O Life, art Thou become Death?

Rembrandt, the denial of St. Peter source wikimedia commons photo credit unknown no copyright
Painting by Rembrandt: source: Wikimedia Commons; Photo: credit unknown.

 

I reached my hand to the door of the church,

And found Thy people might not enter in.

At Thy desire I would receive Thy cup,

As from Thy hand, but that was counted sin.

The Bread of Life we deem a source of death;

Thy scattered sheep are perishing alone.

Our faith is not in Thee but in the earth,

For earthly life we Thy command disown.

O Lord, forgive!  O Lord, restore to Thee,

Thy people whom Thy faith turn upside-down:

Who seeking life, find death, and know it not,

And Thee as Life and Truth in shame discrown.

Cherry Foster

Champaigne_shepherd
The Good Shepherd by Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Valley of Shadow

Again, I should say that I do appreciate that the clergy are making what they honestly believe to be the best decision in difficult circumstances, in withdrawing the Precious Blood of Christ from the congregations.  What I say about this is not a criticism of anyone’s goodwill, but an attempt to present a fuller perspective on the issue than I think is being considered, and to help myself (and hopefully others) to cope emotionally and spiritually with what is happening.

 

Temptation’s bitter vale – strange place of hopelessness –

O Shepherd of the sheep, where art Thy staff and rod?

The nourishment Thou gavest for Life fades from us away,

We are fed on lifeless theory and not the Living God.

 

O Vine of Life! How can we not learn to loathe Thee,

When pierced through and through by Thee with such a bitter knife?

How not turn, despairing, from Thy faith unto the world

When Thy stewards treat Thee but as a risk to earthly life?

 

O Christ our God!  How didst Thou hold Thy faith

In the hour of Thine agony upon the dreadful Tree?

O remember Thou our weakness; come Thou swiftly to sustain us,

Ere we place our trust in that which is not Thee.

 

O, move the hearts which are now stone to us

To have pity on Thy Life as on the human birth.

Free Thou our hearts from this cage of stifling reason,

Raise Thou the eyes that see not beyond the earth.

 

O Lord, aid Thou the fire Thyself hast lit,

O see, it sinks and dies for want of nourishment!

And bear us in Thine arms, who perish from Thy loss;

Preserve in us the Life that Thou hast lent.

 

Cherry Foster

 

Edit 21st March 2020: This was originally published with the first verse reading as below, but I was unhappy with the quality, and hope I have managed to improve it slightly.  I am aware of other technical issues in this one: I suspect I may end up rewriting it eventually as more than one poem.

My heart goes out to all those who now find themselves completely without the Sacraments due to the prohibitions on holding services.  The secular world is probably acting conscientiously to its own values in forbidding it, but I do not think we are in obeying, unless we do so in the context of making adequate alternative provisions (I am very grateful for people’s efforts on that point).  Death is unavoidable.  If the Sacraments are the primary means by which we enter into the Divine Life that does not notice death, the last thing it makes sense to do is to expect people to face their earthly mortality without them.

 

Valley of temptation; grim place of hopelessness,

O Shepherd of Thy sheep, where art Thy staff and rod?

The nourishment of Life Thou gavest is fading fast away,

For our food is dead theology and not the Living God.

Whither has Thou gone?

On the withdrawal of the Precious Blood from the reception of the Sacrament

Welsh Manuscript Crucifixion, Wikimedia commons, no copyright
The Crucifixion of Jesus, from a Welsh manuscript. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Whither is my Beloved gone?  Where hast Thou hid Thyself?

With outstretched hands and broken heart I plead;

For where I seek Thy love I find but piercing thorns,

Why deny the fruit where Thou hast sown the seed?

 

O Thou who wast with a kiss betrayed, how canst Thou bear

To thus betray Thy people whom Thou hast kissed to life?

How canst Thou change Thy gifts to suffering?

And pierce our hearts as with a traitor’s knife?

 

O Thou who pourest out Thy Blood in priceless love,

How shall we keep Thy faith without Thy sign?

How can we live by half thy precious gift,

Or in prayer but half-engaged approach Thy shrine?

 

Why does thou change Thy outpoured love and joy

For stark mechanical rite of no responsive sense?

Why didst Thou give us such a precious thing?

To make it a destruction and offence?

 

O Precious Vine!  O Love beyond all loss,

May our sufferings witness to the value of Thy Gift.

Who forsaken died, and whom we know did rise,

And with whom we shall reign in endless bliss.

 

Cherry Foster

 

 

N.B.  To avoid any implication of theological error, I do believe Communion valid in one kind.  But when someone has died to give you a gift, as Christ died to give us His Precious Blood, the necessity or otherwise of that gift has no bearing on the value of it.

The car crash-coronavirus analogy again – and the reception of the Precious Blood

The withdrawal of the Precious Blood from Anglican congregations due to coronavirus seems to lack consistency when it comes to the way we handle different types of risks.

At time of writing, the death count among those positive for coronavirus in the UK is published as 21*.  And without a miracle, it is clear that the number of deaths is going to rise, though hopefully we will come out of this and find fewer people have actually died of it than of the seasonal flu.  (This doesn’t mean I’m not aware this particular epidemic presents some peculiar challenges not involved in the case of the flu).  Taking sensible precautions against infection has a role in helping the death count to stay low.

The hope that the numbers will be statistically low does not mean those deaths do not matter.  I am sorry for people’s loss, and I will be praying for those who have died of it and for all others who have died in the last few weeks (of whatever cause), that they may rest in peace and rise in glory.

However.  1,784 people died on the roads in 2018, and those deaths are not less important.

When driving a car, you don’t drink too much alcohol, you fasten your seatbelt, and you refrain from using a hand-held mobile phone.  At least, I hope people do and don’t.

Do people say: “is my journey absolutely necessary?” or “It is incredibly selfish for anyone to make a car journey because it might put others at risk.”

No.  We take sensible safety precautions and we don’t hesitate to make the most trivial of journeys.

But when it comes to the Precious Blood of Christ, who resigned His equality with God to be born Incarnate, to live, suffer horribly, and die, in order to give us that most precious and unbelievable gift and the life and love that is received through It, do we take sensible precautions – make perhaps a few careful changes to exactly what we are doing – and carry on receiving?

No.  We say: “it isn’t necessary for validity.”  “It’s selfish to ask to go on receiving because it might put others at risk.”  We treat Him as if receiving Him in the completeness of His gift was an emotional indulgence – was more of an emotional indulgence than a car journey for a Saturday afternoon trip to a tea-room.

How can we respond like that if we believe what we say?

Cherry Foster

 

 

N.B.  I would ask anyone responsible for the policy or for implementing it to appreciate that this is a cry of perplexity and anguish, and an appeal to rethink the importance of what is being denied – to Him, as well as to us – it is not an accusation of deliberate hypocrisy.  I come out as INFJ on Myers-Briggs: I genuinely tend to be both coldly technical and passionately emotional at the same time.

*Lest I spread alarm and despondency: this is as yet a tiny fraction (0.018) of those known to have it in the UK, and as they are testing the more serious cases (i.e. the people more likely to die), the number of people in the UK who have got it who have actually died is almost certainly comparatively tiny.  Not that deaths don’t matter.  Just that it is not a cause for panic.

O Pelican

For the sake of giving expression to the intensity of the grief involved in the withdrawal of Communion in Both Kinds, and for the sake of anyone else who is suffering.

By the way, I do also appreciate that the clergy are making what they honestly think is the best decision under difficult circumstances, and I really appreciate the sympathy of those who have been sympathetic; however, I feel the perspective expressed here on that decision is also valid.  As far as I can make out, the evidence suggests that even actually sharing the chalice holds no risk of spreading anything.

 

O kind, self wounding Pelican, wherefore

Hast Thou withdrawn from us Thy breast?

Why forsaken dost Thou leave Thy young

Perishing for thirst of Thee within Thy very nest?

 

O stewards of His mysteries, where are your eyes?

That on remotest chance of sparing earthly life

Unwitting tempt your sheep toward the spirit’s death

And will not hear their anguished pleas for Life.

 

O Pelican, I would not have dreamed to say to Thee,

“Give me Thy Blood,” I said, “Do not deceive,”

And yet Thou gavest me Life and all Thyself.

Yet Life not given could not thus have grieved.

 

O Pelican, why hast Thou thus replaced Thy love

With mechanical rite of mere valid sense?

Why hast Thou withdrawn Thy covenant complete?

The outward sign of inward grace defence.

 

O Pelican, Forsaken One, remember, heal and spare,

For valuing what Thou gavest we bear uttermost contempt,

From valley of the shadow with despairing breath we plead,

To whom Thou hast promised no test beyond their strength.

 

Cherry Foster

To those suffering from the withdrawal of the Chalice – You Are NOT Alone

Pelican iconographic picture wikimedia commons copyright to attribution
A pelican wounding its breast to feed its young on its blood: a common image of the Eucharist. Photo source Wikimedia Commons; Photo Credit: Andreas Praefcke

I have spent today in the sort of tears that someone would expect upon the death of a close relation, as a consequence of the withdrawal of the Chalice over the coronavirus panic.  And I am unlikely really to be all right, or to feel other than utterly bereaved until Communion in both kinds is restored.  (If by then I have not learned to loathe the Eucharist and all that appertains to it due to my engagement with the Eucharist being the inadvertent cause of such overwhelming suffering – yes, I do endure that temptation).

While like most, if not all, people in my denomination, I believe it is valid to receive in one kind (i.e. only the Host), I value the Precious Blood intensely.  That is a good thing.  But it means valuing it whether or not it is convenient, or whether or not there is a crisis.  The Eucharist is the centre of my life – as it should be.  To suffer any diminishing or incomplete receiving of the gift is utterly devastating.

It is very difficult to tell, but I personally believe (and I am certainly not alone in believing) that the current response is a massive over-reaction to the reality of the current situation, which I find difficult because it causes me to feel that people are making nothing of my suffering.  To be caused to suffer like this because there was a real, known chance someone would die otherwise, is very different from being caused to suffer so intensely on the very remote off-chance.  Moreover, even in situations where it is appropriate to withdraw the sharing of the Chalice (i.e. when there is good quality evidence it is actually a risk), this does not have to mean withdrawing Communion in both kinds: there are at least three other ways of receiving that probably wouldn’t hold any risk of contamination*.

So to anyone else who feels it as deeply, and is distressed, and is being criticised for this by people who don’t experience it the same way, I can’t say anything that would be really comforting, any more than I could be comforted myself by anything other than a change of policy at least to return to Both Kinds, even if the Chalice was not restored in the normal manner.

But if it does anything to take the very slightest edge off your grief: You are NOT alone.  There are others of us who feel this with the same intensity.

Cherry Foster

 

 

See also my post “In Both Kinds?” for some more technical comments about the importance of receiving in both kinds.

*Using a set of gilded spoons and disinfecting them between people; using separate cups (which I believe the C of E objects to, though I’m not clear why); and for the priest (who should have scrubbed his hands anyway) to intinct the Host for each of the congregation (which I believe was actually the suggestion in the guidelines during the swine flu panic, though I’m not aware of any church that actually implemented it).

Edited to add: actually, does anyone know why the C of E objects to using separate cups?  After all, we usually use more than one chalice, and no one seems to object to the use of separate Hosts.  And it would be reasonable to argue that no reverent use of his gift in its fullness is less reverent than refusing part of it. (See the Church of England Book of Common Prayer, Oxford University Press, Page 305 – which cites the grief of spreading a feast only to have the guests refuse to come).

Not that I personally have any particular attachment to any specific alternative, only that one should be found.

In Both Kinds?

Aspects of a sacrament that are not required for validity can still be important.

IMG_0006
Petal-art for Corpus et Sanguis Christi beside an outdoor altar.

Suppose a priest in a High Anglican or Roman Catholic* Church turned up one hot Sunday morning in the summer in a swimming costume and started to celebrate High Mass.

To the protests of the laity, and probably diocese, suppose this priest was to respond “it doesn’t matter, the Sacrament is still valid.”

I doubt most people would feel this was a good and sufficient argument…

 

Yet exactly that argument is used to justify the denial of Communion in both kinds, either on an everyday basis, or in regarding it as something without significant value, which it is not worth bothering with when inconvenient. I am entirely with those that feel vestments and ceremony are part of the proper celebration of the Eucharist under normal conditions. I don’t think priests should celebrate the Eucharist wearing swimming costumes, or indeed, wearing ordinary clothes, without some very good reason for it.

However, vestments are part of the tradition the church has developed for the appropriate presentation and dignity of the Eucharist, while the reception of the bread and the cup are part of the original institution: it is reasonable to argue that traditions such as vestments should be considered much less important**, than reception in both kinds. And this does not currently seem to be the case.

This may be one of the issues in which someone who has studied Christian philosophy naturally has a rather different perspective from those who come to it from theology. Validity is important, but it is properly a baseline and not a ceiling from the logical point of view. Validity is a minimum. It isn’t a be-all and end-all of what we are doing – and, as I’m pointing out with the “priest-in-swimming-costume” example, we don’t use the same argument of “not necessary for validity” as a reason not to do any other element of what we normally do. For only the priest to receive the cup – or to celebrate not dressed – in a labour camp in Siberia is all very well. But what is permissible in truly exceptional circumstances doesn’t usually serve as a good guide for everyday practice. The Sacraments are not mechanical rites, to be reduced to their minimum essential elements for fairly minor reasons, but rather things to be celebrated and received with as much fullness as possible, as part of what God has given us.

I would emphasise that I do not judge anyone’s individual spirituality, or relationship with God in the Sacrament, or personal medical needs. To receive in one kind through individual choice is different from the corporate decision to offer Communion only in one kind.

However, I would suggest that those of us to whom reception in both kinds matters devotionally and spiritually, should celebrate valuing the reception of the Chalice, rather than being ashamed of caring about it. The Cup is Christ’s gift to us too, and it is good to value his gifts, according to his way of choosing to work with us.

It does at least not logically follow that because something is not necessary for the validity of a Sacrament it is not significant and important.

Cherry Foster

 

*I am not a Roman Catholic, but I think there is enough shared ground here to have a sensible academic argument on the issue!

** I.e. laid aside with a far lower threshold of reasons to do differently. (For those familiar with the language: what I am saying is that I think it would make more sense to be prepared to lay aside vestments for just cause, but to require a serious reason not to offer Communion in both kinds, than the other way around).

N.B. Lest there be any confusion, I am among the Anglicans who fully endorse the Real Presence, but reject literal Transubstantiation (or any other attempt to reduce the Real Presence to a precise human theory) as trying to reduce the mystery to a bit of human thinking, though I happily regard most of the theories as useful but limited imagery to help us enter into the mystery.