Chapter V. Of Repentance, Preparatory to the Blessed Sacrament. Section IV. How far we must have proceeded in our general Repentance, and Emendation of our Lives, before we communicate.
To this I answer, that 'no man is fit to communicate, but he that is fit to die;' that is, he must be in the state of grace, and he must have trimmed his lamp; he must stand readily prepared by a state of repentance; and against a solemn time, he must make that state more actual, and his graces operative.
Now, in order to this, it is to be considered, that preparation to death hath great latitude: and not only he is fit to die, who hath attained to the fulness of the stature of Christ, to a perfect man in Christ Jesus, but every one who hath renounced his sin with heartiness and sincerity, and hath begun to mortify it. But, in these cases of beginning, or of infancy in Christ, though it be certain that every one who is a new creature, though but newly become so, is born of God, and hath life abiding in him, and, therefore, shall not pass into condemnation,--yet concerning such persons, the rulers of souls, and ministers of sacraments, have nothing but a judgment of charity, and the sentences of hope relating to the persons; the state is so little, and so allayed, and so near to the late state of death from which they are recovering, that God only knows how things are with them; yet, because we know that there is a beginning, in which new converts are truly reconciled, there is a first period of life; and as we cannot say in many cases that 'this is it,' so in many we cannot say, 'this is not;' therefore the church hopes well of persons, that die in their early progressions of piety; and, consequently, refuses not to give to them these divine mysteries. Whoever are reconciled to God, may be reconciled to the church, whose office it is only to declare the divine sentence, and to administer it, and to help towards the verification of it.
But because the church cannot be surer of any person that his sins are pardoned, that he is reconciled to God, that he is in the state of grace, that if he then dies he shall be saved, than a man himself can be of himself, and in his own case, which certainly he knows better than any man else;--and that our degree of hope and confidence of being saved, when it is not presumption, but is prudent and reasonable, does increase in proportion to our having well used and improved God's grace, and enlarges itself by our proportions of modification and spiritual life; and every man that is wise and prudent, abides in fears and uncertain thoughts, till he hath gotten a certain victory over all his sins; and though he dies in hope, yet not without trembling, till he finds that he is more than conqueror;--therefore, in proportion to this address to death, must also be our address to the holy sacrament. For no man is fit to die, but he that can be united unto Christ; and he only that can be so, must be admitted to a participation of his body and his blood. It is the same case; in both we dwell with Christ; and the two states differ but in degrees; it is but a passing from altar to altar, from that where the minister of the church officiates, to that where the head of the church does intercede.
There is this only difference; there may be some proportions of haste to the sacrament, more than unto death, upon this account,--because the reception of the sacrament, in worthy dispositions, does increase those excellencies in which death ought to find us: and, therefore, we may desire to communicate, because we perceive a want of grace: and yet, for the same reason, we may at the same time be afraid to die, because after that we can receive no more; but, as that finds us, we shall abide for ever. But he that fears justly, may yet, in many cases, die safely; and he shall find, that his fears, when he was alive, were useful to the caution, and zeal, and hastiness of repentance; but were no certain indication, that God was not reconciled unto him. The best and severest persons do, in the greatest parts of their spiritual life, complain of their imperfect state, and feel the load of their sins, and apprehend with trembling the sad consequents of their sins, and every day contend against them; and forget all that is past of good actions done, and press forwards still to more grace, and are as hungry as if they had none at all. And those men, if they die, go to Christ, and shall reign with him for ever; and yet many of them go with a trembling heart,--and though, considering the infinite obliquity of them, they cannot overvalue their sins; yet considering the infinite goodness of God, and his readiness to accept it, they undervalue their repentance, and are safe in their humility, and in God's goodness, when, in many other regards, they think themselves very unsafe. Now, such men as these must not be as much afraid to communicate, as they are afraid to die; but these, and all men else, must not communicate till they be in that condition, that if they did die, it would go well with them: and the reason is plain, because every friend of God, dying so, is certainly saved; and he that is no friend of God, is unworthy to partake of the table of the Lord.
But, for the reducing the answer of this question to practice, and to particular considerations: I am to advise these things:--
1. Because no man of an ordinary life, and a newly begun repentance, ought hastily to pronounce himself acquitted, and in the state of grace, and in the state of salvation, in this rule of proportion; we are only to take the judgment of charity, not of certainty; and what is usually by wise and good men supposed to be the certain, though the least measure of hopeful expectations in order to death,--that we must suppose also to be our least measure of repentance preparatory to the blessed sacrament.
2. This measure must not be taken in the days of health and carelessness; but when we are either actually in apprehension, or at least in deep meditation of death; when it is dressed with all such terrors and material considerations, that it looks like the king of terrors, and at least makes our spirits full of fear and of sobriety.
3. This measure must be carefully taken without the allay of foolish principles, or a careless spirit, or extravagant confidences of personal predestination, or of being in any sect; but with the common measures which Christians take, when they weigh sadly their sins, and their fears of the divine displeasure; let them take such proportions, which considering men rely upon when they indeed come to die; for few sober men die upon such wild accounts as they rely upon in talk and interest, when they are alive. He that prepares himself to death, considers how deeply God hath been displeased, and what hath been done towards a reconciliation; and he that can probably hope, by the usual measures of the Gospel, that he is in probability of pardon, hath by that learnt by what measures he must prepare himself to the holy sacrament.
4. Some persons are of a timorous conscience, and apt to irregular and unreasonable fears, and nothing' but a single ray from heaven can give them any portions of comfort: and these men never trust to any thing they do, or any thing that is done for them; and fear by no other measures, but by consideration of the intolerable misery, which they should suffer, if they did miscarry. And because these men can speak nothing, and think nothing comfortable of themselves in that agony, or in that meditation, therefore they can make use of this rule by the proportions of that judgment of charity, which themselves make of others; and in what cases, and in what dispositions, they conclude others to die in the Lord; if they take those, or the like measures for themselves, and, accordingly, in those dispositions address themselves to the holy sacrament, they will make that use of this rule which is intended, and which may do them benefit.
5. As there are great varieties and degrees of fitness to death, so also to the holy sacrament: he that hath lived best, hath enough to deplore when he dies, and causes enough to beg for pardon of what is past, and for aids in the present need; and when he does communicate, he hath in some proportion the same too; he hath causes enough to come humbly, to come as did the publican, and to say, as did the centurion, 'Lord, I am not worthy.' But he that may die with most confidence, because he is in the best dispositions, he may also communicate with most comfort, because he does it with most holiness.
6. But the least measures of repentance, less than which cannot dispose us to the worthy reception of the holy mysteries, are these.
1. As soon as we are smitten with the terrors of an afflicted conscience, and apprehend the evil of sin, or fear the divine judgments; and upon that account resolve to leave our sin, we are not instantly worthy and fit to communicate. Attrition is not a competent disposition to the blessed sacrament; because although it may be the gate and entrance of a spiritual life, yet it can be no more unless there be love in it; unless it be contrition, it is not a state of favour and grace, but a disposition to it. He that does not yet love God, cannot communicate with Christ; and he that resolves against sin out of fear only or temporal regards, hath given too great testimony that he loves the sin still, and will return to it, when that which hinders him, shall be removed. Faith working by charity is the wedding-garment; and he that comes hither not vested with this, shall be cast into outer darkness. But the words of St. Paul are express as to this particular; "In Christ Jesus, nothing can avail, but faith working by love;" and, therefore, without this the sacrament itself will do no good; and if it does no good, it cannot be but it will do harm. Our repentance, disposing us to this divine feast, must, at least, be contrition, or a sorrow for sins, and purposes to leave them, by reason of the love of God working in our hearts.
2. But because no man can tell, whether he hath the love of God in him, but by the proper effect of love, which is keeping the commandments; no man must approach to the holy sacrament upon the account of his mere resolution to leave sin: until he hath broken the habit, until he hath cast away his fetters, until he be at liberty from sin, and hath shaken off its laws and dominion, so that he can see his love to God entering upon the ruins of sin, and perceive that God's Spirit hath advanced his sceptre, by the declension of the sin that dwelt within,--till then he may do well to stand in the outward courts, lest, by a too hasty entrance into the sanctuary, he carry along with him 'the abominable thing,' and bring away from thence the intolerable sentence of condemnation. A man cannot rightly judge of his love to God, by his acts and transports of fancy, or the emanations of a warm passion; but by real events and changes of the heart. The reason is plain, because every man hath first loved sin, and obeyed it: and until that obedience be changed, that first love remains, and that is absolutely inconsistent with the love of God. An act of love, that is, a loving ejaculation, a short prayer affirming and professing love, is a very unsure warrant for any man to conclude, that his repentance is, indeed, contrition; for wicked persons may, in their good intervals, have such sudden fires; and all men that are taught to understand contrition to be a sorrow for sins, proceeding from the love of God, and that love of God to be sufficiently signified by single acts of loving prayer, can easily, by such forms and ready exercises, fancy and conclude themselves in a very good condition, at an easy rate. But contrition is therefore necessary, because attrition can be but the one half of repentance: it can turn us away from sin, but it cannot convert us unto God; that must be clone by love; and that love, especially in this case, is manifestly nothing else but obedience; and until that obedience be evident and discernible, we cannot pronounce any comfort concerning our state of love; without which, no man can see God, and no man can taste him or feel him without it.
3. A single act of obedience in the instance of any kind, where the scene of repentance lies, is not a sufficient preparation to the holy sacrament, nor demonstration of our contrition: unless it be in the case of repentance only for single acts of sin. In this case to oppose a good to an evil, an act of proportionable abstinence to a single act of intemperance, for which we are really sorrowful, and (as we suppose) heartily troubled and confess it, and pray for pardon,--may be admitted as a competent testimonial, that this sorrow is real, and this repentance is contrition; because it does as much for virtue, as in the instance it did for vice: always provided, that whatsoever aggravations or accidental grandeurs were in the sin, as scandal, deliberation, malice, mischief, hardness, delight, or obstinacy,--be also proportionably accounted for in the reckonings of the repentance. But if the penitent return from a habit or state of sin, he will find it a harder work to quit all his old affection to sin, and to place it upon God entirely, and, therefore, he must stay for more arguments than one, or a few single acts of grace; not only because a few may proceed from many causes accidentally, and not from the love of God; but also because his love and habitual desires of sin must be naturally extinguished by many contrary acts of virtue; and till these do enter, the old love does naturally abide. It is true, that sin is extinguished, not only by the natural force of the contrary actions of virtue, but by the Spirit of God, by aids from heaven, and powers supernatural; and God's love hastens our pardon and acceptation; yet still, this is done by parts and methods of natural progression, after the manner of nature, though by the aids of God; and, therefore, it is fit that we expect the changes, and make our judgment by material events, and discerned mutations, before we communicate in these mysteries, in which whoever unworthily does communicate, enters into death.
4. He that hath resolved against all sin, and yet falls into it regularly at the next temptation, is yet in a state of evil, and unworthiness to communicate; because he is under the dominion of sin, he obeys it, though unwillingly; that is, he grumbles at his fetters, but still he is in slavery and bondage. But if, having resolved against all sin, he delights in none, deliberately chooses none, is not so often surprised, grows stronger in grace, and is mistaken but seldom, and repents when he is, and arms himself better, and watches more carefully against all, and increases still in knowledge;--whatever imperfection is still adherent to the man unwillingly, does indeed allay his condition, and is fit to humble and cast him down; but it does not make him unworthy to communicate, because he is in the state of grace; he is in the Christian warfare, and is on God's side: and the holy sacrament, if it have any effect at all, is certainly an instrument or a sign in the hands of God to help his servants, to enlarge his grace, to give more strengths, and to promote them to perfection.
5. But the sum of all is this: he that is not freed from the dominion of sin, he that is not really a subject of the kingdom of grace, he in whose mortal body sin does reign, and the Spirit of God does not reign,--must, at no hand, present himself before the holy table of the Lord: because, whatever dispositions and alterations he may begin to have in order to pardon and holiness, he as yet hath neither, but is God's enemy, and, therefore, cannot receive his holy Son.
6. But because the change is made by parts and effected by the measures of other intellectual and spiritual changes, that is, after the manner of men, from imperfection to perfection by all the intermedial steps of moral degrees, and good and evil, in some periods, have but a little distance, though they should have a great deal; and it is, at first, very hard to know whether it be life or death; and after that, it is still very difficult to know whether it be health or sickness: and dead men cannot eat, and sick men scarce can eat with benefit, at least are to have the weakest and the lowest diet; and after all this, it is of a consequence infinitely evil, if men eat this supper indisposed and unfit;--it is all the reason of the world that returning sinners should be busy in their repentances, and do their work in the field (as it is in the parable of the Gospel), and in their due time "come home, and gird themselves, and wait upon their Lord;" and when they are bidden and warranted, then to sit down to the supper of their Lord. But, in this case, it is good to be as sure as we can; as sure as the analogy of these divine mysteries require, and as our needs permit.
7. He that hath committed a single act of sin, a little before the communion, ought, for the reverence of the holy sacrament, to abstain, till he hath made proportionable amends. And not only so, but if the sin was inconsistent with the state of grace, and destroyed or interrupted the divine favour, as in cases of fornication, murder, perjury, any malicious or deliberate known great crime, he must comport himself as a person returning from a habit or state of sin. And the reason is, because he that hath lost the divine favour, cannot tell how long he shall be before he recovers it; and, therefore, would do well not to snatch at the portion and food of sons, whilst he hath reason to fear, that he hath the state and calamity of dogs, who are caressed well, if they feed on fragments and crumbs, that are thrown away.
Now this doctrine and these cautions, besides that they are consonant to Scripture and the analogy of this divine sacrament, are nothing else but what was directly the sentiment of all the best, most severe, religious, and devoutest ages of the primitive church. For true it is, the apostles did indefinitely admit the faithful to the holy communion; but they were persons wholly inflamed with those holy fires, which Jesus Christ sent from heaven, to make them burning and shining lights; such which our dearest Lord, with his blood still warm and fresh, filled with his holy love; such whose spirits were so separate from the affections of the world, that they laid their estates at the apostles' feet, and took with joy the spoiling of their goods; such who, by improving the graces they had received, did come to receive more abundantly; and, therefore, these were fit to receive "the bread of the strong." But this is no invitation for them to come, who feel such a lukewarmness and indifference of spirit and devotion, that they have more reason to suspect it to be an effect of evil life, rather than of infirmity: for them who feel no heats of love but of themselves; for they who are wholly immerged in secular affections and interests; for they who are full of passions and void of grace; these, from the example of the others, may derive caution, but no confidence: so long as they "persevered in the doctrine of the apostles," so long they also did continue "in the breaking of bread and solemn conventions for prayer:" for to persevere in the doctrine of the apostles signified a life most exactly Christian; for that was the doctrine apostolical, according to the words of our Lord, "teaching to observe all things which I have commanded you."
And by this method the apostolical churches and their descendants, did administer these holy mysteries; a full and an excellent testimony whereof we have in that excellent book of Ecclesiastical Hierarchy commonly attributed to St. Dionysius: "The church drives from the sacrifice of the temple," meaning the divine sacrament, "such persons for whom it is too sublime and elevated: first, those who are not yet instructed and taught concerning the participation of the mysteries: next, those who are fallen from the holy and Christian state," meaning apostates, and such as have renounced their baptism, or fallen from the grace of it by a state of deadly sin, or foulest crimes: "Thirdly, those who are possessed with evil spirits: and lastly, those, who, indeed, have begun to retire from sin, to a good life, but they are not yet purified from the fantasms and images of their past inordinations, by a divine habitude and love, with purity and without mixture. And to conclude, those who are not yet perfectly united unto God alone, and, to speak according to the style of Scripture, those who are not entirely inculpable and without reproach." And when St. Soter exhorted all persons to receive upon the day of the institution, or the vespers of the passion, he excepted those who were forbidden, because they had committed any grievous sin.
But what was the doctrine and what were the usages of the primitive church in the ministry of the blessed sacrament, appears plainly in the two epistles of St. Basil to Amphilochius in the Canons of Ancyra, those of Peter of Alexandria, Gregory Thaumaturgus, and Nyssen: which make up the Penitential of the Greek church, and are explicated by Balsamo; in which we find sometimes the penance of two years imposed for a single theft; four years, and seven years, for an act of uncleanness; eleven years for perjury; fifteen years for adultery and incest; that is, such persons were for so many years separate from the communion,--and by a holy life, and strict observances of penitential impositions, were to give testimony of their contrition and amends. The like to which are to be seen in the Penitentials of the western church; that of Theodorus, archbishop of Canterbury, that of Venerable Bede, the old Roman, and that of Rabanus Maurus, archbishop of Mentz. The reason of which severity we find thus accounted in St. Basil f: "All this is done, that they may try the fruits of their repentance: for we do not judge of these things by the time, but by the manner of their repentance." For the bishop had power to shorten the days of their separation and abstention; and he that was an excellent penitent, was much sooner admitted; but by the injunction of so long a trial, they declared, that much purification was necessary to such an address. And if after, or in, these penitential years of abstention, they did not mend their lives, though they did perform their penances, they were not admitted. These were but the church's signs; by other accidents and manifestations if it happened that a great contrition was signified, or a secret incorrigibility became public, the church would admit the first sooner, and the latter not at all 8. For it was purity and holiness that the church required of all her communicants; and what measure of it she required, we find thus testified: "The faithful which hath been regenerated by baptism, ought to be nourished by the participation of the divine mysteries; and being clothed with Jesus Christ, and having the quality of a child of God, he ought to receive the nutriment of life eternal, which the Son of God himself hath given us: and this nutriment is obedience to the word of God, and execution of his will, of which Jesus Christ hath said, Man lives not by bread alone, but my meat is to do my Father's will." And a little after, he affirms, "That whereas St. Paul saith, 'that Jesus Christ hath appointed us to eat his body, in memory of his death, the true remembrance which we ought to have of his death,' is, to place before our eyes that which the apostle saith, that 'we were wholly dead, and Jesus Christ died for us, to the end that we should no more live unto ourselves, but to him alone,' and that so we should do him honour, and give him thanks for his death, by the purity of our life; without which, we engage ourselves in a terrible damnation, if we receive the eucharist." And again, "He that, not having this charity which presses us, and causes us to live for him who died for us, dares approach to the eucharist, grieves the Holy Spirit. For it is necessary, that he who comes to the memorial of Jesus Christ, who died and rose again for us, should not only be clean from all impurity of flesh and spirit, but that he should demonstrate the death of him who died and rose for us, by being dead unto sin, to the world, and to himself; and that he lives no more, but only to God, through Jesus Christ." And, therefore, St. Cyprian complains as of a new and worse persecution, that 'lapsed persons are admitted to the communion, before they have brought forth fruits of a worthy repentance;' and affirms, that "such an admission of sinners is to them, as hail to the young fruits, as a blasting wind to the trees, as the murrain to the cattle, as a tempest to the ships; the ships are overturned and broken, the fruits fall, the trees are blasted, the cattle die: and the poor sinner, by being admitted too soon to the ministries of life, falls into eternal death.--And if we put together some words of St. Ambrose, they clearly declare this doctrine, and are an excellent sermon: "Thou comest to the altar, the Lord Jesus calls thee; he sees thee to be clean from all sin, because thy sins are washed away; therefore, he judges thee worthy of* the celestial sacraments, and, therefore, he invites thee to the heavenly banquet: let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.--But some desire to be admitted to penance, that presently they may receive the communion: these men do not so much desire themselves to be absolved, as that the priest be bound; for they do not put off their own evil conscience.--But I would, that the guilty man should hope for pardon; let him require it with tears, seek it with sighs, beg to obtain it by the weepings of all the people; and if he be denied the communion again and again, let him consider that his prayer was not sufficiently earnest; let him weep more and pray more."--To which I shall add some like words of St. Austin: "Therefore, my dearest brethren, let every one consider his conscience; and when he finds himself wounded with any crime, first let him take care with prayers, and fastings, and alms, to cleanse his conscience, and so let him receive the eucharist.--For he that, knowing his guilt, shall humbly remove himself from the altar, for the amendment of his life, shall not fear to be wholly excommunicate from that eternal and celestial banquet."--"For this divine sacrament is not to be eaten with confidence and boldness, but with fear and all manner of purity," saith St. Chrysostom: "for impudence in these approaches will certainly slay the souls". For this is the body, whither none but eagles are to gather; because they ought to be sublime and elevated souls, such which have nothing of earthliness in them,--that do not sit and prey upon the ground, that are not immerged in the love of creatures; but such whose flight is towards heaven, whose spirit does behold the sun of righteousness with a penetrating contemplation and piercing eyes: for this is the table of eagles, and not of owls;"--and, therefore, this saint complains of some, "who did approach to the eucharist, as it were, by chance, or rather by custom and constraint of laws, rather than by argument and choice.
In whatsoever estate their souls are, they will partake of these mysteries, because it is Lent, or because it is the feast of the Epiphany: but certain it is, that it is not the time which puts us into a capacity of doing this action. For it is not Lent nor the Epiphany which makes us worthy to approach to the son of God, but the sincerity and purity of the soul: with this come at any time; but without this, never." In fine, it is the general doctrine of the holy fathers, and the public practice of the primitive church, that no impenitent person should come to these divine mysteries; and they that are truly penitent, should practise deep humility, and undergo many humiliations, and live in a state of repentance, till by little and little they have recovered the holiness they had lost, and must for a long time live upon the word of God, before they approach to the holy table to be nourished by his body. For so should every prodigal child cry unto his Lord, "Drive me not, O Lord, out of thy doors, lest the enemy, espying a wanderer and a vagabond, take me for a slave. I do not yet desire to approach to thy holy table, thy mystical and terrible table; for I have not confidence with my impure eyes to behold the Holy of Holies. Only suffer me to enter into thy church amongst the catechumens, that, by beholding what is there celebrated, I may, by little and little, enter again into the participation of them; to the end that the divine waters of thy word, running upon me, may purify my ears from the impressions which have been made upon them by ungodly songs, and from the filthiness they have left behind; and seeing how the righteous people partake, by a holy violence, of thy precious jewels, I may conceive a burning desire to have hands worthy to receive the same excellencies. I end this collection of the ancient doctrine of the church with recitation of the words of Gennadius, "I persuade and exhort Christians to receive the communion every Lord's day; but so, that if their mind be free from all affection of sinning; for he who still hath will or desires of sin, he is burdened and not purified, by receiving the eucharist. And, therefore, although he be bitten [or grieved] with sin, let him, for the future, renounce all will to sin,--and before he communicate, let him satisfy with prayers and tears; and being confident of the mercy of our Lord, who uses to pardon sins upon a pious confession, let him come to the eucharist without doubting. But this I say of him, who is not pressed with capital and deadly sins; for such a person, if he will not receive the eucharist to judgment and condemnation, let him make amends by public penance, and being reconciled by the bishop or priest, let him communicate. I doubt not also but such grievous sins may be extinguished by private satisfactions; but this must be done by changing the course of his life, by a professed study of religion, by a daily and perpetual mourning or contrition, that, through the mercy of God, he may do things contrary to these, whereof he does repent; and then, humbly and suppliant, let him, every Lord's day, communicate to the end of his life."
This advice of Gennadius declares the sentiment of the church, that none must communicate till they have worthily repented, and, in the way of piety and contrition, made amends for their faults as well as they may; and have put themselves into a state of virtue contrary to their state of sin; that is, have made progression in the reformation of their lives; that they are really changed and become new men, not in purpose only, but actually, and in the commencement of holy habits. And, therefore, it is remarkable, that he advises, that these persons who do not stand in the place of public penitents, should, upon the commission of grievous faults, enter into religion; he means into solitude, and retirement, and renunciation of the world; that, by attending wholly to the severities and purities of a religious life, they may, by such strictnesses and constant piety, be fitted for the communion. Now, whatever ends, besides this, the divine Providence might have, yet it is not to be neglected, that when the ancient discipline of the church, of public penances and satisfactions, was gone into desuetude, the spirit of religion entered more fully into the world, and many religious orders and houses were instituted, that at least there, the world might practise that severity in private, which the change of affairs in the face of the church had taken from the public ministries; penance went from the churches into deserts and into monasteries; but when these were corrupted, and the manners of men were worse corrupted, it is hard to say whither it is gone now. It may be yet done in private, and under the hand of a spiritual guide; or by the spirit of penance in the heart of a good man, and by the conduct of a wise counsellor: but besides that the manners of men are corrupted, the doctrines also are made so easy, and the communion given to sects and opinions, or indifferently to all; that it is very rare to see them, who have sinned grievously, repent worthily, who, therefore, can never be worthy communicants: for no impenitents can partake of Christ, who, as St. Jerome calls him, "is the Prince of penance, and the head of them, who, by repentance, come unto salvation." But this was his advice to them that commit grievous sins, such which lay the conscience waste, and whose every single action destroys our being in the state of grace.
But as for them, whose sins are but those of daily incursion, and of infirmity, or imperfection, such which a great diligence, and a perpetual watchfulness, might have prevented, but an ordinary care would not;--these must be protested against; they must not join with our consent; our will must be against them; and they must be confessed and deplored, and prayed against before we communicates. This is the sense of the church of God.
Having established this great general measure of preparation, it will not be very difficult to answer that great question often disputed amongst spiritual persons, viz.
QUESTION I. Whether is it better to communicate seldom or frequently?
To this I answer, that 'it is without peradventure very much better to receive it every day, than every week; and better every week than every month:'--"Christiani, omni die, carnes agni comedunt," said Origen; "Christians, every day, eat of the flesh of the sacrificed Lamb." And St. Basil expressly affirms, that "to communicate every day, and to partake of the body and blood of Christ, is excellent and very profitable; Christ himself having manifestly said it, 'He that eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, hath life eternal.'" For if the sacrament does no benefit to souls, and produces no blessings, then a man can institute a sacrament; for he may appoint any thing that shall be good for nothing. But if it be an instrument in the hand of God to procure blessings to us, and spiritual emolument; if it be a means of union with Christ; who would not willingly live with him, and converse with him for ever? It is good to be with Christ: and St. Jerome said, "I would to God, that we could always receive with a pure conscience, and without self-condemnation." It is without dispute, that it is better to be with Christ, in all the ways of being with him, than to be away from him one hour. This, therefore, ought to be no part of the question.
But because there is more required to the receiving Christ, than eating the symbols, and a man may eat to his condemnation, and increase his sins, and swell his sad accounts, and be guilty of Christ's body and blood, if he does not take heed; therefore, first, men must be prepared, and be in the state of holiness, or else they may not receive at all; and they that are so, may receive it frequently, the oftener the better. So Jerome and St. Austin tell, that even till their days, the custom of receiving every day remained in the churches of Rome and Spain; and all the ancient fathers exhort to a frequent communion; but just as physicians exhort men to eat the best and heartiest meats; not the sickly and the infant, but the strong man and the healthful. And this we find thus determined by St. Chrysostom; "There are some living in deserts, who receive but once in a year, or, it may be, once in two years: what then? whom shall we account best of? them that receive but once, or that receive but seldom, or that receive frequently? Neither one nor the other; but them that communicate with a sincere conscience, with a pure heart, and an unreprovable life. They that are so, let them always communicate a: and they that arc not so, let them not approach so much as once; because they do nothing but draw upon themselves the judgments of God, and make themselves worthy of condemnation." To which if we add the excellent discourse of St. Austin in this question, the consequents of it may suffice to determine the whole inquiry: "Some will say, that the eucharist is not to be received every day. If you ask, why? he tells you, because some days are to be chosen, in which a man may live more purely and continently, that so he may come to so great a sacrament more worthily,--because he that eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks damnation to himself. On the other side, another says, if thou hast received so great a wound, and contracted so violent a disease, that such remedies are to be deferred, every such man ought, by the authority of the bishop, to be removed from the altar and put to penance, and, by the same authority, be reconciled. For this is to receive unworthily, then to receive when a man should be doing penance, and not according to his own pleasure offer himself to, or withdraw himself from, the communion. But if his sins be not so great, as to deserve excommunication, he ought not to separate himself from the daily medicine of the Lord's body. Between these, possibly a man may determine the question better; if he admonishes that men should abide in the peace of Christ. But let every one do what, according to his faith, he piously believes ought to be done. For neither of them dishonours the body and blood of the Lord, if they, in their several ways, contend who shall most honour the most holy sacrament. For Zaccheus and the centurion did not prefer themselves before one another, when the one received Christ into his house, and the other said he was not worthy to receive him under his roof; both of them honouring our blessed Saviour by a diverse, and almost a contrary way,--both of them were miserable by sins, and both of them obtained mercy." Now, from the words of 'these two saints put together, we may collect these resolutions:--
1. The question does no way concern evil men, desperately or greatly wicked; for they so remaining, or committing such sins, "quae non committit omnis bonae fidei speique Christianus;" which exclude men from the kingdom of heaven, and cannot stand with the hopes of a good man,--are separate from the Spirit of the Lord, and ought not to touch the body of our Lord.
2. Neither does it concern such imperfect persons, and half Christians, who endeavour to accord the rules of the Gospel with their irregular and ruling passions; who would enter into heaven, and yet keep their affections for earth and earthly interests; who part stakes between God and the world, and resolve to serve two masters; who commit oftentimes deliberate and great sins, and repent, and yet sin again when the temptation comes; for they are yet very far from the kingdom of God, and, therefore, ought not to be admitted to the portion of sons and the bread of children.
3. It concerns only such, whose life does not dishonour their profession; who pretend to be servants of Christ, and, indeed, are so in great truth; whose faith is strengthened with hope, and their hope animated with charity, who cannot pretend to be more perfect than men, yet really contend to avoid all sin like the children of God, who have right to be nourished by the body of the Lord, "Corpus Christi quod ipsi sunt," "because they are indeed members of his body, and joined in the same spirit." The question is not between the publican and the Pharisee, but between the converted publican and the proselyte centurion; between two persons who are both true honourers of Christ, and penitent sinners, and humbled persons, and have no affection for sin remaining: the question then is, which is more to be commended, he that out of love receives Christ, or he who, out of humility and reverence, abstains because he thinks himself not worthy enough?--To this St. Chrysostom answers:--
4. "They that are such, have a right to receive every day; and because they are rightly disposed, it is certain that a frequent communion is of great advantage to them, and, therefore, they that frequent it not, are like to be losers: for this is the daily bread, the heavenly super-substantial bread, by which our souls are nourished to life eternal."--"This is the medicine against our daily imperfections and intrudings of lesser crimes, and sudden emigrations of passions: it is the great consignation of pardon." And St. Ambrose argues well; "If Christ's blood is poured forth for the remission of sins, then I ought as often as I can receive it when it is poured forth to me; that, because I sin often, I may perpetually have my remedy." Which discourse of his, is only to be understood of those imperfections of our life, which perpetually haunt those good men, who are growing in grace, until they come to perfection and consummation in grace.
5. They that in conscience of their past sins, and apprehension of their repentance, do abstain for fear of irreverence and the sentence of condemnation,--do very well as long as they find that their sin returns often, or tempts strongly, or prevails dangerously. And because our returns to God and the mortifications of sin are divisible, and done by parts and many steps of progression,--they that delay their communion that they may be surer, do very well, provided that they do not stay too long; that is, that their fear do not turn to timorousness, their religion do not change into superstition, their distrust of themselves into a jealousy of God, their apprehension of the greatness of their sin into a secret diffidence of the greatness of the divine mercy. And, therefore, in the first conversions of a sinner, this reverence may be longer allowed to a good man, than afterwards. But it must be no longer allowed, than till he hath once communicated. For if he hath once been partaker of the divine mysteries since his repentance, he must no longer forbear; for in this case it is true, that 'he who is not fit to receive every day, is fit to receive no day.' If he thinks that he ought wholly to abstain, let him use his caution and his fear to the advantages of his repentance, and the heightening of his longings; but if he may safely come once, he may piously come often. He cannot long stand at this distance, if he be the man he is supposed. But for the time of his total abstention, let him be conducted by a spiritual guide, whom he may safely trust. For if he cannot, by the usual methods of repentance, and the known sermons of the Gospel, be reduced to peace, and a quiet conscience, let him declare his estate to a spiritual guide; and, if he thinks it fit to absolve him, that is, to declare him to be in the state of grace and pardon,--it is all the warrant which, with the testimony of God's Spirit, bearing witness to our spirit, we can expect in this world. I remember what a religious person said to Petrus Celestinus, who was a great saint, but of a timorous conscience in this particular: "Thou abstainest from the blessed sacrament, because it is a thing so sacred and formidable, that thou canst not think thyself worthy of it. Well, suppose that. But, I pray, who is worthy? is an angel worthy enough? No certainly, if we consider the greatness of the mystery. But consider the goodness of God, and the usual measures of good men, and the commands of Christ inviting us to come, and commanding us, and then, 'Cum timore et reverentia frequenter operare;' 'receive it often with fear and reverence.'" To which purpose, these two things are fit to be considered.
1. Supposing this fear and reverence to be good and commendable in his case, who really is fit to communicate, but does not think so;--yet if we compare it with that grace, which prompts a good man to take it often, we may quickly perceive which is best. Certainly that act is in its own nature best, which proceeds from the best and the most perfect grace; but to abstain, proceeds from fear; and to come frequently, being worthily disposed, is certainly the product of love and holy hunger, the effect of the good Spirit, who, by his holy fires, makes us to thirst after the waters of salvations. As much then as love is better than fear, so much it is to be preferred, that true penitents, and well grown Christians, should, frequently, address themselves to these sacramental unions with their Lord.
2. The frequent use of this divine sacrament proceeds from more, as well as from more noble virtues. For here is obedience and zeal, worship and love, thanksgiving and oblation, devotion and joy, holy hunger and holy thirst, an approach to God in the ways of God, union and adherence, confidence in the divine goodness, and not only hope of pardon, but a going to receive it: and the omission of all these excellencies, cannot, in the present case, be recompensed by an act of religious fear: for this can, but by accident, and upon supposition of something that is amiss, be at all accounted good; and, therefore, ought to give place to that, which supposing all things to be as they ought, is directly good, and an obedience to a divine commandment.
For we may not deceive ourselves: the matter is not so indifferent, as to be excused by every fair pretence. It is unlawful for any man, unprepared by repentance and its fruits, to communicate; but it is necessary, that we should be prepared that we may come. "For plague and death threaten them that do not communicate in this mysterious banquet; as certainly as danger is to them who come unduly, and as it happens."--"For the sacrament of the Lord's body is commanded to all men," saith Tertullian. And it is very remarkable what St. Austin said in this affair; "The force of the sacrament is of an unspeakable value; and, therefore, it is sacrilege to despise it. For that is impiously despised, without which, we cannot come to the perfection of piety."--So that although it is not, in all cases, the mere not receiving that is to be blamed, but the despising it--yet when we consider, that by this means we arrive at perfection, all causeless recusancy is next to contempt by interpretation.
One thing more I am to add, whereas some persons abstain from a frequent communion from fear, lest, by frequency of receiving, they should less esteem the divine mysteries, and fall into lukewarmness and indevotion; the consideration is good: and such persons, indeed, may not receive it often, but not for that reason; but because they are not fit to receive it at all. For whoever grows worse by the sacrament, as Judas after the sop, hath an evil spirit within him: for this being by the design of God a savour of life, it is the fault of the receiver if it passes into death, and diminution of the spiritual life. He, therefore, that grows less devout, and less holy, and less reverent, must start back and take physic, and throw out the evil spirit that is within him; for there is a worm in the heart of the tree, a peccant humour in the stomach; it could not be else, that this divine nutriment should make him sick.
But is every man bound to communicate that is present, or that comes into a church where the communion is prepared, though but by accident, and without design; and may no man, that is fit, omit to communicate in every opportunity?
To this I answer, that in the primitive church it was accounted scandalous and criminal to be present at the holy offices, and to go out at the celebration of the mysteries. "What cause is there, O hearers, that ye see the table, and come not to the banquet?" said St. Austin".--"If thou stand by, and do not communicate, thou art wicked, thou art shameless, thou art impudent:" so St. Chrysostom: and to him that objects, he is not worthy to communicate, he answers, that "then neither is he fit to pray."--And the council of Antioch and of Bracara commanded that those who did not communicate, should be driven from the churches. And Palladius tells, that when St. Macarius had, by his prayers, cured a poor miserable woman that was bewitched, and fancied herself to be a horse; he advised her, "Never to depart from the church of God, or to abstain from the communion of the sacraments of Christ. For this misfortune hath prevailed upon you, because, for these five weeks, you have not communicated."
Now this was but a relative crime; and because their custom was such; which is always to be understood according to their acknowledged measures, viz. that only pious persons were to be meant, and required in that expectation; this will not conclude, that, of itself, and abstracting from the scandal, it was, in all cases, unlawful to recede from the mysteries at some times. For sometimes a man may be called off by the necessities of his calling or the duties of charity or piety. A general of an army, a prince, a privy counsellor, a judge, a merchant, may be very unfit to communicate, even then when they cannot, or, it may be, ought not to stay. But if he can stay, and be a good man, and rightly disposed by the habits of good life, he ought to stay and communicate; and so much the rather, if it be in any degree scandalous to go away. The reason is; because if he be a good man, he can no more be surprised by an unexpected communion, than by a sudden death; which although it may find him in better circumstances, yet can never find him unprovided. But in this case, St. Austin's moderate determination of the case is very useful, "Let every one do, as he is persuaded in his mind;" for a man may, with a laudable fear and reverence, abstain. If he shall be persuaded that he ought not to communicate, unless, besides his habitual grace, he hath kindled the fires of an actual devotion and preparation special: and so much the rather, because he may communicate very frequently, and to great purposes and degrees of a spiritual life, though he omit that single opportunity in which he is surprised; and though it be very useful for a good man to communicate often, yet it is not necessary that he communicate always. Only let every pious soul consider, that it is an argument of the divine love to us, that these fountains are always open; that the angel frequently moves these waters; and that Christ says to every prepared heart, as to the multitudes that followed him into the wilderness, "I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way." And if Christ be ever ready offering his holy body and blood, it were very fit we should entertain him: for he never comes but he brings a blessing.
But how often is it advisable, that a good man should communicate? Once in a year, or thrice, or every month, or every fortnight; every Sunday, or every day.
This question hath troubled very many; but to little purpose. For it is all one, as if it were asked, 'How often should a healthful man eat; or he that hath infirmities, take physic?' And if any man should say, that 'a good man should do well to pray three times a day;' he said true; and yet it were better to pray five times, and better to pray seven times; but if he does, yet must leave spaces for other duties. But his best measures for public and solemn prayer, is the custom of the church in which he lives; and for private, he can take no measures but his own needs and his own leisure, and his own desires, and the examples of the best and devoutest persons, in the same circumstances. And so it is in the frequenting the holy communion.--The laws of the church must be his least measure; the custom of the church may be his usual measure; but if he be a devout person, the spirit of devotion will be his certain measure; and although that will consult with prudence and reasonable opportunities, yet it consults with nothing else; but communicates by its own heights and degrees of excellency. St. Jerome advises Eustochium, a noble virgin, and other religious persons, to communicate twice every month. Some did every Sunday; and this was so general a custom in the ancient church, that the Sunday was called 'the day of bread,' as we find in St. Chrysostom: and in consonancy to this, the church of England commands that the priests, resident in collegiate or cathedral churches, should do so: and they, whose work and daily employment is to minister to religion, cannot, in such circumstances, pretend a reasonable excuse to the contrary. But I desire these things may be observed:--
1. That when the fathers make a question concerning a frequent communion, they do not dispute whether it be advisable, that good people should communicate every month, or every fortnight,--or whether the more devout, or less employed, may communicate every week;--for of this they make no question:--but whether every day's communion be fit to be advised, that they question. And I find, that as they are not earnest in that, so they indefinitely give answer, that a frequent communion is not to be neglected at any hand, if persons be worthily prepared.
2. The frequency of communion is to be estimated by the measures of devout people in every church respectively. And although, in the apostolical ages, they who communicated but once a fortnight, were not esteemed to do it frequently; yet now, they who communicate every month, and upon the great festivals of the year besides, and upon other solemn and contingent occasions, and at marriages, and at visitations of the sick,--may be said to communicate frequently, in such churches where the laws enjoin but three or four times every year, as in the church of England, and the Lutheran churches. But this way of estimating the frequency of communion, is only when the causes of inquiry ara for the avoiding of scandal, or the preventing of scruples; but else the inward hunger and thirst, and the spirit of devotion married to opportunity, can give the truest measures.
3. They that communicate frequently, if they do it worthily, are charitable and spiritual persons, and, therefore, cannot judge or undervalue others that do not; for no man knows concerning others, by what secret principles and imperfect propositions they are guided. For although these measures we meet with in antiquity, are very unreasonable, yet few do know them; and all of them do not rely upon them, and their own customs, or the private word of their own guides, or their fears, or the usages of the church in which they live, or some leading example, or some secret impediment which ought not, but is thought sufficient: any of these, or many other things, may retard even good persons from such a frequency as may please others; and that which one calls opportunity, others do not. But, however, no man ought to be prejudiced in the opinion of others: for besides all this now reckoned, the receiving of the holy sacrament is of that nature of good things, which can be supplied by internal actions alone, or sometimes by other external actions in conjunction; and it hath a suppletory of its own, viz. spiritual communion:--of which I am to give account in its proper place. And when we consider, that some men are of strict consciences, and some churches are of strict communions, and will riot admit communicants but upon such terms, which some men cannot admit, it will follow, that as St. Austin's expression is, "Men should live in the peace of Christ, and do according to their faith:" but that, in these things, no man should judge his brother. In this no man can directly be said to do amiss, but he that loaths manna, and despises the food of angels, or neglects the supper of the Lamb, or will not quit his sin, or contend towards perfection, or hath not the spirit of devotion, or does any way, by implication, say, 'That the table of the Lord is contemptible.'
4. These rules and measures, now given, are such as relate to those who, by themselves or others, are discernibly in, or disceruibly out of, the state of grace. But there are some, which are in the confines of both states; and neither themselves, nor their guides, can tell to what dominion they do belong. Concerning such, they are, by all means, to be thrust or invited forward, and told of the danger of a real or seeming neutrality in the service of God; of the hatefulness of tepidity, of the uncomfortableness of such an indifference. And for the communions of any such person, I can give no other advice, but that he take his measures of frequency, by the laws of his church, and add what he please to his numbers by the advice of a spiritual guide,--who may consider whether his penitent, by his conjugation of preparatory actions, and heaps of holy duties, at that time usually conjoined, do, or is likely to, receive any spiritual progress: for this will be his best indication of life, and declare his uncertain state, if he thrive upon this spiritual nourishment. If it prove otherwise, all that can be said of such persons is, that they are members of the visible church, they are in that net, where there are fishes good and bud; they stand amongst the wheat and the tares; they are part of the lump, but whether leavened or unleavened, God only knows;--and, therefore, they are such to whom the church denies not the bread of children; but whether it does them good or hurt, the day only will declare. For to such persons as these, the church hath made laws' for the set time of their communion: Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide, were appointed for all Christians that were not scandalous and openly criminal, by P. Fabianus; and this constitution is imitated by the best constituted church in the world, our dear mother the church of England: and they who do not, at these times, or so frequently, communicate, are censured by the council of Agathon, as unfit to be reckoned among Christians, or members of the Catholic church. Now by these laws of the church, it is intended, indeed, that all men should be called upon to discuss and shake off the yoke of their sins, and enter into the salutary state of repentance: and next to the perpetual sermons of the church, she had no better means to engage them unto returns of piety; hoping, that by the grace of God, and the blessings of the sacrament, the repentance which at these times solemnly begins, may, at one time or other, fix and abide; these little institutions and disciplines being like the sudden heats in the body, which sometimes fix into a burning, though, most commonly, they go away without any further change. But the church in this case does the best she can, but does not presume that things are well; and indeed as yet they are not: and, therefore, such persons must pass further; or else their hopes may become illusions, and make the men ashamed.
I find, that amongst the holy primitives, they who contended for the best things, and loved God greatly, were curious even of little things; and if they were surprised with any sudden indecency, or a storm of passion, they did not dare that day to communicate. "When I am angry, or when I think any evil thought, or am abused with any illusion or foul fancy of the night, 'intrare non audeo,' 'I dare not enter' (said St. Jerome), I am so full of horror and dread, both in my body and my mind." This was also the case of St. Chrysostom; who, when Eusebius had unreasonably troubled him with an unseasonable demand of justice against Antonine, just as he was going to consecrate the blessed sacrament, departed out of the church, and desired one of the bishops, who by chance was present, to do the office for him; for "he would not offer the sacrifice at that time, having some trouble in his spirit."
2. To this are to be reduced all such great actions, which in their whole constitution, are great and lawful; but because so many things are involved in their transaction, whereof some unavoidably will be amiss, or may reasonably be supposed so, may have something in the whole, and at the last to be deplored: in such cases as these, some great examples have been of advices to abstain from the communion, till, by a general, but a profound repentance, for what hath been amiss, God is deprecated, and the cause of Christian hope and confidence do return. In the ecclesiastical history we read, that when Theodosius had fought prosperously against Eugenius, the usurper of the empire, when his cause was just and approved by God, not only giving testimony by the prediction and warranty of a religious hermit, but also by prodigious events, by winds and tempests fighting for him, and by which he restored peace to the church, and tranquillity to the empire: yet he, by the advice of St. Ambrose, abstained a while from the holy sacrament, and would not carry blood upon his hands, though justly shed, unto the altars; not only following the precedent of David, who, because he was a man of blood, might not build a temple, but for fear lest some unfit appendage should stick to the management of a just employment.
3. Of the same consideration it is, if a person whose life should be very exemplar, is guilty of such a single folly, which, it may be, would not dishonour a meaner man, but is a great vanity and reproach to him; a little abstention, and a penitential separation (when it is quit from scandal), was sometimes practised in the ancient church, and is advisable also now in fitting circumstances. Thus when Gerontius, the deacon, had vainly talked, that the devil appeared to him one night, and that he had bound him with a chain, St. Ambrose commanded him to abide in his house, and not to come to the church, till, by penances and sorrow, he had expiated such an indiscretion, which to a man, had in reputation for wisdom, is as 'a fly in a box of ointment,' not only useless, but mischievous. And St. Bernard commends St. Malachi, because he reproved a deacon for attending at the altar the day after he had suffered an illusion in the night; it had been better he had abstained from the altar one day, and, by that intermediate expiation and humility, have the next day returned to a more worthy ministry.
4. One degree of curious caution I find beyond all this, in an instance of St. Gregory the Great: in whose life we find, that he abstained some days from the holy communion, because there was found in a village near Rome a poor man dead, no man could tell how; but because the good bishop feared he might have been starved, and that he died for want of provision,--he, supposing it might reflect upon him, as a defect in his government, or of his personal charity, thought it fit to deplore the accident, and to abstain from the communion, till he might hope for pardon, in case he had done amiss.
If these things proceed from the sincerity of a well-disposed spirit, that can suffer any trouble, rather than that of sin, the product is well enough; and, in all likelihood, would always be well, if the case were conducted by a prudent spiritual guide; for then it would not change into scruples and superstition. But these are but the fears, and cautions, and securities of a tender spirit, but are not an answer to the question, 'Whether it be lawful for such persons to communicate?' For certainly they may, if all things else be right; and they may be right in the midst of such little accidents. But these belong to the questions of perfection and excellencies of grace; these are the extraordinaries of them, who never think they do well enough: and, therefore, they extended no further than to a single abstention, or some little proportionable retirement; and may be useful, when they are in the hands of prudent and excellent persons.