by Sara Parvis in THE TABLET, 30 April 2020
Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament is part of the lifeblood of the Catholic faith. A theologian writes of the depth of her grief at being unable to receive the Eucharist – and why we must not allow self-pity to distract us from our responsibility to protect the most vulnerable
The little Catholic chapel in Edinburgh that I normally attend has a glass front, and looks on to a garden. This means that you can still see both the tabernacle and the lit sanctuary lamp next to it from the lane behind the church, even when the back gate is locked.
I was enormously proud of the Church’s prompt response to the coronavirus pandemic, and had little time for those who thought otherwise. It was just the reverse of the child abuse crisis: we saw the institution moving swiftly to protect the vulnerable, showing intelligence and resolve, and swallowing the probable cost to its own status and financial security without hesitation. Led by Pope Francis, who smothered all self-pitying tendencies by directing our gaze to the health workers, bus drivers and supermarket workers daily risking themselves for others, the Church laid down its life, the life of its public Eucharist, for the good of the people, in hope and trust that in due time God would allow it to take it up again.
Our local community of Dominican friars moved quickly to become connected to their people in other ways, broadcasting their celebrations of the Mass on their Facebook page and sending out a daily email with spiritual reflections and jokey video clips intended to keep our spirits up, braving for the common good the risk of inciting volatile responses from pent-up parishioners with frustration in their hearts and too much time on their hands.
I have always had a strong devotion to receiving the Eucharist; praying before the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle and on the altar has also become very dear to me in recent years. We need a tangible sense of Christ’s presence. We need to know that Christ is with us. Of course, you can find Christ in others, in prayer, and clothed in the flesh of Scripture. You can find Christ in your heart, in your memory, understanding and will. But Christ in the Eucharist has a sureness, a concreteness, that is irreplaceable. Yet I knew we had to give that up to safeguard as far as possible the lives of our fellow parishioners and their families.
I was surprised, therefore, at the strength of my reactions to watching from afar the Dominican community celebrating the Triduum without the people. I felt not only terrible desolation but also naked jealousy. It looked like some kind of clericalist fantasy: no lay people, and above all no women. I so missed every lay reader, psalm singer, coffee maker; I missed the thrill of gathering in the fresh, cold night as a raggle-taggle group in the lane for the blessing of the new fire, the dark, excited procession back into the church, the organ and bells at the Gloria, the invocation of the saints and the sloshing of the holy water over us all, ending with sharing the Eucharist together. I missed joining everyone afterwards to share our Easter joy. So many are Vatican II Catholics in their seventies and eighties, my parents’ generation, who had remained faithful and joyful over so many years. These were also the people most in danger from the virus. I thought of what the chances were of going back to normal again next year, and wept.
Instead, we watched other people feast on the risen Christ together while we fasted separately from behind an impregnable online wall. It was meant to comfort, but it felt like being shut out of Paradise. The “Act of Spiritual Communion” said at every Eucharist jarred more than anything. “Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there and unite myself wholly to You.” “At least” spiritually! “As if” you were already there! What atrocious theology! St Alphonsus Liguori was bad enough; the suggestion, widely offered by friends both clerical and lay, that being separated from the sacraments might somehow help us appreciate them more was salt on the wound. It seemed to make a mockery of my fast, dictating the terms of my grief, somehow hinting that it was my faith that was lacking.
Yet I also recognised over the successive liturgies the shining witness of the friars to Christ in the quiet dignity of their celebrations, and their care for one another and for us. So I carried on wrestling with it all. I started a series of arguments with different people (over the phone and by email), and did some further reading and thinking. Another Dominican, expert in the theology of sacramental desire, took me to task for misprizing the notion of Spiritual Communion as somehow second best, argued it all out with me, and sent me off to read St Thomas Aquinas on the subject (Summa III.80.1, since you ask). I realised that he was right that physical and Spiritual Communion are equivalent in Thomas’ teaching (much to my surprise). I also saw that, for St Thomas, although the Eucharist heals and feeds us as individuals, just as important is its function of making us into the Church, joining us as Christ’s members to the Head.
At this, it all fell into place, with a bit of help from Mary Magdalene. The deep grief I felt was her grief at the apparent disappearance of Christ’s body, the gathered Church. Only the dry bones, dismembered and deprived of flesh, seemed to remain of the assembly of the people that we had been. But Ezekiel had prophesied to us resurrection as a people, a rejoining of bone to sinew and flesh to flesh. Christ would still raise Lazarus for Martha and Mary, no matter how late his coming seemed, and in the meantime he would weep with them. While we wait and watch and ponder the Crucifixion from afar, or in some cases very close-up, only a truly sacramental desire, continually renewed in our hearts, to be again the re-membered Church, can keep us from oblivion and allow us to see and hear the resurrected Lord once more. It is and has long been the depths of our longing to be the Church, our longing to be the Body of Christ, which is the source of our grief. This is why we mourn, and this is how and why we shall be comforted when Christ shall choose to raise us.
Meanwhile, we must stand at the gate and gaze on Christ until it is opened and we can enter the garden once more.
Sara Parvis is a senior lecturer in Patristics at the University of Edinburgh.