By The Rev. Dr. Robert J. Laws III*
The global Coronavirus pandemic has upended life as we knew it. Social distancing and sheltering at home, which are necessary for our health and safety and critical in attempts to slow down the spread of the virus while researchers look for a vaccine, have become the norm for most of us. Of course as important as sheltering in place at home is, it has brought about several negative consequences- including depression, loneliness, and grief as we mourn the life we used to have. Part of our grieving comes from changes in our spiritual practices, as social distancing has meant the closures of most churches around the world. The most significant change has been the inability of the faithful to receive the Eucharistic Presence of Jesus Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Of course the Holy Mass continues to be offered by many priests in private on behalf of the people of God, and many of these celebrations are live streamed or recorded for later viewing. But, obviously, if the faithful can not be physically present with the priest at the Eucharistic celebration, they can not receive the Sacrament.
Since the onset of the pandemic, many clergy have been wrestling with the question about how to make the Blessed Sacrament available to the people of God. Some Anglican clergy** suggested a “virtual consecration” in which the faithful would place their own bread and wine on a table in front of their computer screens, which would be consecrated by the priest virtually as the words of consecration were spoken.
Of course, even during extraordinary times as these, such a practice is fraught with theological problems. Not only does such a practice break down the integrity of the Sacrament, and replace the Real Presence of Christ with some Virtual Presence that only in some symbolic way represents the Sacrament, but it also fails to communicate one of the most important theological presuppositions of the Sacrament: discerning the One Body of Christ as we together share one bread and one cup.
The sharing of the one bread and one cup are integral to the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, as St. Paul instructs us in his letter to the Corinthians, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17). It is impossible for us to share in the one bread and thus discern the one body of Christ, to which we all belong through baptism, if we are all partaking of our own private bread and wine.
Thus, it is impossible to offer the Sacrament to the faithful during a period of social distancing in a way that is honest and theologically faithful. There is no option other than to impose a eucharistic fast on all of the people of God until social distancing can be safely ended. Such a fast is painful. Those who have discerned the Body of Christ in a state of grace feel the pain of the absence of Christ who is physically present in our bodies and souls when we receive the Holy Communion. Of course this feeling of absence can and should lead to a holy longing to be united with Christ more and moreand clergy should be helping the people of God discover ways to be united to Christ during this painful period of social distancing.
One way to be united to Christ is by making an act of spiritual communion. Although this practice is likely unknown to many Anglicans, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church makes provision for spiritual communion in the Rites of Ministry to the Sick. A rubric found at the time of the Administration of Communion to the sick from the Reserved Sacrament reads, If a person desires to receive the Sacrament, but, by reason of extreme sickness or physical disability, is unable to eat and drink the Bread and Wine, the Celebrant is to assure that person that all the benefits of Communion are received, even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth. (p. 457). Prayer books from other Anglican Provinces, and older versions of the American prayer book, contain more explicit formulae for making an Act of Spiritual Communion, including the St. Augustine Prayer Book which is popular amongst Anglo-Catholics.
The Church teaches that the assurance of receiving the benefits of the Sacramentand thus of being united to Christ- flow out of the person’s desire to be united with Christ, even when one can not receive Holy Communion. This assurance has been given by the Church since the times of the earliest martyrs who often were martyred as catechumens before being baptized. Although not baptized, by no fault of their own, the Church has taught that the effect of baptism- namely the forgiveness of sins and union with Christ in his death and resurrection- are given to those who desire to be united with Christ. St. Bede explained in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (chapter 7), that St. Alban was cleansed by the blood of his martyrdom, although he had not been washed in the waters of baptism- a belief upheld earlier by the Patristics, and later by St. Thomas Aquinas, the Council of Trent, etc.
In similar fashion, the Church teaches that those who desire to receive the benefits of Holy Communion, but are prevented from receiving the Sacrament, may receive grace by making an act of spiritual communion. St. Tomas Aquinas taught that in order to make a spiritual communion, once must have “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the most holy sacrament and lovingly embrace him” ( Costa, F. D. (1958). Nature and Effects of Spiritual Communion, Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America, 140.) Later, many of the Saints encouraged this practice (which is worthy of practice even during normal conditions). St. Teresa of Jesus wrote in her Way of Perfection (Chapter 35), «When you do not receive communion and you do not attend Mass, you can make a spiritual communion, which is a most beneficial practice; by it the love of God will be greatly impressed on you.” St. Josemaría Escrivá taught his students to make one act of spiritual communion daily, because it is a way of inviting the presence of Jesus into our lives. And many are familiar with the beautiful prayer of St. Alphonus Liguori:
My Jesus, I believe that Thou art present in the Blessed Sacrament. I love Thee above all things and I desire Thee in my soul. Since I cannot now receive Thee sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. As though Thou wert already there, I embrace Thee and unite myself wholly to Thee; permit not that I should ever be separated from Thee. Amen.
The Saints encourage us to make an act of spiritual communion as often as possible, trusting that those who thirst for God will be fed by God. But it is important to remember that our thirst for God, and our desire to be united with Christ, will never be realized or satisfied in this life. Our Eucharistic fast during this moment of social distancing should compel us to seek Christ in all of the ways in which he is made present to us. In addition to Christ’s special presence in the Most Blessed Sacrament, Christ is made present to us in at least three other ways: in the proclamation and hearing of the Word of God, in the faithful assembly of the people of God, and in the poor, the sick and “the least of these.”
Of course as we watch live streamed masses or divine offices, we can encounter Christ as we are attentive to the reading of Holy Scripture and to the priest’s homily. Christ is also made present to us as we read and study the Scriptures, or read the writings of the Saints and other faithful priests and theologians whose writings and even video recordings strengthen our faith and lead us closer to God. Encountering Christ through the Holy Scriptures should be one piece of our daily spiritual practice, whether we listen to homilies or teachings, read the Scriptures and psalms in the Divine Offices, or practice lectio divina .
Christ is also present in the assembly of the faithful. One of my favorite prayers comes at the conclusion of the Morning Office in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer – a prayer of St. Chrysostom who quotes Our Lord’s own Promise:
Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen. (p. 102)
When the faithful gather to offer the Mass, Christ is present in the midst of them. But Christ has promised to present when any two or three faithful baptized Christians meet together in his Name. During this time of social distancing, it is difficult, if not impossible for some, to physically gather with others, but thankfully for the technological gifts with which God has blessed us, we can be present with our brothers and sisters virtually and in spirit, and find Christ present with us. As you discern the presence of Christ, seek him in others. In the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church, we promise that we will “seek and serve Christ” in others, loving our neighbor as ourself ( 1979 Book of Common Prayer , p. 305). If we seek to be united with Christ in an act of spiritual communion, but then neglect to serve him and love him in others, then we fail to truly discern his body. Our love of God is inextricably bound to our love of neighbor, so much so that the way we love our friends, and brothers and sisters and even our enemies is a reflection of the way we truly love God (see the Epistle of First John.) During this time of isolation, it is imperative that we not neglect to love Christ in our family and friends, and others who may suffer from loneliness and depression.
Dedicate time in your schedule to call a friend or video chat with them. Write them a letter or send them an encouraging card or text message. Gather together on Zoom or Facebook Messenger or some other platform to pray together, to say the rosary together, or to comfort and cheer one another. If you are really busy, send them a photo of yourself with a bright smile, or send them a joke, or a favorite image of Jesus, Mary or a favorite saint. Be creative and thoughtful- be present to them by an act of care and kindness that lets them know you remember them. Don’t forget them, and make sure they have the care and support they need to cope with isolation. Anything that warms the heart of another person and makes them feel connected to you and closer to you, warms the heart of Jesus, and makes him feel more connected to you as well. As we show acts of loving care to others, we demonstrate our love to Christ, who is made present in the sharing of love and acts of kindness and compassion.
These acts of love and kindness should not be limited to our friends and Christian brothers and sisters. As disciples of Jesus walking in the way of Love, we are obliged to perform acts of mercy and good deeds. We are called to give alms, to help the poor, to be a healing presence with the sick, to befriend the friendless, and reach out in the love to all of “the least of these.” As we love the sick and the needy and the forgotten ones, we love Christ, who is present to us, as St. Mother Teresa often said, “in distressing disguise.” Our Lord himself told us that what we do (or neglect to do) to the sick, the naked, the hungry, the imprisoned and “the least of these” we do (or neglect to do) to him. And when we stand before Christ on the Day of Judgement, we will be judged by how we loved, or failed to love, Christ in his distressing disguise in others (Matthew 25).
Social Distancing makes our ability to perform good deeds and acts of kindness more challenging, but not impossible. Just as we should find creative ways to remain present and connected to our friends, we should find creative ways to love Jesus in the poor. Make a financial contribution to a Religious Order or civic group that is feeding the hungry during this pandemic. Call an elderly neighbor and offer to go to the grocery store for them- they can give you a list of things they need on the telephone and you can purchase them and leave them at their door. Make facemasks and mail them to a local homeless shelter or hospital. If you have the means, call a local realtor and help pay someone’s rent who may be unemployed during the pandemic. Open your heart and listen to what the Holy Spirit may be asking you to do- and do it lovingly, as if you were doing it to Jesus.
So then, by God’s help, this holy absence of Christ that many of the faithful are experiencing during this extended period of fasting from the Eucharist, can in fact be a blessing for us. It can be an opportunity to deepen our awareness of Christ’s presence with us- the Eternal God who has promised to be with us in the bread and the wine of the altar- but who loves us so much, that he finds other ways to be present us, if we will but reach out to him in faith, and open our eyes and hearts to see him in all of his redeeming works.
* The Rev. Dr. Robert J. Laws III is in charge of the Titular Priorate of the OMSST for North America (Canada and the United States of America).
** As we have already communicated on several occasions, our community has a moderate ecumenical character. We have clarified this in a statement dated May 16, 2019: «We also opened the possibility of admitting as added members of the fraternity Christians belonging to the Orthodox Churches and the Anglican Church. This ecumenical attitude never became detrimental to our fidelity to the doctrine of the Church and to its Tradition and Magisterium. On the contrary, the attached members of the Brotherhood undertake to pray for the intentions of the Holy Father, for the needs of the entire Church and for all the knights and ladies of our Brotherhood.»