When the COVID-19 pandemic led to restrictions on public Masses and sacramental reception of Holy Communion, a sort of tension seemed to emerge. On the one hand, some defended civil authority and begged the laity to be obedient, maintaining that there wouldn’t be a safe and reverent way to sacramentally receive the Real Presence in the consecrated Host and Precious Blood. On the other hand, others argued that the Church was submitting to the secular world by not making a stronger effort to find ways for the faithful to receive the Eucharist sacramentally. Not only did there seem to be a moral issue at stake, but there also seemed to be subtle theological questions being raised: What are we spiritually called to do in a pandemic? Is spiritual communion enough?
St. Catherine of Siena wondered about this herself. Then, in a vision, she saw Christ holding two chalices. He showed her a gold chalice, which held her sacramental Communions and a silver chalice, which held her spiritual communions. He told her they were both pleasing.
While I believe most can understand the inherent value of spiritual communion, I think that we live in a world that makes it more difficult for us to apprehend the true beauty of spiritual communion. In Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages, Ann Astell discusses how the medieval laity regarded a devout gazing upon the consecrated Host at its elevation during Mass as a substitute for sacramental reception (that is, receiving communion by consumption) of the Eucharist. Today, we might wonder how adoring Christ through sight could become so privileged as to even replace sacramental reception. While I do not think this practice is perfect, and we could object to some of its neo-platonic underpinnings, I think it can reveal a lot about our spiritual sensibility today.
We seem to separate our spiritual senses in a way that makes a spiritual communion demand something else from us—a mysticism that the medieval laity seemed to be more attuned to. But, making a spiritual communion is a practice that we are encouraged to participate in daily and often because it is a way of constantly desiring Jesus in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Like many saints, St. Teresa of Jesus (Teresa of Avila) encouraged spiritual communion. She said, “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.”
The medieval practice of spiritual communion also meant that an intent gaze upon the Host was the same as touching it, tasting it, essentially consuming it. By involving all the spiritual senses in how they saw the Host, the medieval laity could learn to conform this simple physical act of seeing to the spiritual realities that are so beautifully and mysteriously hidden in the Eucharist. Exercising the spiritual senses in this way could even challenge the physical senses to be able to see, understand, and appreciate beauty hidden all around us. This practice encourages us to stretch our moral imagination and our aesthetic sensibility and let beauty transform us, beatify us. Indeed, making a spiritual communion is a beautiful way to enter more fully into the mystery of the Blessed Sacrament. And it might just prepare us for the most beautiful sacramental reception, when this is all over.