“Every time you approach Our Lord in the Eucharist, receive Him with more devotion than before.” – Fr. Paul Hamilton
The practice and devotion of receiving holy communion is quite different today than it was several hundred years ago. Laity did not partake of the Eucharist often in the middle ages – either because of an acknowledgment of unworthiness, the lack of knowledge of such carefully guarded mysteries, or both. In fact, this lack of reception of the Eucharist prompted the Fourth Lateran Council to dictate the precepts of receiving holy communion/confession once a year. Even just 100 years ago, children did not make their first communion until they were between the ages of 10 and 12, to ensure that they were more aware of the mystery which they would partake. While now, it is common to make a first communion at around age 7. Our understanding this divine mystery is also much different as well. Theologians have had more time to build upon our knowledge. The common lay person may not have had the opportunity to be taught the miraculous complexity, theological depth, or personal effect of receiving Our Lord made flesh. To combat this issue, St. Francis de Sales writes in the Introduction to the Devout Life on the necessity of receiving holy communion, exhorting his flock to fly with devotion to Christ in the Eucharist.
Two sorts of persons ought to communicate frequently; the perfect, because, being well disposed, they would be greatly to blame not to approach to the source and fountain of perfection; and the imperfect, to the end that they may be able to aspire to perfection; the strong, lest they should become weak; and the weak, that they become strong; the sick, that they may be restored to health; and the healthy, lest they should fall into sickness: that for your part, being imperfect, weak, and sick, you have need to communicate frequently with Him who is your perfection, your strength, and your physician… Tell them that you receive the holy sacrament, to learn to receive it well; because one hardly performs an action well, which he does not often practise. (Part II, Chapter XXI)
Now-a-days, we don’t necessarily have a lack of communication in our Catholic culture. After many centuries of theological development by our Church theologians, we can better explain the sacramental mysteries. Our modern times allows us access to opportunities of faith formation and many have the opportunity to easily attend daily Mass. However, despite all this, the general attitude towards receiving the Eucharist has become quite commonplace. You’d think with all this practice we’ve been getting, that we would attempt to approach the altar rail in ecstasy. However, it tends to look more like we are impatiently rushing the coffee line to get our necessary morning fix before zipping off to our daily tasks.
Our ancestral culture was one extreme by rarely allowing themselves this source of divine grace; but, perhaps, we have allowed ourselves to get into such a commonplace routine that we are dangerously teetering towards the other extreme. It may be better to be ignorant than apathetic.
Nevertheless, despite the differences in culture- the holy Doctor of Charity gives advice that remains absolutely timeless. Quite applicable to combating the temptation to monotony, he gives us a beautiful example of how to carefully prepare ourselves to receive the King of Kings, our lovable Creator, the Saviour of the world! This excerpt is one that I had forgotten about; but upon discovering it again – it kindles the fire of devotion in my soul which had been left unattended!
Prepare yourself for holy communion the evening before by many ejaculations of love, retiring earlier, than you may rise sooner in the morning. Should you awake in the night, raise your hear to God immediately, and make some ardent aspirations, in order to prepare your soul for the reception of her Spouse, who, being awake whilst you were asleep, prepares a thousand graces and favours for you, if, on your part, you are disposed to receive them. (Part II, Chapter XXI)
The first sentence always has an element of shock for me. He really expects me to prepare… the night before!?!
Pffffft. I must admit I literally laughed out loud when I read that for the very first time, several years ago.
Whew – this guy is serious! However, let us remember that Our Lord sacrificing himself to give us His Flesh and Blood to consume for our eternal sanctification… is quite a serious matter; and a serious matter requires serious consideration and preparation. With that in mind, scroll back up and read it again…
St. Francis de Sales’ recommendation is much less ridiculous and much more beautiful than originally encountered. Do we take this into account when we rise to get ready? As we pile in the car and zoom down the highway? In the pews just minutes before Mass? Even now I’m realizing how terribly hard it is to remember; for, as I’m writing this, I’mahem trying to figure out how much multitasking I can do and still make it to Mass on time… (but really, I could be distracting myself with worse things). In reality, it’s hard to remember where we are going until we actually get there, especially if you have to keep a few kids in line during this process, but that shouldn’t stop us from at least striving to keep our mind as close to Christ as possible so we are as prepared as possible to be united with Him. Not necessarily spending 12 hours in perfect meditation prior… but just offering the little moments we have to intentionally direct our thoughts to the coming glories.
In the morning, rise up with alacrity to enjoy the happiness you hope for; and having confessed, go with great, but humble confidence, to receive this heavenly food, which nourishes your soul to immortality: and after repeating thrice, Lord, I am not worthy… etc, cease to move your head or your lips to pray, or to sigh, but opening your mouth gently and moderately, and lifting up your head as much as is necessary, that the priest may see what he is about, full of faith, hope, and charity, receive Him, in Whom, by Whom, and for Whom you believe, hope, and Whom you love. (Part II, Chapter XXI)
Interestingly, I’ve always noticed that St. Francis de Sales usually doesn’t talk about receiving holy communion without first mentioning confession. St. Francis de Sales also exhorts us at one point to try our very best to receive at the very least every Sunday, barring un-confessed mortal sins. This seems to indicate that even weekly communication was not necessarily “the norm” back then; but maybe it was weekly confession that his flock needed in order to do so. However, I can’t deny that, having emerged from the confessional with a clean slate and rejuvenated confidence charging towards sainthood, I am usually more able to direct my mind and soul towards receiving holy communion. Those are special opportunities!
An even further interesting point. St. Francis de Sales not only reminds us of the proper interior disposition for receiving holy communion, but also that our faith in the Eucharist, displayed by this humble confidence and awareness of the sacrament, should generate external actions that are a great reminder and consolation for the priest (and others around us as well)!
O Philothea, represent to yourself, that as the bee, after gathering from the flowers the dew of heaven, and the choicest juice of the earth, reducing them into honey, carries it into her hive, so the priest, having taken from the altar the Saviour of the world, the true Son of God, Who, as the dew, is descended from heaven, and the true Son of the Virgin, Who, as a flower, is sprung from the earth of our humanity, puts Him as delicious food into your mouth and body. (Part II, Chapter XXI)
Ah my heart! Can I add anything more to that?!
Having received Him in your breast, excite your heart to do homage to the author of your salvation: treat with Him concerning your internal affairs; consider that He has taken up His abode within you for your happiness; make Him then as for your happiness; make Him then as welcome as you possibly can, and conduct yourself in such a manner as to make it appear by all your actions, that God is with you. (Part II, Chapter XXI)
“And conduct yourself in such a manner as to make it appear by all your actions, that God is with you.” So easy to forget! It seems sometimes that even before all have received, we are ready to walk out the door and get on with our day. But no – not yet! The conclusion (but not the end) of this Sacrament is that we behold God made man within us; our actions should respect such a unique moment, and we should take advantage of such a blessing.
Te Deum Laudamus!
So – lets take a step to change this culture of mediocrity, by following this beautiful Salesian advice. Even in the craziness of life, to take time for preparation as far as we are able (even beginning the night before!), and that our actions should exemplify this mystery especially after becoming the dwelling place for our Lord Himself.
St. Francis de Sales, ora pro nobis!