The following two chapters, 33 and 34, are taken from St. Teresa of Avila’s book “Way of Perfection”. Let us call to mind now the main aim of this book. St. Teresa is writing to her sisters in the first reformed Monastery. They have asked her, now that they are in a tighter enclosure, to write about “Contemplation” for them, St. Teresa herself being already an experienced person in this and one who has received many graces through it. “Contemplation” is the supernatural action of the Grace of God in us, or as Theology calls it, “The Particular Help of the Grace of God”. It often happens during the Prayer of the Heart (Mental Prayer, or Contemplative Prayer). In these two chapters, however, St. Teresa will not talk specifically about Prayer of the Heart, or Contemplation as such, but about Communion and Spiritual Communion. Especially Chapter 34.
It is important to notice that during her life, St. Teresa often received very powerful graces during Communion and the time that followed it. This is why St. Teresa’s experience of “Contemplation” and “Contemplative Prayer” is intimately linked to Communion. Each of them sheds an important light on the other.
Note: It is also significant to note that in her time (and till a hundred years ago) frequent Communion wasn’t common. One needed the permission of one’s superiors (the Confessor essentially) to receive Communion. Sometimes permission to receive Communion would only be given once every two weeks. This meant that one had to attend Mass without receiving Communion, despite the recommendations of the Council the Trent.
The attentive reader will notice many similarities in St. Teresa’s description and teaching between these two chapters and the chapters where she starts to describe “Mental Prayer” i.e. chapters 26, 28 and 29 of the same book. There are many similarities between her description of the moment of receiving Communion and the effort of recollecting oneself, i.e. the “Prayer of Recollection” as she calls it. (See Chapter 34 below)
In the following chapters, especially Chapter 34, St. Teresa describes “Spiritual Communion” for a particular reason. She does so because the advice given in her time was, that for all those occasions on which people attended Mass without having permission to receive Communion, they should practise Spiritual Communion.
For almost a hundred years now, there has been a change in Communion rules and what governs our reception of it at each Mass, that is, that we be in a state of grace. There are no other conditions. Accordingly, in our times, the conditions of “Spiritual Communion” are slightly different: we are invited to practise it for instance when we are incapacitated from attending Mass because of illness or other serious reasons.
But let us not forget another aspect of Spiritual Communion: the tradition of the Church does recommend its practice outside of attending Mass. This is still valid today. I think it is good to practise it also outside of the Mass and more so: it is very important to see the similarity and connection between the movement or act of love we realise during the Prayer of the Heart and the act of receiving the Lord during Spiritual Communion – how He communicates Himself during the Prayer of the Heart and how He comes into our heart during Communion. He lavishes “grace upon grace” (John 1:16) on us; the Holy Spirit works with greater abundance. The similarity, therefore, is very enlightening.
Today, in addition to following the usual traditional indications inviting us to practise “Spiritual Communion” we also have the possibility of watching Mass live or sometime afterwards. This offers us an opportunity to receive Spiritual Communion. Thus it is worth repeating the traditional teaching of the Church: in the case of the impossibility to attend Mass (Confinement falls in this case today) Spiritual Communion is exactly equivalent, grace-wise, to normal Communion.
Here are these great chapters, especially Chapter 34. They deserve careful reading and pondering.
Treats of our great need that the Lord should give us what we ask in these words of the Our Father: “Give us this day our daily Bread”
The good Jesus understands, as I have said, how difficult a thing He is offering on our behalf, for He knows our weakness, and how often we show that we do not understand what the will of the Lord is, since we are weak while He is so merciful. He knows that some means must be found by which we shall not omit to give what He has given on our behalf, for if we did that it would be anything but good for us, since everything we gain comes from what we give. Yet He knows that it will be difficult for us to carry this out; for if anyone were to tell some wealthy, pampered person that it is God’s will for him to moderate his eating so that others, who are dying of hunger, shall have at least bread to eat, he will discover a thousand reasons for not understanding this but interpreting it in his own way.
If one tells a person who speaks ill of others that it is God’s will that he should love his neighbour as himself, he will lose patience and no amount of reasoning will convince him. If one tells a religious who is accustomed to liberty and indulgence that he must be careful to set a good example and to remember that when he makes this petition it is his duty to keep what he has sworn and promised, and that not in word alone; that it is the will of God that he should fulfil his vows and see that he gives no occasion for scandal by acting contrarily to them, even though he may not actually break them; that he has taken the vow of poverty and must keep it without evasions, because that is the Lord’s will — it would be impossible, in spite of all this, that some religious should not still want their own way. What would be the case, then, if the Lord had not done most of what was necessary by means of the remedy He has given us? There would have been very few who could have fulfilled this petition, which the Lord made to the Father on our behalf: “Fiat voluntas tua” [Thy will be done]. Seeing our need, therefore, the good Jesus has sought the admirable means whereby He has shown us the extreme love which He has for us, and in His own name and in that of His brethren He has made this petition: “Give us, Lord, this day our daily bread.”
For the love of God, sisters, let us realize the meaning of our good Master’s petition, for our very life depends on our not disregarding it. Set very little store by what you have given, since there is so much that you will receive. It seems to me, in the absence of a better opinion, that the good Jesus knew what He had given for us and how important it was for us to give this to God, and yet how difficult it would be for us to do so, as has been said, because of our natural inclination to base things and our want of love and courage. He saw that, before we could be aroused, we needed His aid, not once but every day, and it must have been for this reason that He resolved to remain with us. As this was so weighty and important a matter, He wished it to come from the hand of the Eternal Father. Though both Father and Son are one and the same, and He knew that whatever He did on earth God would do in Heaven, and would consider it good, since His will and the Father’s will were one, yet the humility of the good Jesus was such that He wanted, as it were, to ask leave of His Father, for He knew that He was His beloved Son and that He was well pleased with Him. He knew quite well that in this petition He was asking for more than He had asked for in the others, but He already knew what death He was to suffer and what dishonours and affronts He would have to bear.
What father could there be, Lord, who, after giving us his son, and such a Son, would allow Him to remain among us day by day to suffer as He had done already? None, Lord, in truth, but Thine: well dost Thou know of Whom Thou art asking this. God help me! What a great love is that of the Son and what a great love is that of the Father! I am not so much amazed at the good Jesus, because, as He had already said “Fiat voluntas tua” [Thy will be done], He was bound, being Who He is, to put what He had said into practice. Yes, for He is not like us; knowing that He was carrying out His words by loving us as He loves Himself, He went about seeking how He could carry out this commandment more perfectly, even at His own cost. But how, Eternal Father, couldst Thou consent to this? How canst Thou see Thy Son every day in such wicked hands? Since first Thou didst permit it and consent to it, Thou seest how He has been treated. How can Thy Mercy, day by day and every day, see Him affronted? And how many affronts are being offered to-day to this Most Holy Sacrament? How often must the Father see Him in the hands of His enemies? What desecrations these heretics commit!
O Eternal Lord! How canst Thou grant such a petition? How canst Thou consent to it? Consider not His love, which, for the sake of fulfilling Thy will and of helping us, would allow Him to submit day by day to being cut to pieces. It is for Thee to see to this, my Lord, since Thy Son allows no obstacle to stand in His way. Why must all the blessings that we receive be at His cost? How is it that He is silent in face of all, and cannot speak for Himself, but only for us? Is there none who will speak for this most loving Lamb? Give me permission to speak for Him, Lord, since Thou hast been pleased to leave Him in our power, and let me beseech Thee on His behalf, since He gave Thee such full obedience and surrendered Himself to us with such great love.
I have been reflecting how in this petition alone the same words are repeated: first of all the Lord speaks of “our daily bread” and asks Thee to give it, and then He says: “Give it us to-day, Lord.” He lays the matter before His Father in this way: the Father gave us His Son once and for all to die for us, and thus He is our own; yet He does not want the gift to be taken from us until the end of the world but would have it left to be a help to us every day. Let this melt your hearts, my daughters, and make you love your Spouse, for there is no slave who would willingly call himself by that name, yet the good Jesus seems to think it an honour.
O Eternal Father, how great is the merit of this humility! With what a treasure are we purchasing Thy Son! How to sell Him we already know, for He was sold for thirty pieces of silver; but, if we would purchase Him, no price is sufficient. Being made one with us through the portion of our nature which is His, and being Lord of His own will, He reminds His Father that, as our nature is His, He is able to give it to us, and thus He says “our bread”. He makes no difference between Himself and us, though we make one between ourselves and Him through not giving ourselves daily for His Majesty’s sake.
Continues the same subject. This is very suitable for reading after the reception of the Most Holy Sacrament.
We have now reached the conclusion that the good Jesus, being ours, asks His Father to let us have Him daily — which appears to mean “for ever”. While writing this I have been wondering why, after saying “our ‘daily’ bread”, the Lord repeated the idea in the words “Give us this day, Lord.” I will tell you my own foolish idea: if it really is foolish, well and good — in any case, it is quite bad enough that I should interfere in such a matter at all. Still, as we are trying to understand what we are praying for, let us think carefully what this means, so that we may pray rightly, and thank Him Who is taking such care about teaching us. This bread, then, is ours daily, it seems to me, because we have Him here on earth, since He has remained with us here and we receive Him; and, if we profit by His company, we shall also have Him in Heaven, for the only reason He remains with us is to help and encourage and sustain us so that we shall do that will, which, as we have said, is to be fulfilled in us.
In using the words “this day” He seems to me to be thinking of a day of the length of this life. And a day indeed it is! As for the unfortunate souls who will bring damnation upon themselves and will not have fruition of Him in the world to come, they are His own creatures, and He did everything to help them on, and was with them, to strengthen them, throughout the “to-day” of this life, so it is not His fault if they are vanquished. They will have no excuse to make nor will they be able to complain of the Father for taking this bread from them at the time when they most needed it. Therefore, the Son prays the Father that, since this life lasts no more than a day, He will allow Him to spend it in our service. As His Majesty has already given His Son to us, by sending Him, of His will alone, into the world, so now, of that same will, He is pleased not to abandon us, but to remain here with us for the greater glory of His friends and the discomfiture of His enemies. He prays for nothing more than this “to-day” since He has given us this most holy Bread. He has given it to us for ever, as I have said, as the sustenance and manna of humanity. We can have it whenever we please and we shall not die of hunger save through our own fault, for, in whatever way the soul desires to partake of food, it will find joy and comfort in the Most Holy Sacrament. There is no need or trial or persecution that cannot be easily borne if we begin to partake and taste of those which He Himself bore, and to make them the subject of our meditations.
With regard to other bread — the bread of bodily necessaries and sustenance — I neither like to think that the Lord is always being reminded of it nor would I have you remember it yourselves. Keep on the level of the highest contemplation, for anyone who dwells there no more remembers that he is in the world than if he had already left it — still less does he think about food. Would the Lord ever have insisted upon our asking for food, or taught us to do so by His own example? Not in my opinion. He teaches us to fix our desires upon heavenly things and to pray that we may begin to enjoy these things while here on earth: would He, then, have us trouble about so petty a matter as praying for food? As if He did not know that, once we begin to worry about the needs of the body, we shall forget the needs of the soul! Besides, are we such moderately minded people that we shall be satisfied with just a little and pray only for a little? No: the more food we are given, the less we shall get of the water from Heaven. Let those of you, daughters, who want more of the necessaries of life pray for this.
Join with the Lord, then, daughters, in begging the Father to let you have your Spouse to-day, so that, as long as you live, you may never find yourself in this world without Him. Let it suffice to temper your great joy that He should remain disguised beneath these accidents of bread and wine, which is a real torture to those who have nothing else to love and no other consolation. Entreat Him not to fail you but to prepare you to receive Him worthily.
As for that other bread, have no anxiety about it if you have truly resigned yourselves to God’s will. I mean that at these hours of prayer you are dealing with more important matters and there is time enough for you to labour and earn your daily bread. Try never at any time to let your thoughts dwell on this; work with your body, for it is good for you to try to support yourselves, but let your soul be at rest. Leave anxiety about this to your Spouse, as has been said at length already, and He will always bear it for you. Do not fear that He will fail you if you do not fail to do what you have promised and to resign yourselves to God’s will. I assure you, daughters, that, if I myself were to fail in this, because of my wickedness, as I have often done in the past, I would not beg Him to give me that bread, or anything else to eat. Let Him leave me to die of hunger. Of what use is life to me if it leads me daily nearer to eternal death?
If, then, you are really surrendering yourselves to God, as you say, cease to be anxious for yourselves, for He bears your anxiety, and will bear it always. It is as though a servant had gone into service and were anxious to please his master in everything. The master is bound to give him food for so long as he remains in his house, and in his service, unless he is so poor that he has food neither for his servant nor for himself. Here, however, the comparison breaks down, for God is, and will always be, rich and powerful. It would not be right for the servant to go to his master every day and ask him for food when he knew that his master would see that it was given him and so he would be sure to receive it. To do this would be a waste of words. His master would quite properly tell him that he should look after his own business of serving and pleasing him, for, if he worried himself unnecessarily, he would not do his work as well as he should. So, sisters, those who will may worry about asking for earthly bread; let our own task be to beg the Eternal Father that we may merit our heavenly bread, so that, although our bodily eyes cannot feast themselves on the sight of Him since He is thus hidden from us, He may reveal Himself to the eyes of the soul and may make Himself known to us as another kind of food, full of delight and joy, which sustains our life.
Do you suppose that this most holy food is not ample sustenance even for the body and a potent medicine for bodily ills? I am sure that it is. I know a person who was subject to serious illnesses [St. Teresa herself] and often suffered great pain; and this pain was taken away from her in a flash and she became quite well again. This often occurs, I believe; and cures are recorded from quite definite illnesses which could not be counterfeited. As the wondrous effects produced by this most holy bread in those who worthily receive it are very well known, I will not describe all the things that could be related about this person I mentioned, though I have been enabled to learn about them and I know that they are not fabrications. The Lord had given this person such a lively faith that, when she heard people say they wished they had lived when Christ walked on this earth, she would smile to herself, for she knew that we have Him as truly with us in the Most Holy Sacrament as people had Him then, and wonder what more they could possibly want.
I know, too, that for many years this person, though by no means perfect, always tried to strengthen her faith, when she communicated, by thinking that it was exactly as if she saw the Lord entering her house, with her own bodily eyes, for she believed in very truth that this Lord was entering her poor abode, and she ceased, as far as she could, to think of outward things, and went into her abode with Him. She tried to recollect her senses so that they might all become aware of this great blessing, or rather, so that they should not hinder the soul from becoming conscious of it. She imagined herself at His feet and wept with the Magdalen exactly as if she had seen Him with her bodily eyes in the Pharisee’s house. Even if she felt no devotion, faith told her that it was good for her to be there.
For, unless we want to be foolish and to close our minds to facts, we cannot suppose that this is the work of the imagination, as it is when we think of the Lord on the Cross, or of other incidents of the Passion, and picture within ourselves how these things happened. This is something which is happening now; it is absolutely true; and we have no need to go and seek Him somewhere a long way off. For we know that, until the accidents of bread have been consumed by our natural heat, the good Jesus is with us and we should [not lose so good an opportunity but should] come to Him. If, while He went about in the world, the sick were healed merely by touching His clothes, how can we doubt that He will work miracles when He is within us, if we have faith, or that He will give us what we ask of Him since He is in our house? His Majesty is not wont to offer us too little payment for His lodging if we treat Him well.
If you grieve at not seeing Him with the eyes of the body, remember that that would not be good for us, for it is one thing to see Him glorified and quite another to see Him as He was when He lived in the world. So weak is our nature that nobody could endure the sight — in fact, there would be no one left to endure it, for no one would wish to remain in the world any longer. Once having seen this Eternal Truth, people would realize that all the things we prize here are mockery and falsehood. And if such great Majesty could be seen, how could a miserable sinner like myself, after having so greatly offended Him, remain so near to Him? Beneath those accidents of bread, we can approach Him; for, if the King disguises Himself, it would seem that we need not mind coming to Him without so much circumspection and ceremony: by disguising Himself, He has, as it were, obliged Himself to submit to this. Who, otherwise, would dare to approach Him so unworthily, with so many imperfections and with such lukewarm zeal?
Oh, we know not what we ask! How much better does His Wisdom know what we need! He reveals Himself to those who He knows will profit by His presence; though unseen by bodily eyes, He has many ways of revealing Himself to the soul through deep inward emotions and by various other means. Delight to remain with Him; do not lose such an excellent time for talking with Him as the hour after Communion. Remember that this is a very profitable hour for the soul; if you spend it in the company of the good Jesus, you are doing Him a great service. Be very careful, then, daughters, not to lose it. If you are compelled by obedience to do something else, try to leave your soul with the Lord. For He is your Master, and, though it be in a way you may not understand, He will not fail to teach you. But if you take your thoughts elsewhere, and pay no more attention to Him than if you had not received Him, and care nothing for His being within you, how can He make Himself known to you? You must complain, not of Him, but of yourself. This, then, is a good time for our Master to teach us and for us to listen to Him. I do not tell you to say no prayers at all, for if I did you would take hold of my words and say I was talking about contemplation, which you need practise only if the Lord brings you to it. No: you should say the Our Father, realize that you are verily and indeed in the company of Him Who taught it you and kiss His feet in gratitude to Him for having desired to teach you and beg Him to show you how to pray and never to leave you.
You may be in the habit of praying while looking at a picture of Christ [i.e. Prayer of Recollection], but at a time like this it seems foolish to me to turn away from the living image — the Person Himself — to look at His picture. Would it not be foolish if we had a portrait of someone whom we dearly loved and, when the person himself came to see us, we refused to talk with him and carried on our entire conversation with the portrait? Do you know when I find the use of a picture an excellent thing, and take great pleasure in it? When the person is absent and we are made to feel his loss by our great aridity, it is then that we find it a great comfort to look at the picture of Him Whom we have such reason to love. This is a great inspiration, and makes us wish that, in whichever direction we turn our eyes, we could see the picture. What can we look upon that is better or more attractive to the sight than upon Him Who so dearly loves us and contains within Himself all good things? Unhappy are those heretics, who through their own fault have lost this comfort, as well as others.
When you have received the Lord, and are in His very presence, try to shut the bodily eyes and to open the eyes of the soul and to look into your own hearts. I tell you, and tell you again, for I should like to repeat it often, that if you practise this habit of staying with Him, not just once or twice, but whenever you communicate, and strive to keep your conscience clear so that you can often rejoice in this your Good, He will not, as I have said, come so much disguised as to be unable to make His presence known to you in many ways, according to the desire which you have of seeing Him. So great, indeed, may be your longing for Him that He will reveal Himself to you wholly.
But if we pay no heed to Him save when we have received Him, and go away from Him in search of other and baser things, what can He do? Will He have to drag us by force to look at Him and be with Him because He desires to reveal Himself to us? No; for when He revealed Himself to all men plainly, and told them clearly who He was, they did not treat Him at all well — very few of them, indeed, even believed Him. So He grants us an exceeding great favour when He is pleased to show us that it is He Who is in the Most Holy Sacrament. But He will not reveal Himself openly and communicate His glories and bestow His treasures save on those who He knows greatly desire Him, for these are His true friends. I assure you that anyone who is not a true friend and does not come to receive Him as such, after doing all in his power to prepare for Him, must never importune Him to reveal Himself to him. Hardly is the hour over which such a person has spent in fulfilling the Church’s commandment than he goes home and tries to drive Christ out of the house. What with all his other business and occupations and worldly hindrances, he seems to be making all possible haste to prevent the Lord from taking possession of the house which is His own.