Readings: Genesis 14:18-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Luke 9:11-17
Our present monastic practice of daily communion is a wonderful privilege both in the sense that we actually have access to the sacrament as well as in the sense that we are permitted to receive communion so frequently. As you know it is only within the last century that this practice of more frequent communion has become commonplace. In earlier centuries the faithful received far less frequently and this practice prevailed in monasteries and religious houses as well. Indeed, to wish to receive the Eucharist more frequently was thought presumptuous and a lack of humility. However, one of the advantages of receiving less frequently was that persons prepared themselves carefully before approaching communion–usually going to confession, prayer and fasting. As such, each reception of the Eucharist was an opportunity to recommit one’s life to Christ and reengage the task of ongoing conversion with renewed fervor and determination.
Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, the present practice of frequent communion runs the risk of it being routine and something we do without adequate preparation or full awareness of just what we are doing. Admittedly, the arrangement of the mass–beginning with the Penitential Rite, leading to the Liturgy of the Word, and then onto the actual Liturgy of the Eucharist–is intended to prepare us for our Eucharistic encounter with the Risen Lord, provided that this is entered into consciously and devoutly. This requires that attendance at mass form part of a broader spiritual life that provides the context in which our graced encounter with Christ in the mystery of the Eucharist occurs. Accordingly, preparation for receiving the Eucharist incorporates more than just particular practices such as confession, fasting, and prayer, and includes the orienting of our whole lives towards union with Christ.
And what lies at the heart of this orienting is the desire and longing for an ever deeper union with Christ. This desire itself is experienced differently by different people at the various stages of their spiritual development. For those who may not yet have encountered Christ and are not disciples, this longing and desire may be experienced as emptiness and restlessness that nothing in the world can ultimately fill or ease. For some already on the pilgrim journey, desire and longing can be felt keenly in the apparent absence of the One they seek and long for–like Mary Magdalene weeping at the tomb. For such persons the reception of the Eucharist is often an act of faith that doesn’t seem to ease the sense of absence or longing. The challenge for such people is to imitate Mary Magdalene and not give up or despair of their longing for Christ ever being satisfied. In contrast, others are graced with a deep sense of Christ’s presence and the Eucharistic encounter with Christ is not only something longed for but also a reality gratefully received.
I dilate on this theme of longing and desire because I believe that it is the most effective means of preparing for our reception of the Eucharist. As such, desire for Christ becomes that room of which he asked: Where is my guest room that I may eat the Passover with my disciples? For desire creates space within our otherwise cluttered hearts and becomes the meeting place for our encounter with our Eucharistic Lord. Now although desire and longing for God are, as it were, inborn and integral to the manner in which we were created, nevertheless intensity of desire and longing are affected by what we do, the choices we make, the efforts we exert, the priorities we establish. Accordingly, it is within our power to deepen our longing and desire or to weaken, diminish, and even numb our desire for God–the latter option resulting perhaps from extended periods of frustrated desire and seeming failure to encounter Christ either in the Eucharist or in prayer. Long periods of spiritual darkness, trial, and God’s apparent absence can render the longing too painful to bear and so we attempt to distract ourselves from the longing by living on a more superficial plane. Unfortunately, we can only dull the longing and the pain of absence, and the result is that we are permanently dogged by a pervasive unhappiness and dissatisfaction.
Therefore, regardless of whether our present experience of the Eucharist is one of intimacy and the fulfillment of our heart’s desire, or that of apparent absence and the frustration of the desire of our hearts, let us stir up and augment our desire and longing for the Lord, trusting that with perseverance our longing will be blessed with the ineffable joy of union and presence. For as our desire for God and our longing to be united with him deepens and intensifies, the room within our still constricted hearts will expand to receive an even deeper participation in God’s life and love. Thus, Saint Bernard can exhort us, let him who hungers, hunger still more, and him who desires, let him desire more abundantly, because as much as one will be able to desire, just so much shall one receive. Expressed somewhat differently, William of St. Thierry explains that the more plentifully [God as love] pours himself into the faculties of those who love him, the more he dilates their capacity to receive him.
Cultivating this desire and longing as one of the most worthy preparations for receiving our Eucharistic Lord also becomes simultaneously a preparation for the eternal banquet of heaven. For even in that blissful state longing and desire do not completely disappear but, as Baldwin of Forde insists, in the eternal satiety there is some hunger, not one of need but felicity; there they never refuse to eat who desire always to eat, and are never weary in satiety. Indeed there is satiety without weariness and desire without a sigh. And so as we praise and glorify the Lord for the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist–this foretaste of heaven–we can even now strain towards the heavenly banquet of which Saint Bernard proclaimed: O truly happy and glorious satiety! O holy feast! O most desireable banquet, where there never will be any anxiety, never any weariness, because satiety will be full and [yet] have from within plenty of desire.