Experiencing the Eucharist For the First Time

This is a post that I’ve been putting off for several weeks now. After blogging of my first experience with the sacrament of Reconcilation, it seemed only natural that I would share with you my first impressions with the sacrament of the Eucharist as well. Including Easter, four Sunday masses have passed as well as two weekday (experimental) masses, since my conversion to Catholicism, and this post has remained unwritten. A blank.

Why this hesitation to talk of the Eucharist (or as my Protestant self would’ve called it, the ‘Lord’s Supper’)? It’s not from the human fear of being judged for somehow doing it wrong (although that’s definitely crossed my mind.) I am still learning this new faith and the last thing I want to do, out of ignorance or poor wording, is to cause less reverence for the Host than Almighty God deserves.

It seems to me that the experience differs from person to person, and there’s a retiscence to speak of it; that the act of receiving Communion is entirely holy, wholly intimate, and intimately personal. Even the act of discussing the physical elements of the ritual seems to fail to encapsulate the mystery of the experience, like trying to explain the love of a parent for their child, or the love of a husband for his wife.

For those undergoing preparations for receiving the Eucharist for the first time, you can learn by observing masses leading up to Easter of the appropriate posture for the procession to the front of the church, and for the recessional. You can (and probably ought to) ask for clarification on how to accept the Precious Body from the priest, deacon or the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, and how to likewise accept the Precious Blood. But attempting to adequately describe the physical sensation, or the mystical experience taking place is impossible. It’s a matter of faith.

What About the After-Effects of Communion?

I hope that every encounter with Christ in the Eucharist will be this way, and for everyone, but for me (so far), I’ve felt a profound sense of gratitude in being able to receive so precious a Gift, and humility that God would wish to give Himself to me through partaking of His Precious Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. I’ve experienced an inner stillness and peace, like deep waters, in my soul that I know it’s okay to rest in, as well as what I can only describe as a strengthening to resist sin and a renewed desire to walk upright in the light of God.

For that brief moment, it feels like I am in Eden, standing hand in hand with my Lord. And the part of my soul that longs for mystery and beauty and majesty and peace yearns to be with Him through this sacrament. I’ve (almost) never felt closer to Christ than I have in the act of receiving Holy Eucharist. And like a child, I want to ask, “How soon can we go back?”

Four Little Words

Sunday’s Gospel reading was from the book of John (the twenty-first chapter), in which the writer has an epilogue wherein the resurrected Jesus appears to seven of His disciples at the sea of Tiberius.The homily spoken at my local parish was about knowing Christ better, and knowing Him in the Eucharist, which I’ll be posting about soon (I promise!). But for today, I wanted to expand on and add my own thoughts on the reading as I felt led to return to this story and meditate on it further. While doing so, I began to wonder, just what was going on with the disciples at the time of this story taking place, and how does that apply to us today?

board-close-up-dirty-602160Behind Locked Doors

Picture it. The disciples are in hiding, fearful of the Jewish authority who had just had Jesus tried and killed. Despite evidence of His resurrection, they have been living behind locked doors. Perhaps the enemy is at work in their minds, making them doubt whether they really saw Jesus at all, if St. Thomas saw the nailmarks and touched His side. Now, Simon Peter, called by God to be the leader of this new Church, decides that he’s going to do something to break the cycle of fear and uncertainty.

“Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” (John 21:3, NAB)

While St. Peter may have been motivated by physical hunger, I picture him instead, longing for a return of normalicy. He was a fisherman before he was called to be a disciple. Many of them were.

With Jesus’ absence, it seemed only normal to return to the profession they first knew. And then I began to wonder, how many times, when we lack direction, do we become (like the disciples), immobilized by fear and doubt? And how often do we, when God seems absent, begin to drift back into old patterns — that which we find familiar, safe even?

But by the mercy of God, He is willing to meet us where we are! And Simon Peter, with those four little words, makes a decision that doing something, anything, is better than remaining in a life of fear. He refuses to continue living behind locked doors and his determination inspires the others to respond, “We also will come with you.”

beach-boat-clouds-187927Encountering Jesus

As the story goes, they spent all night and found no fish. It calls to mind the times when I have attempted to force things out of my own strength, apart from God, and fail to bear any fruit. Earlier in the book of John (chapter 15), Jesus tells a parable about being the True Vine and they are the branches, and apart from Him, they can do nothing (Jn. 15:5). How often do we attempt things outside of God’s timing or provision, and fail? But Jesus, whom they don’t recognize as being present in their circumstances, is there waiting for them at the shore.

“Jesus said to them, ‘Children, have you caught anything to eat?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ So he said to them, ‘Cast the net over the right side  of the boat and you will find something.’ So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish.” (John 21:5-6, NAB).

I love how abbreviated the disciples’ response is here: ‘No.” No complaining, it’s just almost a grunt of a reply, and maybe this is a little irreverent, but I almost sense a lack of charity in their voices. Perhaps they are thinking, ‘Can he not see that our nets hang limp and out boat is empty?’ They’ve been up all night, tired from their labors, feeling the frustration of failure and perhaps the pressure of being unable to provide for their families and anyone else they’re supporting. They will have nothing to take to market. They may even go hungry that day.

At this point, they still don’t recognize Jesus. Why not? Are they so caught up in their own problems that they are unable to see Him at work around them? It’s unspecified in the story but, I’d like to think, that maybe St. John the Apostle, the beloved disciple, had a head’s up that something unusual was at work here. Perhaps he was the one who encouraged them to give the stranger’s advice a try. Fruitfulness is always evidence of God at work in us. Immediately, when they reconnect with the True Vine, the whole situation changes. But only because they are willing to take this step of faith.

What steps of faith is God calling you to take in the midst of your situation? Where might you be encountering Christ and not recognize Him at work? St. John the Apostle — the one closest to Christ — immediately recognizes in this confirmation of fruitfulness that his Lord is at work. With four little words, he immediately tells Simon Peter.

“So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord.” (Jn. 21:7, NAB).

I think it’s amazing that here again are four little words of faith, but how powerful are what they represent!

blue-nature-ocean-26681Recognizing Christ

I love St. Peter in this story; the other disciples are reserved, or at least, willing to wait until the boat is docked to see Jesus. Even St. John the Apostle, who I picture has a serenity and a burning longing in his heart to be with Jesus, is content to wait until they arrive.

Not so, St. Peter!

St. Peter, whose passions are known to run hot, comes across as impetuous here. Upon hearing that it’s Jesus, he tucks in his clothing and swims to shore. One hundred yards! (For the mathematically-challenged, this is the length of an American football field, minus the end zones.) I recognize myself in St. Peter, eagerly desiring to love and do good, to please Jesus and make up for the times when I’ve denied Him and chosen the path of sin. The hearts of those who love God and are called according to His purposes run towards Him (or swim in this case), even when we have offended Him. We must always turn back to God.

What must St. Peter have been thinking of during that swim? Could he have ever envisioned that those four little words the night before would result in them encountering Christ? Maybe, but I doubt it. I think he was full of a joy and anticipation that filled him so completely, he couldn’t do anything else but rush to meet his Savior.

In the time it takes the others to catch up, Jesus already has a charcoal fire, and bread and fish upon it, to meet their physical hunger and provide for their needs. Spiritually, we can take from this also the analogy of God meeting our spiritual hunger in partaking of the Eucharist. Where Jesus is, there is always provision for our needs. Jesus does not merely meet their physical hunger however; He has provided the fish for them to take to market (thus, meeting their needs to help others); and He’s about to provide even more.

freely-10204.jpgExperiencing Healing

After breakfast, Jesus asks Simon Peter, three times, whether he loves Him. Why does Jesus ask him three times — isn’t once enough? The Bible tells us that St. Peter is pained by Jesus asking him three times whether He is loved by him.

“[…] Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ [Jesus] said to him, ‘Feed my sheep’.” (Jn. 21:17b, NAB)

Why was St. Peter in such anguish? Remember, that during the trial of Jesus, following His arrest, that Simon Peter was recognized as being one of His followers. When accused of being one of the disciples, Simon Peter rejected Christ three times. Despite Jesus’ resurrection, I think that Simon Peter was still living with the pain of those denials and needed addressing. He may not yet have realized it yet, but Jesus did! Like Simon Peter, perhaps we fail to recognize the areas where we are deeply hurt and still in need of those wounds being tended. What areas in our hearts need God’s healing today?

To be completely clear, Jesus didn’t need this confirmation from St. Peter for His own sake; this was totally about Peter. By asking Simon Peter three times, ‘Do you love me?’, He was undoing the work of sin in St. Peter’s life, and offering him this heartbreakingly beautiful, poignant moment of healing. One affirmation of faith and fidelity, for every denial made in the grips of fear. How great a God we serve!

When we learn to recognize Christ in our circumstances, we can choose to join Him in His work. When we act in faith, we can encounter Him, and He not only gives us the provision to meet us needs, He equips us, gives us purpose, and calling us back to Himself, offering restoration.

alone-beach-blue-skies-934718Focusing on Your Own Walk

The final verses of the chapter (Jn. 21:20-23 specifically), we see Simon Peter asking Jesus what His plans are for the future of St. John the Apostle. Jesus offers Simon Peter the following rebuke:

“Jesus said to him, ‘What if I want him to remain until I come? What concern is it of yours? You follow me.” (Jn. 21:22, NAB).

Poor Simon Peter, so soon restored to Christ, and he’s fallen again. I take encouragement from the inclusion of this passage because it confirms that we will continue to try and fall, even as we progress on our journey towards holiness and sanctification.

I am reminded too of an audiobook I’ve been listening to recently, in which Fr. Timothy Gallagher (who did that lecture on the Discernment of Spirits) talks about how while we should always strive to become as holy as possible, we should not become fixated upon the spiritual graces or giftings that God may reserve to give to others. And, I think, this is where St. Peter fell again. And so will we, fall that is, again and again. But God is always there to meet us where we are, and bring us back to restoration with Him. He is waiting on the shore, there at the Table.

Won’t you come and join Him?

The Discernment of Spirits: Setting the Captives Free with Fr. Timothy Gallagher, OMV

Fr. Timothy M. Gallagher, O.M.V. was ordained in 1979 as a member of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, a religious community which specializes in spiritual formation and retreats based on the exercises and writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Fr. Gallagher received his doctorate from Gregorian University in 1983, and in addition to having taught for a number of years, and written a number of books on the Ingatian Way, he is also a frequent guest on EWTN.

Some of Fr. Gallagher’s books include the following:

Quite by accident, a few months ago I stumbled onto Fr. Tim’s podcast, “The Discerning of Spirits with Father Timothy Gallagher”, a sixteen episode podcast available on Youtube in which Fr. Gallagher discusses the fourteen rules of discernment (by St. Ignatius of Loyola) in a dialogue format.

Introductory video of the podcast series:

But first, who is St. Ignatius of Loyola and what are his rules of discernment?

Painting by Peter Paul Rubens

St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) founded the Society of Jesus (the Jesuit order). His spiritual exercises reflect timeless principles of faith and testing, the seasons of dryness and flourishing common to all believers in their faith journeys. These exercises were formulated during a period where St. Ignatius was practising asceticism. 

Over the past few months, I have been studying some of the writings of St. Ignatius (as summarized by various authors), who is also known for his examen, which I blogged about in January. There are two sets of rules, the first of which is covered in Fr. Timothy Gallagher’s audio series, on learning to discern the movements of the spirit in one’s life. The text of these rules can be found here, or as a PDF from EWTN.

Back to the Audio Series

The series itself runs for sixteen episodes, all roughly half an hour in length and available on YouTube, so, it’s about an eight-hour commitment of time and zero investment of dollars (don’t you just love free resources?), unless you’d like to purchase the companion book. And I might, because this is an awesome, awesome series.

Fr. Gallagher leads a dialogue in a Q&A format discussing each of the rules (each rule taking a little over one episode usually) and he doesn’t just give yes/no answers. He has a soft, pleasant to listen to voice that speaks with authority, reverence, and respect for the challenges and struggles of Christians in the scenarios he presents (both manufactured and stories of real people with changed names), firmly anchoring these 16th century rules in a 21st century context. 

In one example, he compares looking ahead to the crests and troughs of one’s faith as an observant public transit user holding onto the ceiling rail and being aware of the sharp turn ahead. Little details like these make these fourteen ways of recognizing the movements of the spirit come alive.

The rules themselves cover both how the Enemy is at work to seduce, to distract, to enslave, and the Holy Spirit counters to disturb, to convict, to refreshen (to name a few methods of each). In these rules, St. Ingatius of Loyola counsels us to be alert to the seasons and times when God seems close, and those periods of withdrawal, or even the long “dark nights of the soul” as St. John of the Cross would say, that come to saints.

The LOUD, consumerist voice of this present age tells me to buy “new, consume, discard, and repeat and pay no heed to the voices of the past. They’re unapproachable, difficult to understand, and irrelevant besides being outdated”. 

But there’s a quiet Voice that whispers, “Come and see what has been set before you, the wisdom of these saints. Come, taste and see”. For those readers wishing to listen to that second voice, perhaps you may wish to give this series a try for yourselves. It has enriched my life, and I believe it will do the same for yours.

For additional reading on this topic, see Fr. Gallagher’s book, The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living.


7/16/19: Edited to correct acronym for EWTN (Global Catholic Television Network), and a couple of other typos I noticed. Sorry about that!

The Life of Mary as Seen by the Mystics

 The Life of Mary As Seen by the Mystics, compiled by Raphael Brown, is a curious work recommended to me recently, and seeing as I was provided with a copy, I began reading it shortly thereafter. As described in the introduction (and dust jacket copy), the book should be read “as a religious novel, but not as a fifth Gospel,” (pg 25). This sage advice from Hippolyte Delegate, S.J., sums up the view of this work, comprised of the private revelations of four mystics: St. Elizabeth of Schoenau (1129-1164), St. Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373), Venerable Mother Mary of Jesus of Agreda (1602-1656), and Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824).

The Magisterium has declared that all public revelation has ceased; this is canon; however private revelation, while not required to be believed, is not only possible, but millions embrace belief in private revelations, such as the apparitions at Fatima and Loudres. Is it too far a stretch then to believe that a handful of holy women, united in faith, but seperated by eight hundred years’ of Church history may have been visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM)? 

One of the criticisms of the book (by its own admission) is that the testimonies of the four mystics don’t exactly match. An argument made to excuse this lapse is that some of the visions capture the spiritual truth, while others, the physical truth (if I understand the gist of it). The writer cautions that visions in general should not be sought after as if they were an archaeological portal to the past.

These disclaimers aside, I found it a fascinating, if occasionally disconcerting, read. I’ll explain the latter sentiment first.

The purpose in reading about the lives of the saints should be that we are inspired to make positive change in our growth towards our own sanctification. Reading this proposed ‘life of Mary’ is a far more humbling experience than I ever anticipated. If true (and I don’t claim to believe in the visions…yet), then she was an unparalled creature of humility, grace and beauty, the likes of which the world has not seen since Eve, but, even more in a state of perfection because unlike Eve, she never sinned.

It was difficult, even uncomfortable, reading this holy woman describe herself as a ‘wyrm’ compared to God. My own pride bristles at the idea of calling myself anything so lowly…but, actually (a gentle Voice reminds me), we are but dust, and even counting ourselves as worms is greater than we really merit. The spiritual intimacies of the BVM with God are unlike any most of us are ever likely to experience, and that is in of itself, both beautiful, awesome, and (if I’m honest), so pure that I am a little relieved that I’m neither Our Lady or a saint.

Quickly moving along from this issue of pride, there are a number of wonderful anecedotes throughout the book, most especially, filling in the gaps that the Gospels leave out, questions perhaps you too have asked like…

  •  What was Mary’s childhood like? 
  • How did the Three Magi meet?
  • What happened at The Massacre of the Innocents?
  • What was life like in Egypt while the BVM, St. Joseph, and the child Jesus lived there?
  • What happened in Jesus’ hidden years?
  • Did he know the disciples growing up?
  • What does [insert name here] really look like — and how accurate are the paintings?
  • What happened in St. John the Baptist’s final moments?
  • Where did Jesus stay during His ministry?
  • What were Mary’s final years like?

I could easily go on and on. There’s so much rich ground to draw from here. Detailed descriptions of the Holy Family are included in the book (as I hinted at before) and if anyone knows whether paintings based on these mystics’ descriptions have been done, I’d love to see them to compare notes.

Walking with the BVM as she encounters the Way of the Cross is horrifying. Some moments reminded me, strikingly, of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and I wonder if anyone involved in that production was familiar with these words. And like that film, there are moments that are not for the faint of heart. Crucifixion was a brutal, tortuous method of death for the worst of criminals. 

Seeing the Passion through the eyes of a mother, following her convicted criminal (but entirely innocent) Son to His death, is absolutely heartbreaking. Even from a 21st century standpoint, following a documentary of a mother whose son was on Death Row, would be troubling, how much more so our Lord and Savior? If you could take nothing else away from reading this book, you would get a new perspective on The Stations of the Cross.

There are also some wonderful moments where the BVM describes periods of spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation (as St. Ignatius of Loyola would call them) that remind us that God’s ways are mysterious, but He always has a plan. We can take comfort that our trials and challenges have both a Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) and a mother whose tender arms have held brokenness before and can hold our brokenness too.