I ran across a quote today from St. Cyril of Alexandria that really grabbed my attention. I read it in a pamphlet at a Roman Catholic bookstore. I did a quick google search to see if I could track down the exact source of the quotation—chapter and verse, so to speak. I don’t like quoting sources that I have not tracked down myself and verified. However, although this quote appears in many places, I could not find a reference to its exact source in the writings of St. Cyril of Alexandria. If anyone knows the source, genuine or spurious, please let me know. It does sometimes happen that pious legends develop that a certain saint has said something that he or she in fact did not say. In a common Orthodox guise this development of pious legend often begins with a phrase something like: “All the fathers agree….”
But be that as it may, even if this quote is not genuine, I think the sentiment and message is.
“They who make a sacrilegious Communion receive satan and Jesus Christ into their hearts—satan, that they may let him rule, and Jesus Christ, that they may offer Him in sacrifice as a Victim to satan.”
There are a few things I would like to say about this quotation. The first is that the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion is indeed the very Body and Blood of Christ; and when one receives Holy Communion, one actually receives Jesus Christ, the Logos of God, into him or herself, into their heart. Nevertheless, it is possible to receive Christ unto judgement. It is possible to receive Christ and at the same time be receiving satan. Whoa. That’s freaky. That’s more than freaky. That’s frightening.
Yes, it’s freaky and frightening, but it is not really different from our actually daily experience. We are continually receiving or accepting satan, accepting the lie (lies about ourselves, lies about God, lies about others). All day long, we are, perhaps, praying one minute, crying out to God in our heart for help; and the next minute we are lusting after our neighbour or our neighbour’s stuff, we are seething with rage and anger and condemnation of others, of people we don’t even know. It seems that all day long I find myself in a continual battle, a struggle over who I am going to accept, what version of reality I will embrace, who actually is going to be Lord over my life.
St. Macarios of Egypt in his 43rd homily says the following about the human heart:
“The heart is but a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there, and there likewise are poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There also is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.”
Within each person, each baptized, Spirit-filled, Orthodox Christian, there are angels and demons raging. We are, so long as we live in this body of flesh, at war. There is no time when we can take it easy or just give up for a while without causing ourselves some serious spiritual damage. In many ways, those who are not in Christ have it much easier. They do not have to struggle in the same way Christians do. They are not trying to put on Christ. It’s okay for a secular person to just let her or himself be consumed with envy or lust or avarice (that’s the love of money). There doesn’t have to be a continual fight going on—at least in the beginning stages. But what even pagans and secular people of all sorts find out, however, just by living life is that every passion or desire must, at some point, be controlled or else it will take their life destroy them. The process may take several years—or even decades—but eventually passions uncontrolled rob us of life, of whatever freedom or peace or sanity we may have had.
But in the beginning, giving up on the battle often feels really good. I sometimes hear from my spiritual children when they, in frustration or despair, just cave in to whatever passion that has come to be the dominant temptation in their life, I hear them say that they feel at peace. Of course they feel peace, they have just surrendered a certain aspect of their life to the enemy. St. Isaac the Syrian warns us against this kind of peace. In homily 43 he says, “Whenever in your path you find unchanging peace, beware: you are very far from the divine paths trodden by the weary feet of the saints. For as long as you are journeying in the way to the city of the Kingdom and are drawing nigh to the city of God, this will be a sign for you: the strength of the temptations that you encounter.” Here what St. Isaac calls “unchanging peace” does not refer to the “the peace that passes understanding,” rather it refers to the peace of no longer being tempted or tried.
The peace that passes understanding, the peace that Christ gives is the peace in the midst of storm, the peace in the midst of the fire of trial and temptation. It the peace that the martyrs of Christ experienced in the arena. It is the peace that the 21 Egyptian and Libyan martyrs experienced as they confessed Christ on their knees just before their heads were cut off. The peace of Christ is the peace that comes in the midst of resisting a burning passion or of letting go of the right to be angry or in the midst of saying no to the desire to be seen as right, or first, or important. The peace of Christ is the peace that passes understanding. It’s easy to understand the peace of not fighting, not resisting, not struggling any longer. The peace we don’t understand, the peace of Christ is the peace in the face of death: physical death under the sword, or the little deaths, the psychological deaths to our fears or passions or desires, the deaths to our persona, to our preferred identity. This is the peace of Christ.
Unfortunately, on the one hand, many of us don’t experience this peace that passes understanding very often simply because we don’t really resist much the temptations that come our way. We don’t resist, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, “to the shedding of (our) blood in striving against sin.” Fortunately, on the other hand, Christ does not and has not rejected us when we fail. In fact, Christ has given us various ways we can return to Him when we fail to resist temptation. Even in the midst of failing to resist temptation we can pray, we can call out to God for help even as we are falling into sin. St. James tells us that salt water and fresh water do not come from the same spring, but nevertheless it often happens that blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. It ought not to be like this. This is not who we are becoming in Christ. Nonetheless, for we beginners in Christ, for we weak and sick ones, it does indeed happen, and perhaps happen often, that we find ourselves praying for help even while we are sinning.
But isn’t this exactly what St. John of Damascus’ pre-Communion prayer says: “I stand before the gates of Your Temple, yet I refrain not from my evil thoughts…” For Orthodox Christians, sin and failure are manifestations of sickness, not evidence of some sort of ultimate rejection of God. Or, more importantly, sin and failure are not evidence that God has rejected us. Sin and failure are evidence that we are sick, that we need a Saviour, that we need to be healed. And probably the preeminent way God has given us to find the healing of our soul is through Holy Communion.
During the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the priest prays specifically that the “the Physician of souls and bodies” would heal us, heal us soul and body. But much depends on how we approach Holy Communion. As St. Cyril says above, if you receive Christ in Holy Communion “sacrilegiously,” that is, if you, unprepared and without intending to receive Christ as the Lord of your life, if you receive Holy Communion this way, you are receiving both Christ and satan. You are taking your medicine mixed with poison, you are receiving Christ to be crucified again in your own heart.
How does one make sure he or she does not receive Holy Communion sacrilegiously? You make sure by preparing yourself beforehand. Preparation for Holy Communion is not a matter of how many prayers you say or how much you fast or even how often you confess. Preparation for Holy Communion is a matter of the heart; it is preparing one’s heart to receive Christ as both King and God. Confession, pre-Communion prayers, and fasting all help us focus and attend to this preparation of heart, but there is no magic formula, no sure-fire way to guarantee that you are definitely prepared for Holy Communion. In fact, if you are sure that you are prepared, there is a good chance you are not.
Referring again to that same pre-Communion prayer by St. John of Damascus, it seems that one is prepared to receive Holy Communion without sacrilege, when one sees him or herself as a biblical publican (a traitor), as a harlot (a prostitute), as an unworthy and disqualified person who approaches to receive Christ based on Christ’s love, forgiveness and ability to heal both soul and body. This is the only worthy way to approach Christ. This is how one receives only Christ when one receives Holy Communion.