What else is there?
~ Walker Percy
The soul cannot expect to be anything but lukewarm
without the grace of frequent Holy Communion.
~ Dom Hubert Van Zeller, OSB
Cecilia had served the 7:00 a.m. Mass on Saturday, and I was driving her home. She’d be heading back to church at 2 p.m. that same day to serve a wedding Mass, so I attempted a clever remark. “Too bad you’re not serving the Vigil at 4:30 this afternoon – three Masses in one day would be a family record!”
“I couldn’t do it anyway,” she responded, shooting me down. “You can only receive Holy Communion twice in the same day.” It’s indeed true that the Church limits our intake of edible grace – of the Eucharistic Jesus, of the comestible God himself – to twice a day (Cn 917). And if we received him the first time outside of Mass – say, at a Communion service in a nursing home or hospital – then the second time has to take place within the context of a Mass. This is to ensure that we don’t just sit around all day and fatten ourselves on sacramental grace – to take in the divine nutrients well beyond our spiritual caloric needs. After all, Jesus himself established a standard ration of “daily bread” in the Our Father.
“Pretty impressive,” I granted my daughter. “Not many eighth-graders would know Canon Law when it comes to frequency of Communion.” I could’ve clarified that acolytes aren’t required to receive the Eucharist in order to serve at altar, but I let it go in favor of affirming her liturgical acumen. In any case, her instincts were correct: the Church has made it clear that the norm is to receive the Eucharist whenever we attend the liturgy. “It is in keeping with the very meaning of the Eucharist,” reads the Catechism, “that the faithful, if they have the required dispositions, receive communion when they participate in the Mass” (emphasis in the original).
That naturally led into a discussion of the Easter duty – the requirement that Catholics who’ve made their first Holy Communion must receive the Eucharist at least once a year, ideally during the Easter season (Cn 920). It was hard for her to grasp that such a precept was necessary. I observed that it used to be pretty widespread to rarely receive Holy Communion on account of extreme scrupulosity. Of course, one could argue that the opposite is the case these days, but I appreciated Cecilia’s response. “Even if you have doubts – even if you’re not quite sure if you should receive,” she said, “it’s better to go ahead and let Jesus figure it out.”
Allow me to interject here that I’m confident that my daughter has a good understanding of proper interior preparation with regards to the sacraments – that one must not be conscious of any unconfessed mortal sin before approaching the altar, in other words. As already indicated, she has a well-rounded grasp of Church teaching, and I know she’s familiar with St. Paul’s injunction to the Corinthians: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” (CCC 1385).
On the other hand, I like Cecilia’s gut sense that we’re not to starve ourselves either – whether from an old-fashioned Eucharistic anorexia borne of scrupulosity or, more likely today, an overreliance on substitutionary and inferior sources of pseudo-spiritual sustenance. Better to receive Holy Communion even when you’re in a crummy place with God than not to receive it at all.
Besides, the Eucharist itself forgives our minor offenses, and it helps us to avoid offending God any more in the future. “If, as often as his blood is poured out, it is poured for the forgiveness of sins,” writes St. Ambrose, “I should always receive it, so that it may always forgive my sins.” In other words, if we wait until we’re really worthy to receive the Eucharist, we’ll never receive it – I think that’s what Cecilia was getting at. It’s like waiting until we’re ready to get married – or waiting until everything is in place to have a baby. We’ll never get to that place – we all know that, right? We’d be waiting forever.
Even so, it’s also true that the Eucharist, like any sacrament, isn’t automatic – it doesn’t work moral and spiritual wonders without our cooperation and effort. “Frequent Communion is not magic,” writes Fr. Van Zeller. “The Holy Eucharist does not, as if by a charm, bend an ill-disposed character so that, in spite of itself, the soul finds itself rising to the heights.”
Jesus is really present whether we apprehend him or not, and his grace is present in his sacraments whether we assimilate it or not. But we still have to apprehend him, and we still have to assimilate him. That is to say: we have to do our part! God could save us against our will, I suppose, but he isn’t going to do it. We’re free agents with will and intelligence. We know in our intellect that we’ve been granted the free gift of grace that can save us, and we can willfully choose to cooperate with that grace – not resist it, that is, like a child refusing the medicine that will foster healing and restore life.
“Only action is the proof of sincerity,” Fr. Anthony Paone observes, and going to Communion even when we have doubts or scruples is action that is oriented to sincere spiritual growth. Along with that, however, we must also act to align our whole selves, interiorly and exteriorly, with our desires for spiritual growth.
We can’t expect Holy Communion – or even Jesus, which amounts to the same thing – to do all the work. We’re not automatons, we’re not mindless marionettes, waiting helplessly on the Lord to save us despite ourselves. Not at all.
In fact, we’re very active sinners, in need of grace, in need of Jesus, and he expects us to approach him in Holy Communion with all manner of mixed motives and complicated aspirations – do we really want to be saints? Well, yes…and no. We show up at Mass, though, and we go forward with everybody else for Holy Communion, because…what? What do we want?
We want the Savior who spread himself around like a dissipated feast, a rolling banquet through time and space. We want to become whom we eat.