Monday, March 07, 2022

St. Thomas Aquinas: Mystagogue on the Proper Approach to Holy Communion

From an embroidered banner in St Dominic's, Newcastle. Photo by Lawrence Lew, O.P.
Today, March 7, is the dies natalis of St. Thomas, and thus, his feast day. We know from his biographers that he was famed for his devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. He used to pray with his head resting against a tabernacle. On his deathbed, he hailed the Host and specifically said that if he had taught anything amiss concerning this great sacrament, he submitted to the judgment of the Church—as if to say that his mind was most occupied with Eucharistic theology. He went to Mass twice a day: first saying his own Mass, served by his socius Reginald, and then serving Reginald’s Mass.

(Before anyone says “oh, that’s the usual hagiographical exaggeration again,” it should be pointed out that our sources on Aquinas are remarkably detailed and have stood up to the most exacting scholarly scrutiny; the process of fact-collecting for his canonization was especially thorough, the records were well-organized, and the men in charge put all the right questions to as many eyewitnesses and confreres of the friar as they could find. Reports from independently interviewed and widely differing sources agree on all the most important aspects.)

We are therefore not surprised to find among his writings many beloved prayers and hymns in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. Most of these belong to the deservedly praised Office and Mass of Corpus Christi, one of the great liturgical achievements of the Middle Ages, with its poetry standing at a consistently high level of eloquence and fervor. Fr. Paul Murray has written a most engaging book that should be required reading for every Thomist and every Catholic theologian: Aquinas at Prayer: The Bible, Mysticism, and Poetry (Bloomsbury, 2013).[i]

Looking at a famous prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas, printed in the Praeparatio ad Missam pro opportunitate Sacerdotis facienda of the traditional Roman Missal, will show us what the proper approach to Holy Communion is and ought to be:

All-powerful and everlasting God, behold,
I approach the sacrament of Thine only-begotten Son,
our Lord Jesus Christ.
As one infirm, I approach the medicine of life;
as one unclean, the fountain of mercy;
as one blind, the light of eternal splendor;
as one poor and needy, the Lord of heaven and earth.

Therefore, I ask Thee,
from the abundance of Thine immense generosity,
to cure my illness,
wash away my uncleanness,
illuminate my blindness,
enrich my poverty,
and clothe my nakedness,
that I may receive the Bread of Angels,
the King of Kings and Lord of Lords,
with such reverence and humility,
such contrition and devotion,
such purity and faith,
such pur­pose and intention,
as is expedient for the salvation of my soul.

Grant, I beg Thee, that I may receive
not only the sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood,
but also the reality and power of this sacrament.
O most gentle God,
grant me so to receive the Body of Thine only-begotten Son,
our Lord Jesus Christ,
which He took of the Virgin Mary,
that I might be worthy
to be incorporated into His Mystical Body
and counted among His members.

O most loving Father,
give to me Thy beloved Son,
whom I intend to receive now
in veiled form on my pilgrimage,
that I may one day contemplate Him
with unveiled face for all eternity,
who with Thee liveth and reigneth
in the unity of the Holy Ghost,
world without end, Amen.

There is so much one could say about this fervent, tender, all-encompassing prayer! It begins with a very deliberate placing of oneself in spiritual position: “Father, behold, I approach Thy Son.” It then probes with wide-eyed honesty all that is lacking in the one approaching: he is sick, unclean, blind, poor, and needy, who calls the One to whom he approaches his healing, mercy, light, and ultimate treasure, God Himself.

This honest confession of his weakness and of the divine largesse of the Savior having been made, the saint pivots to petition. On the basis of my lack and Your wealth, O God, I ask You to cure, wash, illuminate, enrich, and clothe me, thus to prepare me to receive the King and Lord of all—and with the right dispositions.

These dispositions the saint spells out with characteristic clarity and order: reverence is mentioned first (that’s not insignificant!); humility, the foundation of all virutes, comes next; contrition, because the impediment of attachment to sin should be removed before receiving the all-holy, most pure Body of Christ; devotion, which is an expression of the virtue of religion by which we give to God what we owe Him; purity, that is, chastity, so that we do not “unite the members of Christ with a prostitute” (1 Cor 6:15); faith, without which it is impossible to please God, indeed without which one cannot even know what one is doing, or whom one is approaching, in the Mass; purpose: to be single-minded in what we are proposing to do, and not, e.g., seeking the applause of the world or acting from thoughtless routine; intention, to receive God for the love of God and for the right love of one’s salvation. We can see in this list a sort of commentary on the conditions laid down under Pius X for frequent communion.

Aquinas begs the Lord, next, to admit him not only to the sacramental sign (the sacramentum tantum to use technical language), but also to the “reality and power” of it (the res tantum). He goes on to say immediately what that reality of the Eucharist is: incorporation into the Mystical Body, the corpus mysticum, of Christ, to have Him as one’s head and to be His living member. Here we see that the prince of scholastics could never be reproached by the denizens of nouvelle théologie as one who had lost sight of the intimate relationship between the Eucharistic Body and the Mystical Body.

In two tender superlative phrases—O mitissime Pater and O amantissime Pater—Thomas twice cries out to the Father to give him the Son: “grant me so to receive…” and then, more urgently, “give to me Thy beloved Son.” He is veiled now in the sacrament, hidden under the appearance of food, in order to be (as He truly is) the bread of wayfarers, the manna from heaven by which we attain to heaven; but the goal of this partaking is nothing other than the face-to-face vision of the Son—with the Father and the Holy Spirit—in eternal glory. That is the goal to which the Angelic Doctor is straining, the goal that stamps his entire theological enterprise.

This goal has something to tell us also about how our earthly liturgy should be celebrated. It should be such as to foster in us these virtuous dispositions, intimate longings, and aspirations to heaven. It should not throw up impediments to a good preparation for the Holy Eucharist that endures from before Mass, through Mass, to the end of Mass when giving thanks for the supernal gift received. We could go so far as to say this prayer gives us a kind of “checklist” or “grading rubric” to measure how well or how poorly a given liturgy prepares us to approach the Son of God, how well it disposes us for our communion with Him, or at least how well it provides conditions within which such dispositions are most likely or most favored or most free to be developed. I think it would be difficult to dispute that a Tridentine low Mass or high Mass would typically score very high while the Novus Ordo would typically score very low in terms of the “Aquinas Gold Standard.”

Studying this great theologian’s great prayer shows us—to our shame and, one hopes, our repentance—just how far the liturgy has fallen away from a truly Catholic sensibility, and just where the remedy lies: in the simple and uncompromising return to the traditional rite of the Roman Church.

[i] This work is an especially good antidote for the ludicrous blasphemies of the pseudo-mystic Adrienne von Speyr, whose Book of All Saints contradicts the canonization records and seven centuries of papal teaching on the heroic sanctity of St. Thomas.

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