With churches suspending public worship out of concern for the contagion of Covid-19, the noval coronavirus, we Episcopalians (and many others) are prevented from receiving Holy Communion. An ancient practice of the Church in such circumstances, for there have always been those who, for whatever reason, are unable to take the Sacrament, is to make an act of “spiritual communion.”
Spiritual communion was defined by St. Thomas Aquinas as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Holy Sacrament and a loving embrace as though we had already received Him.” This is a lovely way to unite oneself to God through prayer, expressing to God one’s desire to be united with Christ when we are unable to do so through reception of Holy Communion.
The Roman Catholic saint, Alphonsus Liguori, taught a four-step method of of making a spiritual communion.
First, make an act of faith, the point of which is to express one’s firm belief in God’s goodness and mercy. Recitation of one of the historical creeds would be such an act; if one is following along on the internet with a live-streamed service, saying the Creed along with those on your computer screen would be this first step. An alternative might be this prayer adapted from one to be said before worship and found in Prayers and Thanksgivings section of The Book of Common Prayer 1979:
Almighty God, you pour out on all who desire it the spirit of grace and of supplication: Deliver us, when we draw near to you, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections we may worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The second step is to make an act of love reciting either a formal prayer of the Church or an extemporaneous one. The act should express our love for Jesus in his church. The Prayers of the People are the act of love in a formal service of Holy Communion and reciting them along with a live-streamed service would fulfill this step. A shorter, private alternative would be this prayer for mission from the Daily Office of Morning Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.
Next is an expression of our desire to receive Christ, such as the Prayer of Humble Access (this is the version from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer):
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
The fourth step is to invite Jesus to come into one’s heart spiritually. A traditional prayer adapted from the Roman Catholic tradition is this:
Lord Jesus, I believe that you are present in the 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 you are already there and unite myself wholly to you. Never permit me to be separated from you. Amen.
Alternatives might be one these prayers adapted from a form of spiritual communion published as a booklet by Bishop Cecil John Wood of Melanesia in the early 20th Century. The first is similar to the Roman Catholic prayer.
In union, O Lord, with the faithful at every altar of your church where your blessed Body and Blood are being offered, I desire to offer your praise and thanksgiving. I present to you my soul and body, with the earnest wish that I may ever be united to you. And since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, I ask you to come spiritually into my heart. I unite myself to you, and embrace you with all the affections of my soul. Let nothing ever separate me from you; let me live and die in your love. Amen.
Grant, Lord Jesus Christ, that as the hem of your garment, touched in faith, healed the woman who could not touch your Body, so may my soul be fed and healed by like faith in you, whom I cannot now sacramentally receive; through your tender mercy, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever. Amen.
St. Alphonsus did not include a prayer of thanksgiving in his method of spiritual communion, but Episcopalians like to conclude all services with something of the sort although the traditional prayers concluding Holy Communion might seem out of place here. As an alternative, I offer this prayer based on one from Bishop Wood’s little booklet:
Lord Jesus, I thank you for feeding me spiritually with your Body and Blood, through which you have imparted to me your life. Teach me to live with a grateful heart, and as you have today come anew into my soul live in me continually, until in your good time I may see you face to face where you live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.
One then concludes a spiritual communion with a time of silent meditation.