During the Diocletian persecution, a group of North African Christians were brought to trial in Carthage for meeting illegally for worship. When asked why they had persisted in this practice, one replied, “Sine Dominico, non possumus”: “Without this thing of the Lord, we cannot live.” Over the past weeks, Christians of all kinds have gone without corporate worship, as church after church has closed to protect the faithful during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have prayed in our homes and livestreamed services. And we have wondered to what degree we are able to worship God as we did before, especially we Catholics and Orthodox, whose worship is consummated in the celebration of the Eucharist. If we are no longer able to receive the Eucharist, are we “sine Dominico”?
A common response has been to urge those who cannot receive the Eucharist to make an act of spiritual communion, sometimes with the aid of a set prayer. Before Vatican II, spiritual communion had been the norm for most Catholics, for centuries. But since that council it has commonly been seen as second-rate, the kind of thing you have when you can’t have the real thing—God’s O’Doul’s. More recently, spiritual communion appeared in the debates over communion for the divorced and remarried. When he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that divorced and remarried Catholics who lived together as husband and wife were not to receive communion, but should be encouraged to “deepen their understanding of the value of sharing in the sacrifice of Christ in the Mass, of spiritual communion, of prayer, of meditation on the Word of God, and of works of charity and justice.” The controversial parts of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia were an attempt to get the divorced and remarried beyond spiritual communion to receiving the sacrament at Mass like everyone else.
Both responses validate the perception of spiritual communion as “communion lite.” And as many theologians have noted, they are not coherent solutions to the pastoral problem. If the divorced and remarried are living in mortal sin, then they are unable to benefit from receiving communion in any way. If they are not living in mortal sin, then they should receive sacramental communion like everyone else. Spiritual communion functions in either case like sacramental communion, not as a low-grade substitute for it. That’s because spiritual communion is the heart of sacramental communion, at least as the Western Church has understood the Eucharist since the Middle Ages, when it became a matter of serious theological debate.
Medieval theologians distinguished between the physical or sacramental reception of the Eucharist, physically consuming the consecrated bread and wine, and spiritual reception, receiving in the soul what the appearances of bread and wine contain. This distinction was driven by pastoral concerns over unworthy reception of the Eucharist, either by a person in grave sin or by an animal. (One favorite question was, “What does a mouse eat” if it makes off with a host?—a more practical concern for the medieval priest than the modern.) The consensus emerged that the body and blood of Christ are truly present in the sacrament and remain there even if it is received unworthily. But the Eucharist offers a spiritual benefit only to those who are properly disposed to receive it. Physical reception is good, but spiritual reception is most important. Christ comes into the body in order to come into the soul.
William of Saint-Thierry was one of the first theologians to offer an account of what happens when Christ comes into the soul through the Eucharist. Originally a Benedictine abbot, William entered the Cistercian order after befriending St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Most famous for his Trinitarian theology and for enlisting Bernard in the battle against Peter Abelard, William was also one of the first theologians to describe the real presence of Christ in terms of substance and accidents. During the Eucharistic prayer, he wrote, what was bread and wine in substance became the body and blood of Christ, even if its appearance or accidents remained those of bread and wine. Peter Lombard adopted this view in his Sentences, and subsequent theologians, most notably Thomas Aquinas, worked it out in greater detail.
In his treatise on the Eucharist, William asks what makes the Eucharist necessary food for salvation. It cannot be bodily reception alone that is necessary, since St. Paul warns against those who receive unworthily (1 Cor. 11:27–30). Furthermore, we receive the Eucharist to nourish our souls, not our bodies. As when we eat we seek to enhance our bodily life, William argues, so when we receive the Eucharist we seek more of the life of the soul. Just as the soul is the animating force and life of the body, so is God the life of the soul. Since God is love, the love of God is the life of the human soul. The Eucharist, therefore, exists to increase the presence of God’s love in us, to purify our love of sinful attachments and turn us more toward him.
Being a good Augustinian, William knows that the love of God is the Holy Spirit, which means that the Eucharist brings the Holy Spirit more and more into the souls of those who receive it. In his sermons on the Gospel of John, Augustine instructs his flock that they are members of the body of Christ, which is held together and animated by the Holy Spirit in a manner analogous to the way the human soul animates the body. He urges them not only to receive the Eucharist sacramentally, but also to “eat and drink to the extent of a participation in the Spirit.”
Likewise, William writes that the one who seeks to ascend to God does so through the person of Christ, who is a man like us but also one with the Father. Christ gathers the faithful person “up to God in love through the Holy Spirit and [he] receives God coming to him and making his abode with him, not spiritually only but corporally too, in the mystery of the holy and life-giving body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The fruit of the Eucharist is an ever-deepening union with the Holy Spirit, who unites the communicant to Christ and draws him into the embrace of the Trinity.
Receiving the Eucharist is a matter of eating, but also a matter of remembering. Medieval thinkers understood the two as connected. We tell our children, “You are what you eat”; a medieval teacher might have said, “You are what you remember.” The literary scholar Mary Carruthers observes that in the Middle Ages, an excellent memory was associated with exemplary holiness. St. Anthony of Egypt learned the Bible by hearing it read aloud, and left his followers astonished that he had never seen it written out. St. Francis and St. Thomas Aquinas were both reputed to have excellent memories, and this was seen as a sign of their sanctity. Spiritual and moral formation required training the mind and filling the storehouse of memory with holy things.
In the Eucharist, as Aquinas’s prayer famously says, Christ becomes our food and the memory of his passion is recalled. William uses an earthier metaphor. Like cows, he writes, we “regurgitate the sweet things stored within our memory, and chew them in our mouths like cud for the renewed and ceaseless work of our salvation. That done, we put away again in that same memory what you have done, what you have suffered for our sake.” Sacramental eating of the Eucharist goes hand in hand with the digestion of our memory, and both kindle the flame of charity in our hearts. We become what we eat and remember.
Of course, we usually ponder Christ’s words and deeds apart from the Eucharist, in prayer and the reading of Scripture. As William notes in a letter to a house of Carthusians, the charity that is the fruit of the Eucharist is available to us outside the sacrament, “at all hours both of day and of night.” He writes: “As often as you will be moved piously and faithfully by what [Christ] did, in memory of him who suffered for you, you eat his body and drink his blood; as long as you remain in him through love, and he is in you through the working of sanctity and justice, you are reckoned in his body and in his members.”
William’s point is not to relativize the Eucharist or render it unnecessary. His understanding of our spiritual reception of the Eucharist has its roots in the great patristic exegete Origen of Alexandria. Origen thought the purpose of both scriptural study and the Eucharist was to reveal the Word of God again, to bring Christ’s objective presence in history in the Incarnation into the subjective life of the faithful now. Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, “In the platonism of Origen, spiritual presence and eating equal real presence and eating.” Activities that increase the presence of the Holy Spirit in the memory are other forms of spiritual reception. They serve as another way to receive the grace that the mysteries of salvation, including the Eucharist, make available. This does not diminish the Eucharist but shows how our other forms of prayer and meditation are eucharistic.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 our lives have become more Carthusian in seclusion, if not in silence. We would do well to remember what happens in our reception of the Eucharist so that we can compensate for not receiving it. Even if we cannot participate in the Mass in person, we are not completely “sine Dominico.” We can receive the Holy Spirit in spiritual communion through acts of prayer connected to watching the Mass virtually, through our reading of Scripture, and through our prayerful meditation on the life and work of Christ. In his commentary on Romans, William writes:
When we remember with the sure sacrament of faith and a pious affection of heart what you have done for us, faith, as it were, receives it with its mouth, hope chews it, and charity cooks into salvation and life the blessed and beautifying food of your grace. There you show yourself to the soul which desires you, accepting the embrace of her love and kissing her with the kiss of your mouth. As happens in a loving kiss, she pours out to you her soul, and you pour in your Spirit, so that you are made one body and one spirit when she receives in this way your body and blood.
The intimacy of the spiritual life reaches its climax in the Eucharist, but is not restricted to it. Rightly understood and practiced, spiritual communion outside of Mass is that moment when we receive the Holy Spirit in our souls, eating love in memory as we wait to receive Christ again in our bodies.
[Nathaniel Peters is the executive director of the Morningside Institute