Just a Symbol?

In recounting a late night supper conversation with an author who was raised Catholic but left the Church to become, instead, a Big Intellectual, Flannery O’ Connor relays the theological zinger employed to object to the notion of the Eucharist as a symbol: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it,” (in a letter to “A,” dated 16 December ’55).

Today the Church celebrated the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, a feast to honor Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. The Church teaches that the Eucharist is, indeed, the Body and Blood of Our Lord (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1333) and “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324). Because I do believe, I find myself increasingly much more hesitant to receive the Eucharist frequently. In fact, as paradoxical as it may sound to modern Catholic ears, I may be acting faithfully as a Catholic by abstaining from communion on a regular basis. (Note: the author did not say that he was necessarily acting as a good Catholic, for he is not–just a faithful one.)

While I cannot point to a solid historical source and I have no interest in scouring my fiber-optic library for one, I will simply be content to proclaim from my chair that it is a rather recent phenomenon for Catholics to receive communion every Sunday, especially considering the rampant infrequency with which most present-day Catholics make use of Confession.  Perhaps the early church may have encouraged frequent reception of the Eucharist, but I would wager that the early Christians possessed a more sober sense of sin along with a concomitant frequent recourse to Confession. (However, if anyone actually possesses those things often called “facts” regarding this, as opposed to [my] hunches, wagers, and proclamations, feel mostly free to inform me.) Anyway, most Catholics now seem to view the Eucharist, much like heaven, as a right, rather than a privilege made possible only by grace.

At this point in my life, I try to limit myself in receiving communion only if I have gone to Confession within a week’s period prior to that. Given that I do not go to Confession every week (though, for a time in my life I did and was labeled, predictably, as scrupulous), I do not receive the Eucharist every week. What this usually means then is that I regularly find myself as one of, oh, ten to fifteen people in my parish who does not make the Communion march every Sunday. In other words, I find myself staying behind with divorced Catholics (at least the ones who are serious about their faith) and ethnic Catholics who do not share the American compulsion to receive communion every time it is offered lest others–God forbid–discover that they are sinners.

For similar reasons I no longer volunteer to function as an extraordinary Eucharistic minister or to bring communion to the sick. Given that my hands are not consecrated, I will not now dare touch a Host, unless it was to save it from harm or defilement. When I think back to the many times that I did cavalierly handle a Host as an extraordinary Eucharistic minister (not even to go into the many times I may have received communion in a state of mortal sin), I can only hope to heaven that God is not kidding about the whole “forgiveness” part of Christianity.

I would like to see the Church resurrect Eucharistic processions. I want to see men take off their hats (I would like to see more men wear hats to take off) and get on their knees as such a procession passes. I would like to see women–well, I would just like to see women. But, alas my lass, given that religion in America has been reduced to another consumer choice among legion (and one that, in a decidedly non-Catholic manner, must be kept from the public square), there are apparently not enough people willing to pay for this. Thankfully, we still have Adoration, which tends to draw a slightly larger crowd than Confession.

So, yes, the Eucharist is the reason why I could never leave Mother Church. The Eucharist is why I do not wash my hands of the Church despite the priest scandals, less-than-stirring homilies, Jesus My Boyfriend/Homeboy hymns, boring Knights of Columbus meetings, felt banners, Sunday obligations, nuns with short hair, liturgies in the vernacular, etc. That Jesus promised that those who eat His flesh and drink His blood will live forever is the promise that keeps a dull sinner like me coming back to the pew, even when I am not able to receive Him in the Eucharist.

If the Eucharist were just a symbol, then to hell with it. To hell with what would be left in its place: a propositional Christianity based in a The-Bible-Is-Our-God belief. If this were the case, then I would much rather go with the religion of my paternal grandparents: Buddhism.

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11 Responses to Just a Symbol?

  1. Addendum: for those who will say “Get thee to a Latin Mass”:
    1). I still believe that the Novus Ordo Mass is valid, though not necessarily preferable to EF. Yes, I am that guy.
    2). I still believe in involvement with the local church. Yes, I am that guy.
    3). I would attend one on a somewhat regular basis if the nearest one was not over two hours away. Yes, I am that guy.

  2. Gary M says:

    Communion in my church (whichever heathen Protestant church it happened to be that week) has almost always been observed quarterly, as if if something couldn’t be mapped out on the calendar a year in advance and in concurrence with business meetings that night then it just wasn’t worth the time. And it has, for nearly all my life, been an event of puzzling religiosity. With the plates of sad little wafers and tiny cups of Welch’s being passed around painfully slowly, the congregation always fell into an uncomfortable hush, which was, we were told, a time to reverentially, humbly, repentantly reflect upon our sinfulness and pray accordingly. Only with this new hyper-sensitive spirituality gained from forty-five seconds’ worth of reflection and prayer were we worthy (in any way that we filthy mortals can be worthy) to accept the bread and the cup. (It was always called “the cup,” because we damn sure weren’t drinking wine and “grape juice” sounded more than a bit silly.) What, even as a child, I could never get past was the flippancy with which most people around me accepted the communion. I never outgrew my (often hypocritical) moral outrage at the lack of true emotional investment so many offered toward the Body and the Blood. Can’t we all just put aside ourselves for just a few minutes? Hell, people, it’s only once a quarter.

  3. A few minutes is a pretty damn long time…Anyway, I think that Catholics, for the most part, would be better off receiving the Eucharist only as their Easter duty rather than every Sunday. Not that I am in a position to judge (I will, though), but the casual way that most people receive the Eucharist sickens me. For the most part, I now have to avoid watching people receive communion. At least Protestants have an excuse: mistreat a symbol–serious sin? However, we Catholics have no excuse. Every time I see a parishioner chew the Host like it is a potato chip, I just want trip that person as he/she makes his/her way back to the pew.

    To wrap up: I once thought that I saw a young boy drop a piece of a Host as he was walking back to his pew. As soon as Mass ended, I rushed to that area and picked up what I thought was a small piece of a Host; turns out that what I had picked up was a scab. I would like to think God found that amusing.

  4. Miriel says:


    So: not to get all technical up in your soapbox, but this post is wrongheaded in several important ways. First of all…if your conscience really tells you that you are not in a state to receive the Eucharist without first going to Confession, doesn’t it seem like the solution is to confess more frequently, not to receive less frequently? It’s hard to reconcile your professed reverence for the Eucharist (which I’m perfectly willing to believe is genuine) with the idea that–if it were really necessary for you–you’d have better things to do on Saturday afternoon than prepare yourself to receive God on Sunday morning.

    Secondly, it’s seriously theologically misguided to establish arbitrary guidelines for yourself that–unless you are in a state of mortal sin–are more stringent than the Church’s guidelines…you know, given that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit and whatnot. (It’s worth noting, for the sake of the peanut gallery, that since the conditions for mortal sin are grave matter, full knowledge, and full consent, if you ever received the Eucharist in that state, you were aware of it.) The current Holy Father and his immediate predecessor have both placed a great deal of emphasis on the value of receiving the Eucharist frequently, and it seems to me to be the height of hubris to presume that God does not want to be in communion with you simply because you are not worthy in your own estimation (as if we ever can be worthy). Scrupulousness is not holiness, and it’s certainly not virtuous to remain in the pew congratulating yourself on how much more reverence for the Eucharist you have than the rabble that dares to receive Christ at His invitation.

    It’s also worth noting that the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass serves to cleanse us of our venial sins before the rite of Communion, so again, *unless you are in mortal sin*, you are approaching the altar with a clean heart.

    I would track down the citations for all of these points if I thought it would do any good, but I have to leave for work now…

  5. Well, not the first time I have been accused of wrongheadedness.

    As for your first point–yes, the ideal solution would be to confess on a weekly basis. Heck, in this society, probably on a daily basis like the religious of old, especially since the Church now expects the average parishioner to achieve the sanctity that for most of the Church’s history has been commonly expected only of secular priests and the religious, but I digress. However, my Catholic tendencies are not ideal. Also, quite honestly, I don’t think that I could bring a spirit of true contrition to Confession were I to confess weekly. Before anything is said, I know that a spirit of true contrition consists more in an intellectual recognition of sin and a willingness to avoid future occasions of sin than an emotional response concerning one’s sins. Either way, though, I don’t think that I could bring such a spirit to the confessional on a weekly basis. Objectively speaking, nothing is more important than preparing myself Saturday afternoon to meet my God on Sunday, yet this does not mean that I will always act in accordance with this. I suppose that, objectively speaking, nothing is really more important than assisting at Mass, praying, reading good devotional literature, and performing works of charity. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t spend all my free time (nor do I want to) in such activities. I read Walker Percy novels, I regularly hit up my favorite bar, I spend time with my friends, I flirt with pretty girls, I even blog, etc. Thus, when I don’t make a Saturday afternoon visit to the Confessional, I am hesitant to approach the Sacred Body and Blood the following Sunday morning. (That is all this pixilated boy is trying to say…)

    Per two: ah–I have to run off to a meeting myself. Will continue this. I do appreciate the response, though. Not that you are worrying about this, but don’t worry about taking off the kiddie gloves…

    • Okay, if it makes you feel any better, I did receive communion today at Mass. I am now enjoying a refreshing PBR. Let’s continue…

      Per point two: arbitrary? I laid out my reasoning: I am inclined not to receive the Eucharist if I have not been able to make it to Confession a week or so prior. However, if I received communion only if I saw three men wearing yellow polka dot ties and at least one woman with a blue feather in her hair, that might qualify as arbitrary. Also, while my self-imposed (that is all I claim it to be) discipline may be more stringent than any guideline officially set down by the Church, the Church–as far as I know–does not command the faithful to receive communion every Sunday either. In addition, I have passed on to peanut gallery the qualities of mortal sin. In regard to that matter, though, I was trying to go easy on myself semantically: there have been occasions when I have knowingly received communion in an unworthy manner. (Granted, further and more nuanced levels of ignorance during those miserable times may still reduce full and extreme culpability–I hope to God.) And, yes, I know the current Holy Father advocates and his immediate predecessor advocated frequent communion. I even know that Pope St. Pius X is the one who got the ball rolling in this matter. I bet that theses popes also encourage/d holy lives, but I fall short in that manner as well.

      Height of hubris? Please, don’t give me that much credit. As much as I would like to be a tragic Greek figure, I don’t think modern men are still capable of such dramatic sins. If anything, though, I would say that the pinnacle of presumption comes with a cavalier reception of the Eucharist– before whom the heavens are not pure, not from refraining from receiving communion. Not that this is an either/or matter–I just wanted to get in my rhetorical point as well.

      Lest anyone misunderstand me: Attention! Blog Service Announcement–I am not advocating that people stay away from the Eucharist. I am not denigrating the “rabble” who, in a state of grace, receives communion frequently. I am not inviting to anyone over to my Scrupulosity Swimming Party and BBQ (Victorian swimming suits only–gender specific pools divided by a fence covered with random quotes from St. Leonard of Port Maurice’s heartwarming classic “The Fewness of the Saved.”). All I mean to say: until I start living more like a member of a religious order (i.e., frequent confession and spiritual direction), I will not receive communion like a member of religious order (viz., whenever the Eucharist is offered to me). And I simply wish more Catholics saw the matter in the same way.

  6. Miriel says:

    So let me see if I’ve got this straight: You believe that the Eucharist is the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ…but you’re consciously declining to receive it as often as you could because…you don’t feel like making the effort to grow in holiness that you ought to be making if you were going to receive more frequently? Did it ever occur to you that you might be more inspired to chase after holiness if you were receiving communion more frequently? That’s pretty elementary, isn’t it?–the Eucharist as the _source_ and summit of our faith?

    If you were writing this stuff simply to describe your own spiritual state, I wouldn’t bother to object. I’d still think it was less than ideal, but I don’t know you from Adam and I don’t make a habit of criticizing other people’s spiritual practices. I just think it’s problematic to present your attitude toward the Eucharist as one that others ought to emulate (“I simply wish more Catholics saw the matter in the same way”), because I *don’t* think this is an attitude that actually demonstrates love for our Lord in the Eucharist. Reverence, maybe. But love…no. Because when you love someone, you want to be united with Him. Period.

  7. Yes, you got it straight. I also believe in different degrees in glory and the eternity of hell. I believe that all Catholics are offered the opportunities to be saints. Yet, regardless of these beliefs, do I heroically deny myself and the world as saints necessarily must? No. Do I, like St. John Vianney, sleep (for only three to five hours) on a wooden board only after I have wrapped myself in chains in order to do penance for the sins of others? No. Would I, like St. Francis, roll in a briar in order to combat lustful thoughts? No. Would I, like St. Thomas Aquinas, chase out with a fire poker a half-dressed woman in my bedroom in order to keep sexually pure? I would definitely need St. Thomas’s intercession to do that. Do I even, like St. Therese of Lisieux, offer up a simple and little way like not leaning all the way back in my seat whenever I sit down? Nope. Are these saints, for their efforts (of course, aided by grace) objectively better Catholics than we who shy away from suffering and discipline and deprivation? Most definitely. Do I believe in the reality and eternity of hell? Yes, I do. Yet, I still sin. And, following the advice of St. Alphonsus de Liguori, do I spend much time meditating upon my inevitable death and the judgment that will follow? Not as much as I should. If you want to discuss my shortcomings, I could give you a much more complete list.

    In regard to this post and every post, this is simply me throwing my thoughts into the fiber-optic ether. I do not present this blog as a Catholic blog–I’ll leave that to the fine folks at Crisis Magazine and First Things. Also, and this is important, I am not trying to encourage others to emulate my spiritual condition–whatever that might be. Heaven knows I don’t need that on my conscience. My spiritual condition–as with every condition–is utterly unique to my state in my life. I have never claimed to possess a heart that burns with love for Jesus as it should, and anybody who thinks such has not read more than two of my posts. Now, to address what seems to be your main point of contention/concern: what way exactly do I want more Catholics to “share” my beliefs? Simply and only this: the belief that if one receives communion frequently, then one should go to Confession frequently. That is all. Either you will agree or disagree.

    Do I have a long way to go in the love department? You bet your…I do. (Given that I don’t know you from Eve, I’ll refrain from speaking too familiarly with you.) But, hey, I talk to Our Mom about that all the time.

  8. Miriel says:

    Well, on that particular point at least, we are in heated agreement 🙂

  9. Yes! Here we are like good (or, in my case, not so good) Catholics finding common ground.

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