Elsewhere: A Medieval Sermon on the Ascension

The Ascension, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1636 (Source)

Ascensiontide is perhaps my favorite season of the Church Kalendar for personal as well as theological reasons. And so I am delighted to share with my readers an extremely good post over at Canticum Salomonis, featuring a translated sermon by Honorius Augustodunensis (c. 1080-1154), a lesser-known contemporary of St. Bernard. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of this richly-illustrated translation:

The sun was raised aloft, and the moon stood still in her course.[1] Christ is the eternal sun who sheds his radiance upon all the choirs of angels; he is the true light[2] who enlightens every soul, who long lay concealed behind the cloud of his flesh, wreathed in the shadows of our frailty. Emerging at last from the shadows of Hell, today he rises gloriously above the stars and, raised above all the decorated ranks of angels, he sits, Lord of majesty, at the right hand of the Father. The moon, that is the Church, stands still in her course, gleaming in his light, when in the person of the apostles she saw him ascend into heaven. For the apostles showed themselves to be the Church’s course when they taught her the course of good living, and taught her how to order her course[3] after the Sun of justice. O! what brilliant horns the new-born moon has beamed forth today, when the Sun reaching the heights of heaven has infused her with a ray of eternal light! O! how serene her face as she stood in her course, when she saw her flesh penetrate the heavens in her Head, her Redeemer, her Spouse, her God! She saw them, I say, through the eyes of the apostolic chorus, who were her course, and of the Virgin Mother of God, her type! O what joy burst forth today among the angels in heaven when the Son of God, who had gone from his palace into the Prison for the sake of his servant, yea from his fatherland into banishment, an exile for an exile, now returns in triumph to his Father’s kingdom! And so today is clept the day of God’s triumph, when the victor over death triumphant was welcomed by the senate of the celestial court with hymnic praises, glorifying the author of life!

Honoratus Augustodunensis, On Our Lord’s Ascension

Read the whole thing, and have a blessed Ascension Day.

On Frequent Communion

The Last Communion of St. Mary of Egypt, Marcantonio Franceschini, 1680 (Source)

One of the more shocking ecclesiastical news stories of 2019 was a survey from the Pew Research Center showing that only 28% of American Catholics know and believe the Church’s teaching about the Eucharist. The numbers look a little less grim when one breaks down the data by Mass attendance. 63% of weekly Mass-goers know and believe in the Real Presence. Yet that leaves a whopping 37% of weekly Mass attendees who do not believe in the Real Presence; the numbers are much higher for Catholics who don’t go to Mass as frequently. 75% of those who go to Mass monthly or yearly believe the bread and wine are only “symbols” of Jesus’s Body and Blood, while the number rises to 87% of Catholics who go to Mass even more rarely.

In view of this alarming data, I think we can safely say that one benefit of the present shut-down of public masses is that there will be far fewer sacrilegious communions. Possibly none, if the priests who offer private masses are doing so in a state of grace. I can only think that, in a time of international tumult, this fact, at least, is a good thing. Worthy communion is more important than frequent communion. Yet our ecclesiastical culture has, over the decades, become so fixated on frequent communion and liturgical participation as to neglect the all-important question of preparation for communion. The whole mystagogical apparatus of the early Church is against this attitude, as was the lived practice of most Christians throughout a great portion of Church history. Even St. Philip Neri, who devoutly encouraged frequent communion when this practice was rare, nevertheless made his spiritual sons at the Oratory confess to him every single day.

We have sadly now come to a point where many believe they are entitled to receive the Blessed Sacrament, simply by virtue of showing up to Mass. But this mentality vitiates our recognition of its quality as a work of supernatural grace – of something gratuitous, freely given to us by God without respect to our own merits. For what is the grace of the Blessed Sacrament, but the very life of Our Lord, Jesus Christ? It is the epitome of grace, for in the Blessed Sacrament we encounter the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Priestly Intercession of the Lord. This is why we must make a good preparation for reception of Holy Communion: in a worthy communion, that infinite Life merges with our own, and gradually assimilates us to Itself. Thus we discover the profoundly Eucharistic sense of the Apostle’s words, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

We should all take this time when we are unable to avail ourselves of the Blessed Sacrament to consider how frequently and in how many ways we outrage the Sacred and Eucharistic Heart of Jesus through sacrilegious communions, doubt in the Real Presence, and other manifold sins. This is a time for Acts of Contrition and Reparation. We must turn to God in a spirit of penance. To do so would be to transform this unhappy situation into an occasion of grace for ourselves, our neighbors, our Church, and the whole world.

The Eucharist is essential to the supernatural life, as are the sacraments more generally. Nevertheless, one worthy communion is so infinitely full of grace that we could (in theory) go a lifetime without receiving again and still gain heaven. This may seem unlikely; most souls do indeed need to receive more often than that.

But let us consider the case of St. Mary of Egypt, a saint who is venerated in a special way during the penitential season of Lent among the Eastern churches. Having lived a sinful life as a prostitute, Mary decided to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a kind of tourist. Yet when she attempted to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to behold the True Cross, she was repeatedly held back by an invisible force. Distraught, she beheld an icon of the Mother of God. In a moment of grace, she repented of her sins with tears and trembling. The invisible barrier lifted. She was able to enter the church. The graces of that pilgrimage inspired her to go into the desert around Jordan, where she spent forty-seven years alone as a hermit. In that time, she overcame the Passions and received marvelous gifts, including an infused knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Her ascetic labor has enshrined her as one of the most powerful and beloved of the Desert Saints. Eventually, the hieromonk St. Zosima met her and heard her story, which is how it has come down to us through the ages.

St. Mary of Egypt, pray for us (Source)

Here’s the thing: in her long life, St. Mary is known to have received the Blessed Sacrament only twice. Once, when she stopped at the Church of St. John the Baptist on the Jordan River as she was just beginning her ascesis. Then again shortly before her death. As she tells Zosima in her Vita,

“Remain, Abba, in the monastery. And even if you wish to depart, you will not be to do so. And at sunset of the holy day of the Last Supper, put some of the lifegiving Body and Blood of Christ into a holy vessel worthy to hold such Mysteries for me, and bring it. And wait for me on the banks of the Jordan adjoining the inhabited parts of the land, so that I can come and partake of the lifegiving Gifts. For, since the time I communicated in the temple of the Forerunner before crossing the Jordan even to this day I have not approached the Holy Mysteries. And I thirst for them with irrepressible love and longing. and therefore I ask and implore you to grant me my wish, bring me the lifegiving Mysteries at the very hour when Our Lord made His disciples partake of His Divine Supper.”

The Life of Our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt, St. Sophronius of Jerusalem
Source.

I am quite certain that St. Mary was sustained throughout her forty-seven years in the desert by the grace of that one worthy communion. Happy are we, who are not so deprived! We can make spiritual communions, we can adore the Blessed Sacrament mentally, we can stream Mass, we can pray the Divine Office, and so much more. I genuinely believe that this time away from the Sacrament, if we dispose of it well, can remind us of the proper disposition we must bring to the altar – and which we so often lack! A keener appreciation and deeper faith in the great mystery of Holy Communion would be a salutary fruit of this crisis, and a great grace for the people of God. So, too, would a more robust and multifarious approach to Eucharistic devotion.

Let us remember that God does not abandon us. We may not be able to receive Him, but He still abides in the tabernacles of His Church. He has given us this crisis as an opportunity to purify our hearts and to restore our faith in Him. He is ever near us. He is ever willing to help us. He will not forget us or turn away from us. Let us follow that great archetype of the Christian life, St. Mary of Egypt, and return to Our Eucharist Lord only after doing proper penance for our sins during our stay in the desert. And in the meantime, let us cleave to Him as to the only rock of safety in a violent storm.

O Eucharistic Jesus, grant us the grace of loving Thee more perfectly while we must be far from Thee. Help us to cultivate a spirit of true contrition for our many sins against Thee, and grant us the grace of making worthy reparation. By the invincible, infinite, and everlasting merits of Thy Precious Blood, do Thou conquer everything base, everything impure, and everything sinful within us. And do Thou cleanse us, body, soul, and spirit, that we may enter into Thy sanctuary at the end of our days. Amen.

Excerpts for St. Austin’s Day

Saint-Augustine-Doctor-of-the-Church

St. Augustine, Ora Pro Nobis. (Source)

I read this passage from the Confessions today and it instantly became one of my favorites selections from St. Augustine. The translation by Maria Boulding OSB is much prettier, but it’s not public domain. What follows is Book X, Chapters 6-7 (Para. 8-11).

Not with uncertain, but with assured consciousness do I love You, O Lord. You have stricken my heart with Your word, and I loved You. And also the heaven, and earth, and all that is therein, behold, on every side they say that I should love You; nor do they cease to speak unto all, so that they are without excuse. Romans 1:20 But more profoundly will You have mercy on whom You will have mercy, and compassion on whom You will have compassion, otherwise do both heaven and earth tell forth Your praises to deaf ears. But what is it that I love in loving You? Not corporeal beauty, nor the splendour of time, nor the radiance of the light, so pleasant to our eyes, nor the sweet melodies of songs of all kinds, nor the fragrant smell of flowers, and ointments, and spices, not manna and honey, not limbs pleasant to the embracements of flesh. I love not these things when I love my God; and yet I love a certain kind of light, and sound, and fragrance, and food, and embracement in loving my God, who is the light, sound, fragrance, food, and embracement of my inner man— where that light shines unto my soul which no place can contain, where that sounds which time snatches not away, where there is a fragrance which no breeze disperses, where there is a food which no eating can diminish, and where that clings which no satiety can sunder. This is what I love, when I love my God.

And what is this? I asked the earth; and it answered, I am not He; and whatsoever are therein made the same confession. I asked the sea and the deeps, and the creeping things that lived, and they replied, We are not your God, seek higher than we. I asked the breezy air, and the universal air with its inhabitants answered, Anaximenes was deceived, I am not God. I asked the heavens, the sun, moon, and stars: Neither, say they, are we the God whom you seek? And I answered unto all these things which stand about the door of my flesh, You have told me concerning my God, that you are not He; tell me something about Him. And with a loud voice they exclaimed, He made us. My questioning was my observing of them; and their beauty was their reply. And I directed my thoughts to myself, and said, Who are you? And I answered, A man. And lo, in me there appear both body and soul, the one without, the other within. By which of these should I seek my God, whom I had sought through the body from earth to heaven, as far as I was able to send messengers— the beams of my eyes? But the better part is that which is inner; for to it, as both president and judge, did all these my corporeal messengers render the answers of heaven and earth and all things therein, who said, We are not God, but He made us. These things was my inner man cognizant of by the ministry of the outer; I, the inner man, knew all this— I, the soul, through the senses of my body. I asked the vast bulk of the earth of my God, and it answered me, I am not He, but He made me.

Is not this beauty visible to all whose senses are unimpaired? Why then does it not speak the same things unto all? Animals, the very small and the great, see it, but they are unable to question it, because their senses are not endowed with reason to enable them to judge on what they report. But men can question it, so that the invisible things of Him . . . are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; Romans 1:20 but by loving them, they are brought into subjection to them; and subjects are not able to judge. Neither do the creatures reply to such as question them, unless they can judge; nor will they alter their voice (that is, their beauty), if so be one man only sees, another both sees and questions, so as to appear one way to this man, and another to that; but appearing the same way to both, it is mute to this, it speaks to that— yea, verily, it speaks unto all but they only understand it who compare that voice received from without with the truth within. For the truth declares unto me, Neither heaven, nor earth, nor any body is your God. This, their nature declares unto him that beholds them. They are a mass; a mass is less in part than in the whole. Now, O my soul, you are my better part, unto you I speak; for you animate the mass of your body, giving it life, which no body furnishes to a body but your God is even unto you the Life of life.

What then is it that I love when I love my God? Who is He that is above the head of my soul? By my soul itself will I mount up unto Him. I will soar beyond that power of mine whereby I cling to the body, and fill the whole structure of it with life. Not by that power do I find my God; for then the horse and the mule, which have no understanding, might find Him, since it is the same power by which their bodies also live. But there is another power, not that only by which I quicken, but that also by which I endow with sense my flesh, which the Lord has made for me; bidding the eye not to hear, and the ear not to see; but that, for me to see by, and this, for me to hear by; and to each of the other senses its own proper seat and office, which being different, I, the single mind, do through them govern. I will soar also beyond this power of mine; for this the horse and mule possess, for they too discern through the body.

And I’ll add this paragraph from Chapter 17 (Para. 26), which strongly reminds me of Cardinal Newman’s project in the Apologia Pro Vita Sua:

Great is the power of memory; very wonderful is it, O my God, a profound and infinite manifoldness; and this thing is the mind, and this I myself am. What then am I, O my God? Of what nature am I? A life various and manifold, and exceeding vast. Behold, in the numberless fields, and caves, and caverns of my memory, full without number of numberless kinds of things, either through images, as all bodies are; or by the presence of the things themselves, as are the arts; or by some notion or observation, as the affections of the mind are, which, even though the mind does not suffer, the memory retains, while whatsoever is in the memory is also in the mind: through all these do I run to and fro, and fly; I penetrate on this side and that, as far as I am able, and nowhere is there an end. So great is the power of memory, so great the power of life in man, whose life is mortal. What then shall I do, O Thou my true life, my God? I will pass even beyond this power of mine which is called memory— I will pass beyond it, that I may proceed to You, O Thou sweet Light. What sayest Thou to me? Behold, I am soaring by my mind towards You who remainest above me. I will also pass beyond this power of mine which is called memory, wishful to reach You whence You can be reached, and to cleave unto You whence it is possible to cleave unto You. For even beasts and birds possess memory, else could they never find their lairs and nests again, nor many other things to which they are used; neither indeed could they become used to anything, but by their memory. I will pass, then, beyond memory also, that I may reach Him who has separated me from the four-footed beasts and the fowls of the air, making me wiser than they. I will pass beyond memory also, but where shall I find You, O Thou truly good and assured sweetness? But where shall I find You? If I find You without memory, then am I unmindful of You. And how now shall I find You, if I do not remember You?