Making a spiritual communion

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.

Pet hates: overexplaining symbols

Some texts, in my view, simply don’t work – even if they seem to be used all the time. Perhaps other people don’t have my problems with it, but one such text is that used at the fraction – the breaking of the bread – in Common Worship.

Breaking the Bread. Image via PxFuel under Creative Commons 0.0

Here is the text:

We break this bread
to share in the body of Christ.
Though we are many, we are one body,
because we all share in one bread.

I have three problems with it. It is bland. It spells out the symbolism in a way which appears on the surface to narrow it down to the gathered congregation, rather than broadening it to the whole church. It has an element of smugness about it, that would be easier to tolerate if our congregations were more diverse and less monochrome than they typically are.

Given the choices allowed by Common Worship, it’s surprising that so few options occur at this point. There appear to be only two alternatives provided in the whole breadth of official provision. The first, the more poetic and prayerful of the two, is suggested especially in the Christmas season; the second, and rather more prosaic (despite being a direct biblical quotation), is a general alternative also suggested particularly for Lent and Passiontide.

We break the bread of life,
and that life is the light of the world
God here among us,
light in the midst of us,
bring us to light and life
.

Every time we eat this bread
and drink this cup,
we proclaim the Lord’s death
until he comes.

The first thing to be said is that any specific form of wording – despite common practice – is only required by the rubric (Note 20 in the Order 1 Notes) on Sundays and Principal Holy Days. For most weekday masses the Bread may be broken while saying the Lamb of God, or in silence.

The second thing to note is that, if the rubric were strictly to be obeyed, the Liturgical Commission and the House of Bishops have already broken it by allowing the first alternative above (“We break the bread of life …”) in Common Worship: Times and Seasons. That they have done so suggests a certain degree of official resiling from the narrow frame of the rubric.

The third point I would make is that, almost certainly, the attention given to the breaking of the bread comes from a mistaken and overfond attachment to Dom Gregory Dix’s theories about the Shape of the Liturgy. In that influential, but now dated book, Dix bequeathed to the liturgical revisers of the late twentieth century an overemphasis on a fourfold (or sevenfold if one separates out the cup) shape to the eucharistic action: take, bless, break, give. With such a shape, it became very important to draw attention to the action of breaking.

I would suggest, however, that there are really only two fundamental actions, rather than four: giving thanks (or blessing, or offering according to theological persuasion), and sharing, and the other actions are subsidiary to those. We take in order to present to God with thanksgiving, and we break in order to share. There’s nothing wrong with providing words for those actions, but it’s hard to see they need this level of prescription. After all, if the presider can be trusted to compose a preface for the eucharistic prayer, surely they have the ability to come up with appropriate words for the fraction.

So, I take my cue from the House of Bishops overriding the rubric, and, as ever, appeal to Canon B5(i) (“The minister who is to conduct the service may in his discretion make and use variations which are not of substantial importance in any form of service authorised by Canon B 1 according to particular circumstances). It certainly seems to me legitimate to provide alternative words that have a broader frame of less self-congratulatory reference than the limited official provision.

Here’s a starter for 10:

We break the bread of life,
participation in Christ’s body once broken.
We share the cup of salvation,
communion in Christ’s life once given.

I confess, though, that, on the whole, I would rather default to performing the fraction while the Agnus Dei is being said or sung.

Have mercy, Lord, have mercy – a metrical version of Psalm 51

This is the third (and final) hymn for this Lenten season. Today’s post is a version of Psalm 51, which I have tried to avoid Christianizing, at least too heavily. Maybe my Jewish friends will tell me if I’ve succeeded, or if my unconcious Christian bias in reading is simply too strong.

As always with hymn and prayer texts on this site, do feel free to make use of it under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

The tune I had in mind while writing was Passion Chorale.

Have mercy, Lord, have mercy,
in your abundant love,
and from my sin now cleanse me,
my trespasses remove.
My shame is overpowering,
it will not let me go:
great wrath above is towering,
your sentence to bestow.

From birth have I offended,
and long been mired in sin,
yet you my heart have tended,
and sought a way within.
O cleanse my inner being,
and wash away my shame,
that I no longer fleeing
may glorify your name.

Look not on my transgression,
but take away my sin,
acknowledge my confession,
and give me life within.
Create in me a clean heart,
your spirit now renew,
your saving joy be my part,
my life be one with you.

Contrition my oblation,
and tears my sacrifice,
no ritual immolation
for love demands no price;
O God of my salvation,
open my lips and raise
the song of new creation,
restored in grace for praise.

A song of penitence

Detail from St Augustine c. 1650 by Philippe de Champaigne. Via Wikimedia Commons.

For this Ash Wednesday, a metrical version of a famous prayer by St Augustine. Do feel free to make use of it under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). First, though, the text of the prayer, as provided on the New Advent Fathers of the Church site:

Too late did I love You, O Fairness, so ancient, and yet so new! Too late did I love You! For behold, You were within, and I without, and there did I seek You; I, unlovely, rushed heedlessly among the things of beauty You made. You were with me, but I was not with You. Those things kept me far from You, which, unless they were in You, were not. You called, and cried aloud, and forced open my deafness. You gleamed and shine, and chase away my blindness. You exhaled odours, and I drew in my breath and do pant after You. I tasted, and do hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for Your peace.

Augustine, Confessions, Book 10, Chapter 27

Next is my metrical version: the two most obvious tunes are Gerontius and Billing; the latter is rather less commonly used, but quite similar in mood.

Late have I loved you, O my Lord,
before whom beauty pales,
whose glory shines in Christ the Word,
whose splendour never fails.

I searched for you in all you made,
in all my eye discerned.
I failed to look within, afraid
to know what passion burned.

You walked with me unseen, unloved,
I trod as one alone,
I seized your gifts, though my use proved
the Giver was unknown.

Yet still you called, to me you spoke
your powerful words of love,
and my long-practiced deafness broke
by thunder from above.

Your flashing lightning cleared my sight,
your storm winds conquered me,
and now I see love shining bright,
I breathe air pure and free.

Your love, your life, is now my meat,
I hunger still for more;
your breath of life is true and sweet,
your touch of peace is sure.

Late though I loved you, O my Lord,
beauty both new and old,
now my heart welcomes Christ the Word,
my priceless pearl, my gold.

Hymn for Lent

This is a retrieval of a text I’ve never quite been satisfied with. One day, I shall come back to it knowing what I’ve got to change. Nonetheless, I think it still usuable, given how few hymns for Lent there are. It is probably most appropriate for the first Sunday of Lent, with the gospel of the temptations in the desert.

I wrote this with the tune Picardy in my head. Since that draft, Kathryn Rose (@artsyhonker) wrote a tune for it, Harringey, which you can find here.

Here’s the current text. As with other hymns and prayers on this site, you can use it under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

From the Jordan to the desert,
from the crowd to barren place,
Spirit-driven, devil-tempted,
Lord, you sought the Father’s grace
show us now your pow’r, in weakness,
presence in the empty space.

Out of Egypt with God’s people,
freedom brings its testing stress:
what is right and what is truthful,
how the name of God confess?
Jesus, lead us on our journey,
guide us through the wilderness.

Lack of food for empty stomach,
offered only cold hard stone;
scripture used to tempt and strengthen;
easy route to grasp the throne:
Bread of life, and Word incarnate
help us worship God alone.

In the search for loving justice,
in the quest for truth and right,
Jesus walk beside, before us,
hold your Cross of love in sight;
keep us in your Father’s presence,
guide us to your risen light.

Pet hates: the running homily

This is the first of an occasional series. You’ve probably heard the joke: what’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist. (Other variations are available!) Like many people interested in liturgy, I have strong views about a number of things that make, or don’t make, for good worship. I will, from time to time, write a post on one or other of them.

Today I critique what I call the running homily or sermon. This is where the presider or leader feels compelled to introduce every item of the liturgy with some kind of explanation. Very often this will be an attempt to tie each item to a theme they have decided to give to the service.

The Alternative Service Book (ASB 1980 – RIP 2000) introduced themes to Anglican worship: each Sunday’s readings were linked in some way to a teaching theme. (I think that was where the rot set in.) And so those responsible for shaping and leading the liturgy felt compelled to tie everything to this theme: not only the homily, the prayers and the hymns, but virtually every item in the service by way of giving it an “introduction”. So the idea of a running homily developed and threaded its way through the whole service.

There are three reasons why this is a bad idea. The first is that the liturgy is primarily a vehicle for us to offer worship to God. The running homily turns it primarily into a vehicle for educating the congregation. It is counter to the purpose for which we gather.

The second is that it prevents the liturgy from flowing, leading people through its own rhythms of word, song and silence, of speaking and listening, of moving through preparation to word, from word to prayer, from prayer to table, from table to mission. At every point we stop to be instructed. Even assuming a higher standard of instruction than the vapid and vacuous “vain repetitions” I have sometimes experienced, the point still stands. The presider stops the liturgy working by constantly inserting themselves as explainer and instructor.

The third is that no congregation will be on the same page on the same day. Indeed, probably no individual within the congregation will be on the same page throughout the service. We have different needs and come from different contexts. Trying to shoehorn the diversity of individual needs into a monochromatic teaching theme inhibits people from bringing their real selves to the table. Good presiding facilitates the encounter between people’s real lives and God’s story and presence. That means the creation of space in which it can happen. Too much thematic teaching fills the available space with a single voice rather than making space for the diversity of voices people bring with them.

There is a reason Common Worship turned its back on themes. May each presider do the same. Reject the running homily.

Visions, vindication and victory: the strange world of the Apocalypse

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The Revelation to John, also known as the Apocalypse, contains seven letters, which make up the second and third chapters. However, it is not itself a letter, but the only New Testament book which as a whole is in the literary genre of apocalyptic. This is a type of literary description of visions that claim to unveil the meaning of history for those in the know.1 They often contain the metaphor of a journey through heavenly or spiritual realms with a guide. The vision at the heart of the Apocalypse is that the soft power of the Lamb’s self-sacrifice will be triumphant over the hard power of the mighty Roman empire. While readings from this book are used on a number of feast days,1 Revelation also provides the second reading for the Sundays of Easter in Year C. Its celebration of Christ’s triumph draws out a key aspect of the Easter gospel.

Readers are somewhat prone to introducing readings from this book wrongly. It is the Book of Revelation in the singular, not Revelations in the plural. The book itself claims to be the record of a single revelation, handed from God to Jesus and from Jesus via an angel to his servant John. There is only one secret to be unveiled: the triumph of God over evil through the cross of Christ.

Continue reading “Visions, vindication and victory: the strange world of the Apocalypse”