A Short History and Theology of Spiritual Communion

The Manna in the Desert

The desert was a place of refuge from Egyptian oppression and idolatry. The Exodus took Israel through a long period of profound physical penance and spiritual purification: the two seem to be inseparable in the spiritual life. The desert became the only way for Israel to reach the Promised Land, and by God’s saving will, the people could only traverse this barren place by turning to the Lord each day for manna and quail. Israel had to learn radical trust in God, to recognize her utter dependence on him for everything: the direction of travel, the way to order the community’s life, and, of course, the reception of sufficient food and water. The Church today is passing through a time of radical purification. She is being drawn toward the spiritual Promised Land that can only be reached by a path of profound personal and ecclesial reform. Simultaneously, she is being called toward a richer sacramental life (a land flowing with milk and honey) animated by deeper fervor and devotion.

This brings me to what may be the most amazing part of the Exodus events, the manna falling from heaven. We can set aside reductive readings inspired by Enlightenment presuppositions that exclude the miraculous a priori. The whole point of the narrative in the Book of Exodus, so carefully glossed and unpacked theologically in later biblical passages (Deuteronomy 8, Psalm 78, Wisdom 16, John 6), is to highlight God’s sovereignty over creation, his power to feed his people no matter what their situation, his ability to raise them beyond their own radical limits, whether physical or spiritual. Precisely because of its supernatural character, the gift of the manna could offer a powerful lesson in the power of God’s Word, for this Word is the ultimate life of man’s spirit.

It is no accident that the manna functions as one of the two central Old Testament figures for the revelation of the Eucharist in the New Testament (the other being the Paschal Lamb). Jesus’s entire Bread of Life discourse, the longest, richest teaching on the Eucharist that he has left us anywhere, is in some ways nothing but a gloss on Psalm 78:24: “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” It does us good to remember that Jesus was an excellent exegete! The manna in the desert signified God’s sumptuous word, but also pointed forward to the Eucharist, the perfect manna. Which brings me back to our present coronavirus crisis and life without physical access to the Mass: He is still giving us bread from heaven.

A lay friend who risks her life each day as she ministers full-time in a European hospital filled with coronavirus patients has encountered striking signs of new Eucharistic devotion: some of her Catholic patients took this sacrament for granted for years, perhaps even for decades. Several of these victims of the virus, now facing the possibility of death, have gradually come to practice spiritual communion, and are finding a new treasure. A number of these patients received the sacrament of the Eucharist for years, with little attention to the supernatural gift being offered. Now the sign has become inaccessible, yet the fruits seem to flow in abundance, at least for some.

Do we realize what a tremendous gift this experience of spiritual communion is, for them and for us? Ultimately, what spiritual use is a comfortable life in a wealthy country when one has sunk into a lukewarm faith? Such a life would seem to resemble Israel’s dwelling in Egypt, where the food was far better than in the desert. Those tasty fleshpots could certainly beat just about anything else, especially bony quail or food that tastes like unleavened bread.[1]

The New Israel traverses the desert, a very silent place, a place of loneliness and mortal danger. There, she is being offered an old gift anew: a divine call to hunger and thirst for Eucharistic food and drink. The lay faithful tend to experience this in a rather brutal manner: the sacred rites have become inaccessible. The clergy are traversing a different path, often dwelling alone with Christ, just the two of them in a rectory chapel somewhere. It is as if, in that lonely place, Jesus were saying: “Why are you here? Do you love me? Why are you a priest, a bishop, a cardinal anyway? Deep down, what do you think this offering of the Mass is? And tell me, why do you spend so little time here before me, when some of your flock cannot even enter a Church?” The fact that numerous members of the clergy barely have a prayer life is evident from the boring and unreflective homilies one frequently hears. But now, God has crashed through their door, and some are even listening.

Theologies of the Manna

We are passing through a time of new Eucharistic hunger. In this situation, one key practice for the laity and religious without access to the sacraments is spiritual communion. We might call it “an exercise in Eucharistic thirst.” Now a good Dominican friar will insist that any healthy pious practice needs a theology. Fortunately, we have had one for spiritual communion since at least the 5th century. It seems imperative today for pastors and catechists to transmit this rich theological and spiritual tradition to the people.

Saint Augustine, the greatest preacher in the history of the Church, explained the proper way to eat the manna. He expounds upon Jesus’s words recounted in John 6:49: “Your fathers ate manna in the desert and they died.” According to Augustine, “Moses ate the manna, Aaron as well . . . they understood the visible food spiritually, they desired it spiritually, they tasted it spiritually, so that they might be spiritually filled.”[2] Here and in other parts of Tractate 26 on the Gospel of John, Augustine laid the foundation for the theology and practice of Eucharistic spiritual communion. Augustine, his medieval disciple Thomas Aquinas, and a few modern spiritual masters can be our guides, almost like our Moses in the desert.[3]

The Latin Church Father explains Jesus’s bread of life discourse. The Israelites in the desert ate manna but still died, for they lacked faith in the hidden reality signified by the miraculous bread. The manna was a proto-sacrament. Now Moses, Aaron and others understood the gift being offered and accepted it in faith. Hence, they both desired and tasted the visible and the spiritual manna.[4] They were fed in body and soul.

Between the Old and New Covenants, we find distinct figures or signs: the manna in the desert, the visible signs of bread and wine on the Church’s altar. In this context, Augustine focuses this sermon not on Christ’s corporeal presence (a theme that he treats elsewhere), but on the spiritual effects poured out in Eucharistic Communion. He proposes that, between the manna and the Eucharist, the spiritual reality (the res) being offered is the same (we would say similar). The bishop of Hippo then applies this lesson to his people: the visible sign is one thing, while its hidden spiritual power is another. Augustine exhorts the faithful to bring their innocence to the altar, so as to eat the Eucharist not just sacramentally but also spiritually, that is, to receive the host and drink from the cup in a way that gives them a new share in eternal life.[5] A bit further on in the same sermon (and in the subsequent one), Augustine turns to St. Paul to specify this hidden reality:

For he [Christ] wills that by this food and drink be understood the society of his body and his members, that is to say, the holy Church in his saints and faithful . . . The sacrament of this reality [res], which is the unity of the body and blood of Christ, is found prepared on the altar of the Lord and is taken at the Lord’s table, in some places each day, in others, at a certain interval of time.[6]

The hidden spiritual reality is the unity of the body, the Church. Augustine soon tells us, the cause of ecclesial unity is the Holy Spirit, by his gift of charity.[7] The Church exists by the supernatural bond of love that animates her faith and binds her to her Head, whose body she is. The believing Israelites already shared in this grace, by receiving the figure of the first manna well.

Augustine’s distinction between the visible sign and the hidden reality bore fruit in 12th and 13th century Latin theology, in the development of scholastic sacramental theologies of Eucharistic communion. These doctrines also had the potential of giving a theoretical account or justification for the growing practice of infrequent sacramental communion among the laity, who were encouraged to “make a spiritual communion” during Mass. That medieval pastoral development was unfortunate, as many lay faithful communed only once a year, and female religious far less frequently than they do today.[8] Yet, there is no necessary link between this kind of Augustinian-scholastic sacramental theology and the liturgical trend just mentioned. For example, Aquinas favored relatively frequent communion, and almost always discusses spiritual communion in the sense of making a fruitful sacramental communion.[9]

Thomas picked up on Augustine’s pastoral exegesis. In his Commentary on the Gospel of John, he glosses John 6:49 in this way:

The food of the Jews has some features in common with our spiritual food. They are alike in the fact that each signifies the same thing: for both signify Christ. Thus they are called the same food: “All ate the same spiritual food” (1 Corinthians 10:3). He calls them the same because each is a symbol of spiritual food. But they are different because one [the manna] was only a symbol; while the other [the bread of the Christians] contains that of which it is the symbol, that is Christ himself. Thus we should say that each of these foods can be taken in two ways. First, as a sign only, i.e., so that each is taken as food only, and without understanding what is signified; and taken in this way, they do not take away either physical or spiritual death. Secondly, they may be taken in both ways, i.e., the visible food is taken in such a way that spiritual food is understood and spiritually tasted, in order that it may satisfy spiritually. In this way, those who ate the manna spiritually did not die spiritually. But those who eat the Eucharist spiritually, both live spiritually without sin, and will live physically forever. Thus, our food is greater than their food, because it contains in itself that of which it is the symbol.[10]

This doctrine serves Thomas well when he asks why young children (in the Latin Church) do not receive Communion, for apparently, Christ himself made it necessary for salvation, when he solemnly proclaims: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). Thomas overcomes this difficulty with an appeal to the notion of attaining a sacrament by desire.[11] In his Summa theologiae, he notes that, just as the catechumen who dies before the Easter Vigil can be saved through his desire for baptism, so the baptized believer still lacking access to the Eucharist can obtain its spiritual fruit, and this, even by an implicit desire (as in the case of children who have not reached the age of reason).[12] Aquinas unpacks this analogy with receiving baptism by desire. One can eat the Eucharist “spiritually” before eating it sacramentally in two ways: in the Old Covenant, where the faithful Israelite ate the physical manna along with the spiritual food provided therein, and in the New Covenant, by a desire of receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist.[13] In his Commentary on the Gospel of John, Thomas explains: “The person spiritually eats the flesh of Christ and drinks his blood . . . is made a sharer in the unity of the Church, which comes through charity.”[14] Hence, “the sacrament is in reality or desire (in voto),” meaning, the res can be obtained before fruitful sacramental eating.[15]

Hence, desire for the Eucharistic Lord becomes a central theme, theologically and in the practice of piety. By “desire,” Thomas especially means acts of hope and charity directed to Christ. These acts involve the soul’s motion or actualized impulse toward God. Such motion is grounded in the supernatural imprint that the Holy Spirit has left in the heart, more specifically, in the hearts of all believers who abide in sanctifying grace. Aquinas develops this psychology of love in dialogue with Dionysius the Areopagite. Thomas notes that the beloved’s absence induces desire, and impels the believer to seek the joy of the beloved’s presence.[16] Charity enables and produces a holy, selfless desire, while hope imparts a positive kind of eros, the wholesome creaturely longing for divine goodness, which promises to satiate the soul’s God-given natural and supernatural longings.[17] The fulfillment of Eucharistic desire is deeper union with the Incarnate Word:

Thus, in reference to Christ [substantially] contained and signified [by the species of bread and wine], one eats his flesh and drinks his blood in a spiritual way if he is united to him through faith and love, so that one is transformed into him and becomes his member.[18]

The Angelic Doctor also adds a precision to Augustine’s exegesis: sacramental eating should not be seen as superfluous, for this kind of eating (or actually receiving the host, or the host and cup) induces a richer spiritual effect than does spiritual eating alone.[19] In other words, spiritual communion does not replace the Mass, but can grant a powerful though (usually) partial share in the fruits of sacramental reception. This also means that the particular fruits of a “merely” spiritual communion are of the same kind as in sacramental communion, which are above all growth in charity, a deeper ecclesial unity, and the forgiveness of venial sins.[20] Finally, Thomas thinks that spiritually eating Christ only makes sense if its finality is sacramental reception.[21] These spiritual gifts do not operate in parallel fashion, for one is ordered to the other, just as the manna in the desert was ordered to the manifestation of the Incarnation and the institution of the Eucharist. Here we find one of several reasons for which the laity’s deep disappointment in losing access to the sacraments makes sense. It is why access to the Eucharist should be restored as soon as it is prudent in the current situation.

Here and there in his exposition of John 6, Aquinas gives elements of a theology of the word that seem most fitting for a “plague spirituality” in our day, especially as we ponder the theme of spiritual communion. Thomas discerned well how Old Testament wisdom literature forms part of the essential background to the Bread of Life discourse. That link inspired some beautiful insights on Aquinas’s part.

The word of wisdom is the proper food of the mind, because the mind is sustained by it: “He fed them with the bread of life and understanding” (Sirach 15:3) . . . spiritual bread actually gives life: for the soul begins to live because it adheres to the word of God: “For with you is the fountain of life,” as we see in the Psalm (35:10). Therefore, since every word of wisdom is derived from the Only Begotten Word of God—“The fountain of wisdom is the Only Begotten of God” (Sirach 1:5)—this Word of God is especially called the bread of life. Thus Christ says, “I am the bread of life.”[22]

Eating the Manna Today

Augustine, Thomas and other saints laid the doctrinal foundation for a practice that gained popularity starting in early modernity, that of making a “spiritual communion.” This form of liturgical and private piety grew quickly in the 12th and 13th centuries, among the laity, but also in monasteries.[23] It continued to blossom through early modernity. Modern writers drew from the impulse given at the Council of Trent.[24] Spiritual masters including St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis de Sales, and St. Alphonsus Liguori have given this practice particular attention.[25]

Alphonsus and other spiritual authors set forth a basic structure for the practice of spiritual communion. First, it presupposes that one be in a state of grace. If this is not the case, then an act of sincere contrition should come first.[26] Next, while an act of spiritual communion can be done anywhere, a Church with a tabernacle is the ideal place (even if the Blessed Sacrament is not exposed for adoration).[27] When possible, it should coincide with the celebration of Mass in another place (to which the believer can deliberately join him- or herself).

In his instruction booklet on spiritual communion, Alphonsus begins each day’s meditation with a Scripture passage, which often has a Eucharistic theme. A contemporary adaptation of this practice could accentuate the spiritual eating of Scripture, through slow, audible reading and meditation, preferably using the readings of the day’s Mass. Some persons benefit from livestreamed (or recorded) Masses, with their readings and homilies. In other settings, the use of a saint’s sermon or biblical commentary on the liturgical scripture reading of the day could also serve as a tool to focus and feed mind and heart.

Alphonsus and other saints teach that the first response to Scripture (and the Blessed Sacrament, even when a tabernacle is not accessible) should be an act of faith, especially faith in Christ and his Eucharistic presence. Here, the saints counsel particular attention to his Passion (and other mysteries of Christ). The Eucharistic celebration is righty called “the mysteries,” because it makes Christ saving actions in his life, death and Resurrection present by way of efficacious sign. The saints then propose that one make a deliberate act of charity, an expression of love for God (first) and neighbor (second). Francis de Sales sees spiritual communion’s essence in the soul’s desire for the Eucharistic Christ, that is, the heart’s expression of loving desire.[28] Here one speaks to Christ about one’s hunger and thirst for the spiritual food and drink that are perfectly contained in his Eucharistic body and blood, and thereby simultaneously incites a greater hunger and thirst within. Alphonsus also sees the importance of a petition for lasting union with Christ, or an explicit invitation for him to come into one’s soul.[29]

Alphonsus’s language easily evokes the classic doctrine of the missions of Son and Spirit into our minds and hearts, a rich Augustinian theme beautifully developed by doctors such as Bonaventure and Aquinas. The Father sends the Son and the Spirit invisibly as he grants us a new share in his supernatural knowledge and love, two gifts offered in every Eucharistic and authentic spiritual communion.[30] Growth in faith and charity stand at the center of spiritual nourishment. This spiritual presence of the divine persons is not as spectacular as the glory cloud or some visible miracle, yet its divinizing power is greater.

The analogy between the manna in the desert and today’s practice of spiritual communion could be pursued further, for example, by exploring their differences a bit more. Israel’s experience of the Exodus serves as a warning as well. We can learn radical dependence on God and undertake authentic ecclesial renewal during this time of spiritual and material suffering. Or, we can begin to grumble, and even foolishly attempt to return to Egypt. It is a choice that we must make each day.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay takes up and expands a section from Fr. Blankenhorn's forthcoming  CUA Press Eucharist textbook.

[1] These comments are in no way intended to suggest that God has sent the coronavirus to some people as punishment for their sins. For a better way to link the theology of providence with this crisis (and avoid theological pitfalls of various kinds), I recommend the following video: “Plagues: What we can learn from the Bible.”

[2] Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, tractate 26, no. 11. I rely on the following edition: Homélies sur l’évangile de saint Jean, XVII-XXXIII, Bibliothèque Augustinienne 72 (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1972).

[3] We might take this analogy a bit further. The Israelites could traverse the desert especially because of the physical proximity of Moses and Aaron (God’s instruments), as well as God’s visible manifestations. Likewise, the faithful today need that kind of proximity from their pastors.

[4] Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, tractate 26, no. 11.

[5] Tractates on the Gospel of John, tractate 26, nos. 11-12.

[6] Ibid., tractate 26, no. 15

[7] Ibid., tractate 27, no 6.

[8] See Gary Macy, “Theology of the Eucharist in the High Middle Ages,” in A Companion to the Eucharist in the Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 378-80, 391-97.

[9] For the frequency of communion and theological reasons to motivate such a practice, see Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, III, question 80, articles 10-11 (especially article 10, answer to objection 1: “And so because man needs Christ’s saving power daily, he can laudably receive this sacrament daily.”). On “spiritual communion” in the sense of a fruitful sacramental communion, see question 80, articles 1 & 3.

[10] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John (Albany, New York: Magi Books, 1980), chapter 6, lectio 6, no. 954.

[11] Commentary on the Gospel of John, chapter 6, lectio 7, no. 969.

[12] Summa theologiae, III, question 68, article 2; question 73, article 3.

[13] Ibid., III, question 80, article 1, answer to objection 3.

[14] Commentary on the Gospel of John, chapter 6, lectio 7, no. 969.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Thomas Aquinas, In librum Beati Dionysii De divinis nominibus expositio (Rome: Marietti, 1950), lectio 9, no. 401; Summa theologiae, I-II, question 28, article 1.

[17] Summa theologiae, II-II, question 23, article 1. One might develop the theology of spiritual communion further with a clearer connection between this practice and the virtue of hope. I am grateful to Br. Joseph Selinger, OP for this point.

[18] Commentary on the Gospel of John, chapter 6, lectio 7, no. 972. The practice of spiritual communion evokes another theme in Thomas’s theology. In his doctrine of the religious life, he defines spiritual perfection as perfection in charity (which is also accessible to the laity). He notes that the human being can only absolutely attain this perfection in heaven, where it will be possible for the heart to always actually move to God, that is, to love him in act without ceasing. Here we have the center of the Christian life. For Aquinas, every aspect of the religious life should have as its finality the multiplication and ever-growing fervor of charity for God and for neighbor. Spiritual communion envisages nothing but this, and does so by accentuating a Christo-centric and Eucharistically-centered love. In this way, the medieval and modern practice of spiritual communion can be seen as the natural development of a growing precision in Eucharistic doctrine and heightened attention to Christ’s holy humanity. The latter emerged over the centuries in many parts of ecclesial life, such as medieval high altars, popular devotion to the suffering Christ, Bernard of Clairvaux’s affective preaching on Christ’s mysteries, the link between the Passion and the Sacrifice of the Mass (in preaching and academic theology), devotion to the Sacred Heart, etc.

[19] Summa theologiae, III, question 80, article 1, answer to objection 3.

[20] For more on this theme, see Gilles Emery, “The Ecclesial Fruit of the Eucharist in St. Thomas,” in idem, Trinity, the Church and the Human Person: Thomistic Essays (Naples, Florida: Sapientia, 2007), 155-72.

[21] Summa theologiae, III, question 80, article 11.

[22] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, chapter 6, lectio 4, no. 914.

[23] William of Saint-Thierry, Lettre aux frères du Mont-Dieu (Lettre d’or), edited by Jean Déchanet, Sources Chrétiennes 223 (Paris: Cerf, 1975), nos. 115-19.

[24] Council of Trent, Decree on the Sacrament of the Eucharist, chapter 8.

[25] Teresa of Avila, Way of Perfection, chapter 37, in Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1980); Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, translated by Allan Ross (Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1953), part 2, chapter 21; Alphonsus Liguori, Visits to the Most Holy Sacrament and to the Holy Virgin for Every Day in the Month (London: T. Jones, 1849).

[26] Louis de Bazelaire, “Communion spirituelle,” in Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, edited by E. Mangenot, vol. 3, (Paris: Librairie Letouzey et Âne, 1908), 1297, 1299.

[27] This attentiveness to place is noteworthy: it follows a tradition that traverses the entire Old Testament (Abraham, Jacob, the Exodus, the importance of Jerusalem, etc.), as well as the whole history of the Church (the tradition of pilgrimage going back at least to the 4th century). Here we find the right conviction that holy places are to be sought out and treasured. One wonders whether the rush to close Churches while supermarkets (or mosques) remain open respects this principle, or whether the people’s spontaneous longing to spend time in them during this period of plague has been somewhat ignored.

[28] Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, part 2, chapter 21.

[29] Alphonsus Liguori, Visits to the Most Holy Sacrament, xiv-xvii.

[30] For a brief summary, see Gilles Emery, The Trinity: An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God, translated by Matthew Levering, Thomistic Ressourcement 1 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 185-94.

Featured Image, Anon., The Fall of Manna, 1470; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Bernhard Blankenhorn

Bernhard Blankenhorn, OP is aggregate professor of theology at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome and associate director of its Thomistic Institute. He has published The Mystery of Union with God: Dionysian Mysticism in Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas and has a textbook on the Eucharist forthcoming from CUA Press.  

Read more by Bernhard Blankenhorn