Monday, February 22, 2021

Advice to Singers: Drink Some Water After Receiving Holy Communion

In talking to Catholics over the years, I’ve sometimes encountered odd ideas about what’s reverent or not. To be fair, the biggest problem is the lack of any conception of reverence whatsoever, but that’s not my focus in the present article. Here, I am thinking of devout Catholics who may think that a certain practice is irreverent when it’s simply not. A classic example is when Catholic schoolchildren of yore were taught that it would be wrong to masticate the host; it had to be allowed to dissolve. One can appreciate that religious sisters were in the business of teaching much-needed manners to children (especially boys) and did not want to see them “munching” on their way back from communion, but the way I’ve heard it told, it sounds like they might have gone overboard in the emphasis given on this or similar points of decorum.

So, too, it seems that some choir members are uncomfortable with drinking water from a water bottle immediately after communion, as if somehow this were not appropriate. But I would make the case that not only is there nothing wrong with it, but on the contrary, it can be a very good idea. I think what might be happening psychologically is a kind of assumption that because it is fitting to fast before communion, we should also fast (as it were) after communion.

It is indeed a big deal to fast before Holy Communion, and the reduction of the fast from all night to three hours to one hour is a poster child example of the colossal prudential error frequently made by churchmen in modern times, namely, that if we relax our disciplines we will somehow retain or attract more believers. This is demonstrably false; the ancient discipline was eminently wise. In his commentary on the Sentences, St. Thomas writes as follows:

This sacrament should only be received by those who are fasting, unless out of necessity because of imminent death, lest it happen that someone should have to exit this life without viaticum. Fasting must be established in reverence for such a sacrament, for three reasons in particular. First, because of the very sanctity of the sacrament; so that the mouth of a Christian, by which it is to be consumed, would not be first drenched with other food, but would be reserved for its reception as something new and pure. Second, because of the devotion that is required on the part of the one receiving, and the attention that could be distracted by having taken food, with gases rising from the stomach to the head. Third, because of the danger of vomiting, and other things like that. (In IV Sent. d. 8, q. 1, a. 4, qa. 1)

On the other hand, even if it is highly fitting for worshipers to remain after Mass for a time of thanksgiving rather than immediately leaving the church building and tucking into regular food and drink, doing so would not carry the same gravity, since a time of thanksgiving is (at least theoretically) built into the Mass itself. Again St. Thomas:

According to the custom of the Church, out of reverence for so great a sacrament, after having received it, a man should remain in thanksgiving; and the prayer of thanksgiving after Communion in the Mass is also said, and the priests after celebrating Mass have special prayers for thanksgiving. And so it is fitting that there should be a certain interval between consuming the Eucharist and other foods. But since a great interval is not required, and what lacks something small seems to lack nothing, as it says in Physics 2, for this reason we might concede that in this sense a person can take other food immediately after receiving the Eucharist.

After all, the priest himself, in receiving the unconsecrated wine and water during the ablutions, is already consuming non-consecrated elements, at times only moments after having received Holy Communion. Obviously the vessels have to be cleansed, and there is no more efficient way to do it; but we should also not overlook the practical benefit to the priest in being able to clear his mouth of any fragments of the host that might have remained there. A sign that this concern is real may be gleaned from the Holy Rule of St. Benedict. In chapter 38, the legislator prescribes concerning the weekly reader during the meals: “Let the brother who is reader for the week take a little bread and wine before he begin to read, on account of the Holy Communion, and lest it be hard for him to fast so long. Afterwards let him take his meal with the weekly cooks and other servers.” On this passage, a commentator writes:

Saint Benedict prescribes “a little bread and wine before he begin to read, on account of the Holy Communion.” This is not only because the reader, if he waits until after the meal, risks a headache and weakness from too prolonged a fast; it is also out of reverence for the Most Holy Sacrament. The “little bread and wine” serve as an ablution of the mouth, lest in reading or chanting, the reader inadvertently expectorate particles of the Sacred Host in his saliva. The custom of an ablution of the mouth after receiving Holy Communion is very ancient; traces of the custom have perdured, not only among certain Orthodox faithful, but even in some places in the West. I remember very well that my paternal grandmother, who received her First Holy Communion in County Leitrim in about 1909, was taught to cleanse her mouth with water immediately upon returning home from Holy Mass and before eating or drinking anything. I can still see her coming in from the early morning Mass. She would, without removing her hat and coat, light the burner under the kettle for tea and, then, go straight to her pantry for the traditional post-Holy Communion glass of water. It is interesting that such a custom was still practiced in early 20th century rural Ireland.

Like readers, singers are aware of the “inadvertent expectoration” mentioned above, however rare it might be that it would contain a crumb of the divine manna. It only took one such experience to convince me of the benefit of taking a drink of water in the choir loft upon returning from communion and before beginning to sing the communion antiphon or motets. Later on, when I read the passage in the Holy Rule, and connected it with the ablutions, I realized that this awareness has long been present in the mind of the Church, if in an understated way.

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The monastic reader in the refectory

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