The Holy Eucharist not only develops, defines, and comes as the consummate expression of the virtue of religion, but also actively increases in the soul the possession of love itself. With the access of sanctifying grace, the sanctity of the soul is advanced by Holy Communion to a degree that no other works performed in virtue of religion could achieve. The reason for this is that the sanctity of the soul is measured not by works of religion but by love.
It is true that sanctity shows itself in the practice of the virtues, and that this supposes outward acts of religion, but it is also true that, whereas virtuous behavior needs love as its motive, the motive of love is love itself. The Holy Eucharist is the sacrament of love.
Theologians distinguish between perfectio substantialis in the soul and perfectio simpliciter. They tell us that where there is no mortal sin, there is a substantial perfection: there are grounds for a further perfection, and the soul is at least perfectly alive. The other kind of perfection, considered simply as sanctity, is the plenitude to which earnest souls feel called to aspire. The Holy Eucharist ministers to each of these perfections: in the first instance, the soul is actively helped to keep itself in a state of grace; in the second, its horizons of love are enlarged. If love is the “bond of perfection” and the Holy Eucharist is the sacrament of love, then Holy Communion not only draws together outward behavior and inward motive but also raises perfectio substantialis toward perfectio simpliciter.
Experience shows, however, that charity can grow cold. Even those who frequently receive Holy Communion may find themselves failing in the love of God. Evidence, exterior as well as interior, may prove that the deterioration is not merely something supposed by an oversensitive conscience, but is something real. What then? How is it that the eucharistic life has ceased to vivify the life of love, the life of the spirit?
Where the conditions are not fulfilled, there is no guarantee that the effects will be produced. Frequent Communion is not magic; the downward tendency of fallen nature is still to be accounted for. The Holy Eucharist does not, as if by a charm, bend an ill-disposed character so that, in spite of itself, the soul finds itself rising to the heights.
Although in the natural order there are such things as warm springs, water is, in the ordinary way, cold. If hot water is wanted, it has to be heated, and when the heat is taken away, it begins to get cold again. It does not get hot all at once, nor does it get cold all at once. If you want a steady level of hot water, you have to give it a steady pressure of heat. And the water will not maintain its temperature, however steady the flame underneath it, if cold water is constantly being added.
Although it is the nature of the Holy Eucharist to promote the love of God and the virtue of religion, its action is conditioned by the willingness of the recipient. If the recipient opens his soul to influences that are alien to the influence of grace — that is, if he tolerates habits of sin — he stifles the good he should be receiving.
Given a certain stimulus and environment, an oyster will produce a pearl; take away the particular conditions, and no oyster will produce a pearl. You may open a thousand oysters and find no pearl, but you will know that a pearl might well have been found in any one of them. From one Holy Communion, a soul may derive the grace to become a saint. The fact that a thousand Communions do not produce sanctity makes no difference to the plenitude of love and grace that is contained in the Holy Eucharist.
God is the source of all your prayer and spiritual effort
In our foolishness, in our muddleheaded humility, we instinctively wonder what it can be that draws the divine desire to such unworthy objects as ourselves. The answer is simply that what He sees in us is the likeness that we bear to Him. And since with every reception of the Holy Eucharist, we can come nearer to reproducing this likeness, He desires that we should receive Him as often as possible.
It is only God who can be at the same time the subject and object of desire. We, by responding to the grace that this desire imparts to us, both further His purpose by way of object and at the same time bring to Christ, the subject, the maximum of praise and love that man is capable of rendering.
Thus, the love that we bring to Christ in the Holy Eucharist is not so much ours as His. And because it is His, it is so much more effective and meritorious than anything we ourselves could provide. We have nothing; He gives us everything. It is His wish that, in Holy Communion, all the merits of His humanity, all the virtue attached to the various stages of His earthly existence, should be applied to the soul of the communicant.
We are inclined to imagine, as we make our preparation for or thanksgiving after receiving Communion, that the force of our prayer, although aided, of course, by grace, comes from ourselves. We assume that, whether praying for what we want with the prayer of petition or praying for what God wants with the prayer of surrender, it is we who are doing the greater part of the work, and that it is due to our industry and imagination that we are finding suitable forms of self-expression. The mystics would have us look at the matter differently.
To return to the simile already used, the comparison of heating up water, the mystics would show that to one who had never seen boiling water before, the bubbles on the surface might well appear to be the cause of the water’s heat; the bubbles seem so much more dynamic than either the steady, silent flame that burns underneath or the cool, thin wire that carries the electricity. In our prayers, on the occasions when we see anything at all, we see only the bubbles.
Explaining how prayers of petition that are answered do not change the mind of God, but have all along been elicited from us by grace, Dionysius compares the soul to a sailor pulling on a rope that is held fast to a rock. To the sailor in his boat, the rock looks as if it is coming toward him in answer to his effort. But in fact the rock, like the will of God, is immovable. We pray, not so as to change the mind of God, but so as to obtain from Him the good that He wants us to have on condition that we ask for it.
To expand Dionysius’s idea, taking it beyond the prayer of petition and applying it to prayer in general, it could be said that the rope that is put into our hands is not one of our own making or selection, but is the one chosen for the purpose by God. It may be rough to handle; it may slip through our fingers; it may appear to be hopelessly unequal to the task of pulling us to shore. But it is the only one we can use at the moment, and we must be content with it.
Not only has the rope been put into our hands by God, but the strength with which we are able to pull is equally His gift. This strength, because it is love, is developed by nothing as much as by the Holy Eucharist. If we hope to keep up the steady pull of love, we need to be living the eucharistic life to our fullest capacity. The rope is no good if it is not pulled; prayer is no good if there is no love.
So whether we are considering sanctity as a whole, or prayer and the Holy Eucharist more particularly, we have to recognize before all else the source of our inspiration and our effort — not only the source but the term. God is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. We try to become holy, we try to pray, we try to live the full eucharistic life, not only because of our own ideas of perfection, but also because of His.
Our success in this business of drawing nearer to the rock that is Christ is measured not by our ideas of navigation, not by the skill with which we manipulate the rope, and not even by rough weather we may meet on the way, but by love. So what we must do is to look not at the rope or at ourselves, and still less at the waves that threaten, but at the rock. True love forgets itself in the outgoing movement toward the object of its love.
If the plenitude of human life is to be found in the eucharistic life fully lived, then sanctity and prayer and the service of God need no further explanation; God is charity, and charity is the bond of perfection. Once the soul learns the meaning of love, as all souls are intended to learn in the unfolding of their eucharistic relationship with God, there is nothing more to worry about.
But do we ever really learn? Perhaps it is none but the greatest saints who have no further need to examine themselves as to how they are placed in relation to the virtues other than charity, to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, to the traditional practices of devotion and religion. For us who are not saints, who dare not assume that “the charity of Christ urges us” at every moment of the day and in every decision we must make, there are steps to be mounted and means to be employed.
The Holy Eucharist, at once the means and the end, enables us daily to deepen the sense of St. Paul’s words: “I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me.” Uniting everything that is perfect into one — namely, Himself — Christ gives this to us in the name of love. Life becomes love, and love becomes life. The human being abides in the divine, and the divine in the human being. The share that by Baptism we have in the life of God becomes, with the grace of the Holy Eucharist, closer. “As the Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father, so he that eateth me the same shall live by me.”
Christ is the only way to the Father, and those who see Christ see the Father also. Those who are nourished by Christ’s body are at the same time extending the graces that flow from the indwelling of the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Blessed Sacrament is not a mystery that separates itself from the Trinity in Heaven and comes down to earth for the love of man. The Blessed Sacrament is Christ, and Christ is God, and God is undivided.
It is when a man discovers Christ that he discovers the Father and the Holy Spirit. It is also then that he discovers love and discovers himself.
So permeated are we by the egotism left to us by the Fall that it is only when the principle of our lives is God and not self that we come to be our true identities. And it is just then that we do not bother any more about who those true identities may be. Love is self-forgetting. Love looks only to the beloved. The Holy Eucharist is the sacrament of love.