Friday, January 01, 2021

Fasting from the Eucharist


Last year, I did a post called "Private Communion". The context of the article was about having to make an appointment with my local priest in order to receive Holy Communion during the suspension of public Masses. It was the first time I was able to receive Communion for weeks and took a bit of effort to arrange. The article is brief; I recommend reading it as context for this post.

Towards the end of that post, I made the following comment:
"It was certainly more of a challenge to orchestrate, but this communion meant a lot more. I was more prepared. My children were more prepared. The extra work made it more meaningful. And I started thinking there really is something to the argument that less communions can be more beneficial. Of course I've always known that it was superior to receive fewer communions better prepared than more communions less prepared, but until this present darkness I had no experiential knowledge of the fact. When this is all over, I think I may voluntarily receive Holy Communion less and spend more time in preparation. Maybe once a month or something."
Several of you took issue with this. One commenter said:
"Dear Boniface, Jesus established His Church for two reasons: Salvation, Sanctification. We are sanctified primarily through the reception of Holy Communion and so you may want to rethink your plan in the future to receive less often."
Another left a fuller critique:
"As noble as your intentions for less frequent Communion in order to make it more fervent may be, I would not recommend it. Saints have again and again stressed the necessity of frequent, even daily, Communion, both from the practical standpoint that man is in great need of the divine Food for his spiritual sustenance as also from the relational standpoint that Our Lord desires this union with us far more than we could ever desire it ourselves...The desire to be more prepared and more worthy is the right one. Communicating less frequently is definitely not. Grace builds upon nature, and strengthens and fortifies it. Nature alone is weak, and so long without Holy Communion it is bound to suffer both in the loss of virtue (that is good habit) and the development of vice. Build good habits; and the habit of frequent Communion (and confession!) is the best habit of all."

And, and even more in-depth disagreement, which called my line of thinking dangerous, emotional, and perverse:

Sacraments work ex opera operato. You might have *felt* like you got more graces this way. Your experience was different. But the Church doesn't gauge the graces received from sacraments based on the feelings it induces. Have you asked a priest or confessor whether your conclusion about infrequent Holy Communion is correct? The reason why this line of thought is dangerous is because there's a fallacy along the line somewhere. It's like saying this:

"My wife and I had to endure a separation because of a war. I was frequently out of country, serving my country. I came only one three times in ten years. My visits with her were more emotionally intense than any experience before, when we lived together. When the war is over, I think we're going to live in separate houses and get together only every few years."

It's one thing if separation with a just cause leads one to appreciate one's interaction with one's spouse more. It's entirely different to artificially reduce contact in order to "prepare" more.

The case with the Sacrament is similar. The Church encourages frequent reception. There's a cumulative effect here. Who's to say that frequent reception of the Sacraments doesn't have a net better effect, even if you don't do as intense a preparation for each reception?

It just seems that you're seeing this all through your subjective experience. It felt more special, so you're proposing "social distancing" from Our Lord in the Sacrament in order to make your less frequent Holy Communions seem more special to you. It's perverse.

I do thank you all for seeking the good of my soul and warning me against the error of my ways. However, I do think you were misguided in your comments. I hope to show by this post that there is nothing amiss about voluntarily depriving oneself of Holy Communion for a time in order to better prepare oneself for reception later. And that what I said has nothing to do with "feeling" better about Holy Communion (contra my interlocutor) and is certainly not perverse.

This winter I have been working through the excellent book Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius & Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico Press, 2020) by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski. I was reading a section where Dr. Kwasniewski is discussing how our desire for the Eucharist is intensified by other extra-liturgical forms of prayer. After mentioning suggestions for daily prayer at home, he makes a suggestion of a "Eucharistic fast", voluntarily abstaining from Holy Communion in order to make a more fervent communion later:
"...in an era like ours, which is too prone to take Communion for granted and thus reduce it to a routine that lacks a deep hunger and thirst for God, we can benefit ourselves and make reparation for others by sometimes not going to Communion and by making an act of desire instead—a spiritual communion. It is a supernatural spin on "absence makes the heart grow fonder." (Peter Kwasniewski, Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright, Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2020, pg. 285).
I was very happy to see this, because it gets to the heart of what I was grasping at in my original article: our tradition definitely sees a place for refraining from Communion for reasons other than mortal sin. 

The Eucharist gives us grace objectively, of course, but part of how it sanctifies us is our own preparedness. In the original article, my point was not about "feeling better" about receiving Communion, but about being better prepared, which in turn leads to a more grace-filled reception. That grace may or may not be sensibly perceptible. If it is not, I can still have faith that I was excellently disposed and rest in that. If it is sensibly perceptible, why should I be castigated for enjoying the fact?

In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas addresses asks "Whether it is lawful to receive the sacrament daily?" His answer acknowledges that the sacrament works ex opera operato, as the commenter above explained, but balances that against the grace given ex opera operantis (by the disposition of the communicant). His response is worth quoting at length:

There are two things to be considered regarding the use of this sacrament. The first is on the part of the sacrament itself, the virtue [power] of which gives health to men; and consequently, it is profitable to receive it daily so as to receive its fruits daily. Hence Ambrose says: “If, whenever Christ’s blood is shed, it is shed for the forgiveness of sins, I, who sin often, should receive it often: I need a frequent remedy.”

The second thing to be considered is on the part of the recipient, who is required to approach this sacrament with great reverence and devotion. Consequently, if anyone finds that he has these dispositions every day, he will do well to receive it daily. Hence, Augustine after saying, “Receive daily, that it may profit thee daily,” adds: “So live, as to deserve to receive it daily.”

But because many persons are lacking in this devotion, on account of the many drawbacks both spiritual and corporal from which they suffer, it is not expedient for all to approach this sacrament every day; but they should do so as often as they find themselves properly disposed. Hence it is said in De Eccles. Dogmat. 53: “I neither praise nor blame daily reception of the Eucharist.” (St. Thomas, STh, III, Q. 80 Art 10)


Commenting on this passage in an article in Crisis Magazine entitled "The Blessings—and Dangers—of Holy Communion", Dr. Kwasniewski again addresses the subject and the teaching of St. Thomas:

Thomas lays out the various aspects that we should consider and avoids a facile solution that comes down exclusively on one side or the other. He is clear that receiving Communion is vital for our spiritual life, but so is our preparation and readiness.
St. Thomas explains this in his reply to the third objection:
Reverence for this sacrament consists in fear associated with love; consequently, reverential fear of God is called filial fear, as was said above, because the desire of receiving arises from love, while the humility of reverence springs from fear. Consequently, each of these [love and fear] belongs to the reverence due to this sacrament, both as to receiving it daily, and as to refraining from it sometimes.

Hence Augustine says (Ep. 54): “If one says that the Eucharist should not be received daily, while another maintains the contrary, let each one do as according to his devotion he thinketh right; for Zaccheus and the Centurion did not contradict one another when the one received the Lord with joy, whereas the other said: ‘Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof’; since both honored our Saviour, though not in the same way.” But love and hope, whereunto the Scriptures constantly urge us, are preferable to fear. Hence, too, when Peter had said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” Jesus answered: “Fear not.”

The saints encourage frequent reception of Holy Communion, but their idea of "frequent" was different than our own, and what constituted a frequent communion varied over the centuries. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton encouraged her sisters to receive frequent communions, but in her day a sister might be allowed to receive communion only every week, despite daily mass; for a lay person, this might be months. In her biography, you can read about how before she could receive communion, St. Elizabeth had to meet with her confessor and not only profess that she was free from mortal sin, but also that she had taken adequate steps to properly dispose her soul for the sacrament, talk about how she had been preparing for communion, and explain what graces she hoped to receive thereby. Then the confessor would give her permission to receive Holy Communion. She had to do this even as a lay person.

Similarly, in the Crisis Magazine article linked above, Dr. Kwasniewksi references Mother Mechtilde of the Blessed Sacrament (1614-1698) who encouraged her sisters to receive Holy Communion "frequently." But, as he also points out, in those days it was not common for even nuns to receive the Eucharist regularly. "Frequent communion" in 1698 may have meant a few times a month, with very intense periods of preparation.

The point is this: when the Church encourages frequent communion, it means "Receive communion as  frequently as you are rightly disposed." Let us turn to the pope of Holy Communion, St. Pius X, who in his 1905 Decree on Frequent and Daily Communion, Sacra Tridentina, said that the "Holy Table" (yes, even the great Pius X refers to the altar as a "table" occasionally) said that part of being properly disposed was to ensure that we are not approaching the sacrament from routine:
A right intention consists in this: that he who approaches the Holy Table should do so, not out of routine, or vain glory, or human respect, but that he wish to please God, to be more closely united with Him by charity, and to have recourse to this divine remedy for his weakness and defects.
One would assume, then, that whatever period of preparation was sufficient for a person to avoid routine would be laudable? After all, grace received ex opere operantis is important. Following St. Thomas, St. Pius X also stresses this point:

Since, however, the Sacraments of the New Law, though they produce their effect ex opere operato, nevertheless, produce a great effect in proportion as the dispositions of the recipient are better, therefore, one should take care that Holy Communion be preceded by careful preparation, and followed by an appropriate thanksgiving, according to each one's strength, circumstances and duties. That the practice of frequent and daily Communion may be carried out with greater prudence and more fruitful merit, the confessor's advice should be asked.
How many of you ask your confessor's advice before receiving daily Communion?

If my "careful preparation" takes three weeks, who is anyone to say otherwise? As Augustine said on the matter, "l
et each one do as according to his devotion he thinketh right," for the Church does not ask that I receive Holy Communion as much as possible, but that I receive it as much as I am rightly disposed and prepared to do so. And that is a matter for my own careful discernment. If I, being educated and discerning of what our faith teaches, and not afflicted by scruples, believe that it might take me longer than one week to dispose myself rightly for Holy Communion, that's perfectly fine and very much within what our tradition envisions.

If anything, Communion that is
too routine, too commonplace, too regular is more the danger today. And it is modernists like Cardinal Reinhard Marx who are prone to argue for MOAR COMMUNIONS for every class of people: “When someone is hungry and has faith, they must have access to the Eucharist. That must be our passion, and I will not let up on this" (First Things, "What Happens in Germany," May 2018)

One last pertinent quote is passage from none other than Joseph Ratzinger, affirming the concept of periodic "spiritual fasting" from the Eucharist as a means of enkindling greater love in our hearts for our Eucharistic Lord:

“Do we not often take the reception of the Blessed Sacrament too lightly? Might not this kind of spiritual fasting be of service, or even necessary, to deepen and renew our relationship to the Body of Christ? The ancient Church had a highly expressive practice of this kind. Since apostolic times, no doubt, the fast from the Eucharist on Good Friday was a part of the Church’s spirituality of communion. This renunciation of communion on one of the most sacred days of the Church’s year was a particularly profound way of sharing in the Lord’s Passion; it was the Bride’s mourning for the lost Bridegroom (cf. Mk 2:20). Today too, I think, fasting from the Eucharist, really taken seriously and entered into, could be most meaningful on carefully considered occasions, such as days of penance—and why not reintroduce the practice on Good Friday? It would be particularly appropriate at Masses where there is a vast congregation, making it impossible to provide for a dignified distribution of the sacrament; in such cases the renunciation of the sacrament could in fact express more reverence and love than a reception which does not do justice to the immense significance of what is taking place. A fasting of this kind—and of course it would have to be open to the Church’s guidance and not arbitrary—could lead to a deepening of personal relationship with the Lord in the sacrament. It could also be an act of solidarity with all those who yearn for the sacrament but cannot receive it. It seems to me as well that the problem of the divorced and remarried, as well as that of intercommunion (e.g., in mixed marriages), would be far less acute against the background of voluntary spiritual fasting, which would visibly express the fact that we all need that ‘healing of love’ which the Lord performed in the ultimate loneliness of the Cross. Naturally, I am not suggesting a return to a kind of Jansenism: fasting presupposes normal eating, both in spiritual and biological life. But from time to time we do need a medicine to stop us from falling into mere routine which lacks all spiritual dimension. Sometimes we need hunger, physical and spiritual hunger, if we are to come fresh to the Lord’s gifts and understand the suffering of our hungering brothers. Both spiritual and physical hunger can be a vehicle of love.” ( Joseph Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One: An Approach to a Spiritual Christology, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 97-98.
I want to make one final point about the analogy the interlocutor made about marriage. To review, he said:
The reason why this line of thought is dangerous is because there's a fallacy along the line somewhere. It's like saying this: "My wife and I had to endure a separation because of a war. I was frequently out of country, serving my country. I came only one three times in ten years. My visits with her were more emotionally intense than any experience before, when we lived together. When the war is over, I think we're going to live in separate houses and get together only every few years." It's one thing if separation with a just cause leads one to appreciate one's interaction with one's spouse more. It's entirely different to artificially reduce contact in order to "prepare" more.

This analogy is flawed for this reason:

The structure of the analogy presupposes that Holy Communion is the only way I can encounter Jesus or receive grace from Him. If receiving Communion is likened to living with a wife, then not receiving Holy Communion is akin to physically abandoning ones wife. But I do not cut myself off from Jesus when I do not go to Holy Communion; Holy Communion is not my one and only means of encountering Jesus, nor my only access to grace. To be sure it is an exceptional means and our most intimate contact with our Lord, but it is in no sense our only encounter with Jesus. Abstaining from Holy Communion is not the same as abstaining from seeing my wife. Christ is with me always, His spirit is every around me and within me, His grace always accessible by many other means. And even within the context of the liturgy, the very idea of a spiritual communion is premised on the truth that we can have real access to the grace of Christ outside of the Eucharist, even sacramental grace itself.

What we have, then, is not about having access to God or not, but more about taking time preparing for a profoundly intimate encounter with God's love through other acts of love. Therefore a more appropriate marital analogy might be temporary abstention from sexual intercourse. A man and a woman may voluntarily abstain from intercourse, during which time they focus on showing each other love through different means. The husband has not cut himself off from the wife by any means—he is present to her continually, but he is showing her love by other ways than just intercourse. And indeed, this temporary abstention from intercourse will most likely make the sexual act more appreciated when it finally is time to be intimate in that way. I'm sure many Catholic married couples recognize this pattern.

Is not the same principle applicable here that St. Paul teaches regarding sexual intercourse among the married: 
"Deprive not one another, except, perhaps, by consent, for a time, that you may give yourselves to prayer; and return together again, lest Satan tempt you..." (1 Cor. 7:5). If one devotes himself to prayer, there is no reason one cannot voluntarily deprive himself of communion "for a time", just as St. Paul teaches of marital relations, which are ultimately a mystery of Christ and the Church.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

i'd argue Saint Pius X meant the Holy Table specifically when referring to communicating.

Otherwise I agree with the whole post. There is a difference between going as often as you feel properly disposed to, and offering the fasting that results; and just fasting for the sake of feeling more vainly full later.

Anonymous said...

Proper disposition is indeed what is exhorted; however the suggestion perhaps is between Friday and Sunday? or Sunday to Sunday? Or occasion? Each of these may be ascertained from the quoted examples. There are other inquiries, which could be addressed insofar as historical realities of Eucharistic frequency is concerned.
I get your premise, but the examples provided in your follow-up explanation seem to be more narrow in their application than your intended explanation.

Best prayers and wishes in the New Year

Boniface said...

@Anon 4:31,

I will grant that, at least in the documents of Pius X. The fact is though, there has been great variation over the years. If the pre-1900 church favored much more infrequent communion, there were good reasons, with some excesses; if the post-1900 church favors daily communion, I'm sure the same is true. Even if that is the intention of the documents, it must be balanced against what is the most pressing danger *today*, which I think is communion that is too routine. I would never want to deprive myself of Holy Communion for longer than a month, and probably not even that long regularly. I was talking to an Eastern friend and he was telling me that in some of their rites it is common for people to not receive Communion throughout the entirety of Lent, using Lent as a preparatory period for the Easter Communion. I guess my only point is that our tradition definitely sees a place for this sort of thing.

M. Prodigal said...


We know that in past centuries, it was not common to receive Holy Communion daily and there were still many Saints from those times. But things change over centuries and daily Mass and Communion became available for clergy and laity alike. There has been only a small percentage of the faithful who have availed themselves even so. But at the present time those who have the opportunity to receive Our Lord daily or weekly should do so! Along with confession of course. This great gift can be taken from us at any time now as we have seen. MANY have been denied for 10 months and some have allowed themselves to live in such fear that they do not come to Our Lord even when they can. We need the sacraments in this darkening world so as to have the strength for this great spiritual battle. Let us not miss any opportunity for them at this time.

EmilyS said...

I started occasionally abstaining intentionally for a reason I think is very, very important for parents. We need to set an example to children--especially teen and young adult children--that there is nothing out of the ordinary about abstaining; that if someone abstains, no reason needs to be given about why, nor is it anyone else's business why. Heaven forbid a teen needs to go to Confession first, but feels embarrassed, and receives Communion anyways out of concern that not receiving would signal to his or her family that he has done something sinful. That should never be a factor, and if parents make sure through their example that abstaining occasionally is a completely normal thing to do for a variety of reasons, that will do a lot to prevent temptation for unworthy communions.

A wonderful effect I have found is that it removes stress for me. Everyone has days where they have trouble focusing at Mass, or just don't feel disposed even if state of grace isn't an issue. It is very helpful in these situations to know that there is nothing wrong with occasionally abstaining, and it there is no need to worry about it. "Frequent' communion doesn't mean "Communion every time."

Thank you for this post--I think it is good that people realize that one can go to Mass, offer it fruitfully and pray, and not have to receive Holy Communion every time.

Anonymous said...

1st anon here adding, this situation also varies region to region, and i've seen both extremes. in North America seems many people may do communion too often, apparently out of shame of being seen as the few not communicating; rather than legit having a state of grace and proper disposition every week. this seems the case specially considering how little confession time there tends to be in some parishes, and yet how many seem to be in a state of grace every week in the same parishes. in Latin America it's the opposite problem, everyone feels ashamed of both confession and seeming way too holy by communicating (it is a more gossipy low trust culture, while North Americans can trust more, too much sometimes), so instead there is way too much fasting; and few do communicate when they better try to be confessed, disposed, and do so. a lot of Latin Americans don't even communicate on Christmas or Easter, or (worse) think that the spiritual communion is just the same, because their Jesuit priest said so (said Jesuit priest in North America might instead downplay confession and disposition and invite you to communicate every week if you feel okay with it, so as to get continually "saved" like a Prot). in short, in North America too few people remain on the pews due to improper disposition, thus communicating becoming more universal than even kneeling during the canon; in Latin America, way too many remain seated and improperly disposed, the line not taking more than 5 minutes even in cathedrals... and sadly, Latin Americans are also starting to forget kneeling too...

Marissa said...

What preparations should be done for disposing one to receive Holy Communion? I am a mother of three children, 5 and under, and attend Mass alone with them. I never feel properly prepared due to constant distraction during Mass.

Anonymous said...

Abstaining? I old and for a time did not lead a good Catholic life. I feel almost desperate at times for communion.

Boniface said...

@anon-

Then it's not for you

Anonymous said...

Not knowing "1st anon here" I cannot conclude as to his or her reported experience, or choice of "desperate,", and the meaning associated with them in personal faith life or journey. I would say, as for my now apparently being known as Anon 4:31, that respectfully, there is a fundamental link between the Sacraments of Penance and Eucharist, and the frequency thereof (as alluded to by "1st anon here"). (Catechism 1385; St John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia).
I think that may be also what Boniface refers to when commenting upon this poster's post: Pius X's mention, in Sacra Tridentina Synodus (following Trent's Decretum), of the Eucharistic effect; i.e. not only encouraging frequent reception to wash away the little (venial) faults that occur daily, but to strengthen against further more grievous faults. Whatever the dispensations pertaining to situation, whether internally or externally imposed, I would not encourage waiting for Viaticum.

Anonymous said...

From the original post last year:

" The extra work made it more meaningful. And I started thinking there really is something to the argument that less communions can be more beneficial. Of course I've always known that it was superior to receive fewer communions better prepared than more communions less prepared, but until this present darkness I had no experiential knowledge of the fact."

I'm going to continue my line of criticism from last year about the subjective nature of all of this. Who made the evaluation that you were better prepared? You did. It doesn't sound like a priest or confessor did. The last sentence in the paragraph mentions "experiential knowledge." Your perception is that this preparation made this reception of Holy Communion more grace-filled. That's a fallible perception.

I mean, the greatest experiences I've had in Confession involved confessing especially weighty sins after a long "fast" from Confession. Did I prepare more for those Confessions? Yes, I did. Were they more meaningful? Yes. Should I confess less frequently in order to make my Confessions more meaningful, and prepare more? No, I should not. The conclusion doesn't follow.

Again, please ask your confessor whether you should do this. This is not an area where you should just go with your private observations, or Kwasniewski's.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I read more. You have sources that you cite. I don't regard them as dispositive. Why? Because of this question:

"How many of you ask your confessor's advice before receiving daily Communion?"

Have *you* asked your confessor's advice about your own abstention from Holy Communion? Maybe it's not my business to ask, but the question logically follows from your own writing on the subject. Unless I missed it, I don't see where you mention it. Maybe I missed it.

Who are we to say whether it takes you longer than a week to prepare for Holy Communion? I don't know who we are, but you're sharing the information with us. Your confessor might disagree.

I sincerely wish I hadn't come to this site and read this post. It saddens me deeply. I wish you all best wishes, specifically that you come to a point where you can receive the Blessed Sacrament worthily more often than what you're saying it takes you.

Boniface said...

@Anonymous

Lol, for your information, I have been receiving Holy Communion ever week.

"I sincerely wish I hadn't come to this site"

K. bye

Anonymous said...

I think your path is pretty clear. Keep it up and, like Kwasniewski who's on the same path, you'll be out of the Church rubbing should with the Orthodox. What a pity.