Monday, December 18, 2017

Time for the Soul to Absorb the Mysteries — Part 3: The Communion

(Links to Part 1 and Part 2)

Continuing our exploration of how the ancient Roman Rite has, built into it, sufficient time or leisure for the appropriation of its sacred content, today I would like to focus on the segment of the liturgy usually referred to as the Communion rite, which, in a well-celebrated usus antiquior, is a veritable oasis of tranquility.

“Deep calleth on deep, at the noise of thy flood-gates. All thy heights and thy billows have passed over me” (Ps 41:8). After the long silence of the Roman Canon, the uttering or chanting of the Lord’s Prayer emerges like the cry of a swimmer raising his head above the water. Soon, though, he is submerged again in the Libera nos, followed shortly after by the rich prayers of preparation for Holy Communion, the threefold Domine, non sum dignus, the poignant psalm verses.

I’ll admit that I used to feel a little impatient right around this time. We’ve had our oasis of silent worship during the Canon, and just as the sung or recited prayers are cranking up again, we find ourselves confronted once more with several sizeable pauses: the gap between the Lord’s Prayer and the per omnia saecula saeculorum preceding the Pax Domini, and then the gap between the Agnus Dei and the Confiteor/Ecce Agnus Dei. Why are we standing or kneeling and waiting for stuff to happen? Can’t we move on?

One could answer this question with a disquisition on the development of this part of the liturgy and the importance of the various prayers and gestures that the priest is busy with at that moment. But here we are considering the moral and spiritual benefit that accrues to the people from the way the liturgy developed. This benefit is summed up in the famous words of Milton: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Certain virtues or spiritual dispositions are formed precisely in these gaps or pauses, these stretches of profound and expectant silence. We know what is coming, and yet it still has to come, in its own way and at its own time. We may not, must not, rush it in our desire to be “in charge.” It is like having to wait nine months for a child to be born. How hard it is to go for so many months without seeing the child, or even, in many cases, knowing whether it is a boy or a girl!

Waiting for the priest at the altar, waiting for the liturgy to do its work at its own pace, is a model of our stance vis-à-vis life and death. Think of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who had to wait for her Son to suffer his agony, die upon the cross, and be taken down. The Mass reflects this trustful stance of waiting for God to act and readying oneself to meet Him, to be acted upon — that is, to suffer, and thus, to partake of His victory, when and as He wishes to share it. Thinking of it this way, I have learned not only to accept but to welcome and appreciate these pauses in the post-Canon portion of the Mass.

Let us return to the rich prayers of the liturgy at this juncture, most of which are said silently by the priest. Laity with daily missals often make these prayers their own, but just as often they may pray in their own words or thoughts or desires or emptiness as they await their invitation to the banquet of immortality. The priest’s separate communion brings two immense goods: first, it strongly accentuates the de fide teaching that the priesthood of the priest and the priesthood of the faithful are essentially different and that, as a result, only the priest’s communion is required for the completion of the holy sacrifice; secondly, it allows the faithful an ample moment of proximate preparation, in which we can take a big spiritual breath (so to speak) before we approach the altar ourselves. I was recently reminded of the importance of this moment when reading about a medieval nun, St. Mechtilde of Hackeborn (c. 1240–1298), who had the pious custom of reciting five Hail Marys before receiving Holy Communion:
At the first Hail Mary, she reminded our Lady of the solemn hour when she conceived a Son in her virginal womb, at the word of the Angel, and drew Him to her from heaven by her profound humility. She asked her to obtain for her a pure conscience and profound humility.
         At the second Hail Mary, she reminded her of the happy moment when she took Jesus for the first time into her arms and first saw Him in His Sacred Humanity. She prayed Mary to obtain for her a true knowledge of herself.
         At the third Hail Mary, she begged our Lady to remember that she had always been prepared to receive grace and had never placed any obstacle to its operation. She begged Mary to obtain for her a heart always ready to receive divine grace.
         At the fourth Hail Mary, she reminded our Lady with what devotion and gratitude she received on earth the body of her well-beloved Son, knowing better than anyone the salvation to be found there by mankind. Mechtilde begged her to obtain that her heart might be filled with worthy feelings of gratitude. If men knew the blessings which flow for them from the body of Jesus Christ, they would faint with joy.
         At the fifth Hail Mary, she reminded our Lady of the reception given to her by her divine Son when He invited her to take her place near Him in heaven in the midst of transports of joy.[1]
Everyone who attends the usus antiquior can understand why St. Mectilde was able to do this as her own “pious custom.” Quite simply: she had the time, the space, the silence, to recite five Hail Marys before going to communion. Alas, such a thing is well-nigh unimaginable in the Novus Ordo, when one is scarcely allowed an opportunity to collect one’s thoughts, let alone enjoy the presence of mind to pray five Hail Marys for these noble intentions! A mystic like St. Mectilde would have fared rather badly any time after about 1964, since the liturgy would no longer have been able to nourish her interior life as it had done before.

If the saints have warned us to guard against lapsing into a routine of thoughtless, unprepared communions — even in the best of circumstances, when the liturgy itself, with earnest prayer and pools of silence, furnished every opportunity to rise above this fault! — what would they say about our situation today, when the casual, routine, indiscriminate and undiscerning reception of the Holy Eucharist is the norm throughout the Catholic Church, rather than the exception?

A different Mectilde, Mother Catherine Mectilde de Bar (1614–1698), foundress of the Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration, describes what happens when a person receives communion. Her description helps us to appreciate why St. Thomas Aquinas says that two things are required for a fruitful communion: being in a state of grace, and being in a state of actual devotion.[2] A certain devout recollection is required from the communicant in order to follow Our Lord whither He goes, for He hides Himself in the depths of the soul:
Jesus Christ, being thus in the soul, whither does He withdraw? As I said, to the sancta sanctorum of the soul, which is its most intimate depth and which serves as a sanctuary for this High Priest and as a temple where He celebrates His divine and terrible sacrifice of all that He is to His Father. This sacrifice He wants to renew in the depth of each soul as in a holy temple, for which it was consecrated on the day of baptism. O inconceivable marvel! Jesus Christ descends into our hearts in order to sacrifice Himself and to celebrate there His solemn Mass in profound silence. All is quiet in this temple, the angels and saints admire and adore the way the Lord humbles Himself there, and the Eternal Father is well pleased.[3]
I might add in passing that the theoretically optional but in practice mandatory “sign of peace” only contributes to the superficiality and spirit of distraction. The Novus Ordo seemingly does not want you to drift away from the surface of things: since it supposed to build up the community, the People of God, you must be forcibly reminded of that at every turn. This, I think, might explain why so many pastors seem content to allow the faithful to chit-chat before and after Mass rather than catechizing them about the sacred silence that befits the temple of God. This chit-chat is, in a way, the conversation one would expect at the family dinner table, which is what the Mass has been reduced to in progressive circles. How strange it would be for guests at a meal to keep silent, close their eyes, and speak only in whispers!

But we are not at a mere meal; we are at a sacrificial banquet, whose host is the crucified and risen Lord. Our behavior should be utterly different. It should never remain on the surface but respond to the still, small voice that calls us to the heights and depths of Our Lord’s infernal sorrow and celestial joy: “Deep calleth on deep…”

In the fourth installment of this series, I will consider the ablutions to the last Gospel, and find, once more, that the usus antiquior as it has developed under the care of Divine Providence displays a subtle grasp of human psychology and divine largesse in pacing the conclusion of the liturgy.


[1] From The Love of the Sacred Heart, Illustrated by St. Mechtilde, with a Foreword by the Lord Bishop of Salford (London: Burns, Oates, and Washbourne, 1922), 164.

[2] See, for example, Scriptum super Sententiarum, Lib. IV, d. 9, q. 1, a. 4, qa. 2, sol.

[3] Mother Mectilde, The True Spirit of the Perpetual Adorers of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, ch. 6; unpublished translation.

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