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The Eucharist and Chastity
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Our subject for tonight's conference is "The Eucharist and Chastity." It could just as well be, "The Necessity of the Eucharist for Chastity," or even, "There Can Be No Chastity Without the Eucharist."
To understand how indispensable the Eucharist is to the practice of Christian chastity is to understand the meaning of Christianity. When Christ told us, "Without me, you can do nothing," He meant this to be taken literally. Without the constant help of His grace to enlighten our darkened minds and strengthen our weak wills, all the moral precepts of the New Testament are so much pious rhetoric or religious jargon.
But then arises the hard question of where do we get the light and strength we need to follow Christ and reach the destiny for which we were made? Our answer is the verdict of two millennia of Christian history. It is the Eucharist as the triple sacrament of the Real Presence, the Sacrifice of the Mass and Holy Communion.
Faith in the Real Presence and the Humility of Chastity
The bedrock of Christian morality is the virtue of humility. The most demanding practice of humility is the humility of mind in believing what God became man to reveal to the human race. The most fundamental mystery which He revealed was His incarnation in the womb of the Virgin Mary and His birth as a speechless child in Bethlehem.
But this mystery is not only something which took place in the past. It is a mystery which lives among us in the Holy Eucharist.
The simplest way to express what Christ asked us to believe about the Real Presence is that the Eucharist is really He. The Real Presence is the real Jesus. We believe that the Eucharist began in the body of His Virgin Mother; that the flesh which the Son of God received from her is the same flesh into which He changed bread at the Last Supper; that the blood He received from Mary is the same blood into which He changed wine at the Last Supper. Had she not given Him His flesh and blood, there could be no Eucharist.
It is this humility of mind in believing the incomprehensible which is necessary for the practice of chastity. The Latin word castitias existed among the Romans before the time of Christ; but there was no Christian chastity until God became man and elevated morality beyond anything conceivable since the dawn of human history.
St. Paul explains why the Romans of his day became such slaves of sexuality.
Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or give Him thanks, but became vain in their reasonings and their senseless minds have been darkened. While professing to be wise, they have become fools.
Therefore, God has given them up to the lustful desires of their heart, to uncleanness, so that they dishonor their own bodies among, themselves for this reason God has given them up to shameful lusts; for their women have exchanged the natural use for that which is against nature. In like manner, the men also, having abandoned the natural use of the woman, have burned in their lusts one towards another (Romans 1:21-27).
I thought it was worth quoting at length from the Apostle to bring out the close relationship between humility and chastity. Only humble people are chaste; only humble believers can practice Christian chastity. God punishes the proud in mind by depriving their wills of the power to control their lust.
We return to the Real Presence of' Christ in the Eucharist. The humility which faith in the Eucharist requires is also the precondition for the chastity which the Savior requires of those who profess to believe in His name.
The implications of what I am saying are enormous. Jesus Christ is present on earth in the Blessed Sacrament. He is now as ready to give us the grace we need to live chaste lives as He was in first century Palestine. But we must believe; we must believe; we must believe.
The Savior told us that those who believe in Him, as the living God in human form, could say to a mountain, "Move!" - and the mountain would move. I dare say it is even more miraculous for lustful human beings to practice Christian chastity then it is to move the Rocky Mountains. No matter. Provided we believe that the omnipotent God who became man is in our midst, within feet of our hearts when we visit Him in the Blessed Sacrament, we can expect from Him the superhuman strength we need to be chaste.
When we pray before the Blessed Sacrament, our souls are fed by the Person of the Savior in the two faculties of spirit that need to be constantly nourished. They are the mind and the will. In the mind we need light; in the will we need strength. Both needs are met in an extraordinary way through earnest prayer before the Eucharist.
We might ask, why not? Is it not the same Christ who taught the multitudes, who gave the Sermon on the Mount and who took time, a lot of time, to tell His disciples and to share with them the secrets that until then had been hidden from the minds of men? It is Jesus and He is here. You would not expect His lips to be sealed. He has a message to give and we have much to learn. All we need to do is to believe sufficiently, to come to Him in the Blessed Sacrament and ask very simply, "Lord teach me how pleased you are if I practice chastity. Give me the strength to live up to what I believe."
The Mass and the Chaste Sacrifice of Self-Love
If there is one premise which underlies the meaning of Christian chastity it is the need for sacrifice. As we commonly teach in theology, sacrifice is the surrender of something precious out of love for God.
As human beings, the most precious object of our spontaneous love is our self-will. People will give up anything; they will surrender everything, except their own wills.
Our present focus is on the Sacrifice of the Mass as a divinely ordained means for giving us the grace we need to give up our own wills, by surrendering them to the will of God. Although not commonly adverted to, and only dimly realized by most; people, Christian chastity is a revealed mystery, Certainly restraint of the sexual passions is reasonable and giving in to one's lustful drive is irrational. But at root, the chastity proclaimed by Christ is more than prudent self-control. It is a divine mystery, that was inconceivable before revelation and is incomprehensible after being revealed.
Behind the observance of Christian chastity is the surrender of our wills to the mysterious will of God. Christ told His married followers to remain two in one flesh all their lives. He forbade His married followers to divorce their spouses and "marry" someone else. He commanded those who believe in Him to practice chastity of the eyes, chastity of the. ears, chastity of thought and chastity of desire. You do not prove this form of morality from mere reason, nor do you conclude to its practice from human experience. You either believe it on faith or you dismiss it as a hallucinatory dream.
Christ instituted the Sacrifice of the Mass as the sacrament of the Mass. He died on the Cross to merit for us the graces we need to surrender our wills to His divine will in obedience to His commands. He told us, "If you love me, keep my commandments." Among these commandments, none is more demanding than the surrender of our self-will in the practice, shall I call it, the mystery of chastity.
As Catholics, we believe that Christ's death on Calvary won the graces of salvation for the whole human family. But we also believe. that these graces must be communicated by Christ through the sacraments which He instituted precisely as channels of the supernatural light and strength we need to be saved.
Among the sacraments is the Holy Eucharist which, as the Sacrifice of the Mass, is the principal source we have for obtaining the distinctive grace we need to practice Christian chastity. What is this grace? It is the grace of surrendering our wills to the will of God. It is the grace of directing our wills to command our reproductive powers to conform to the will of Jesus Christ.
No one in his right mind has any doubt that to live a chaste life, whether in marriage, or the priesthood, or as religious, or in the single state in the world - is easy. It demands sacrifice. That is why Jesus died on the Cross, to merit the wisdom and power we need to follow His example and obey His commands. But that is also why Jesus gave us the Sacrifice of the Mass as a divinely ordained means of living a pure life
In the first three centuries of the Church, the faithful assisted at Mass every day. They realized that, without the Mass, they would not be able to remain faithful to Christ's teaching on the "difficult commandment."
About the year 150, Diognetus, a learned Greek, expressed a desire to know what Christianity really means. "What is this new race of men who are neither pagans nor Jews? What is this new interest that has entered into men's lives now and not before?" In the Letter to Diognetus, the answer is given. It is not a long letter but one thing it says deserves to be memorized.
Like others, Christians also marry and have children, but they do not expose these children. They do not kill their children. Christians share their meals, but not their wives. They, live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven.
The most basic means which the early Christians had for living in the flesh but not being governed by the desires of the flesh, was the Sacrifice of the Mass.
In our day, when the world in which we live is so widely paganized, we must follow the example of our forebearers. Either we assist at Mass as often as we can or we shall not remain faithful to Christian chastity.
St. Leonard of Port Maurice once wrote that, "Except for the Mass being daily offered on thousands of altars, the world would long ago have been destroyed because of its sins." Among these sins is certainly lust which has destroyed whole nations and, in our day, has become a cosmic disease.
What are we being told? It is not only that our own frequent, even daily, assistance at Mass is a powerful source of chaste living. The Holy Sacrifice, offered on so many altars, is a reservoir of divine strength against the demon of lust for all mankind.
Holy Communion: Chastity through Charity
So far in our conference, we have stressed the importance of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and assistance at Mass as channels of grace for chastity.
For most people, however, the first meaning of the Eucharist as sacrament is Holy Communion. This is not surprising since the reception of the Holy Eucharist is commonly recognized as our primary source of grace in the following of Christ.
In opening this conference, I said that without the Eucharist there can be no chastity. I meant especially that without Holy Communion it is impossible to live the life of purity required by Christ of His faithful followers
Over the centuries, the Church has consistently taught that Holy Communion is our principal source of preserving, increasing, strengthening and refreshing our spiritual life. At the center of the spiritual life is the virtue of charity.
At the Last Supper, it was not coincidental that Christ both gave us His new commandment of loving one another as He has loved us, and instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion. Why? Because without Holy Communion we could not practice the selfless charity by which, as He told us, we are recognized as His disciples.
We have touched on this before in our conferences on Christian chastity. But here I wish to stress the fact that Christian chastity is really Christian charity. As we have seen more than once, at the root of all failures against chastity are manifestations of self-love.
Every sin against chastity, we have said, is a sin against charity. But where can we obtain that selfless love which is at the heart of Christian charity? We cannot obtain it from other people, or from more reading, or even from more prayer. All of these are helpful, but one thing is indispensable. It is Jesus Christ, whom we must receive in Holy Communion if we hope to remain faithful to Christ's command of purity, not to say grow in the. virtue of continence.
From the dawn of Christian history, Holy Communion has been called the sacrament of love. It is the sacramentum amoris on two counts: it deepens our love for Jesus Christ, and enables us to love others even as Jesus has loved us by dying for us on Calvary.
Growth in the Love of Christ. It is a defined article of the Catholic faith that our Savior instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion just before leaving this world to go to the Father. "He poured out the riches of His divine love for men in this sacrament.... and ordered us to receive this sacrament for the preservation of His memory". It was His will. "that this sacrament be received as the soul's spiritual food, to sustain and build up those who live with His life, as He said 'He who eats me, he also shall live because of me' (John 6:58)."
Holy Communion, therefore, is the divinely instituted means for sustaining us in sanctifying grace, which means in the love of God. Thomas A' Kempis is eloquent in his gratitude to our Lord for the gift of this sacrament. He is speaking to Jesus Christ.
Dear Lord, with simplicity of heart, in good and stable faith, and at your command, I approach you -full of confidence and adoration - truly believing you are present in this sacrament, God and man. It is your will that I receive you and bind thyself to you in love.
Most merciful Lord, I beg of you that special grace, that my soul may melt and overflow with your love, never concerning myself again with any other comfort but your own. This most exalted and worthy sacrament is the health of both soul and body, the remedy for every spiritual sickness.
By it, all vices are cured, passions restrained, temptations overcomed or diminished; by it grace is poured forth, confirming faith, strengthening hope, enflaming chancy (Imitation of Christ, Book IV, Ch. 4).
I never tire repeating that without Holy Communion, it is impossible to practice the charity which Christ demands of His followers. Plain logic tells us that, if this is true, neither can we practice Christian chastity without the frequent, even daily, reception of the Holy Eucharist.
For the first time in two millennia of the Church's history, the faithful are not only allowed but encouraged to receive the Eucharist not only daily but even twice a day. Believe me, this is not a concession to Christian piety and still less a reluctant compromise with liturgical tradition. It is the conclusion to a hard fact of modern culture. There is no way - and I mean no way - to restore Christian charity and its companion, Christian chastity, except by a restoration of frequent, fervent, and faithful reception of the living Christ into our bodies in Holy Communion.
Progress in the Love of Others. Parallel with Holy Communion producing an increased love of God in the believing soul, is the corresponding power it has to enable us to grow in the love of others. Once again, the Church has defined that Christ "willed that we, as members of this body (the Church), should be united to it by firm bonds of faith, hope and love, so that we might all say the same thing and that there might be no dissension among us."
What are we being told? We are being told that the principal means provided by Christ for growing in the love of others is a reception of His Body and Blood in Holy. Communion.
Once we say this, we open the door to the single most effective channel of grace for resisting temptations of lust and living a chaste life.
Over the years, I have told young men who are serious about controlling their sex passions, that they must go to Communion as often as possible; if necessary every day. I have told young couples keeping company that if they, wished to preserve their virtue before they marry, they must both start doing what may seem unthinkable, "Go to Communion every day."
In counseling married people who are having troubles, that the stability of their marriage and even their family depends on their attending Mass and receiving our Lord during the week, even daily.
This has been not only my own personal experience. It is the verdict of twenty centuries of Christianity. Chastity and charity and Communion are so entwined that each of these three depends on the other two. Chaste persons practice charity, and loving personas receive Jesus Christ in the sacrament which He instituted to enable His followers to love one another as He has loved us with selfless charity and stainless chastity until the end of time.
Act of Love
I would like to close this conference with the prayer of St. Bonaventure, which he recommended as a prayer of thanksgiving after receiving Holy Communion.
"Most loving Lord Jesus, pierce the depths of my soul with the blessed and life-giving wound of your love, with serenity of spirit and a holy, apostolic charity, that my heart may ever languish and melt with love and longing for you, that it may desire you and yearn for your heavenly courts, and look forward to being dissolved and living with you. Grant that my soul may hunger after you, the bread of angels, the refreshment of holy souls, our daily and supersubstantial bread, having all sweetness and savor and every delight of taste.
Let my heart ever hunger after and feed upon you, on whom the angels wish to look, and may my inmost spirit be filled with your delight. May it ever thirst after you, the fountain of life, the fountain of wisdom and knowledge, the fountain of eternal light, the torrent of pleasure, the richness of the house of God. May it ever aspire after you, seek you, run to you, attain you, meditate on you, speak of you, and do all things to the praise and glory of your name, with humility and discretion, with ease and affection, with love and satisfaction, and with perseverance unto the end.
May you alone ever be my hope, my entire assurance, my riches and delight, my pleasure and joy, my rest and tranquility, my sweetness and peace, my fragrance and savor, my food and refreshment, my refuge and help, my wisdom and possession, my portion and treasure, in whom may my mind and heart be fixed and firm and rooted immovably for all eternity. Amen."
This is what the saints thought about the Holy Eucharist. This is also why they not only lived chaste lives but, we must say, were living martyrs of Christian chastity.
Our next teleconference will be on December 20th. The subject will be "Confession and Growth in Chastity."
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