WIT welcomes Nicole Le Jeune for this guest post. Nicole is a composer, teacher and lifelong learner. She has a B.A. in Music (University of Bristol, 1992) and an M.A. in Church History (University of Nottingham, 2020). Her M.A. dissertation looked at the Didache through the lens of trauma. As a composer Nicole draws inspiration from interpersonal relationships, nature and the Divine.
The first time I ever held a host was when Sister Mercedes was preparing me for my first Holy Communion. I was very lucky, she explained, that the priest had agreed to let me feel and taste this unconsecrated wafer. It was, I should understand, no ordinary wafer. It had been lovingly created, with the unique destiny of becoming sacred, and I should show reverence to this delicate circular disk that I held in my palm. The only difference between this host and the consecrated host was that the consecrated one held God, divinity, within it.
When eventually I would be permitted to consume a consecrated host at my First Communion, she continued, God would enter into my being, both physically and spiritually, and we would be united. The outcome of this special union would be a sort of endosymbiotic relationship, with God’s divine essence within me, helping me become more Godlike, inspired by the divinity within me. Whilst I realise that this was a simplified theology aimed at a 7-year-old, it was one that I could understand and relate to, and it had a profound long-lasting effect on me.
Fast forward many years, and I discover to my utter bemusement that not only do I have an allergy to alcohol, but also, I am made ill by consuming gluten. Whilst initially disconcerted, I consoled myself by thinking God must just have a different plan for me. There were, after all, other ways of getting to know to God – theology, prayer, interfaith exploration, to name but a few. In my search for a way of communing with God during Mass I came across Alphonsus Liguori’s (1696-1787) prayer for spiritual communion and found in it inspiration for a composition that I include here.
My Jesus, I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament. I love You above all things, and I desire to receive You into my soul. Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already here, and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.Spiritual Communion Prayer by Alphonsus Liguori
The words take the essence from Liguori’s prayer. The musical structure is tripartite. Whilst over all the piece is in 4/4, there is an all-important 7/4 bar. The number 7 is symbolic of wholeness and completeness, and I use it here to symbolise union with God. I have made a piano recording that you can listen to here.
I have decided to share my piece as a result of the experience of the Pandemic and the role that spiritual communion had during this time.
With places of worship closed, all communicants were deprived of the ability to receive physical communion. Much discussion took place as to what could be done in order for the faithful to continue their religious practice. Of particular interest to me was the re-emergence of the debate over the validity of spiritual communion.
The argument for spiritual communion goes right back to Augustine, who encouraged the view that one communed not only through the consumption of the physical element with one’s mouth, but also within one’s heart. Later, in the 12th century, Hugh of Saint-Victor went further, proposing that spiritual communion was placed above that of physical reception. He advocated for a spiritual union in faith and love, to the point that on his death bed he forwent sacramental communion in preference of spiritual. However, a century later, Thomas Aquinas was not so convinced. Taking the opposing view, he argued that, whilst spiritual communion had its merits, only full physical sacramental communion would suffice.
Whilst the debate bobbed back and forth over the centuries, the practice of spiritual communion has remained part of the religious expression of the Church. Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia endorsed the practice, though it seems to have slipped from contemporary consciousness and practice.
The situation caused by the Pandemic brought about renewed interest in the non-physical way of communing. Pope Francis turned to Liguori’s prayer during his Mass at Santa Marta. With believers seeking ways to connect in online worship, whole new communities were discovered that already existed online. People woke up to the realisation that there were already members of the Church for whom physical communion was routinely not possible and there was a growth in understanding and solidarity.
In the now post-Pandemic world, when reflecting on the practical responses of the Church during the pandemic, there are voices saying that we should not forget what we have learnt and are advocating for a return to the practice of spiritual communion as an essential part of eucharistic integrity. I advocate for the use of a prayer of spiritual communion as an integral part of communion, for those of us who, for whatever reason, are unable to receive the physical elements yet wish to be part of the communing congregation, be it in person or online.