My morning routine is pretty simple. I rise early enough to pray before my wife and kids are up and ready to conduct an orchestra of clamor on a once quiet household. Typically, my approach to shaking the early morning daze that accompanies me in prayer is a stout cup of coffee and Lauds. Once a week, I like to divert from this well tread path and read from a Spiritual classic. Of late the sermons of Johannes Tauler, the Fourteenth Century German Dominican Priest and Mystic, has been my reading of choice. Tauler was an intellectual descendant of the great mystic Meister Eckhart, but his ministry seemed more geared towards where the rubber of theology meets the road of daily life. This is why I find him to be such a profound preacher. His sermons transcend culture and time and cut straight to the heart of human nature.
This sermon was on a feast of Corpus Christi, and considered the inner movements that plague us as we participate in the most Holy Sacrament. While reading, it was illuminating what we have lost– even within the church– with the Freudian revolution. Our ancestors were well aware of the inner workings of the human mind and related behavior long before it became an academic discipline. What is now called psychology was more crudely (to modern standards) referred to as spirituality, but even this term is imprecise in our vernacular because it beckons dime store visions of palm readers and new age gurus, like Oprah, peddling diluted Christian self-help one-liners with a strong pagan finish. No, to call these works spiritual– or even psychological– is to sell his canon of work short from the havoc wrought to our language by a consumerist culture accustomed to the adage “push a button and get a prize.” Tauler speaks to the whole person, eternally indebted to the salvific actions of an ever merciful Father, and teaches him how to fully repent from the inside out. Man today operates as a one dimensional shadow of these previous generations. Today we need this ancient wisdom more than ever.
“For My flesh is meat Indeed, and My blood is drink indeed.” — John 6:56.
Yesterday I spoke of the dignity of the holy Sacrament (though, indeed, no one can worthily do so) ; of its benefits; and finally of the preparation we should make to receive it. If this be too high for us, yet the words of St. Thomas, which I quoted, in some measure aid us — that all the glory, grace and happiness that our Lord Jesus Christ brought to the world with His humanity, living, suffering, dead, risen again and ascending into heaven, that all of this He bestows on every single man with His holy body and blood. There is no imaginable grace not embraced in this divine gift. Think as deep or as high or as interior as you may in your devotions, whatever you frame by your own powers is all nothing compared to the holy Sacrament. Other devotions may be indeed divine, but this one is the divinity itself. Here the illuminated man is changed into God, as St. Augustine was taught by our Lord: “Not I into thee, but thou into Me.”
What is your pious purpose? Will you overcome your failings, win grace, acquire virtue, consolation, love? You shalt find all here, if you seek rightly. If a man had lived a hundred years, and had committed a hundred mortal sins every day, and if God should but give him a true conversion from sin, and if with that disposition he should go to holy Communion, then it would be but a little thing for our Lord to forgive him all his sins in the twinkling of an eye with this blessed gift of the Sacrament — as easy as to blow a grain of dust from off His hand. Yes, and the conversion thus wrought could be so efficacious that every penalty and penance due to the man’s sins should be at once remitted, and he should be made entirely holy.
In the city of Cologne there is a good custom of receiving the blessed Sacrament quite often, but it is done with much difference of dispositions. Some receive it sacramentally, indeed, but not spiritually nor happily, and these do so in a state of mortal sin, as did Judas. Others receive it both sacramentally and spiritually in their souls, and yet gain little comfort, grace or fruit, for they are stained with many venial sins, and communicate without preparation and without devotion. A third class receive it with great and holy fruit and incalculable advantage to their souls. A fourth class receive it spiritually without actual sacramental communion — good and clean hearted souls full of holy desires for Communion, more so, perhaps than those who receive sacramentally. One may do that a hundred times a day, if he is a good man, and in any place, be he sick or well, whereas once a day is all he could receive it sacramentally. This spiritual Communion, if made with deep desire, secures incalculable fruit of divine grace. Many a man, receiving this Sacrament in his soul, will enjoy it in life eternal — supposing him to be free from grave sin. But not so if the priceless treasures of holy Communion are to him not in the depths of his soul, but are matters of outward observance, his life meanwhile being lukewarm, being full of venial sins, and graceless. Then is the soul cold and barren and grace inoperative, on account of these hindrances.
What then are the hindrances which do men such a harm, preventing this treasury of the riches of earth and heaven from benefiting them? — a misery that we daily behold around us. Mark well that it is all venial sin daily committed. This it is that cools the warmth of love, dissipates the heart’s affections, lessens devotion, expels the consolation of the Holy Ghost, and makes God a strange thing to the soul. Venial sins do not destroy the grace of God, but this harm they do: they lay the soul open to dangerous occasions of losing His grace and to perilous tendencies to mortal sin. And these sins are of two kinds.
One kind of venial sin is obstinate and continued yielding to affection for created things — affection that has not God for its motive. Love for creatures for their own sake, satisfaction in their possession and joy in them, hinder the effects of Communion. Children, all sensible pleasures in created things enjoyed wholly apart from God are venial sins ; and these sometimes are so gross that ten years and more of the fires of purgatory will not atone for them, if one dies without having done proper penance. Of course this means that such affection for creatures is for their own sake, whereby they usurp the place of God in our heart, hindering His supremacy and His action there. Hence the need of closely observing our interior life, marking all disorderly inclinations and joys, watching our self-satisfaction in what we have or what we do.
Ah, children, how sad a state of transgression is this. And how commonly do we meet men in all states of life, eagerly gathering together all they can of this world’s goods, going beyond all measure. No one has enough, everyone is planning to get more. They build great houses, adorn them foolishly and furnish them with rare
things, consulting only their worldly taste, amassing silver table service, rich bodily ornaments, and then luxuriously feasting. Pleasure is their universal aim, and venial sins are their regular habit. Their only pain is that they have so little of what they covet. They run after company and recreations and all sorts of frivolity, neither seeking God nor thinking of Him, and of course never finding Him. Ah, children, how close are these to mortal sin and its pitiable ruin. Ere they think of it they fall into it and are sunk into its depths.
Venial sins, therefore, dear children, are the standard obstacles that prevent men from receiving the graces of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet amid all this each one has his own particular devotions, meantime refusing to give up his dangerous practices. In Communion they feel neither God’s presence nor enjoy His consolation.
They leave that on one side, clinging to their own consolation, namely, the love of the creature. And yet sometimes they spend forty of fifty years with a show of spirituality. They do not realize what their state is, but it is a serious question as to whether or not they are saved; for to the very end their hearts are entangled with created things. And they are full of excuses: I must have such and such a thing, they say; or, that will do me no harm; and again: this is not sinful. They thus create their own hindrances to grace, until the evil goes so far that they have no conscience left about it. These powerful obstacles are built up like a wall against the action of God upon the soul. And yet the soul is often unconscious of them. Such a soul may do what it pleases to better its condition : so long as it is filled with the love of created things, so long does God turn away from it.
Besides this first kind of obstacles, namely, wilful venial sins, there is the other kind yet to consider. These are venial sins of weakness. There are men who are by no means enslaved by love of created things, who are ever ready to renounce what they are made aware is not according to God, whether it be affection for friends or for the goods of this life, and who are nevertheless not careful enough. They are not sufficiently guarded against their natural weaknesses. They do not readily enough repress anger, or it may be pride, sloth, frivolous talk. Nor do they search earnestly after the causes of these defects, such as excessive talk, excessive mirth, lack of restraint of appetite at table, too great absorption in worldly occupations. If such venial sins are due to ill health, or happen in moments of forgetfulness, the obstacle to grace is less serious than when they are more deliberate.
If these faults occur the day itself of Communion or the day before, the harm is all the greater, hindering union with God, distracting the mind, weakening confidence, making the soul unresponsive to the light and the sweetness of the Sacrament. If the faults were done yesterday and without wilfulness, and I sincerely deplore them today at my Communion, they do not hurt me so much as if they happened today, for the bitterness of my sorrow cleanses off the rust of my transgressions, at least in great part. It is different when one frivolously yields to distractions the very day of Communion, chats and gossips freely, is over occupied with secular affairs; this adds obstacle to obstacle and is a serious harm. But yet in such a case one should not omit his Communion, for he does not sin in receiving, and his weakness is a matter of regret to him.
Nature, again, puts an obstacle to grace by yielding to excessive sleep or eating. One should hardly eat a mouthful without questioning his soul about excess. Children, the soul into which God shall enter by holy Communion must be entirely detached, or the divine influence, the divine generosity, is hindered in its secret work. But if honest self denying men are dull and sleepy against their will, nature demanding much more rest than they like to yield, in such case they need not struggle against it.
Again, there are hindrances of a hidden kind which beset spiritual men. These are spiritual self-seeking, indulgence in sensible consolations and in devotional feelings. Some, if they do not experience these emotions, will not receive Communion. They unconsciously crave for something besides God. But God often intervenes and draws these men to Him forcibly by outward painful visitations, and so violently that it seems as if He were striking them with a sledge hammer. Or, perhaps, inwardly He cures them by an anguish so dreadful that it is like the agony of hell. And if they are not thus visited, then will their purgatory be dreadful hereafter. They too often remain to the end of their days thus imperfectly disposed. Others are good souls who are full of blind fear. If they do not feel a veritable fire of love within them or experience some great movement of God, they abstain from Communion, even though they are not aware of any real reason for it. And so they remain, making no progress.
But the ones who best receive the blessed fruit of the holy Sacrament, are they whose souls are cleansed of all sin and whose intention is wholly pure, who rest entirely upon God’s mercy. To them it is all one if God gives or takes; they trust Him ever the same in abundance or in want. In holy Communion God is born in them and they are born in God. If they find any obstacle to God’s grace, whether it be in their inner or their outer life, they are not distressed; they instantly reject and turn away from it. They recognize God’s will in everything. They dwell upon Him and not upon His gifts — upon His very self alone. All that they have they accept from Him, and to Him they refer it all back again. Marvelously does the holy Sacrament do its work in men like these, flooding their souls with blessed light, and giving them the shortest road to perfection. A man may reach such an earnestness of devotion in communicating, that if he were to depart this life immediately afterwards, instead of attaining to the lowest choir of the blessed — to which he was destined — he would by this Communion be granted entrance into the second, perhaps into the third or fourth choir. Nay, by frequent Communion in such dispositions he would be made worthy of the highest choir, surpassing the seraphs and all the angelic natures. But of this he must not think, nor desire any such lot, but only long to do the blessed will of God and advance His honor.
The miracles of grace wrought by this Sacrament in a truly mortified spirit, are beyond the comprehension of angels, for it is now elevated above itself, drawn into God in its interior life, and closely united to Him. And if it happens that such a man is unable to receive Communion, he humbly resigns himself; he daily communicates spiritually, and this he does whether he can hear Mass or not. Ah, children, what wonders of grace will not God work within us if we will but be converted sincerely to Him. We shall find all good things in His Sacrament, and heaven will be established in our souls. But, alas, we do not do our part. Dissipation of mind goes beyond all limits. We may go to a sermon and hear its lessons — and presently we forget all about it — wandering about from one preacher to another, like silly women, unstable of mind, today glad and tomorrow sorrowful.
I have been in a certain country, where the people are so manly and turn to God so earnestly and steadfastly, that the word of God produces more practical fruit among them in one year than here in Cologne in ten. There among that lovely people do we see marvels of divine grace. Some countries breed only effeminate characters: no matter what one may do for them, nothing comes of it. You do not find it pleasant to hear such things said about you ; but, children, we must become men. We must make a free and vigorous start away from created things, and go forward to God. We must have God in mind in all our life as the final end — God, and not creatures. We must live in Him, not in self nor in creatures. How lamentable it is that the blessed grace of God is ignored among us: it is enough to break one’s heart to think of it. Alas, even in many convents, it is what is the latest news that interests souls, filling them with foolish thoughts. There are those, to be sure, who gladly hear about divine things, but the others condemn them for it. Children, depart from them, and have nothing to do with their pretended piety. Hide yourselves away and wait upon the will of God. When that appears, follow it faithfully.
And if you are seeking to know the divine will, let me give you some good advice. When the question comes as to doing or not doing, then enter into yourself and earnestly consider. And bear in mind that the safest course is to choose what is most opposed to nature. Whatever nature is fondest of, that is the most unsafe. The more you live in nature and in its pleasure, the less do you live in God and in His will. The less of nature, the more of God. The more you live in the Spirit, the less you live in nature.
Such is my teaching about this Holy Sacrament. It is but a small part of what one should say of its worth and its holiness. It is God’s honor, it is the joy of the blessed, it is the reformation of mankind, the conversion of sinners, the release of souls from purgatory. It is related that once a friend of God had a vision. A soul appeared to him clothed in a burning flame, and said to him: “These intolerable pains, the agony of which words cannot tell, I suffer in punishment for having received the blessed Sacrament of our Lord Jesus Christ without due preparation.” And the soul then added: “If thou wilt receive our Lord’s body and blood once for me that will help me.” The good man did this, and the next day the soul appeared to him again shining as bright as the sun; it announced that it had been freed from all its unbearable pains and taken up into eternal happiness. May God grant us thus to receive holy Communion, and to live a life in accordance with its graces.