Saturday, 5 December 2009

On Receiving Communion

I am not a big fan of receiving the Flesh of Christ in one's hand at Communion. I make a practice of receiving Him directly into my mouth as a rule, which strikes me personally as a more fitting and respectful manner, and for me to refrain from doing so or to change my practice would be to demonstrate a diminishment of reverence on my part. This is, of course, an act of personal devotion to Jesus. It does not (or should not) cause me to judge the devotion or love for Jesus of those who do differently.

Of course, there are numbers of people who would regard the method of reception as some kind of a quasi-litmus test of devotion or, alternatively, suggest that abolishing the possibility of receiving the Lord's Flesh in one's hand at Communion would naturally increase people's reverence for Him. This is, I think, a potentially insidious temptation and an unhelpful way of thinking. Our bodies and our actions do, of course, communicate something of our attitudes. That is the element of truth in such persons' mentality. But bodies and actions are not an infallible indicator. And there is not always a causal effect from one to the other or vice versa. Acts of personal devotion are frequently precisely that- personal- and that which communicates or demonstrates something profound in the heart of one believer may leave another cold.

For those who think that somehow such things are a natural consequence (or, worse, a cause) of a general loss of a sense of awe and reverence before the Almighty over the last several decades, hear the words of St Cyril of Jerusalem, who could hardly be accused of a lack of reverence for the Holy Flesh and Blood of the Saviour:

Approaching, do not come with your palms stretched flat nor with fingers separated. But making your left hand a seat for your right, and hollowing your palm, receive the Body of Christ, responding Amen. And having with care hallowed your eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, take it, vigilant lest you drop any of it. For should you lose any of it, it is as though you were deprived of a member of your own body.

What would be to me a symptom of irreverence was to St Cyril quite the opposite. A very small minority would question the orthopraxis of a bishop who gave this advice today. But they would be wrong. It is good that the Church has instituted options for the faithful in this regard, rather than conforming us to an absolute and monolithic expression of worship. When I receive the Body of my Saviour, I may express devotion to Him in a way that seems fitting to me; someone else to whom such actions have no such significance is able to express the same devotion in a different way. It is then for me not to judge people's love and desire for God merely by whether or not they conform to how I naturally express these things. "For man looks at the outward appearance but the LORD looks at the heart." (1 Sam 16:7) And it is by our hearts, mine and theirs, that we shall be judged.


Anonymous said...

You know, I've always wondered if it meant something. Sure I believe communion is more representation more than anything, bieng non-Catholic.

Once I did drop teh wine. Well, grape juice actually. I didn't mean to, honestly. I just twitched. An accident. I felt bad, like God was trying to tell me I was bad or something.

But if it means "being deprived of a member of my own body", I have to admit it isn't that bad. That's always happening to me.

Kiran said...

Glenn, while I would not judge anybody who received communion in the hand, your further argument, if you will permit me for saying so, is at the same time, entirely obtuse (particularly in regards to "cause"), and rather Cartesian.

What St. Cyril said about receiving Holy Communion only goes to show that one can receive communion in the hand reverently. On the other hand, a very small proportion of the people who receives communion in the hand receives Him that way, so it is completely beside the point.

The loss of reverence following from the introduction of communion in the hand is a larger case: that the introduction thereof after a very long time (more than a thousand years, perhaps a millenium and a half) was an archaizing act, which in its turn led to the flagrant mistreatment of the Eucharist, and loss of belief in the Real Presence.

Now it is impossible to judge anyone's heart, and even apart from that not a good thing to do anyway, and I certainly would receive communion in the hand if I judged it best. However, like the abolition of meat on Fridays (which means very few people do any sort of penance on Friday), and the much more disastrous decision (probably the most disastrous decision) to allow Catholics to cremate the bodies of the dead, this was another prudential decision that the shepherds of the Church got completely and entirely wrong. There was no good reason to do it, and there were a whole host of reasons why it would be and has been bad on numerous levels.

The major thing you ignore (and this is the Cartesian element) is that our common practices (the things we all do) that defines our beliefs. We are not souls trapped in bodies. So there!

GAB said...


Obviously the difference of belief about what the Eucharist is is going to have a big effect on how we approach it. I must admit, though, I chuckled at your reductio ad absurdum of the quote from Cyril. Clearly not what he meant, but still....:D


Hang on to your hat. I'm about to go on a bit of a rant. There is a certain point past which one can have legitimate differences of practice without them affecting the core of belief or of anything else for that matter. This is normal within the Church. Some people have a particular devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. For others (and I number myself among them) it doesn't really do much. It's not that they deny what that devotion stands for, it's just that it doesn't particularly inspire them. For those whom it does inspire, it would be wrong if they judged these latter as though they were devoid of love for our Lord. It's the same principle.

That's not Cartesian. That's just human. Cultures are different, individuals are different. That doesn't mean truth is divided. The Irish, the Italians and the Poles are equally Catholic, but how they express their faith is remarkably different. This can be, and is, true on the individual level as well.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not advocating the wholesale reinvention of the liturgy. You know what I think on such matters. But communion on the hand, especially given the antiquity of the practice (Last Supper, anyone?- and of course I already quoted St Cyril) is hardly a hill to die on. It can be as reverent as receiving on the tongue. We may believe that it has been. If (and I think it can hardly be denied) there has been lessening of reverence and awe for God in worship over the last forty-or-so years, this practice is not necessarily a symptom and hardly a cause. One must look elsewhere for those things.

The problem, I believe, is that many traditionalists (not a word I like, but I can't think of a better one right now) can too easily fall into the trap of thinking that if everyone is not like them, or, as in this case, expresses religious love and worship in precisely the same way as them, they are immediately suspect.

On the contrary, there is, within limits, room for legitimate difference of expression. The Church, thanks be to God, can, has and does allow for such difference, while requiring conformity on the essential, on the substance.

Having ranted a bit about the Cartesian jibe, let me say that you basically concede my point when you say Cyril shows one can receive on the hand reverently. It is possible. It's weird, then, that you then go on to claim that few who follow this practice in fact do so reverently. How do you know? Have you asked them? Can you see into the depths of their hearts?

I take your point that you think it was inadvisable to allow people to receive in the hand in the first place. But I don't think it is so. I believe this whole issue is, if you will forgive me, like those who associated lay preaching with the Albigensians and condemned the practice by association. I don't think that is legitimate at all.

(And for the record, I think it is a bit of a storm in a teacup anyway, but that's just me)

Kiran said...

I already made the point that (a) I don't think it is wise to judge people anyway. (b) It is possible to receive reverently. and (c) I would myself receive communion in the hand if I judged it prudent.

Few people receive it the way St. Cyril prescribes reception, because St. Cyril's description is a physical one. Also, having acted as extraordinary minister, one observes things. In all of this you are making the same mistake as made by people who claim other people are "in good conscience" (which they very well might be), and therefore ought not to be judged (in which they are showing the misunderstanding of what "judged" means). My point is that whatever reverence might be in the depth of people's hearts, communion is a public act.

Oh, and the argument about antiquity proves exactly nothing. So what if they did it in the Last Supper and the first four centuries. The cultural context is completely different. The common shared understanding of the mystery of the Eucharist is no longer there and cannot be relied upon. Coming back to my original statement, we are stuck with communion in the hand for now, because the Bishops have already made the wrong decision, but if the Pope were tomorrow to abolish it, I would be cheering. One notes that in Papal masses, it is no longer possible to receive communion in the hand.

And on what basis do you make the judgement that communion in the hand is neither symptom nor cause of the lack of reverence and awe? One might just as well say cremation has nothing to do with loss of belief in the bodily resurrection, or the abolition of Fish on Fridays has nothing to do with the general catholic loss of penance on Fridays. In all of these matters, it is not only the intellectual side that matters, but common practise. Religion cannot survive without common practices, and an attack on common practices will have flow-on effects on religion. Cf. for all of this Mary Douglas' Natural Symbols.

In all of this, I am saying exactly nothing about people who receive communion in the hand, but about the practise as such.

Kiran said...

I think I was harsher in my response you above than I intended to be, not because I disagree with you, but because I agree with you, given certain qualifications. I agree that we cannot and should not judge people receiving communion in any way approved by the Bishops' conference. I agree that the heart is what matters, and that the Catholic Church is wide enough to accomodate certain differences. I agree too that reception of communion in the hand is in itself neutral.

However, I disagree with you as to causality. Changes in behaviour usually lead to changes in thought for most people, especially sudden changes, and large changes. This is true even if the change is neutral in itself, or a reversion to a past practise, particularly if the practise is very old. In human things, unlike in the history of Creation, very often, "in the beginning is the act."

Also, "traditionalists" even if they are judgemental occasionally and shouldn't be, aren't the bad guys here. They might take things too far, but they have a point.

Kiran said...

To give a historical example, I think elevation is a medieval practice as is Eucharistic adoration. If both practices were suppressed, then disastrous consequences would follow. And historically, it is said that Elizabeth I's first act was to forbid the elevation at the Mass of her Coronation, with disastrous consequences for Anglican Eucharistic theology.

GAB said...

Fair enough. I was probably harsher than was necessary too. Frankly, I think the matter (I'm not even sure if I would call it an 'issue'- I'm not convinced its that important) is a bit like one of those lover's quarrels where you get to the end and realise all the bitterness was over something entirely petty that hardly justified arguing in the first place.

I think we're basically in agreement, although I am not convinced about causality. Part of that, it should be noted, is probably because I wasn't around when the changes took place (like a substantial number of people now- it was some time ago after all), and so there is no necessary association in my mind with gratuitous innovation and a hermeneutic of discontinuity (arguably, my being accustomed to a much more low-church culture may have something to do with it too).

The experiences of someone around when innumerable and sweeping changes were made all at once, and the experiences of someone growing up with all of that after the fact, are going to be very different. There are quite a few of us in the latter category by now. I think for them it may (depending on other factors, such as how well they've been catechised) be once again a neutral practice, and so they may make their choice between the two options freely. As such, my own practice will continue to be reception on the tongue.