This would seem to be the natural place in which to say a word on the subject of Spiritual Communion, or, Communion of the Angels, as it has been called.
In spite of all that has been said on the matter of the frequent reception of the Holy Eucharist, it must be recognised and freely admitted that for large numbers of the Faithful it is quite impossible. Their daily avocations prevent many of them from getting to church on week days, while many also do not feel the courage or the desire to go often to Holy Communion. To all these and to others who, from whatever cause, do not go to the Holy Table, the practice of Spiritual Communion may be recommended, as used by the Saints and approved by the Church. " Those who eat in desire this heavenly bread are, by a lively faith that worketh by charity, made sensible of the fruit and usefulness thereof" (CI. Trent., XIII. 8).
Spiritual Communion consists chiefly in a yearning desire to receive our Blessed Lord, with expressions of regret at not being able to actually do so, in making acts of sorrow for sin, together with gratitude for God's mercies and petition for His graces, in the same way almost as if we had really been able to receive Him into our hearts.
Such Communion may be made at any time or place; we know that Our Lord, while on earth, healed not only those who presented themselves before Him, but those also who were at a distance, but ardently desired His presence. Remember the instance of the Centurion's servant, as related in S. Matthew's Gospel, viii. 8 : and also that of the Ruler's son (John iv. 50). Without then actually entering our hearts by Sacramental Communion, Our Lord can and will bless us, if we make only a Spiritual Communion.
The most natural and suitable time for this would be during Mass, when the priest makes his Sacramental Communion, or while the Faithful go up to the Altar for theirs; we shall be better able then to excite within us the best dispositions for making it well. If carefully and fervently done, such Spiritual Communion may be made to supply the omission of Sacramental Communion. It has ever been held in esteem by Saints and holy persons, who extol the happy effects it produces in the soul, while Our Lord Himself has more than once shown the pleasure it gives Him. He one day appeared to a holy nun who dwelt in Naples, holding two vessels in His hands, the one of gold, and the other of silver. As she was wondering what this could mean, Jesus said to her: " My child, I keep in the golden vessel all your Sacramental Communions, and in the silver one all your Spiritual Communions." On another occasion, He told S. Jane of the Cross, that as often as she made a Spiritual Communion, she received a grace similar to that which she received when making a Sacramental Communion.
When, therefore, we do not approach the Altar during Mass, and even when we are not able to be present at Mass at all, we should make at least a Spiritual Communion in the manner here given. There is no need to be fasting for this purpose, nor is a Confessors leave in any way necessary. Then, like many others who have benefited by the practice, we shall reap much profit from it, and enrich our souls with many precious graces.
That food may be beneficial to the body, the body must necessarily be living, for food cannot avail the dead. So with regard to the spiritual food of Holy Communion: it is only the soul that enjoys the supernatural life in God through Divine grace that can draw profit from the reception of the Holy Eucharist. In other words, to receive worthily, the soul must be in the state of grace ; the absence of this wedding garment renders the soul unfit and unworthy to approach the Adorable Sacrament. Yet we know that Christians are sometimes found who do not hesitate to go to the Holy Table, their souls defiled with mortal sin, thus making a bad Communion, and rendering themselves guilty of sacrilege in so doing.
The unworthy communicant acts like the Philistines, who took possession of the Ark of the Covenant, and placed it near their false god, Dagon, for he introduces his Eucharistic God into a soul where Satan himself holds sway.
To turn a church into a stable, as the first Napoleon is said to have done during his military campaigns, would be a desecration before God and man. So, too, was the act of Baltassar, King of Babylon, in sending for the sacred vessels of the Temple, and turning them to profane use, by drinking from them to the honour of his gods (Dan. v.). What, then, must be the guilt of one who introduces Our Lord into his soul, when plunged in the mire of grievous sin, profaning thus the great Sacrament of Sacraments! No greater crime can be conceived, no greater insult can be offered than this sacrilege of deepest dye, bringing the infinite Sanctity of God into contact with the corruption of a soul in mortal sin. It is like tying a living body to a putrid corpse, as was sometimes done with the Martyrs.
The usual cause of a bad Communion is the making of a bad Confession beforehand, by concealing a sin through false shame and fear in declaring some sin, or through want of true contrition, or again through carelessness in examining one's conscience, which leads to the omission of some grievous sin that would have come to light in an examination of conscience properly made. This shows the importance of a previous good Confession, for if the Confession be faulty and sacrilegious, so too will be the Communion that follows.
This great evil may sometimes arise also from a sort of human respect, which impels one to go to Holy Communion after breaking one's fast. This may perhaps happen in the case of children ; having prepared themselves well for their Communion the night before, they accidentally break their fast the next morning, and then, through false shame, or through human respect, are afraid to abstain from going to the Altar, which their parents or companions know they intended to do ; thus are they led to make a bad Communion. Such as these must remember the weighty law of the Church, that Communion must be received fasting, apart the exceptions we have already considered. Should they happen to break their fast, there is no help for it but to abstain from Holy Communion that day ; let them proclaim boldly the cause of this, and then prepare to receive another day. On no account must they go to the Altar in such circumstances, and so commit a grievous sin.
Judas was the first bad communicant, who on the very night of Our Lord's institution of the Holy Eucharist, having planned in his heart to betray his Divine Master to His enemies, yet dared to receive Him in such unworthy dispositions, and " Satan entered into him" (John xiii. 27). Since his day, alas ! many have done, and still do, in like manner, receiving Holy Communion unworthily, and committing a grievous sacrilege ; better far to make no Communion at all than to make a bad one. To do this is to turn the food of the soul, so calculated to raise it to the heights of sanctity, into a deadly poison that kills the soul in the eyes of God. Holy Communion is like the light of day, salutary to the healthy eye, but hurtful to one that is diseased ; Our Lord's Body is a medicine, giving health to the pure of heart, but spiritual death to the unclean.
The consequences of a bad Communion are expressed in the words of S. Paul (1 Cor. xi. 29) : eating and drinking judgment to oneself, that is to say, the sinner entails damnation on himself, in punishment for not discerning the Body of the Lord, and treating It with no more respect than he would treat common bread.
1. God has ever punished sacrilege with marked severity and indignation ; His punishments for this are oftentimes of the temporal order and more terrible than for any other kind of sin. Even in the days of S. Paul we find sacrilegious Communions among the Faithful, and he tells the Corinthians that in consequence thereof many among them were afflicted with divers ailments and diseases, while many, too, were punished with premature death (i Cor. xi. 30). " Durandus says that for many years in Rome there were so many sudden deaths about Easter that the public attention was drawn to it, especially as there seemed no reason in the ordinary course of things why the average should be so greatly exceeded always at the occurrence of that movable feast. At length the Pope received some light by which he was led to infer that this annual visitation of sudden deaths was in consequence of the number of sacrilegious Communions made by those fulfilling the Easter precept." [Faber: "Blessed Sacrament," p. 553] Even to this day one of the breviary hymns for Paschal time contains a verse recalling this fact, and begging God to spare His people : Ut sis perenne mentibus.
Jesus, that Thou to our poor hearts
May'st e'er true Paschal joy remain,
From evil death, deserved by crime,
Free us, to life now born again."
(Tr. Abp. Bagshawe.)
Anyone who despises the law and refuses to obey offends the king and gives him displeasure. But if he advance still further and maltreats the king himself, then he commits a more grievous crime and is guilty of high treason. This is exactly what is done by one who receives Communion in the state of sin. If he disobey the Divine commands, he offends and dishonours God; but if he have the temerity to receive Our Lord with mortal sin in his soul, then he not only offends God, but directly maltreats His Divine Son, and commits the awful crime of high treason against Him. No wonder that God Almighty punishes such sin with severity !
2. Bad Communions more than anything else tend to harden the heart, and as it were to sear it over, as sealing-wax is spread over the paper. The grace of God makes no impression on the soul and can hardly effect an entrance; hence the great difficulty of repentance and conversion which they experience who are thus guilty, hence too the danger they expose themselves to of dying in their sin.
A band of robbers numbered among them a young man, as yet timid, whose sense of virtue had not been quite stifled. " Go and make bad Communions," said the Captain, 11 and you will no longer fear ! " Unfortunately, the young man followed this diabolical advice, and soon found how true it is that sacrilege hardens the heart, for he became in time the most desperate of a desperate lot.
In one of the towns bordering on the Rhine there lived a man who had given himself up to every passion, and had become by his life a scandal to all who knew him. Beino- at length on his deathbed, his family, who were good Catholics, sent for the priest, who heard the sick man's confession, and prepared to give him Holy Viaticum. He already held the Blessed Sacrament in his hand, when the patient cried out: " Stop, father, stop! I made a sacrilegious first Communion, and have never been to Communion since. One surely is sufficient to suffer for in hell for eternity." In vain did the priest and the bystanders, struck with horror, exhort him to repentance and remind him of the infinite mercy of God, who is ever ready to pardon the repenting sinner. He sank into the depths of despair and died miserably.
3. Furthermore, sacrilegious Communions lead to great remorse of conscience and to unhappiness, which goad the guilty to every sort of crime. When a sinner reflects on his crime, he feels oppressed in heart and realises the weight of sin that lies on his conscience; then, losing his peace of mind, he is ready to do any evil that may present itself to his thoughts.
The example of the unhappy Judas will be handed down to all time. After making his bad Communion, and then selling his Lord into the hands of His enemies, filled with the bitterness of remorse, he went forth and hanged himself with a halter (Matt, xxvii. 5).
The famous Goethe writes a magnificent page on the beauty and power of the Sacraments of the Church ; then he declares that a bad Communion made him leave the Church to embrace Protestantism, for he thought, as S. Paul says, he had eaten his own condemnation, and he strove thus to stifle remorse. Full of gloom, fear, and despair, he wrote a wicked book that has caused innumerable suicides. Thus did sacrilege become the poisoned source of many evils.
Among the signs of predestination given by the Fathers of the Church, one is that we know how to draw good out of evil, and turn to the advantage of our souls even the very sins we may have committed, as the bee draws sweetness from bitter flowers. " To them that love God all things work together unto good" (Rom. viii. 28). On the other hand, it is a sign of damnation to draw evil out of good and convert into deadly poison that food which should naturally give us life, as they do who communicate unworthily. Instead of reaping benefit from so great a Sacrament, they do but draw down upon themselves the malediction and vengeance of God.
What then must we do to avoid so great a crime and escape the chastisements it often brings? If we cannot attain to the highest dispositions that will make our Communion so worthy and fruitful, at least must we have the elementary and essential disposition of being in the state of grace ; to this add humble preparation and thanksgiving, then the Eucharistic Bread will always prove to be the bread of eternal life to our souls.
By way of conclusion to this first part of our subject—the Holy Eucharist considered as a Sacrament—it may be well to add to what has been already said a few practical lessons and considerations.
1. The Blessed Sacrament has been termed the " abridgment of the wonders of God." It
is the centre to which everything in the body of the Church tends, to which all the other Sacraments refer, just as everything in the human body centres in the heart; it is the mystery which gives life to the social community, directed to the bringing back of the universe to God. For all creatures strive towards perfection, but they lose their own individuality in so doing ; thus, earth, air, and water lose their individual existence, when assimilated as food by plants and trees of the vegetative world, a higher and more perfect form of being than the inorganic, to which the former belong. Vegetation, in its turn, is lost in the life of animals which it subserves ; while both vegetative and animal life is absorbed by man, for his food, clothing, and general comfort. Then lastly man himself is assimilated to God, who imparts to him His own Divine life in Holy Communion, so that he truly says with S. Paul: "I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. ii. 20). Thus is the Holy Eucharist the centre to which all things tend, it is in the moral world what the sun is in the physical, drawing all things to itself, diffusing spiritual life and fruitfulness throughout the Church.
2. The Fathers call the Eucharist also an " Extension of the Incarnation." For in that mystery Our Lord united Himself to only one body and one soul, but in the Holy Eucharist He unites Himself to the body and soul of each one who receives Him. This union of God and man by Holy Communion is likened to a piece of red-hot iron, assuming all the qualities of fire, without losing its own nature, and to food, which is daily changed into the substance of our body by digestion. Thus Holy Communion makes each one of us another Jesus Christ, "in whom the Father is well pleased," thus extending the mystery and work of the Incarnation.
3. In reference to Society at large, the Holy Eucharist is what the sun is to the universe, what the heart is to the body. Take away the sun, and the physical world would crumble to pieces in darkness and arctic cold. Take away the heart, and life succumbs and is lost. So, too, would it be in Church, did the Holy Eucharist cease to be her treasure. For, in it the Church finds her vigour and strength ; by it the Christian Religion is ever strong and flourishing; and for it Divine worship displays its grandeur and magnificence, all which exercises an influence and power on the well-being of human Society.
4. The Holy Eucharist is the principle of the miracles of charity and self-sacrifice, of which the annals of the Church open out to our gaze so marry noble examples. We see S. Charles Boromeo carrying comfort and consolation to the plague-stricken in the streets of Milan, fearless as to personal inconvenience and danger, because inflamed through Holy Communion with burning love for the souls and bodies of the stricken ones. S. Francis of Sales, in like manner, sacrificed everything, and would have laid down his life, in his zeal for the salvation of the heretics among whom his lot was cast. In recent times, Fr. Damien, the leper martyr of Charity, sacrificed everything—home, friends, comforts, and even life— for his stricken neighbour. So also the Religious of both sexes have ever devoted their means, their time, and their very lives to the welfare, spiritual and temporal, of their fellow-beings, suffering from all the miseries that human flesh is heir to, because their souls were inflamed with love for God and man, in the daily reception of the Bread of Life. Thus, too, will it be with us, if we, like them, go often to the same Holy Table.
Where love of the Holy Eucharist grows cold, true Charity becomes extinct; then selfishness or cold philanthropy come to take its place, thinking much of the bodily wants of the poor, as we so often see at the present time—an excellent thing in itself, a corporal work of mercy—but without any thought for the higher happiness of the victims, without raising their thoughts to God and eternity, and so, failing in the first essential towards true peace and happiness, the idea of God and of resignation to His Divine Will.
May God grant that the present-day return to the salutary practice of frequent Communion may multiply wonders of charity and love, tending to the temporal benefit and social welfare of men in this world, but at the same time raise their souls to the heights of spiritual perfection, and fit them for closer union with God in the next.