Guest Column: COVID-19 and the gift of Spiritual Communion

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E. Wesley Ely, MD, MPH

Did you know that you can receive Communion in a “virtual” form even when you are unable to attend Mass? Masses are cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we still need to receive Christ into our body to be enriched with his love and mercy for our ongoing conversion.

Several years ago, during Lent, I was in Brussels praying as I walked along the cobblestone streets. I was feeling particularly down about myself and my ability to stay focused on the joy and blessing of God’s providence in my life. I needed Mass and Holy Communion, and I knew it. 

There was a church right in front of me, and they were having Mass in an hour. Then I got a text reminding me that I was to give a lecture at the exact same time. I was crestfallen and desperately craving the Eucharist. What to do? 

We are now living in the incipient stages of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. Priests have been documented to have Coronavirus infection, and social distancing is the name of the game to protect immunocompromised and elderly men and women from coming into contact with this virus. 

Since we are all potential human vectors, we must do our part to reduce transmission.

In our lifetime, this is the moment to leverage the teachings of the Church: we can receive Christ through Spiritual Communion, every hour and every moment. 

Who has written on this? St. John Paul II, St. Teresa of Avila, Padre Pio, St. John Vianney, St. Josemaria Escriva, St. Alphonsus Liguori and St. Thomas Aquinas. 

St. Thomas Aquinas summed up Spiritual Communion as “the ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Holy Sacrament, and a loving embrace as though we had already received Him.”

But how?

Six months before my Brussels trip, I had been assigned by my spiritual director to read Laurence Scupoli’s “The Spiritual Combat,” written in 1589. This mystical classic was the favorite of St. Francis de Sales and was carried by him for 18 years. 

Scupoli wrote about his own need for spiritual armor after having been falsely accused by others of misdeeds (and later shown to be not guilty). His response to this public shame embodied the Litany of Humility.

Scupoli first helps us build our armor against personal demons and wayward thinking by teaching us three ways to mature in our conversion to God’s service “in” the strength of Christ:

  • Distrust in self, trust perfectly in God. This step is rooted in humility. The depth of our falls is in proportion to our pride. Mary = no pride = no fall.
  • Spiritual Exercises. Our response to any fall must be to spring back from wounded self-love, go to Confession, and begin anew. Silence is our friend here.
  • Prayer. To achieve its full benefits, we must desire to serve, nurture lively faith and trust in God, pray for his will and not ours to be done, exercise self-discipline, thank God for his mercy, and conclude, “Through your mercy, grant me this grace – that your will be done in my life.”

Then Scupoli teaches about the master stroke of Christ, allowing us to fight with Christ himself. The Eucharist is our chief weapon. He writes, “This weapon, the most holy sacrament, may be taken in two ways, namely, sacramentally and spiritually: in the former, it may be daily; in the latter, every hour and every moment. You must not then neglect to receive it very often in the second way.” 

For both types of Communion, I prepare with a simple and sincere approach: “God the Father, I am not worthy to receive your son, but you send him to me anyway. Christ, I am not worthy to receive you, but please come to me anyway. Holy Spirit, I am not worthy to receive the son, but you bring him to me anyway. Mary, my heart is not prepared to receive your son, so please be in my heart to receive him with me, to keep me focused on the magnitude of this blessing in my life.”

Importantly, Scupoli writes that Spiritual Communion “may even be more advantageous to us and acceptable to God than many sacramental communions, when the latter are received with imperfect dispositions. As often then as you shall dispose yourself and prepare for Spiritual Communion, you will find the Son of God ready to give himself with his own hands to you for your spiritual food.” 

Our participation in the Passion of Christ must involve unexpected deprivation. Spiritual communion allows us to respond to the needed decision to cancel Mass in a positive way that is beneficial to us individually and to the whole church. Take these times as an opportunity to learn something new in your Faith and to develop an age-old practice that can increase your power to love others and our Lord. If done properly, this experience has the potential to make Sacramental Communion, once Masses resume, more fruitful than ever.

In Belgium, as I approached the stage to give my lecture, I felt immensely fulfilled and nourished in saying the prayer I’d learned to receive Christ in Spiritual Communion:

“I wish, my Lord, to receive you with the purity, humility, and devotion with which your most holy Mother received you, with the spirit and fervor of the Saints.”

E. Wesley Ely is a parishioner at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, and associate director of aging research for the Tennessee Valley VA Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Centers.

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