Eucharistic Theory, Practice and Devotion
of the Brethren of the Common Life
Jackson Snyder, December 3, 1990

 

Part 4

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Communion Doctrine: Five Points, Four Signs, Two Marks and Eight Groups 

Up to this point, the case has been made that one may safely apply Ruysbroek's theological foundations in recreating the actual practice of Communion in the New Devotion communities.  Although the writings of the Brethren seldom treat systematic theology, when they do, they follow Ruysbroek.  (The following examination of Eucharistic theology in the Brethren closely follows The Eucharist and Its Role in the Spiritual Life, found in Ruusbroec [sic].[2])  

Five points of Doctrine include God's grace enlightening both the Hebrew law found in the Torah, the Christian law of scriptures, but also through the inerrant Church and the writings of its saints. The Sacrament was prefigured in the acts of Melchisedek, the Passover of Moses and the Last Supper, in which Jesus charged the apostles with (a) the Sacraments, (b) his future disciples and (c) the Kingdom of Heaven.  The testimony Christ left for us is Himself in the Sacrament, together with everything he is able to accomplish as both God and man through it.  

The substance and form of the Sacrament were set when Christ said, "This is my body and blood."  He thus transformed these substances into the exact same body and blood that reclined at the table. Now, through the "priest's correct intention and the words of consecration," all consecrated bread and wine in the world becomes the same body and blood: one substance and one body.  

      This doctrine of "transubstantiation" first appeared "officially" in De Corpore et Sanguine Domini by St. Paschsius Radbertus (831).  St. Paschsius interpreted the presence of Christ in the elements of the sacrament as being strictly literal - the true blood and body of Jesus Christ, indivisible, yet without altering the taste of the element.[3]  Such is also good Eckhartian theology, since transubstantiation was adapted and expanded by Aquinas with the idea that Christ's blood and body are never separated from each other, or from his soul or divinity.  (Transubstantiation is actually a Platonic ideal adapted from Greek philosophy.)  This doctrine became the dogma of the Church as late as the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), merely 100 years before the bulk of our subject matter. (The Fourth Lateran also declared the primacy of Rome over the "Catholic" church.[4])  The Council was a landmark in church history and in close chronological connection to the time frame we are now studying.   

   Only unleavened wheat bread was to be used, as a token of the scriptural grain of wheat that died. The wine signifies the vineyard of Jn 15:1. Water is mixed with it to symbolize "Christ's people united with him and living in his blood."  The wine, which flows from the wounds of Christ, makes one drunken with love, and manifests itself in two "marks" and four signs.  The marks:  (1) Christ is Nourishment; his love is such that he gives himself to the communicant as food.  In turn, Christ hungers after the communicant as after food. 

His hunger is incomparably great: He consumes us right to the depths of our being, for he is a voracious glutton suffering from bulimia and consuming the very marrow of our bones.  Still, we grant him all this willingly, and the more willingly we grant it, the more does he savor us. No matter how much of us he consumes, he cannot be satisfied for he is suffering from bulimia and so has an unquenchable appetite.  

Sinfulness is "burned out" in the fire of Christ's love. Christ consumes human nature as a “burning,” leaving grace in its place, until one enters into "a state of divine affection ... above reason."  The Sacrament also nourishes in a way similar to any other food.  The priests receive body and blood, "two species."  The lay communicants receive only the body.  Yet the substance of both species is exactly the same: "Christ is wholly and indivisibly present in each."  

The second mark is that of (2) sacrificial offering: the satisfying of the Father through the atoning death of the Son so that communicants might live with Christ for eternity.  

The first sign is that one is recreated in the image of God as the Son is the image of God, existing before creation.  Yet, one's recreated image does not become God, nor does God's image become a creature.  This is in contradiction to much of the doctrine of the "identity of God in man" found in Eckhart's or the Friends' writings.  (This sign is a polemic against Ruysbroek's arch-enemies, the Brethren of the Free Spirit.)  Attributes of the image of God (which is identified with the soul) include a "bareness devoid of images," higher reason (i.e. eternal wisdom), and the "spark of the soul," tending always to fly toward its source.  

The second, third and fourth signs are: (2) the sending of God's Son, who received "soul and body from the immaculate Virgin Mary," (3) redemption through Christ's death, and (4) Christ's giving himself in the Eucharist, since his body and blood belong to him alone, and he has no obligation to sustain others with it.  Yet Christ gives in order that the disciple may live forever, which means "living spiritually ...as do the angels and saints."  Those receiving unworthily (in states of mortal sin) pass judgment on themselves and are dead in God's sight.  

      A Fourth Point in Eucharistic Doctrine is the hidden nature of Christ's presence. The Apostles saw the man Jesus but believed that he was God; likewise, one perceives the sacrament as bread and wine but believes that "the body of our Lord is hidden for us within the Sacrament."  This is possible because the glorified body of Christ is beyond the eye's capacity to see. Other Sacraments likewise conceal their true nature.  

If we were to see our Lord as he is in Heaven, it would be impossible as well as inhuman for us to eat his body or drink his blood.  But at present it is the sacrament we eat with our teeth, while it is in the sacrament and through our faith and love that we eat his flesh and drink his blood in our soul.  In this way we are united with him and he with us.  

The last point details in depth the eight different groups who receive the Sacrament. There are the (1) "naturally weak-hearted," a small group of mostly women or girls. They long desperately for the sacrament, knowing that it imparts the strength through grace to overcome a weak life.  After partaking, they very soon "fall back into a state of longing, desire, and restlessness as though ... they were out of their mind...."  (2) Those whose "spirit is astute and under standing" are more advanced than the weak-hearted, although by very nature they are "inclined toward impurity." Their prayer:  

Lord, I am impure and not worthy that your holy body should come in the Sacrament under the roof of my impure body.  I am also unworthy of all the honor, goodness, and consolation which good persons receive from you.  I must always therefore weep and lament and walk with firm faith in your sight....  

The third group includes (3) masters of nature and spirit, and perfect disciples, such as the Virgin Mary. They emulate and venerate her and practice the same virtue when receiving the body as she did when conceiving the Son.  There are progressive steps to perfection.  "Hail Mary, full of Grace."  Whatever is full of grace is pure.  Purity comes through repentance, having great faith in God to forgive, and avoiding long confessions.  Purity is followed by true knowledge of God; Mary knew God better than any other person who ever lived. One must be open to hearing admonition from Heaven, humbly accepting and understanding it, then responding like Mary to the angel in the Annunciation. "Let it be according to your word!"  Such is an attitude of humility, which is the gate to exaltation. "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord!" Only those of perfect humility can remain in such an exalted state of desire and ecstasy!  "Who is higher than the Mother of God, yet lower than the Handmaid of God?"   

The fourth group of communicants is not so exalted.  Common monks and nuns are encouraged to come, but only those who are full of good will and set their minds on their own salvation by closely following the religious rules of their order!  (5) There are those conceited persons who think they are holy and righteous, who confess or receive communion to get the best of others. They love to eat for the attention, but despise and abhor humility!  (6) Then come those who pursue the "common way" of the masses to heaven; they do not willingly commit sin, but keep the commandments of the Church as well as they are able. They only need communion annually to "be saved," though they will have to successfully complete severe tests of penance and long terms in purgatory. (7) Another group, the "easily swayed to good or bad," may approach. They are often generous, compassionate and warmhearted.  Since innate goodness is a gift of God, they are so gifted, although their disposition and temperament often makes them double-minded.  

Finally, there is an eighth group:  Those rejected of God, such as pagans, Jews, unbelievers, scorners, heretics should never be allowed to partake, for, unless they repent sincerely, they are all damned to hell. I infer that Ruysbroek has a special place in hell for his Free Spirits, those who teach that "on the Last Day, both angels and devils, both good persons and wicked persons will all become a single, simple, divine substance."  Certain mystics who followed Meister Eckhart, who taught that "God will neither will, know or love any creature" fair no better, for all such heretics are to be condemned.  

(And here is a queer paradox:  Although we mark many similarities between Ruysbroek's and Eckhart's concepts and language in Eucharistic doctrine, Eckhart, in the end, is condemned to hell a heretic!  Some scholars[5] therefore suspect that Ruysbroek only had second-hand knowledge of Eckhartian mystical theology!  Let us suppose that Ruysbroek was an illiterate priest, after all.  We remember that Groote translated the priest's writings into Latin.  These translations may be easily and perfectly outlined, as if Groote really gave their form a thorough redaction.  Could Groote have done the same with Ruysbroek’s theology?)

Part V

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[1]  Edited September 30, 2000 and dedicated to Mignon Snyder.

[2]  Ruusbroec [sic], pages 201-234.

[3]  Ferguson 493.

[4]  Ferguson 172.

[5]  Clark 25 and Graef 198.