Rorate Caeli

Pertinacious Papist's Moment of Grace

A month or two ago, Dr. Phillip Blosser, aka the Pertinacious Papist, brought forward the issue of proper rubric in the matter of reception of the Eucharist – kneeling vs. standing, and reception in the hand vs on the tongue (Here). These are issues guaranteed to make Catholics with a fondness for congregational spontaneity roll their eyes and sigh heavily – the children are at it again! I thought PP’s best insight came, not in the essays themselves (which are well worth reading), but in the trail of comments that followed. Responding to one reader’s comment, he wrote the following, which I thought deserved to be given greater prominence:
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While it's true that personal experience isn't the best philosophical argument, or an argument at all, I don't think one need offer any apologies for attesting that one's experience confirms one's beliefs. On some level, if this were not true, I doubt any of us could become or remain Catholic Christians or even theists.
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I can also attest to the power of outward forms in my own experience. There have been many instances. One in particular was a noontime Mass at a Catholic church near Harvard University. This was before I was a Catholic. The church was old, with squeaky ceiling fans (it was summer and hot), and only about thirty people were in the congregation. Among those present in the pews, there were some that seemed to be students, as well as some elderly folk. Immediately behind me were two 'bag ladies' -- obviously poor people off the street. The first thing that emotionally touched me was their voices during the Agnus Dei, bleating like sheep, "Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us." Even now, years later, I can barely write about this memory without being flooded with the emotion I then felt. It was overpowering. Two bag ladies (who could question their sincerity?) reciting the Agnus Dei ...
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Then, bringing up the end of the Communion line was a young African-American woman, probably a student, singing aloud beautifully by herself the Communion Hymn, "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee," beautifully. (Nobody else was singing: we have to remember Thomas Day's reminder that most Catholics these days can't seem to sing.) And then it happened: when she reached the priest, she dropped to her knees to receive Christ on her tongue.
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I was not a Catholic then, as I've said. That came some years later. I had no familiarity yet with these sorts of Catholic controversies about receiving Communion standing, in the hand, or kneeling, on the tongue, and so forth. But something in this gesture spoke a message that a thousand homilies couldn't deliver. It cut through all my defenses like a knife, to the depths of my soul. It was HIM! It was HE whom she was receiving there! And in that moment, without a doubt in my soul, I knew it. In my mind's eye, I had seen it, because it was made accessible to me through the incarnational, sacramental gesture of this young lady.

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What happened to PP that day, as he witnessed three ladies simply going about the business of worship at Mass? My answer would be that he experienced a moment of grace. Grace may be given without being apprehended, but we have all, I think, been granted moments in which it is apprehended, for reasons we do not understand, since we often lack even the rudimentary wit to recognize them for what they are.
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On the other hand, I’ve talked to people who insist that, at least for them, every moment is a grace-filled moment. They are constantly In Touch. But such has not been my experience. You may have talked to God this morning at breakfast, and He may have told you to spread the orange marmalade instead of the grape jelly on your morning muffin, and He may have advised you to turn down Main Street to avoid the traffic jam on Delaware, and He may have revealed to you that He finds the Veggie Tales ripping good yarns all, but I, apparently, have not achieved a similar degree of intimacy, for He tells me none of these things. In fact, in my experience, moments of grace such as PP’s stand out in wonderful relief against hours and days and even months of ordinary, humdrum, totally uninspired moments, both inside and outside of church. I am convinced that this is so for a great many people, devout Catholics among them.
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All I will say with certainty is that I am not bombarded with such moments. How do I know? Here’s my quick test. There is a daily Mass offered at noon at a church hardly five minutes from where I work. Do I go? Yes, once or twice a week. But the majority of days I don’t. Sometimes I go get a haircut. Sometimes I go to the bank. Sometimes I visit my stepdaughter. Sometimes I work through lunch. The gist of it is, I go to noon Mass when I don’t have anything else to do. What an incredible statement for a supposedly devout Catholic to make! Do I simply lack powers of discernment? If every moment is a moment of grace, why do I not rush to daily Mass every day? Why do I not pray a dozen rosaries, instead of one, or none? Nothing prevents me, except my own sense of priorities -- and what does that say about me, and others like me?
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Well, for one thing, it says that I am a sinner, that my perceptions are colored, and perhaps blinded, by creaturely predilections, and that I am not nearly as grand and as good as I would like to be, hope to be, and probably think I am. But for another, it bears out the final imprecation of Cardinal Merry de Val’s beautiful litany:
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That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
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Amid all the exhortations to become saints, to be washed in fountains of Christ’s blood, to be drowned in oceans of mercy, let it be remembered that the most any of us can achieve is to become “as holy as [we] should”. To attempt more than that, it seems to me, is to run the risk of falling into a self-consuming enthusiasm, the ultimate outcome of which is that we become our own gods, for no one is as good as we (or, perhaps, a self-consuming despair, for no one is as bad as we). For most of us, including, I fear, myself, moments of grace will be less constant, more sporadic; and descents of grace will be less like deluges, more like the gentlest of rain drops. I am weak, I am vulnerable, and whatever my pretensions, I am rather stupid. I am eminently qualified to be humble in all things. Where, more appropriately, than in my presumption of access to God’s mercy? St Faustina tells us that Jesus said, the greater the sinner, the greater the claim to His mercy. I get that. I rejoice in it. But sinners great and small must repent, with firm purpose of amendment, before they can stake that claim – no small matter to most of us – and this “fine print” of redemption is sometimes lost sight of. Something indeed has been lost in my understanding of Faustina’s private revelation if I begin to view Christ’s mercy not so much as a gift, which it obviously is, but rather as a kind of limitless Visa card: one view engenders gratitude, and the resolution to be more deserving; the other, irresponsibility, and a careless sense of entitlement.
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If outward forms can be inspirations for grace-filled moments, are they not worthy of consideration, especially by those for whom such moments are not often apprehended? Clarity of apprehension, issuing from continuity rather than change, tradition rather than innovation, natural inclination born of growth of understanding, rather than artificial choreography born of an urge to tinker, or to please others: it is in this sense that I would like to consider possible markers of grace-filled moments in the Mass.
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Consider the Sunday morning scene at the typical suburban parish in America. Talk about casual dining! Years ago a heroically obedient priest of the old school spoke one Sunday morning with uncharacteristic anger. The typically soft-spoken, “boring” homilist dared criticize those parishioners who received in the hand, and who every week “popped it [the Eucharist] in their mouths like a peanut!” No kneeling, barely a breaking of stride – such carelessness was clearly sickening to him. This priest is now gone -- the better for heaven, the worse for us. Likewise departed is the ability of many of us to even understand why he was so angry.
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Should we kneel? It is obvious, to me at least, that the proper stance for the reception of the Eucharist is on one’s knees. The gesture seems so natural and fitting and right that I scarcely know how to defend it. How does one “defend” breathing, or loving one’s children? How many works of art throughout the centuries depict Christ’s followers and disciples kneeling before Him? But there is one group to whom none of this appears to be obvious: the preponderance of American bishops of the late twentieth century. Over the past thirty-five years, they have sanctioned, even demanded, the ripping out of communion rails in hundreds of churches: senseless, arbitrary acts, reminiscent of nothing so much as the careening zeal of protestant radicals, who strove to denude “their” churches, and toss papist bric-a-brac into the flames . As a result of their efforts, kneeling to receive has come to be perceived as forbidden, or at least as a serious breach of decorum.
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Which, in a forlorn way, it is. Whether one receives standing or kneeling, self-effacement ought to be a natural part of our attitude. We are not there to draw attention to ourselves. To deliberately kneel to receive, when all others are standing, is to make oneself a distraction, however unintentionally. I find that I cannot do so without feeling that I have put myself in the place of the Pharisee of Luke 18, whose ostentatious observance of the law was so obnoxious to Jesus, especially when contrasted with the unassuming modesty of the publican. So, despite all my inclinations to the contrary, I remain standing. And as I ponder the young lady of PP’s anecdote, I wonder if I am altogether too timid for my own good.
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Here’s the irony: by defying the newly-imposed “tradition” of standing to receive, one’s natural piety is muddied by conflicting concerns and distractions at the very moment of reception; by observing the newly imposed “tradition” of standing, one must go against his natural intuition, validated by the practice of centuries, that kneeling is more fitting. Either way, one is not properly focused on the impending reception of Christ our Lord. Why should this be so? Why should what had been viewed for centuries as the most proper and fitting form of reception suddenly become so obnoxious to our leaders that they have seen fit to make it difficult, though not impossible, by doing violence to their own churches? On the USCCB website, only the following:
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The Conference of Bishops of the United States has determined that in this country Communion will be received standing and that a bow will be the act of reverence made by those receiving. These norms may require some adjustment on the part of those who have been used to other practices, however the significance of unity in posture and gesture as a symbol of our unity as members of the one body of Christ should be the governing factor in our own actions.
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One might think that the “significance of unity” would be duly represented by the procession (which must take place regardless), and, if anything, would be heightened by use of the communion rail. After all, what makes unity of action possible in a body is the subordination of its parts, and kneeling, not standing, is clearly a more appropriate “symbol” of subordination. So what is the attraction of standing? Why do it? I can think of only two explanations that actually explain.
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First, as a practical matter, kneeling conflicts with the contemporary ideal of reception of both species. Only slowly and awkwardly can the blood can be distributed to people kneeling at communion rails. The choreography is all wrong!
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And second (speaking of choreography), the spectacle of men and women kneeling before a priest, it may be feared, “sends the wrong message” to our non-Catholic brethren. Willingness to defer to error is thus made a virtue. The truly virtuous use of the liturgy, to encourage the faithful to humbly aspire to moments of grace, is thus jettisoned in favor of an “ecumenically correct” use of the liturgy, to assuage the ire of those who worship outside of the Church – a strange sort of zeal, this.
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Should we receive in the hand? I will do so on the day that someone proves to me that it is a more appropriate way to express our belief in the real presence than reception on the tongue. Whatever claims of authenticity may be made for it, common sense alone should tell us that our handling of the Eucharist, our oftentimes casual, if not brusque, familiarity with it, threatens to mitigate our belief in the real presence. As we repeatedly grasp it in our hands, pop it into our mouths, drop it, trample it, pick it up, smile uncomprehendingly, and watch others do the same with, well, insouciance, our recognition of the real presence – PP’s delighted “It was HIM!” – can only be coarsened and diminished.
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Of course, reception on the tongue is still allowed, technically, as the most appropriate method of reception. In America, though, it seems to me more accurate to say that it has been relegated to the same sort of old-and-in-the-way “pride of place” reserved for Gregorian chant (remember Gregorian chant?), and that only because a host may be placed on a tongue by an EMHC as well as by a priest. Clearly, reception in the hand predominates. After all, cogitates the modern man-child, does assimilation of the divine body of Christ into the body of His sin-corrupted creature have to be so darn icky? The quality of God’s mercy has probably never before been measured in terms of its ickiness.
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And so, the one indult which American bishops warmly support has become an instant “tradition”. Designer “tradition” is a rather murky concept, but the end result is clear enough. How many Catholics today, to the extent that they think about it at all, subscribe not to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, but to a fuzzy, protestant notion of symbolic representation?
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This is how life goes: things are all in a tangle. Then one day, there drops into this tangle of concupiscence and competing agendas a packet of grace -- the women of PP’s anecdote. By such angelic interventions are we heartened and set right (one wonders if the young communicant was taken aside after the Mass and “properly catechized”). PP’s moment of certainty, in all of its innocent spontaneity – the spontaneity of the child who delights in his sudden recognition of his father in a crowd of strangers -- is an experience toward which we all aspire. But more than experience and aspiration – it is the grace-filled moment by which we are heartened to become “as holy as we should”. For that reason alone, the external forms which contribute to the apprehension of such moments are indispensable. We cannot afford to lose them, whatever our non-Catholic brethren might think. Is it presumptuous to ask of our leaders that they help us in this regard? Not by granting us honorific titles and herding us into the sanctuary, but simply by letting us pray together, not as a corps of fellowshippy robots, but as members of the mystical body and the church militant.
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One more time, then, the plaintive cry of the traditionalist loon: (1) discontinue reception under both species – to receive the body and the blood is to receive nothing that is not complete and whole in the host, and is to create an artificial “need” for cadres of EMHCs (the most pathetic sight I will ever see at daily Mass is that of three EMHCs swooping up to the sanctuary to help the priest handle the “extraordinary” needs of a few dozen communicants); (2) discontinue reception in the hand; (3) restore communion rails; (4) place the Eucharist onto the tongues of congregants kneeling at those rails. Unreasonable? How so? Unworkable? Please tell me why. Inhospitable to the zeitgeist? Now we’re getting somewhere.
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This, I believe, is the two-fold challenge for those would join Benedict in “reforming the reform”: to adhere tenaciously to -- or reestablish, if necessary – those gestures which most effectively heighten the “outward form” of reverence, and to avoid dissipation of energy in transparent efforts to justify – to make excuses for – gestures which heighten communal self-esteem and, um, expressivity, but which also readily lend themselves to abuse. Pleading that these latter gestures be performed with an itty-bit more awareness hardly qualifies as a lofty goal.
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Friends assure me that the tide has indeed turned, and “reverence” is making a comeback. I hope they’re right. But I’ll keep the champagne corked a bit longer – maybe till communion rails make a comeback.

7 comments:

Dr. Zoidberg said...

To cut straight to the point when discussing this matter with someone who thinks receiving standing and in the hand are good and acceptable means, focus on the Real Presence: If Christ appeared before you, what would your posture be? Would you reach out, grab his hand and shake it? Or would you fall to your knees?

I think it also works for appropriate attire.

Jeff said...

Dr. Zoidberg:

I think kneeling is the appropriate posture for us; I do it at my indult parish and I would encourage it. I'd celebrate if the rule was that we all had to kneel. And I do believe that many of the people who push for standing do it for bad reasons.

BUT...

Remember that Easterners receive standing.

I can't find any justification for receiving in the hand, however.

Ginny said...

Ralph
Bravo!! Very well said, and so obviously true! The only way is on our knees and even that we are so unworthy.

Br. Alexis Bugnolo said...

Jeff,

But, the Easterners stand because in the East the public civil custom was to stand in the presence of an official of, or the Emperor himself. This tradition was taken into the Church and approved by an Ecumenical Council. However, at the same time, though receving standing, the custom was to prostrate 7 times upon the ground, and then stand to receive, in the mouth, and by intinction: becasue in the Eastern rites leven bread is used; after the Consecration the Body of the Lord is cut into cubes and these are poured into the Chalice. Blood and Wine mixed together to signify the Risen Lord. The Communion is then received in the mouth, the priest distributes it not with his hands, but with a spoon, while the servers hold a cloth beneath the mouth and spoon, and between priest and communicant. So there is no basis for making any parallel with those westerners who receive in the hand and standing.

But in the West, after the fall of the Empire, this civil custom no longer was the context for liturgy. Catholics there were free to replace it with the more theologically sound posture of kneeling, which in Sacred Scripture is reserved for adoration of the Deity alone. This is also possibile because in the West Communion is received normally by means of the species of bread alone; and thus the communicant can be in a much lower position that when intinction is used.


As for those who read this blog and who either always or at times attend a Novus Ordo service. I challenge you to become witnesses of the Faith, by always receiving on the tongue and kneeling, regardless of what country your are in. The Church is in much need of the sacrifice of such personal testimony.

I know individuals of the Latin Rite who promised Jesus to do this every time they communicated, and in a few years recevied the grace to return to the Ancient Roman Rite. It is a powerful and very meritorious work of truth.

CPT Tom said...

I have received on the tounge since I first received communion 36 years ago as a child. None of the arguments for receiving in the hand have ever made sense to me, or they sound like so much prideful justification. Kneeling at reception is a different story. I never realized, having been an ignorant pew peasant until recently, that VII hadn't banished this practice. Where I grew up it was just not done.

Several years ago, I went to an older church that actualy still had it's altar rail, and still gave communion at the rail. I found it to be more natural and reverent than standing AND it was a whole lot faster. One priest and a deacon handled a church of about 2000 people with ease. Today, my parish "struggles" to handle a couple of hundred people with an Army of EMs.

And if Christ appeared before me, Himself, I a lowly sinner would probably prostrate myself out of respect and shock. As a sinner, do not feel worthy to be at his level.

"Manos" said...

Your comment regarding recieving the Precious Blood kneeling reminded me of something I saw recently.

Easter Sunday, my wife and I attended a NO at Good Sheperd in Columbia, South Carolina. This is one of two parishes I know of outside of Texas where the Anglican Use is authorized. The majority of the parishoners are former Episcopalians, but the mass we attended was a 1970 missal NO. The priest said mass facing the altar, and, when communion time came around, the altar boys (middle aged men, in fact,) put up the connector on the rail, and communicants first recieved the Body, then the Blood, as the priest made two trips down the rail for each "set" of communicants.

I had never seen the Precious Blood distrubuted kneeling in a Catholic Church,and I was reminded that this is the comon practice of the Episcopalians.

Most of the congregation recieved. All recieved kneeling. Most recieved the Host in the hand (again, the Epsicopal practice.) Most recieved the chalice. Those who only recieved the Host absenced themselves when the priest moved to put down the ciborium (as did I and my wife.)

Fr. Richard Libby said...

I disagree (respectfully) with your concern that you would cause a distraction by kneeling. It's no one else's business whether you kneel or stand to receive Holy Communion. If you distract someone else, that's his problem, not yours.

In a previous assignment, I had a parishioner who knelt to receive Holy Communion every Sunday. It didn't cause any distraction or delay.