name." We prayed that "these temporal gifts may remind us and help us 'to our eternal salvation.'" Prosperity should and can lead us to heaven if we spiritualize it and use it in charity. Then we sang the last plea of our harvest hymn:
Grant that we may be worthy to be received, with our sheaves of good works into heaven through the merits of the most Blessed Virgin Mary.
That day we both ate and drank the herbs as Freddie had predicted. In the heat of the afternoon we served a fruit and herb punch which the children made. With this we drank the praise of the Mother of God.
That evening we had a mint jelly dessert which is wonderful for hot summertime. Here, too, we use the herbs and fruits of the feast day.
In old cookbooks, you'll find a recipe similar to this using isinglass, a form of gelatin. It was served on "a summer feast day." What day could be better for this than the Assumption, "the day of the great Lady?"
Activity Source: Cooking for Christ by Florence Berger, National Catholic Rural Life Conference, 4625 Beaver Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50310, 1949, 1999