The archbishops and others are presently encouraging people to attend acts of worship in their imagination, and online. People are asked to pray at home, but with others who are praying elsewhere. This includes virtual Holy Communion – and many people have used the traditional language of “spiritual communion” without explaining it. Here’s a short explanation, with some prayers that you can use.
There are have always been times when people have wished to take Holy Communion, but could not. Sometimes that is because they are travelling, sometimes because they are ill, and sometimes because of wrongdoing and their own personal sin. There is also the standing barrier to communion that is Christian division and disunity. This regularly prevents us receiving the sacrament equally with and in other denominations.
The present suspension of gathering for public worship makes this lack of physical access to Holy Communion a temporary norm rather than an occasional exception. Despite this physical barrier, all Christians are being encouraged to pray, to meet virtually, and to gather spiritually. When we are unable to share sacramentally in the unity of Christ’s body, we nonetheless seek to unite ourselves to Christ, believing that as we draw closer to God, we also grow closer to one another.
The practice of making a spiritual communion, as this is called, is well known in Christian tradition, but less well known in contemporary practice, especially in protestant churches. It normally involves being as much present as possible at the celebration of the Eucharist.
In the past that has included being physically present where able, and, if not, present in the imagination at the time of the celebration. Today we have the opportunity to be present online, and through webcams: this makes it easier to have a sense of praying together while physically absent.
Beyond this, it also involves a conscious act of spiritual participation at the point in the liturgy when individuals would normally receive Holy Communion.
There are many different prayers that have been written to put this into words. Here are three different sets of words. The first comes from St Francis, from a time before the western church divided into catholic and protestant. The second comes from the Roman Catholic tradition. These focus (as is traditional) purely on the relationship of the individual with God.
The last has been specially written for our present situation, and has a communal aspect also. It is currently an imperfect first draft, and may well develop and change in the light of conversation and comment.
Prayer of St Francis
I believe that you, O Jesus, are in the most holy Sacrament. I love you and desire you. Come into my heart. I embrace you. Never leave me. May the burning and most sweet power of your love, O Lord Jesus Christ. I beseech you, absorb my mind that I may die through love of your love, who were graciously pleased to die through love of my love.
Act of Spiritual Communion by St Alphonsus Liguori
My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the Blessed Sacrament. I love you above all things and I desire you in my soul. Since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. As though you were already there, I embrace you and unite myself wholly to you; never permit that I should be separated from you.
A prayer for communion in separation
Lord Jesus Christ, life-giver and good physician, here you meet me in our need. In a world marred by corruption and marked by death, draw me into true life. By your selfless sacrifice, help me to live for others and not myself. May I, who cannot now receive you sacramentally, embrace you more fully in my heart, mind and soul. Help me unite myself to you in spirit, so that I may be drawn closer to those from whom I am isolated in body. Through sharing your life given up in death for us all, may we grow together in love into a richer and more profound communion of life.