‘We are body and spirit making up one human nature’
John Boyd Orr, a Scottish Nobel Peace Prize winner, said in the British House of Commons in 1946, “We cannot build peace on empty stomachs.” He was speaking as a nutritionist and as a statesman. There is no small bit of political wisdom to be found there. Unjust poverty and hunger are evils that must not only be fought, but also healed through charity and beneficence.
Yet human beings are not just bodies. Remember the clear words of Our Lord when tempted by Satan to turn stones into bread: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). We do not live by bread alone because we are not bodies alone. We are body and spirit making up one human nature. We have immortal souls that need nourishment as much as bodies that need nourishment. So to paraphrase: “We cannot build up the spiritual life on empty souls.” After giving His divine teaching on the Eucharist as spiritual food, Our Lord explained further, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (Jn 6:63).
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that we can understand something of the Eucharist as nourishment by comparison to bodily food such as delight, growth, strength, and healing. St. Thomas, commenting on the words of Jesus from John 6 tells us that it is spiritual food “not as though the true flesh of Christ is not present in this sacrament of the altar, but because it is eaten in a certain spiritual and divine way” (Commentary on John, #992).
Among other things, this “spiritual and divine way” of eating in regard to the Eucharist means there must be a spiritual preparation before receiving this nourishment. Bodily digestion takes place without our decision, but in order to receive the fruit of the Blessed Sacrament, the interior graces, we must be disposed to receive them. And so we must come to the altar with fervent faith and trust in the True Presence. And we must be spiritually alive! The idea of trying to feed a corpse is grotesque. So also we cannot be in grave sin if we dare to receive communion.
We must prepare by cultivating love in our hearts for Jesus Christ, truly present, and by examining our conscience. This is why the Mass always begins with a penitential rite. Just as food can nourish a weak body, so communion can absolve venial sins. But a soul dead in mortal sin cannot receive nourishment. And so the soul must be brought to life again by confession and absolution before it is capable of being fed again. St. Paul articulates this with great sobriety in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:27-29).
We also prepare for and recognize this spiritual food by the Eucharistic fast by which we deny ourselves bodily food for at least an hour before receiving communion. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us could probably be much more generous than one hour. The fasting reminds us that this is no mere earthly food, but our “daily bread.”
The graces, the spiritual strength and nourishment received in a worthy communion, are infinite. They are what sustain us in the life worth living. They are what fills our otherwise empty souls.
— Father Steven Marchand is administrator of St. Ambrose Church in Bristol and St. Peter Church in Vergennes.
—Originally published in the Summer 2023 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.