There is this girl in our parish who comes to Mass with her Mom almost every Sunday (when health allows) in a wheel chair and a feeding tube. In spite of her innocence and devotion, she will never be able to receive Holy Communion.
Often time I will visit the home bound and the patients in nursing homes who haven’t been able to come to Mass for years. Some of them watch the Mass on television, others are very devoted to the rosary. They are always happy when I come with the Blessed Sacrament, they are most often the most faith filled people.
While preparing people for entrance into the Catholic Church I often bring up these examples when I talk about abstaining from the reception of Holy Communion. There is a time, season, and order to the reception of the Sacraments. There has to be a revering, a fasting, a non reception in order to prepare to receive. Not out of a non worthiness but out of a respect.
Developing that even further, it’s important to see the reception of Holy Communion as a calling, a mission statement. I receive the Eucharist, or any of the other sacraments, not for my own sake alone but on behalf, and for the sake of, all those who cannot receive; whether that be because they are physically impaired or spiritually unprepared. It is a special grace that does not put me in an elite category but marks us for death to self.
A catechumen’s abstinence from the Eucharist, even though they have a real desire and understanding of the Eucharist, helps to frame the Eucharist as this act of total dedication of self. It is the sign of uniting oneself to the Church, the completion of their process of preparation. It is, in so many ways, analogous to the abstinence that engaged couples should practice as they prepare for marriage. Something worth waiting for, setting apart; connecting words, meaning, and action together.
One might even say that the abstinence from the Blessed Sacrament can be just as meritorious (according to the circumstances) as the actual reception. For a just cause we should practice refraining from the reception of Holy Communion.
Going beyond this meritorious abstinence from Holy Communion, I began to think of many other forms of spiritual fasting that we should take advantage of when presented the opportunity. For example, the Mother who must reside in the cry room throughout Mass, the child who must wait until 2nd grade for Holy Communion, the parish with a priest who is hard to understand, participating in a liturgy that is not to your preference, or not having your wedding go as planned. Sometimes its particular forms of devotionals, prayers, or images that a set of circumstances asks us to let go of, or put aside for a time. Being asked not to kneel at Mass for pastoral reasons (which a pastor or Bishop has made a prudential decision to legislate) or any other form of pious gesture. Another good example was when the Bishop of this Diocese permitted us to eat meat for St. Patrick’s day, which fell on Friday. In appreciation of the authority of the Bishop and the true nature of this Lenten discipline; I had myself a big roast beef sandwich. One might be asked to spiritually fast because you are too sick to go to Mass on Sunday. There might even be particular situations it might be meritorious to abstain from Confession for a period of time (following your confessors consult).
All of these, and many others, are great examples of opportunities for spiritual fasting.
Spiritual fasting is vitally important for our spiritual growth. It helps us to value spiritual experiences and gifts as a calling to mission and not just something pretty to enjoy, like Peter on the mount of transfiguration. It helps us keep the balance between form and spirit and avoid the poison of the pharisees.