First Published in 1868.
TAN Books and Publishers
On Preparation for Communion
IN order to receive the abundant fruits of the Holy Eucharist, a certain cooperation is required on the part of the receiver-----not indeed that the efficacy of the Sacrament considered in itself depends at all on the recipient (this efficacy it has entirely from God)-----but because its salutary effects in each particular case depend upon the disposition with which it is received. The cooperation which is required on our part consists in general in approaching it with a sincere desire to receive the graces which are imparted through it, and afterward, in turning them carefully to account. In order to obtain this disposition, it is advisable to devote some time before and after Communion to preparation and thanksgiving. Of these, then, I will proceed to speak. First, of the preparation before Communion.
When speaking of preparation for Communion, the previous qualification of being in the state of grace is always presupposed. It is related of the Emperor Frederic that, having on one occasion gone to visit a nobleman at his own castle, he was received into an apartment which was thickly hung with cobwebs; whereupon, being transported with rage, he immediately left the house, exclaiming: "This room is better fitted for a dog-kennel than for the chamber of an emperor!"
How much more justly might Jesus Christ feel indignant at being received into a soul defiled with mortal sin? "He Whose eyes are pure and cannot behold iniquity!" Accordingly, St. Paul teaches us that we must prove ourselves before we eat of the Body of the Lord, meaning thereby that, if upon examination we find ourselves guilty of any grievous sin, we should cleanse our conscience by a good Confession.
There are certain snakes, says St. Bernard, which spit out the poison that is in their mouths before they begin to drink; and we, before approaching the fountain of Life, must spit out the poison of sin. This preparation, as I have said, is always presupposed, and every Catholic knowing it to be an indispensable requisite, it will not, therefore, be necessary to dwell longer upon it, especially as occasion will be taken to speak of it hereafter. I have said we must be free from mortal sin, for it is this only which absolutely renders us incapable of receiving the fruits of Communion; but venial sins, especially those which are fully deliberate, and even voluntary imperfections, greatly hinder the efficacy of the Sacrament.
One who now and then speaks in disparagement of his neighbor or tells petty falsehoods, though he may not commit a mortal sin, yet deprives himself of many graces which he would otherwise have received.
The first step in our preparation for Communion, after we have been reconciled to God, is an habitual effort to please Him. It is, moreover, carefully to be noticed that, in order to receive the full extent of grace attached to this Sacrament, our hearts must be free from all inordinate affections.
St. Gertrude on one occasion asked Our Lord how she ought to prepare for Holy Communion, and He replied: "I ask nothing more than that you should come with an empty heart."
There is also another disposition which is always presupposed, pertaining to the body. No one can receive the Flesh of Christ unless he be fasting, that is to say, unless he has abstained from eating or drinking anything whatsoever from the preceding midnight, the only exception to this rule being when the Holy Communion is administered to the dying by way of Viaticum. [The current rules allow water anytime right up to Communion and prescribe fasting for one hour before.-----Editor, 1994.] This law of the Church, which is intended to secure greater reverence for the Blessed Sacrament, is founded on the most evident reasons of propriety, so much so that St. Augustine takes it for granted that no Christian would be guilty of the indecency of taking anything into his mouth before the Body of the Lord has entered it. (Epist. 54) Besides this requisite, Christians generally employ a longer or a shorter time, according to their ability, in actual preparation; and of this, it will be useful to speak more particularly.
Having treated in a former chapter of the duty of reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament, I deem it useless to prove here at great length the propriety of making some actual preparation for Communion. Common sense is enough to teach every man that it is not becoming to receive his God into his heart without previous preparation. I suppose you have at some time witnessed the public reception of some great man whom the people wish to honor-----some distinguished warrior or successful candidate or great orator. What a crowd in the streets! What anxiety to secure a place for seeing! What a cry and tumult on all sides! And when the hero of the day arrives, what eagerness to get a sight of him! How dense the crowd becomes behind him! How happy they on whom he smiles or to whom he speaks! How greatly envied is the favored citizen with whom he will take up his abode! What hurry and bustle and excitement in the house where he is to lodge! Now stop and ask yourself, for whom is all this? For a man-----a poor, weak, mortal man. And I, alas, with unconcern, receive Him Who is the "Splendor of His Father's Glory and the Figure of His Substance"!
When King David was asked why he had prepared such a vast quantity of gold, silver and precious stones for the temple he was about to erect, he answered: "The work is great, for a house is not prepared for man, but for God." And yet, in that Temple the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant and the manna were but shadows. We have the true Holy of Holies, the Living Manna, the Life-giving Bread that came down from Heaven! Should we not, then, exert all our care in arranging a dwelling place for this Divine Guest! "When thou shalt sit to eat with a prince," says the wise King Solomon, "consider diligently what is set before thy face."
How much more diligently ought we to consider what we are about to do when we appear at the table of the great King of Heaven and earth to feed on the Flesh of His beloved Son! This reflection, so natural and obvious, is sufficient to show us the propriety of some actual preparation for Communion. To this I will add another reflection to show its great utility. It is in the highest degree advantageous to prepare ourselves for Holy Communion because the fruit it produces depends on the disposition with which we receive it. Divines use the following figure in illustration: As wood that is not seasoned will not burn well because the moisture that is in it resists the action of the fire, so the heart which is full of earthly affections is not in a fit state to be enkindled with the living fire of Divine Love by means of this Holy Sacrament.
Father Lallemant says that many souls are almost, as little benefited by the Holy Eucharist as the walls of the church in which it is preserved because they are as hard and as cold as the very walls themselves. And St. Bernard concisely expresses the same truth by saying: Sicut tu Deo apparueris, ita tibi Deus apparebit. "God will exhibit Himself to you just as you show yourself disposed towards Him." When, therefore, people complain of receiving but little fruit from their Communions, they but betray their own negligence. As the light of the sun far exceeds the light of the moon, so do the effects of the Holy Eucharist in a loving heart greatly surpass those which it produces in a tepid, slothful soul.
The well-known story of Widikend, Duke of Saxony, illustrates this. This prince, while yet a pagan, was at war with Charlemagne; having a great curiosity to see what took place among the Christians, he disguised himself as a pilgrim and stole into their camp. It happened to be the Paschal time, and the whole army were making their Easter Communion. The stranger watched the ceremonies of Mass with interest and admiration, but how much was he surprised when the priest administered the Sacrament to see in the Host an Infant of shining beauty! He gazed at the sight with amazement, but his astonishment became yet greater when he saw that this wonderful Child entered the mouths of some of the communicants with joy, while only with great reluctance It allowed Itself to be received by others. This vision was the means of the conversion of Widikend and the submission of his subjects to the Faith, for having sought instruction from the Christians, he understood that Our Lord meant to show him, not only the truth of the Real Presence, but that He comes into our hearts with willingness or unwillingness, as we are well or ill prepared for receiving Him. (Timal. Arende I., 1 Collat.)
Something similar is related in the life of the venerable Margaret Mary Alacoque. One day she saw Our Lord in the Host as the priest was giving Communion, and she noticed that when the priest came to some of the communicants, Our Lord stretched out His arms and seemed eager to unite Himself to them, while there were others toward whom He showed the greatest repugnance and only suffered Himself to be dragged into their mouths by certain cords and bands with which He was bound.
He explained to her afterwards that the souls which He entered willingly were those who were careful to please Him, and those to whom He showed so much aversion were tepid Christians, who received Him into hearts full of hateful faults and imperfections. He told her, moreover, that He entered into such hearts merely on account of His promises and the law which He had laid upon Himself in the institution of the Blessed Sacrament and that this was the meaning of the bands and cords which she had seen. "How, then," you ask, "am I to prepare for Holy Communion?"
The Church sufficiently indicates the dispositions for Holy Communion in the following words: Domine, non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea. "Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed." These words were spoken by the Centurion, who came to our Saviour asking Him to heal his servant. Our Lord at once offered to go with him to his house to perform the cure, but the good Centurion replied: "Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof, but only say the word and my servant shall be healed." This answer pleased Our Lord so much that He not only instantly healed the servant, but greatly commended the Centurion's faith. These words express a great esteem for Jesus Christ, a great sense of unworthiness on the part of the supplicant, and a great confidence that he would obtain what he asked.
These are precisely the dispositions which the Church requires for the reception of Holy Communion. Hence she repeats the words of the Centurion in a loud voice each time she distributes the Bread of Life, in order to remind the communicants of the duty of approaching the Sacred Banquet with a deep sense of their own utter nothingness and with a great desire of being united to their Divine Saviour. To excite these affections when about to communicate, you have but to ask yourself the following questions: "Who is it that is coming?" "To whom does He come, and why is He coming?" "Who is coming in this Holy Sacrament?" "It is my Creator, Who has given me everything I possess, in Whom I live, and move, and am. It is God all Powerful Holy, all Beautiful! Jesus Christ is coming, the Eternal Son of the Father, who moved by love unspeakable, came down from Heaven into the pure womb of the Virgin, was born into this world and lived as man among sinners. The Good Shepherd is coming to seek His lost sheep; My Redeemer is coming Who died on the Cross for sinners. To whom is He coming? To a miserable sinner who has not fulfilled the end of his creation, to a steward who has wasted his master's goods, to a servant who has disobeyed his lord, to a subject who has rebelled against his prince, to a redeemed captive who has been unthankful to his deliverer, to a soldier who has deserted his commander, to a prodigal child who has turned his back upon his father, to a spouse who has been unfaithful to her bridegroom." Oh! what a mingling of sentiments, exalting and depressing, must arise in the heart when about to approach Holy Communion! How great the distance between Him Who is received and the sinner who receives!
Who can think of this and not feel himself completely unworthy of such a grace! Eusebius relates of St. Jerome that, when the Holy Viaticum was brought to him at the hour of his death, he exclaimed: "Lord, why dost Thou lower Thyself so much as to come to a publican and a sinner, not only to eat with him, but even to be eaten by him!" And then, casting himself upon the earth, he received his Saviour with many tears.
If a Saint who had spent a long life in penitential works for the love of Christ felt so penetrated with a sense of his unworthiness before God, how much more should we humble ourselves when we draw nigh to Him! Should we not, with a true sorrow for our past unfaithfulness, accuse ourselves before Him and resolve by the help of His grace to amend all that is displeasing in His sight? The Publican of whom we read in the Gospel stood far back in the temple and smote his breast, saying: "Lord, be merciful to me a sinner!" And should not we, when going to the altar, hesitate and smite our breasts, saying, in the depths of our hearts, "I am not worthy! I am not worthy!"
But now the soul, having perceived the depth of her own unworthiness, must once more lift up her eyes to Heaven and ask: "Why does this Holy God come to visit a sinner like me?" And here she finds immensity of goodness which fills her again with courage and joy. Why does He come? Surely not for Himself, for He has no need of us. We cannot make Him richer or happier; we cannot give Him anything that He has not first given us. He sees in us nothing of our own but misery and sin. He is perfectly happy. The Angels serve Him day and night. There is not one of them that would not willingly be annihilated if He were to will it.
What, then, is it that induces Him to come to us? It is love, pure undeserved love. He conies to apply to our souls the fruits of His Redemption which He accomplished on Calvary, for in this Sacrament He becomes to each one of us a Saviour in a special sense. He comes to accomplish the work for which He created us, to prepare us for the place in Heaven which He has destined for us. It is He that works in this Sacrament, not we. He created us; He redeemed us; now He comes to pour out upon us all the riches of His love; He comes to give us light to know and strength to do His will; He comes to repair what is decayed and to restore what is wasted; to forgive rebellion and unthankfulness; in a word, to receive us as children; to clothe us with the first robe; to put a ring on our hands and shoes on our feet; to eat and make merry with us. What, then, should be our sentiments when we approach Our Lord in this mystery but those of the returning prodigal: "I will arise and will go to my Father." And when at this wonderful banquet our good Father, Jesus Christ, falls upon our necks and gives us the kiss of peace, when He feeds us, not with the fatted calf, but with His own most precious Flesh, what has the soul to do but yield to His loving embrace and to say, with humble gratitude: "O Lord, I am not worthy! I am not worthy to be called Thy son!" Our mistake is this: we think we have much to do, and we have but little to do.
I have already said that habitual fidelity, even in the smallest matters, is a condition for our receiving special graces in this Sacrament, but at the moment of Communion what is chiefly necessary is a great confidence arising from a deep conviction of our own nothingness and from a sense of God's exceedingly great goodness. He comes to us with His hands full of graces; we should meet Him with an affectionate desire to be united to Him and with a hunger and thirst for His justice.
But perhaps you will say: "I see the truth of what you have said; I am sure that a great desire to receive Jesus Christ is the best disposition for approaching Him, but this is precisely my difficulty. I have not this desire; I am cold and dry; my heart is dull and sluggish. I go to Communion, not indeed without the wish to please Our Lord, but with little fervor or affection for Him. Our Lord Himself has given the reply to this difficulty. He said one day to St. Matilda: "When thou art about to receive My Body and Blood, desire for the greater glory of My name to have all the ardor of love which the most fervent heart ever had for Me, and then thou mayest receive Me with confidence, for I will attribute to thee, as if thou really hadst it, all that fervor that thou desirest to have."
What can be more consoling than this? You have no devotion, but you can wish to have it. You do not feel all the respect and confidence you would like to feel, but your wish to have more supplies what is wanting; you have no humility, but you can humble yourself for your pride; you have no love, but you can offer your desire to love. From the poor, small presents are accepted. Offer what you have, and if you have nothing, then do what the Saints recommend: say, "Lord, if a great king were to lodge with a poor man, he would not expect the poor man to make a suitable preparation, but would send his own servants to make ready for him; do Thou so, O Lord, now that Thou art coming to dwell in my poor heart!" This alone will be an excellent disposition for receiving and one very pleasing to Jesus Christ.
One day St. Gertrude went to receive Holy Communion without being sufficiently prepared. Being greatly afflicted at this, she begged the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the Saints to offer up to God in her behalf all their merits, that they might in some way supply her own deficiency; whereupon, our Saviour appeared to her and said: "Now, before the whole heavenly court, thou appearest adorned for Communion as thou wouldst wish to be." Comply, then, O Christian, with that which Jesus Christ requires of you. Communicate, but communicate as He desires that you should. Do not be content with keeping yourself free from mortal sin; make war against venial sin also, at least those which are fully deliberate; for though venial sins do not extinguish love, they greatly weaken its force and fervor. Strive also to wean your heart from creatures; endeavor to mortify your attachment to honors, riches and pleasures; spare no trouble for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven; practice little but frequent acts of self-denial; keep yourself always in the fear of God, and strive to adorn your soul with the virtues which Jesus Christ especially loves-----humility, meekness, patience, prayer, charity, faith, peace and recollection.
On the eve of your Communion, renew your good resolutions; spend some little time in prayer; go to rest with the thought, "Tomorrow I shall receive my Saviour"; and if you awake in the night, think of the great action you are about to perform. In the morning make again acts of love, humility, contrition and confidence, and then go forward to the altar with a sincere desire to love and honor Jesus Christ more and more. Do what you can, and however imperfect that may be, it will be acceptable to Jesus Christ, provided He sees in you a true desire to do more. By such Communions you will gain the precious graces which are imparted by this Holy Sacrament, for they will not be merely Communions, but real unions of Jesus Christ with your soul.
I will conclude this chapter with the following story: Father Hunolt, of the Society of Jesus, relates that two students were once discoursing together about the hour of their death. They agreed that if God would allow it, he who should die first should appear to the other to tell him how he fared in the other world. Shortly afterwards, one of them died and appeared soon after his death to his fellow-student, all shining with heavenly brightness and glory, and in answer to his inquiries, told him that by the mercy of God he was saved and was in possession of the bliss of Heaven. The other congratulated him on his felicity and asked him how he merited such unspeakable glory and bliss. "Chiefly," said the happy soul, "by the care with which I endeavored to receive Holy Communion with a pure heart." At these words the spirit disappeared, leaving in his surviving friend feelings of great consolation and an ardent zeal to imitate his devotion. "You have heard these things; blessed shall you be if you do them." (John 13:17)