The Grace of Holy Communion
Many Christian sects have, of course, abandoned the sacrament of Holy Communion, a point which I will address momentarily. My discussion of it here does not, I think, depend on the sect of the reader, however, for the grace that I will discuss flows (or fails to flow) from within the participant, rather than from the rite itself, and as such is available to all, whether or not they consume the bread and wine as Christ requested of his disciples.
In Holy Communion the communicant receives the body of Christ – the physical object that contains the spiritual body much as a person’s physical body contains their spirit – into their own, in the process making themselves a part of the body of the Church. This is not the consumption of a magical potion that performs miracles of its own accord. Children are expected to learn the significance of communion before they take it (but how many really do?), because communion depends upon the cooperation of the communicant for its effect. The successful communicant will think of the communion wafer as the container of the spirit of Christ flowing into her body and taking her into the body of the Church. This thought will, as the name of the ritual implies, bring forth a refreshed awareness of her role in the community of God’s children. She will open her feelings to the community, feeling the shell that is her own body dissolve like the wafer, liberating her spirit to join the greater body of the faithful. She will draw strength from that body, a strength beyond herself, renewing her spirit and healing the damage done by the assaults of daily existence. The grace, then, consists of this healing communion with the greater spirit of the body of the Church. It is an experience that helps us to correct our drift away from God by focusing our eyes back upon the guiding light of faith, and to overcome the obstacles that we cannot overcome in isolation.
Those that do not take Holy Communion may receive a similar sort of grace in many ways, ranging from quiet contemplation of nature to adding their voice to a rousing hymn; God does not deprive those who seek Him just because their sect has given up a ritual intended as the vehicle for this form of grace. Everyone is offered the chance to feel communion with God and with the community of the faithful, if they are only willing to reach out and accept the offer.
It is important to realize that the grace and the ritual are not one and the same. Just as the grace may be obtained outside of the specific ritual, empty practice of the ritual will not bring grace. Whatever a given sect’s opinion may be regarding the process of transubstantiation, I believe all would agree that a person who takes the communion wafer and murmurs a reflexive “amen” while thinking about mowing the lawn or the taste in clothing of some other parishioner will not receive grace. The sacrament is a vehicle for grace, an opportunity for an experience that would be difficult to obtain while sitting down on a break from doing the vacuuming. The vehicle cannot reach its destination unless we open the gates of our minds and focus on the meaning of communion. Likewise, the alternative vehicles cannot serve the purpose unless we allow them to. One person may sit alone looking at a starry sky and feel spiritual communion with the universe, a participation in the glory of nature’s God, whose warm presence may be most strongly felt when we are alone and quiet. Another may sit beneath the same sky and wonder what’s on television. One person may be roused by a hymn to a feeling of oneness with the voices rising together in harmony, feeling the strength of communion in the beauty and power of the music. Meanwhile, the man next to her may be thinking: “That guy’s off key, and that woman always sings too loudly.” One receives grace, the other pushes it away.
In my view, the reason behind the Catholic Church’s teaching that communicants should cleanse themselves of serious sins through confession prior to taking communion is the desire to keep the taking of the bread from becoming a mere empty ritual. A person distracted by unrepented sin – that is, by a focus on desires incompatible with faith in religious virtue – is unlikely to be transported by the experience of communion. He must first prepare himself to want the benefits of the grace, to want to feel the sufficiency of union with the bliss of the faithful, before communion can have its effect. Those who habitually undergo the ritual without this preparation will fail to receive the grace that comes through successful participation in communion, and indeed the vehicle for grace will be destroyed by this bad habit.
 In fairness, the Catholic Church would contend that Holy Communion is unique, and my intent is not to quarrel with that proposition as such. But the Catholic Church does not offer Holy Communion to non-Catholics, so it cannot object to the advice that persons of other sects seek the essence of Communion in other ways, and Catholics do not contend that God condemns non-Catholics, so He must allow other paths to virtue.