Chapter II. Of our General Preparation to the Worthy Reception of the Blessed Sacrament,
and the Participation of the Mysteries.
IN all the Scriptures of the New Testament, there are no words of particular duty relating to the blessed sacrament, and expressing the manner of our address to the mysteries, but those few words of St. Paula, "Let a man examine himself; and so let him eat." The apostle expresses one duty, and intimates another. The duty of preparation is expressed; but because this is a relative duty, and is not for itself, but for something beyond,--he implies the other to be the great duty, to which this preparation does but minister. 1. A man must examine himself. 2. And a man must eat. A man must not eat of these mysteries, till he be examined; for that were dangerous, and may prove fatal: but when a man is examined, he must eat; for else that examination were to no purpose.
Section I. Of Examination of ourselves in order to the Holy Communion.
THERE is no duty in Christianity, that is partly solemn and partly moral, that hath in it more solemnity and more morality than this one duty; and, in the greatest declension of religion, still men have fear, when they come to receive this holy sacrament. They that have no religion, will fear, when they come to die: and they who have but a little, will fear when they come to communicate. But although men who believe this to be the greatest secret and sacredness of our religion, do more in their addresses to this than to any thing else,--yet many of them, that do come, consider that they are only commanded to examine themselves; and that, according to the ordinary methods, is easily done. It is nothing but asking ourselves a few questions: 'Do I believe? Do I repent? And am I in charity?' To these the answers are ready enough: 'I do believe that Christ gave his body and blood for me, as for all mankind! and that Christ is mystically present in the sacrament! I have been taught so all my life, and I have no reason to doubt it. 2. I do also repent according to the measures I am taught: I am sorry I have sinned, I wish I had not done it; and I promise to do so no more; and this I do constantly before every communion, and before the next comes, I have reason enough to renew my vows; I was never so good as my word yet, but now I will. 3. I am also in charity with all the world; and against this good time, I pray to God to forgive them; for I do.' This is the usual examination of consciences; to which we add a fasting day; and on that we say more prayers than usual, and read some good discourses of the sacrament; and then we are dressed like the friends of the bridegroom, and with confidence come to the marriage-supper of the Lamb. But this examination hath, itself, need to be examined. Noah laboured a hundred years together, in making the ark, that he and a few more might be saved: and can we think, in an hour, to prepare our souls for the entertainment of him, that made all the world? This will very hardly be done: for although our duty of preparation is contained in this one word of 'Try,' or 'Examine,' it being after the manner of mysteries, mysteriously and secretly described,--yet there is great reason to believe, that there is in it very much duty; and, therefore, we search into the secret of the word, and to what purposes it is used in the New Testament.
1. It signifies to try and search, to enter into the depths and secrets, the varieties and separations, and divisibilities of things. The word is taken from the triers of gold which is tried by the touchstone, and, in great cases, is tried by the fire. And, in this sense, St. Paul might relate to the present condition of the Christians, who where often under a fiery trial. For the holy communion being used by the primitive Christians, according to its intention, was, indeed, a great consolation to the martyrs and confessors, as appears often in St. Cyprian. And this blessing and design was mystically represented to the church in the circumstance of the institution, it being done immediately before the passion: they who where to pass through this fiery trial, ought to examine themselves against this solemnity, in order to that last trial, and see whether or no they were vessels of sanctification and honour; for none else were fit to communicate, but they also that were fit to die; Christ would give himself to none but to them who are ready to give themselves for him; according to that saying of Christ, "If any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and sup with him, and he with me. To him that overcometh, will I grant to sit with me," &c. That is, "those, who are tried by the experiments of great love, and a great patience, that out of love are willing to suffer, and with patience do suffer unto the end;--these are the guests at my heavenly table: "for labour and affrightment put a price c upon the martyr's crown, while his virtue grows in danger, and like the water-plants ever grow higher than the floods. Now the use that we can make of this sense of the word, is, that we also are to examine what we are likely to be, or what we have been, in the day of persecution; how we have passed through the fire. Did we contract the smell of fire, or the pollution of smoke? Or are we improved by the purification of the discerning flames? Did we do our duties then, and then learn to do them better? Or did we then, only, like glass, bend in all the flexures and mobilities of the flame, and then mingle with the ashes, incorporating with the interests and foulest pollutions of the world? Or were we like gold, patient of the hammer, and approved by the stone of trial? Like gold in the fire, did we untwist ourselves from all complications and mixtures with impurer dross? Certain it is, that by persecution and by money, men are, in all capacities and relations, best examined how they are in their religion and their justice.
Sometimes God tries his friends as we try one another, by the infelicities of our lives; when we are unhappy in our affliction, if we be not unhappy in our friend too, he is a right good one; and God will esteem of us so, if we can say with David, "Though thou hast smitten us into the place of dragons, yet have we not forgotten thee; "and "my soul is alway in my hand,"--that is, I am always in danger and trouble, and I bear death about me, "yet do I not forsake thy commandments."--This, indeed, is God's way of examination of us; but that is all one; for we must examine ourselves here in order to our duty and state of being, as God will examine us hereafter, in order to what we have been and done. And there is no greater testimony of our being fit to receive Christ, than when we are ready to die for him. But this is a final trial; we must have some steps of progression, before we come thus far.
2. There is a way something less than this. Lycurgus instituted among the Spartans, that the princes, the magistrates, the soldiers, and every citizen that was capable of dignity, should be tried h; they examined their lives whether they had lived according to the rate of their employment or pretension:--and those who were so examined, were called 'tried and examined men; 'and if they were persons quitting themselves like men, they were inscribed in the number of the good citizens. That is our way to try whether we be instructed and rightly prepared to this good work, and that is, to be examined by a course and order of good works; that was the old and true way of examining.
For examination is but a relative duty, and nothing of itself; for no man is the better for being examined, if, being examined, there follows nothing after it. He that is examined, either must be approved; or else, in St. Paul's phrase, he is adokimoV, 'a reprobate.' And to what purpose is it, that every man should examine himself, but, in case that he find himself unfit, to abstain and forbear to come? For if he comes unworthy, he dies for it; and, therefore, to 'examine' must signify, 'let every man examine himself, so that he be approved:'--and so the word is used by St. Paul, happy is he that doth not condemn himself "in that which he approveth." The word signifies both to examine and to prove; that is indeed to examine as wise men should; dokimasaV anti tou krinaV, saith Suidas; it is all one as to judge righteous judgement after due examination; and that is expressly added by the apostle, in the same chapter, after the precept of examination, "Judge yourselves, that ye be not judged of the Lord;" that is, 'your examination of yourselves will prevent the horrors of the eternal scrutiny; your condemnation of your sins will prevent God's condemnation of you for them; and then, when you examine so as to judge, and so condemn your sins that you approve yourselves to God and your own consciences,--then you have examined rightly.'
The sense then is this: let a man examine and prove himself, whether he be fit to come to the holy communion, and so let him eat; not so, if, upon examination, he be found unfit: but because it is intended he should come, and yet must not come without due and just preparations, let him who comes to the holy communion, be sure that he worthily prepare himself.
These then are the great inquiries: 1. How a man shall so examine himself, as to know whether he be fit or no. 2. What are those necessary dispositions, without which a man cannot be worthily prepared. The first will represent the general rules of preparation. The second inquiry will consider the more particular.