Two Carmelites, sisters by blood as well as in religious
life, at the Detroit Conference
While I was staying at the Passionist Retreat Center there was a conference of Carmelite nuns going on—a meeting of about a hundred cloistered nuns—mostly the Prioresses (mothers superior) and Formation Directors (novice-mistresses) of various monasteries in the United States and Canada, though I did see some younger nuns with the white veils of novices. It was interesting seeing these women outside their monasteries. They were anything but a somber group. There was much laughter and a strong sense of family. They looked very traditional—almost all in the same habit their predecessors had worn for centuries though a few had modified veils that showed a wisp of hair. They were very serious when it came time for prayer and it was a privilege to attend their Mass each morning. I served the Mass—or rather I served the old priest who celebrated the Mass for them each morning. I was surprised to note that at communion not a single nun received communion on the tongue. Young and old, reverent all, but each nun extended her hands to receive Holy Communion. I mentioned this one day at lunch—I had my meals with them in the retreat dining room—and the nuns at the table all thought for a moment and then began to discuss it. They had never given it much thought, they agreed, it just seemed natural to them. Then one older nun—the prioress of a Carmel on the West Coast—said “Well, why wouldn’t we? The Incarnation is the central mystery of our lives. Holy Mother (Saint Teresa of Avila) says that we should meditate on either the Passion or the Incarnation. When you meditate on the Word Becoming Flesh, you burn with desire to hold the Flesh of the Lord for yourself. In this sacrament, his Flesh becomes our Flesh and our Flesh becomes his. Why should be afraid to touch him? He is our Spouse, the deepest Desire of our being.” I was impressed at her fervor as well as her insight.
Several years before while in Minneapolis I had been taken to hear a young priest, a Father Robert Altier, who at the time was something of a seven day wonder. Father Altier drew huge crowds to Saint Agnes Church where he celebrated what at the time was the “indult” mass. A college buddy of mine who had just returned to the Church after three “marriages” (only one of them with a woman if you get my drift) would go only to Saint Agnes. Saint Agnes with the Latin Mass facing the wall represented the Church he had left forty years ago and it was the only Church to which he was willing to go back now that he had religion again. (That is the danger in being a historian: the temptation is to restore the past, a futile effort, rather than build the future on the past.) Father Altier told us in his talk that day—it wasn’t a sermon but a talk in the hall after mass as I recall—that receiving Communion in the hand was “an abomination, a sacrilege” The Blessed Mother, he assured us, had never received Communion in the hand. I almost laughed out loud. She who had changed Jesus’ diaper (I could use a more graphic phrase) was too awestruck to take his flesh in her hand in Holy Communion? Who is this Christ in Whom this young priest believed? Is it the Christ of the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, the Christ whose human nature is preserved intact in the hypostatic union? Or does this Christ have a different sort of human nature than we do? Sure he is “consubstantial” with the Father according to his Divinity. What I wonder if people believe is whether he is “consubstantial” with us regarding his humanity? Here again is Gnosticism lurking behind orthodox piety. It is perfectly all right to receive Communion on the tongue if that your choice, but can we say that it is wrong or sacrilegious to receive Christ in our hands? If so, what is that implying about human nature? What is that saying about material creation? Beneath such “orthodoxy” lurks some very dark beliefs.