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

 

Part 5

 

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Communion in Practice  

This section is a synthesis of many sources, some ancient, and including references to Meister Eckhart’s writing, at least that which he completed while still considered orthodox.  

Since clergy and laity resided together among the households of the Brethren (though priests did not live among the Sisters, of course), Communion was received often, even daily, according to the text Edifying Points of the Older Sisters.[2] In preparation for communion on Sundays, feast days and holy days, no meat was eaten for three days previous, and all work except essentials was suspended the day before.[3]  Spiritual preparation was demanded of the Brethren, as set forth in the pamphlet John Brinckerinck on the Holy Sacrament, an important text of the devoted. It is harmful, says Brother Brinckerinck, to determine beforehand that one will continue in a fault even after the sacrament, since the Eucharist is endues one with "incomparably more grace" to withstand and overcome one's carnal imperfections.[4]  Thus, in "spiritual preparation," one must reflect on past wrongdoings with regret and sorrow, and be willing to undergo all the penance one deserves before receiving the Sacrament.  It was St. Agnes, who prayed,  

Dear Lord, I wish that I could receive you with such flaming love and sweetness in my heart and submission of myself as you received from your holy people - but that is too far off!  Dear Lord, may I only be granted the will for it![5]  

Between Communions, one must be constantly persistent in fulfilling God's will by taking note of everything one does, questioning, "Is this action born of God, or is it not?"  After pondering the question a sufficient amount of time daily, the following prayer of confession (or one that is similar), is to be said:  

Dear Lord, these are the faults found in me: disobedience, arrogance, impatience, making excuses, unworthy behavior toward others, and evil desires in the form of greed, vainglory, and idle curiosity; but I will ever seek to progress and to strive with all my might to overcome.  

The application of the prayer of confession is a somewhat unique to the sacrament of the Brethren. I have read many and varied Communion confessional prayers, some but a few words, others quite long. One particularly striking preparatory call to confession is found in the Imitation, and is spoken by the Beloved, by which title the author refers to Christ:  

Lament grievously and be sorry, for Thou art still so carnal and worldly, so unmortified from thy passions, so full of the motion of concupiscence, so unguarded in thine outward senses, so often entangled in many vain fancies, so much inclined to outward things, so negligent of internal; so ready to laughter and dissoluteness, so unready to weeping and contrition; so prone to ease and indulgence of the flesh; so dull to zeal and fervor; so curious to hear novelties and behold beauties, so loth [sic] to embrace things humble and despised; so desirous to have many things, so grudging in giving, so close in keeping; so inconsiderate in speaking, so reluctant to keep silence; so disorderly in manners, so inconsiderate in actions; so eager after food, so deaf toward the Word of God; so eager after rest, so slow to labour; so watchful after tales, so sleeping in holy watchings; so eager for the end of them, so wandering in attention to them; so negligent in observing the hours of prayer, so lukewarm in celebrating, so unfruitful in communicating; so quickly distracted, so seldom quite collected with thyself; so quickly moved to anger, so ready for displeasure at others; so prone to judging, so severe at reproving; so joyful in prosperity, so weak in adversity; so often making many good resolutions and bringing them to so little effect.[6]  

Sister Salome Sticken writes what could be a wonderful means of response to the Beloved in her pamphlet, A Way of Life for Sisters:  

At the beginning of mass humbly prostrate yourselves before the face of our beloved Lord Jesus, and with affectionate sighs and desires confess unto him all your faults, especially that vice which is your worst. Pour out to our beloved Lord Jesus your every wish and whole heart in ardent desire and great gratitude, giving thanks to him with all your strength, for he, who is so incomprehensively great, deigned to undergo and suffer such awful and repeated torment for you.  With heartfelt desire, then, offer up to the heavenly Father the unspeakable and dear passion of our sweet Lord Jesus as a most pleasing sacrifice, adding the superb and most worthy merits of the glorious Virgin Mary, the merits of all the saints, and the common prayer of the entire Holy Catholic Church together with the humility, love, and pious desires of all good men [sic] as an acceptable and pleasing oblation to God for all your sins.[7]  

According to Eckhart, in his Talks, confession and repentance is a requirement for any communicant who desires to "partake of the body" with a "free heart."[8] A confessor is not necessary; one may confess directly to Christ. Such direct confession seems to be acceptable to the Brethren, and is implied throughout the literature. Traditionally, confession and repentance is the spiritual counterpart of bodily cleanliness (at least as far as the washing of the hands, since frequent bathing was thought to cause the plague). St. John Chrysostom penned the following words concerning cleanliness in the third century that were so well known in the fourteenth:  

Tell me, would you go to the Eucharist with your hands unwashed? I think not. You would rather not go at all than go with dirty hands. If you are so careful about a small matter, how can you dare go and receive the Eucharist with an impure soul? With your hands you hold the Lord's body only a short time, but it remains in your soul forever.[9]  

Meditation:  When the time for sacrament came, one was to segregate in order to meditate without distraction, and, if possible, lay prostrate on the floor.[10] Yet one must be close enough to see the priest and the elements clearly.[11] Groote would have one meditating with both the mind and the "mouth." The mind and mouth must be synchronized; otherwise, the mouth becomes as "clanging brass."[12] Eckhart exhorts communicants to focus entirely on the will of God, to the point of ignoring anything else, taking so much pleasure in thinking about God that there is displeasure in any interrupting thought.  God-awareness takes two steps, "be spiritually quite private, guarding the mind carefully against irrelevant ideas," and "do not allow the mind to invent ideas, as one may get lost in them."[13]  

In the earlier days, any disciple of Christ had full rights to not only approach the celebration but also to administer it, take it to the sick, etc. With the dogma of transubstantiation, the Church's attitude changed, and the elements became precious. Read Cyril of Jerusalem's early and interesting account, carefully noticing the relationship between cleanliness (sanctification) and the value of the elements:  

When you approach communion, do not come with your hands outstretched or your fingers open, but make your left hand a throne for the right one, which is to receive the King.  With your hand hollowed receive the Body of Christ and answer Amen.  After having, with every precaution, sanctified your eyes by contact with the holy body, consume it, making sure that not a particle is wasted, for that would be like losing one of your own limbs. Tell me, if you were given some gold dust, would you not hold it very carefully for fear of letting any of it fall and losing it?  How much more careful then you should be not to let fall even a crumb of something more precious than gold or jewels!  After having received the Body of Christ, approach the chalice of his Blood.  Do not stretch out your hands, but bow in an attitude of adoration and reverence, and say Amen.[14]       

By the 9th century, complicated social, theological, and disciplinary considerations led to the abolition of the laity holding the bread, drinking from the cup, or carrying the Eucharist to the sick. People had gotten into the superstitious practice of taking the bread home as a kind of blessed relic, to be preserved for good luck.[15] The wine, which was the actual blood of Christ, was often spilt. In this same historical period, there was increased emphasis on the importance of clergy. Finally, the bread was denied altogether, and "the Mass became a kind of sacred drama that Christians had [only] to 'hear and see,' rather than as a celebration that they participated in."[16] Unless one knows this fact before reading Groote, one wonders why he emphasizes the seeing of the priest and the bread, and what to do if neither can be seen. He writes,  

For all the faithful used to communicate in the early church, and now the Pax (Peace) is given in its place as a kind of communication with the body of Christ.  The reason the body is not commonly given to all, I judge, is that they were better in the early church, warmed still by the blood of Christ, and religion which is now grown decrepit was then in its vigor and at its peak.  Christ therefore withdrew himself bodily, as he has spiritually...even though you are not eating the sacrament carnally you may yet eat it spiritually.[17]     

He also prescribes beneficial bowing with bare heads, back bowed, and knees bent, as an aid to devotion. The head is to be bowed over the "lower" arm, which he describes as being analogous to the bowing of the mind. Since only the Brethren who were priests probably knew Latin, the rest were to pray "in secret" while the priest was reciting the Sanctum and Pacem.  

One's heart is to be prepared to see the sacrament as though to actually see the King of Glory, since the sacrament is in reality Christ. One must allow Christ to do the work of salvation within by being in perfect submission to his overshadowing. The proof of such spiritual endowment and change is the response of the communicant of to the liturgical exhortation, "Lift up your hearts!" - that is, "We have lifted them up to the Lord!"[18]  One may be lifted up as high as one's preparation, devotion, and spiritual state allows, sometimes as high as the "eighth or ninth" choir of angels![19]  

Communing brings oneness with God, and one is "justified" through it. A greater grace is evident and imparted through Eucharist than through any other work. In fact, Eckhart tells us that "one may eat of this 'inner food' until he becomes richer in grace than any person on this earth!"  Eating Christ in the heart increases and focuses physical powers, as well. "Scattered senses" are brought together by it and turned Godward.[20] The communicant benefits in a number of other tangible ways; namely, he regains grace lost through worldly living, receives a greater desire for frequent communing, acquires a greater "taste" for humility and obedience, a more fervent desire to advance his spiritual life and undertake good works, and scripture reading and listening becomes more attractive.  Of course, one so blessed will have a more urgent desire to confess more faults![21] 

After the Sacrament, one is to remain in intense meditation and devotion. No Brothers or Sister should speak. Rather, one should feel an increased spiritual strength and devotion to Christ and the Christ of the Sacrament. One should already begin to long for the next Communion, for, with each holy meal, affection for God will increase, while reverence for the sameness of the liturgy will not diminish. Frequent Communions through time will bring about eternal changes - one becomes "holy and, in eternity, blessed, [and] will become, in time, divine within."  So the benefit of the Sacrament is cumulative, bestowing blessing after blessing, time after time, progressing on to perfection in a greater love for God, weaning the devoted of temporal things, conditioning to spiritual, since “our hearts and his are to be one heart; our body and his, one body. So, too, it will be with our senses, wills, thoughts, faculties, and members.”[22]  

Groote interjects one final admonition.  In conversation after the Sacrament, no Brother is to encourage anyone to take up "holy orders" for three reasons; the education required ruins the spiritual life, priesthood involves one in simony, and "because of the sorry state of the Church." This is in keeping with Groote's autobiography: “You (Groote himself) will not study a degree in theology because I desire neither benefice nor fame, and I can learn equally well without a degree.”[23]  Yet he set aside time to study every day on his own.  This is just another subtle criticism of the organized clergy, through whose mouth and lips even the holy Brethren were required to eat Christ.    
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[1]  Edited September 30, 2000 and dedicated to Mignon Snyder.

[2]  Qtd. Devotio 158.

[3]  A Customary for Brothers qtd. by Devotio 172, 174.

[4]  Qtd. by Devotio 231.

[5]  ibid 232.

[6]  ibid 361.

[7]  ibid 176.

[8]  Blakney 30.

[9]  Qut. by Belford 8.

[10]  Devotio qtg. Edifying Points 158.

[11]  ibid qtg. Resolutions 72.

[12]  ibid qtg. Edifying Points 158.

[13]  Talks qtd. Blakney.

[14]  Belford qtd. Cyril of Jerusalem 8.

[15]  An interesting contemporary case history of this practice is reported in Ladurie's Montaillou, 288-326.

[16]  Belford 9,10. 

[17]  Devotio qtd. Resolutions 72.

[18]  ibid.

[19]  Blakney qtd. Talks 30.

[20]  Blakney 27,30.

[21]  Brinckerinck 233.

[22]  Blakney qtd. Talks 28-31.

[23]  Qtd. Southern 336.