Spiritual Communion: The real thing?
Over the past year, even before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19, I have received emails from people extolling spiritual communion as even better than the physical reception of communion. A recent article by Nathaniel Peters in First Things (Spiritual Communion) attempts to explore the theology which underlies both Communion and spiritual communion and, while Peters’ essay is definitely balanced, I find myself wondering whether it is always worded quite carefully enough, as when he writes: “Physical reception is good, but spiritual reception is most important.”
I will return to this in a moment, but what follows is not intended to be a critique of Peters’ essay. In fact I recommend reading and reflecting on it. He understands that physical reception of Communion is to be preferred over an exclusively spiritual reception, and he raises interesting questions about the pastoral practice of encouraging those who are forbidden to receive sacramentally to instead receive spiritually—recognizing at least a potential incoherence in this advice. Indeed, Peters’ primary emphasis seems to be to encourage us to recognize that our own deliberate spiritual dispositions as we receive sacramentally are important to reaping the full benefit of the Holy Eucharist, a point which is inarguable.
But “spiritual reception” is an unfortunate term, as we will see, and occasional sentences in the article could be taken out of context in ways which support some of the claims I have received by email. There seems to be a movement afoot to elevate spiritual communion to and even beyond the level of The Real Thing. That’s typical of modernity, unfortunately, and it is a huge error.
The divorce of spiritual and material
It is perhaps the greatest temptation of all of us in the current cultural moment to be so aware of our own thought processes that we elevate the subjective over the objective. This can take many forms, from the notion that our intentions alone determine whether something is right or wrong to the assertion that a man can be a woman or a woman can be man if s/he wants to be. Nobody will have to look far for other examples.
Because of this sweeping cultural tendency, which lies at the heart of the contemporary loss of meaning and the resulting moral crisis of our time, we must be very careful how we deal with the Eucharist. Our priest columnist, Fr. Jerry Pokorsky, warned against the dangers of an excessive reliance on virtual Masses (even those that are “live”-streamed) in a prescient essay early in the Pandemic Period (see The dangers of live-streaming Masses). I followed this by adding further comments on the nature of sacramentality (see Beware: Sacramental Presence is always person-to-person).
My point is that we live not in an “earthy” age but in a manipulative technocratic age which insulates our thoughts from material reality, including our own bodies. Our circumstances tend to create within us a mindset which over-emphasizes how we want things to be—and leads us to believe that things can be whatever we want. Yet in comparison with all the many religious or quasi-spiritual impulses which seem to be so largely ignored by God, Catholic religious longing is definitively answered by God the Son assuming a human nature, including a human body, and by the consequent principle of sacramentality.
In other words, with both remarkable condescension and shrewd psychology, God has chosen to communicate His life to us through material signs that are very much more than mere symbols. The greatest of these “reality signs” is Jesus Christ, and the extension of Jesus Christ on earth through history is the great sacrament of the Catholic Church, including the seven specific sacraments which constitute her sacramental system.
Compared with this, every other religious aspiration is just wishful thinking. Or, to be more specific, “spiritual” communion voluntarily divorced for no good reason from sacramental communion is an exercise in human mythology.
There is only one real “reception” of Communion. It occurs when we receive the body and blood of Christ in sacramental form. Not only is this what divinizes us, by assimilating ourselves to Christ, but also the very possibility of reception is inextricably linked to Christ’s bodily sacrifice on the cross, which is re-presented each time the Eucharist is confected by a priest. Without that connection, there is no Eucharist to receive. It is, then, first and foremost through the tangible reception of Communion that our incorporation into the death and resurrection of Christ, which we receive as an unmerited gift at baptism, is renewed and strengthened within us.
Note that while Catholics recognize the importance of a personal spiritual element in the reception of Holy Communion, they usually do not speak of “receiving Communion spiritually” but of “making a spiritual communion”—which is to express a yearning for Christ’s presence in the hope that He will respond to that yearning by entering into us and continuing to draw us to Himself, even if we cannot at present receive the Sacrament. Our Lord can certainly do this. But by the economy of salvation established by God and implemented through His Church, even this depends on Christ’s very real sacrifice, His very real presence in the Church and, in signally unique ways, His very real presence in the Church’s sacraments.
Therefore, while we can agree with Peters that—in the reception of the actual sacrament of Christ’s body and blood—“spiritual reception is most important”, we can agree only in the subjective sense (which he doubtless intends), the sense of our own limited role, that is, the spiritual importance for us of an earnest participation in the sacrament. But it is never more important in toto that we receive “spiritually”. It is only that once we have put ourselves in position to receive the sacrament, we benefit from it most immediately if we receive with genuine personal awareness and the right dispositions.
We know from St. Paul himself that we can eat and drink unto condemnation if we fail to discern the true body and blood of Christ in Communion; we know also that if we receive without a certain sacred recollection we will not immediately receive the greatest benefit from the sacrament. But we also know, when it comes to the sacraments, that we can later unlock those sacramental graces of which we have been imperfectly aware simply by ardently desiring to respond to Our Lord’s call to conversion, just as we can gain heaven by seeking to work in the vineyard only at the last hour.
The most significant element—indeed, the infinitely most important element—in Communion is the Real Presence of Jesus Christ under the species of bread and wine, which we are privileged to receive. Absent that, any discussion of the “most important” aspect of reception is meaningless.
Can God draw us to Himself without our receiving the Catholic sacraments? Certainly, but the graces used are nonetheless the fruits of His sacramental plan for our salvation, beginning with the Incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and continuing through His sacramental Presence in the Catholic Church. Surely this plan is not merely arbitrary! Our Creator knows us better than we know ourselves; He knows that redemption and salvation are open only to human persons; He made us as persons who are a composite of body and soul; and He engraces or divinizes us in and through the fullness of our human nature.
Can those barred from reception of Communion make spiritual communions with profit? Certainly. Their genuine desire is a sufficient starting point, for they are barred by law and not by a final judgment on their souls. It is God who reads hearts. Which of us has not needed a season of prayer and yearning so that we might be opened to a better understanding of God’s will to the point that we are ready to follow it more fully? This prayer and yearning offer no affront to our Blessed Lord. What we call a spiritual communion is possible to make without fully understanding our situation, but it is impossible to make insincerely. Indeed, the highest elements of any prayer—the elements added by the Holy Spirit to our confused sincerities—are to seek first the wisdom to know God’s will and then the courage to do it.
Finally, we must again grasp the main point—that our own “spiritual” impetus in the reception of Communion is most important only when considering our own part in the sacrament. But our part is by far the lesser part when it comes to any of the sacraments, and that is what makes loose talk about spiritual communion so potentially confusing. The objective element of a sacrament is what carries its true power, by which I mean the active Presence, specific to each sacrament, of Jesus Christ Himself.
Saying that our spiritual intentions are the most important element in a fruitful Communion is like saying that the love, desire and romantic endearments between a husband and wife are the most important element in the procreation of a child. No analogy is perfect, but perhaps if we think seriously about that statement, we will at last begin to understand the nature and power of a sacrament. For a sacrament is always the sacrificial self-donation of Our Lord and Savior—the tangible gift of life from Life Himself.
We are privileged to nurture the Divine life which the sacraments communicate to us just as we are privileged to nurture the children that are born of our coupling. But we do not singularly create that life, any more than we can alter reality to make it something other than it is. As creatures of God, we are completely embraced by the deepest Love, which is the foundation of reality itself. We do not yearn our way into our own heaven. When we are thinking clearly about this reality, we do not call it the Vision of Man and brag of either our wonderful aspirations or our stupendous powers. We call it the Law of the Gift, and we praise our Creator and Lord.
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Posted by: Don R Caffery -
Jul. 18, 2021 2:00 PM ET USA
Dr. Minus, I just read your article. One year after they were written, your words are prophetic. We have quickly gotten used to a "spiritual" substitute for the Real Body and Blood of Christ. I now find myself trying to encourage my adult children to return to actual presence at Mass and reception of the Sacrament. I will convey your thoughts to them in a few words at the right time.
Posted by: doughlousek7433 -
Jul. 25, 2020 1:10 PM ET USA
Great article! As one in the "vulnerable" category, returning to Mass and receiving is not possible. However, my wife & I follow the prayers of Mass, and having read commentaries about the messages, discuss the readings & Gospel. We especially discuss how the message applies to us today. When we reach the "Spiritual Communion" we agree that, though it isn't the True Presence, we believe that Jesus can be with us and it gives us comfort. It is not something I would do if the circumstances change!
Posted by: jslabonik53 -
Jul. 24, 2020 8:29 PM ET USA
"I wish my Lord to receive you with the purity, devotion and humility with which your most holy Mother received you, with the spirit and fervor of the saints." I usually say this prayer when approaching the communion rail and when visiting a church before the Tabernacle. And of course it can be used at anytime to express that desire to be united in the reception of our Lord in the most Blessed Sacrament. Not a replacement for reception of holy communion but a pious act of faith hope and love.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Jul. 23, 2020 8:57 AM ET USA
Your last 2 paragraphs are among the most cogent I have read that expose the folly of using unnatural vice in support of the movement that resulted in the imposition of the "new" definition of "marriage" on us all. It is because of this "new" definition that I refrain from using the word "marriage" in religious instruction and only use the sacramental term "matrimony". What is signified by the conjugal embrace within this sacrament is as concrete a joining as occurs physically in Holy Communion.