ON FREQUENCY OF COMMUNION

Written by Vladimir Moss

ON FREQUENCY OF COMMUNION

The old debate on how frequently we should receive Holy Communion, and with what kind of preparation, shows no signs of dying down in our time. Although not a dogmatic question, it has all the potential to cause as much disruption in Church life as many dogmatic questions. In this respect it is similar to the debate on how heretics and schismatics of various kinds are to be received into the True Church. In both cases perplexity is caused by the fact that the Church seems to adopt a different position at different times in her history. And so one side in the debate adopts the position of the Church at one point in her history, and the other side – her position at another time. Both can claim patristic support, and so both can claim that right is on their side. The problem, then, is: how to reconcile the apparently contradictory positions taken by the Church at different times in her history.

With regard to frequency of Communion, there is no argument that Christians received It more frequently in the early centuries of Christianity than in recent centuries. The question, then, is: is this because there has been a falling away from the early, correct practice? Or are there good reasons why the Church has modified the practice of the Early Christians?

The question was first raised in recent times by the so-called “Kollyvades” Fathers[1] – so called after the kollyva, or boiled wheat, which is traditionally given out at memorial services in the Greek Church. They taught, among other things, that Communion was being received too infrequently by contemporary Christians, and that It should be received as often as possible consistent with proper preparation for the sacrament. There was much opposition to this teaching, and successive patriarchs tended to adopt a position midway between the two parties.

Thus “in 1775, Ecumenical Patriarch Theodosios sought to reconcile the two factions. He wrote to the monks of Athos saying that the early Christians received Holy Communion every Sunday, while those of the subsequent period received it every forty days, after penance; he advised that whoever felt himself prepared should follow the former, whereas if he did not he should follow the latter. But this did not bring an end to the dispute. Like the contention about memorial services, it continued until the early part of the nineteenth century. In 1819, Patriarch Gregory V wrote to the Athonite monks that Communion should not be received at certain set times, but whenever one felt oneself ready for it, following confession and other necessary preparation.”[2]

St. Gregory here appears implicitly to rule out the extreme positions on both sides: both the idea that it is wrong to receive Communion more than two or three times a year (this is the extreme that the Kollyvades Fathers strongly, and rightly, reacted against), and the idea that one must receive Communion at every single Liturgy, whether one feels ready for it or not, and whether one has done the necessary preparation or not (even the Kollyvades Fathers agreed that preparation for Communion by fasting was necessary – see the book by St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite, On Frequent Communion).

However, in view of the fact that there are those who continue to deny that any special fast before Communion is necessary, it will be worth examining the early evidence for that.

Thus St. John Chrysostom (+407) recommends fasting before Communion – and, if possible, also after: “You fast before Communion in order to be worthy of Communion. But as soon as you receive Communion, instead of increasing prudence and temperance, you let it all go, whereas you should be more temperate after Communion. For before you received Communion you fasted in order to be worthy to receive the Bridegroom, while after this you should be more prudent and temperate in order not to seem unworthy of what you have received. What, then? Should we fast after Communion as well? I don’t say this, and I don’t force you. It would be good, but I don’t force you to do this. But I exhort you not to feast to excess.”[3]

St. John Chrysostom’s words are clear evidence that, whatever was the practice in the very earliest period of the Church, by the late fourth century fasting before Communion was the norm.

Most True Orthodox Churches today insist on a three-day fast for laymen. The present writer has seen this practice in the Russian Church Abroad in the 1970s, in the Matthewite and Chrysostomite Greek Old Calendarists, and also in Russia, Serbia and Bulgaria. The only major exception appears to be the “Holy Orthodox Church of North America” (HOCNA) and those parishes and monasteries in other jurisdictions influenced by their reasoning, and perhaps also the Cyprianites.

Such near-unanimity about the three-day rule among the True Orthodox Churches is a very strong indication that it was introduced into the Church by the Holy Spirit. True, it does not seem to have been legislated in any Ecumenical or Local Council. But this is understandable: since this is a pastoral, rather than a dogmatic matter, the rule should be seen as a guideline rather than a strict law, with allowance of considerable flexibility in view of individual circumstances. The very young, the old and the sick may be granted a relaxation of the rule by their spiritual fathers, while the more ascetical may wish to fast longer or more strictly. But it appears that the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, has come to a near-unanimous conclusion in several traditionally Orthodox countries that an average person in normal circumstances should aim to prepare for Communion through a minimum of three days’ fasting.

Moreover, there seem to be some clear pointers to the three-day rule in Holy Scripture. Consider, for example, Exodus 19.10-19, which is appointed to be read by the Holy Church on the Vespers-Liturgy of Holy Thursday. Here God commands the people of Israel to sanctify themselves for three days before they ascend the Mount. “Be ready,” says Moses; “for three days come not near to a woman” (v. 15). Now ascending the Holy Mountain is a figurative expression for entering into communion with God, as we see in Psalm 23, which is appointed to be read during the preparatory prayers for Holy Communion: “Who will ascend the mountain of the Lord, or who will stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart…” (vv. 3-4).

A still closer prefiguring of Holy Communion can be seen in the story of the meeting between David and the priest Abimelech, when David asks whether he and his men can eat of the showbread on the altar. Abimelech replies that this bread was no common bread, “but holy loaves: if the young men have abstained from women, then they shall eat them. And David answered the priest, and said to him, Yes, we have abstained from women for three days: when I came forth for the journey all the young men were purified” (I Samuel 20.4-5). The holy loaves are clearly a type of the Eucharist, which require a preparation of three days’ abstinence.

Let us turn now to certain objections raised against the three-day rule.

1. The three-day rule encourages laziness and infrequency of Communion. In answer to this, we readily admit: it may. And in such circumstances the pastor should urge his flock to prepare and receive Communion more often, “lest the spiritual wolf seize” them, as it says in the prayers of preparation for Communion. But pastors and laity differ in their opinion of what constitutes frequent or infrequent Communion: what is frequent for one is infrequent for another. Most will agree that two or three times a year is infrequent. Some would consider once a month also infrequent. But more would probably consider that frequent!

However, the Church has decreed four periods in the year in which fasting is compulsory: the Christmas fast, Great Lent, the Apostles’ fast and the Dormition fast. In these periods, even a lazy person does not have to put in any extra fasting if he wants to receive Communion. Of course, a person who does not respect the compulsory fasts will not be ready to receive Communion even in the fasting periods. But then that will not be the “fault” of the three-day rule, but of the believer’s general lack of zeal and disobedience to the Church’s laws. He will in effect be excommunicating himself. De facto he does not want to receive Communion, so de jure he is excommunicate.

In this connection it is illuminating to consider the advice that St. Seraphim of Sarov gave on frequency of Communion. Concerning the nuns of Diveyevo, his spiritual children, he said: “I command them, Father, to partake of Christ’s holy and life-giving Sacrament in all the four fasts and on the twelve festivals.” But to a layman he said: “Communicate four times. Once is also good. As God deems you worthy…”[4]

“As God deems you worthy…” So God considers some people worthy of more frequent Communion than others – not in an absolute sense, for nobody is absolutely worthy, but relatively speaking, depending on their zeal and compunction. The nuns, who valued It more highly and struggled more to prepare for It through fasting and prayer, were counted worthy of frequent Communion, and the layman – of less frequent Communion. This is the general pattern we find in all the True Orthodox Churches today: those who struggle harder, and have greater zeal – the clergy and monastics, particularly – are counted worthy to receive Communion more often than those who struggle less. “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundantly” (Matthew 13.12).

To this the objection will immediately be raised: “But no-one is worthy to receive Communion, we are all sinners!” True, and yet St. John Chrysostom says: “You fast before Communion in order to be worthy of Communion.” Worthiness here is measured by one’s awareness of one’s unworthiness, that is, one’s humility, and some are clearly more “worthy” in this sense than others. If this were not true, it would make no sense to pray: “Count us not unworthy to receive…”, or: “We thank Thee that Thou hast counted us worthy to receive…” The three-day rule of preparation, while making nobody worthy in an absolute sense to receive Divine Communion, nevertheless, like all ascetic practices, sharpens our sense of our weakness and unworthiness, and therefore actually makes us less unworthy to receive, in accordance with the spiritual law that he who humbles himself is exalted. But those who do not prepare in the way the Church teaches run the danger of complacency and routine, of seeing Communion as their right or their duty rather than their salvation, even of “not discerning the Body and Blood of the Lord” and so of receiving to their condemnation. For “whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that which he hath” (Matthew 13.12).

2. The Early Christians Communed at every Liturgy, and so should we. The present writer has never seen proof of this statement (Acts 2.42 is often quoted, but it is not a proof), but he does accept that Christians in the early centuries communed in general more often than we do now. But what follows from that fact? That we should receive more often in imitation of them? That would be true only if our circumstances were very similar to theirs, and we ourselves similar to the Early Christians.

Until the end of the first millennium, although practice varied, we still find monastic saints practising very frequent Communion, such as St. Theodore the Studite (+821) and St. Symeon the Theologian (+1022). However, St. Symeon, while Communing every day himself, did so with tears – and stressed that if one did not have tears one should not Commune. This is a “hard saying”, and in practice, the Church balances the need to Commune worthily – that is, with tears – with the need not to fall into the hands of the “spiritual wolf” through infrequent Communion.

Nevertheless, the teaching of St. Symeon on who is worthy to receive Communion, though “hard”, should be studied and pondered by all. He writes: “We should know that there are five classes of people for whom, according to the holy fathers, it is forbidden to approach Holy Communion. The first are the catechumens, as they are not yet baptized. The second are those baptized, but who fell in love with shameful and unrighteous ways, such as apostates from the holy life for which they were baptized: fornicators, murderers, usurers, extortioners, slanderers, proud persons, jealous persons, those who harbour grudges, all those who being in such a state do not feel that they are enemies of God and are in a tragic situation, because they do not repent… The third are those possessed by demons, if they blaspheme and mock this Divine Mystery. The fourth are those who have come to their senses and have repented, but are fulfilling the penance (epitimia) laid on them to stand outside the church for a certain period of time. The fifth are those who have not yet the ripened fruit of repentance, i.e. those who have not yet come to the final decision to consecrate their entire life to God and to live the rest of their life in Christ in purity and without reproach. These five classes are clearly unworthy of Holy Communion. He is worthy to commune the precious Mysteries who is pure and has no part with sin, of whom we have spoken above. But when anyone of these worthy persons is corrupted by any corruption, as a man, then, of course, he also communes unworthily, if he does not wash away by repentance that which corrupted him. And so he eats and drinks unworthily who, although he is worthy, unworthily approaches the Holy Mysteries. May we, then, be worthy and commune worthily the most pure Mysteries in Christ Jesus our Lord, to Whom be glory for endless ages of ages. Amen.”[5]

Again, St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite writes: “Three days’ fasting is enough before Communion. Those who are able to fast even for a whole week before, do well.”[6]

As we come closer to our time, we find that the saints, without denying the patristic teaching that frequent Communion is good, stress the importance of adequate preparation, of which the most important component is true contrition over our sins. Thus St. Theophan the Recluse writes: “There is no salvation without Communion, and no progress in life without frequent Communion.

“But the Lord, the Source of life that enlivens those who partake of Him, is also fire to those who eat Him. Those who receive worthily taste of life, but those who partake unworthily taste of death. Although this death does not occur visibly, invisibly it always occurs in the spirit and heart of the man. The unworthy communicant steps away like a charred log from the fire, or the metal remnants of a conflagration. In the body itself either the seed of death is sown, or death happens right away, as it was in the Corinthian church at the Apostle’s reprimand. Therefore when receiving Communion you must approach it with fear and trembling, and sufficient preparation.

“This preparation consists in cleansing the conscience of dead deeds. But let a man examine himself, teaches the Apostle, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup (I Corinthians 11.28). Confession made with hatred of sin and the promise to flee it in any way possible makes a man’s soul a vessel capable of containing the uncontainable God by His grace. Decisiveness and promise are the place where the Lord communes with us in Communion, for it is the only clean place in us – everywhere else in us it is unclean. Therefore no one approaches worthily, but only through the Lord and His grace are we deemed worthy, for the sake of compunctionate confession and promise.

“We could have limited it to this: confess worthily and you will be a worthy communicant. But Confession itself is a sacrament, which requires worthy preparation; and more than that, it requires particular actions, feelings and dispositions that cannot be summoned all at once, but require time and a certain amount of exclusive preoccupation. That is why it has always been conducted according to a known office, with preliminary deeds and exercises that prepare one for it and enable one to better recognize his sins, to awaken contrition over them, and to guard the fortress of promise. All of these things together comprise govenie.”[7]

Again, consider the following from the life of a nearly contemporary saint, Elder Barsanuphius of Optina (+1912): “I remember once how in a talk he discoursed on frequent Communion and how certain people, citing the example of the Christians of the first centuries, demand permission even now to commune, if not daily, then weekly. ‘They don’t understand that those Christians were constantly prepared for death, and were often taken to prison right from the Liturgy. Each expected that, if not today, then tomorrow his turn would come to suffer for faith in Christ. Then they lived more soberly; their life was, one might say, a continuous state of govenie [fasting in preparation for Communion]. It’s not surprising therefore, that they often communed the Holy Mysteries. We don’t live that way, and we should not equate ourselves with them. Therefore in our Monastery it is agreed upon that the brothers commune six times a year – once during each fast and twice during Great Lent and the Nativity Fast. Deviations from this rule are allowed rarely, and each time with the blessing of the Elder and the Superior, so that one time the brothers were surprised: ‘Why is Fr. So-and-so approaching the Chalice?’ And those who knew what was going on explained, ‘He went through a terrible ordeal. He saw demons in perceptible form and became quite faint. And his spiritual father blessed him to prepare for Communion.’”[8]

Now Optina Monastery, as is well-known, was probably the finest monastery in Russia at the time. Fourteen of its elders were glorified by the Russian Church Abroad, and many of its monks became martyrs under the Soviet yoke. Note also that Optina under the holy elders towards the end of the nineteenth century was more strict on this question (i.e. allowed Communion less often) than Diveyevo under St. Seraphim at the beginning of the century. This was almost certainly because conditions had changed: the level of spiritual life in the country as a whole, and among monastics in particular, had fallen; which was reflected in a stricter attitude towards the reception of Communion.

And this is understandable. Modern life is much more complex and more full of temptations, both crude and subtle, than earlier ages. It correspondingly takes a Christian more time and more effort to drag himself away from earthly cares, concentrate on his spiritual state and reach that state of preparedness and compunction which is necessary before receiving Communion. This is especially the case with married laypeople (see more on that below). But monks, too, are affected by the increased worldliness of the age they live in.

Coming still closer to our age, the Serbian Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich (+1956) writes in his Catechism: “Q. How should we receive Holy Communion? A. At least four times a year, during the four fasts. But it is recommendable to receive it more frequently, depending on a communicant’s preparedness, and specially in sickness.”[9]

So the Church, while never abandoning her basic principles, changes her practices to some degree in accordance with the spiritual condition of her children. In earlier ages, when general conditions were more conducive to the spiritual life, and Christians generally were in a higher state of spiritual preparedness, there was less danger in the practice of very frequent Communion. But in more recent times, spiritual Fathers, moved by the Holy Spirit, have not blessed very frequent Communion except in special cases, knowing that it is very difficult for their spiritual children to prepare adequately for It.

Nor, of course, have they banned very frequent Communion. But they have recognized that different practices are possible for different people. “What is best,” asked Hieromartyr Nicon of Optina (+1931): “to Commune of the Holy Mysteries of Christ rarely or often? It is difficult to say. Zacchaeus joyfully received a dear Guest, the Lord, into his house, and he did well. But the centurion, out of humility, recognizing his unworthiness, did not decide on receiving him, and he also acted well. Their actions, though contrary to each other, are identical in their motivation. And they were equally worthy in the sight of the Lord. The essence is that one should prepare oneself worthily for the great Mystery.”[10]

This discussion of the practice in the Early Church leads us to a general point on historical comparisons between different Christian epochs. We call our Church “Apostolic” because we have received the teachings of the Holy Apostles without addition or subtraction. However, this refers to dogmatic teachings and to general norms of Christian faith and morality. It does not mean that we, living in the twenty-first century, are obliged to imitate the lives of the Early Christians in every particular. The attempt to do that is a characteristically Protestant venture, and we all know what is the result of their attempts to “go back to the Early Church” – a renunciation of the very concept of the Church! Our task is not to “go back to the Early Church”, but to join the Apostolic Church as it exists now, having maintained unbroken succession from the Apostles and their successors.

Not only are we quite simply not able to “go back to the Early Church” in a literal sense: it would be very harmful for us to attempt to do so. Thus, for example, standards of sexual morality in the Early Church were very high, and very strictly enforced. A man who committed fornication was completely cut off from any kind of fellowship with other Christians, and deprived of Communion for a very long period, if not for the rest of his life (cf. I Corinthians 5; Hebrews 6.4-6). If, in the Early Church, standards were so high, and discipline so strict that “of the rest no man dared to join himself to them” (Acts 5.13), what would happen to our Church if such strictness were enforced today, when the general spiritual level is so much weaker?

3. The Only Point of going to the Divine Liturgy is to Receive Communion. In defence of this statement, reference is made by some to the statement of St. Symeon of Thessalonica: “The Divine Liturgy is a rite for the purpose of consecrating the All-Holy Body and Blood of Christ, that they may be given in Communion to all the faithful, and it exists in and of itself for the sole purpose of Communion.”[11]

Now this statement raises no problems if it is understood as emphasising the absolute centrality, in the rite of the Divine Liturgy, of the Consecration and Communion. This in no way means that nothing else of value is done during the Liturgy besides Consecration and Communion. The Divine Liturgy accomplishes many things besides sanctifying individual communicants through their receiving Communion. During the Liturgy we listen to the Holy Scriptures; we pray for ourselves and the whole world; we are present at the Awesome Sacrifice, and worship Christ Crucified. All this strengthens us and the Church as a whole.

Therefore attendance at the Liturgy is valuable even if one does not Communicate. Even the catechumens, and those under penance, are encouraged to stay for the first part of the service, so this must be true for the baptised as well. While it is true that the full benefit of attending the Liturgy is gained only by those who Commune of the Holy Mysteries, attending only, without Communicating, is highly beneficial.[12]

4. Not to receive the Holy Mysteries at every Liturgy (unless one has a canonical impediment) is Spiritual Death, and Equivalent to Apostasy from Christ. Thus in an article penned in the 1950s the well-known ecumenist Fr. John Romanides wrote: “When a Christian does not commune at all with the Body and Blood of Christ in every Eucharist, he is spiritually dead… The approval that our clergy today gives our sacramental practice is even more unacceptable! If the Christian was excommunicated for having denied Christ after hours of physical torture, those who week after week excommunicate themselves are all the more condemnable.”[13] This position has become generally accepted in Greek new calendarist Orthodoxy, and has even crept into the Old Calendar Greek Church.

In defence of this position, reference is made by some to St. John Chrysostom’s Homily 3 on Ephesians, in which the saint, in the course of reproving those who come to Communion only at certain set times such as Pascha, appears to say that to refrain from receiving Communion at the Liturgy is like being invited to a friend for dinner and refusing to eat his food – it is an insult to him. If one is not worthy of receiving Communion, the Saint appears to say, then one is not worthy of going to the Liturgy at all. However, Bishop Photius of Marathon offers a different – and, in our view, much more convincing – interpretation. St. John Chrysostom, he writes, was addressing members of his flock who received Communion only on major feastdays, like Pascha, but did not receive It on “ordinary” days. This, he said, was an insult to Christ, because it implied that His Body and Blood is not the same on major feastdays as on “ordinary” days.[14]

Again, in his book On Frequent Communion, St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite claims that the Ninth Apostolic Canon says that all those who do not receive Communion at every Liturgy are excommunicated “as creating a disorder in the church”, so everybody who does not have a canonical impediment must commune. However, this interpretation of the Canon is not generally accepted by the Orthodox Church. As Hieromonk Patapios and Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna write: “St. Nikodemos is speaking very strictly here. According to Balsamon [perhaps the best known canonist of the Byzantine empire], some have argued, on the basis of the Ninth Apostolic Canon, that those who do not communicate should be excommunicated. However, as Balsamon point out, the Canon penalizes only those who create disorder by leaving the Church before the end of the Liturgy [my italics – VM]. What people are required to do is to stay until the dismissal has been pronounced and they have received antidoron (the blessed bread distributed to those who have, for whatever reason, been unable to communicate). They cannot be compelled to communicate against their will, especially if their conscience if bothering them.”[15]

Commenting on the same Canon, the famous Serbian canonist, Bishop Nicodemus (Milash) of Dalmatia, writes: “In the first period of the Church the communion of Christians was expressed mainly in the common participation of all the faithful in the Lord’s Supper (I Corinthians 10.16, 17) and in everyone remaining unanimously in the church (Acts 2.46, 20.7). Moreover, this communion, expressed in this way, was laid at the base of the composition of the rite of the Liturgy, so that the catechumens, who could stay in the church with the faithful only until certain prayers, immediately the rite of the Eucharist itself began were invited by the deacon to leave the church, so that only the faithful remained in the church and became participants in the Lord’s Supper. This was how the common thought of the Church concerning the spiritual union between the faithful was expressed, as well as the fact that, for the sake of this spiritual union, every faithful could and had the right to take part in church in all the prayers, both in the Eucharist itself and in the common prayer after Holy Communion to thank the Lord for His great gift. That is how it was at the beginning of the Church of Christ, and all the faithful always came to church and not only listened to the reading of Holy Scripture in church, but remained there until the priest, having finished the Divine Liturgy, blessed them to leave the church. However, this zeal began to cool among some, and many, having heard only the reading of the Holy Scriptures, left the church. Because of this, without a doubt, there was introduced into the rite of the Liturgy, as we read in the Apostolic Constitutions (VIII, 9), the deacon’s exclamation, after reminding the catechumens to leave the church, that not one of those having the right to remain until the end of the service should leave it. In all probability this did not help, and many even after the deacon’s exclamation still left the church before the end of the service, thereby spoiling the reverent feeling of the true faithful and producing disorder in the church itself. As a consequence the present strict rule was published, which required the excommunication of everyone who entered the church and did not remain until the end of the service.

“Some canonists understand this canon in such a way that the faithful not only had to remain in church until the end of the Divine Liturgy, but also were all obliged to commune of the Holy Mysteries. It is possible that this interpretation is correct, since the places from Holy Scripture cited above in explanation of this canon can serve to confirm it. However, it cannot be that all the faithful were forced to commune each time they went to church, since it could easily happen that that not everyone was prepared to commune, either through the intimations of his own conscience, or by dint of some other reasons from his personal or public life. In order that such people should be counted worthy of at any rate some participation in the holy things, on the one hand, and in order to avoid the heaviness of the punishment imposed by this canon, on the other, and in order also to oblige those who could not commune nevertheless to stay in church until the end of the Divine Liturgy, there was introduced the distribution of antidoron, which everyone had to receive from the hands of the priest or for his own sanctification.”[16]

St. Nicodemus anticipates the possibility that someone, on reading Chrysostom’s (supposed) opinion that those who do not receive Communion when they have no canonical impediment are not worthy to go to the Liturgy, may reply: “Since this is how it is, I am not going to the Liturgy at all.” Then he writes: “No, my brother, no. You are not permitted to do this, either, because you excommunicate yourself, as the Holy Oecumenical Fifth-Sixth Synod of 692 decrees when it says: ‘If anyone, while living in the city, does not go to Church on three consecutive Sundays, if he is a clergyman, let him be deposed, but if he is a layman, let him be barred from communion.’ The Holy local Synod of Sardica decrees the same thing in its Eleventh Canon. Therefore, you are subject to the penalty of excommunication, beloved, if you do not do both things, that is, go to Liturgy and prepare yourself as much as possible to communicate, unless you have an impediment. You may violate neither the one nor the other…”[17]

Much as we respect St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite, we agree with Hieromonk Patapios and Archbishop Chrysostomos that his “very strict” position here is untenable. On the one hand, he approves of St. Chrysostom’s implication that those who do not receive Communion when they have no canonical impediment are not worthy to go to the Liturgy (although, as we have seen, there is another way of understanding Chrysostom’s words), and believes that the Apostolic Canon excommunicates such people. On the other hand, he thinks that everybody must come to the Liturgy every Sunday, because those who stay away for three Sundays consecutively are excommunicated according to another Canon. And he says: “You may violate neither the one nor the other.” But this is easier said than done! If I follow his instructions to the letter, then if I do not feel ready to partake I am not “worthy” to go to the Liturgy and must stay at home. But if I do that for three Sundays running I am excommunicated. So I am in a double-bind!

In effect, St. Nicodemus’ position comes down to making the reception of Communion at every Liturgy compulsory for those who do not have a canonical impediment (i.e. are not excommunicated for some serious sin such as adultery).

But let us now turn to the practical consequences that are likely to follow if all the faithful are compelled to receive Communion at every Divine Liturgy they attend. One possible consequence is that the three-day rule will be abolished or severely weakened. This already takes place in certain places, such as those monasteries and parishes under the influence of HOCNA’s Boston monastery. The present writer has heard that in one such monastery and parish the three-day rule is observed only in relation to sexual relations, but not in relation to food. In support of this, they argue that the Holy Canons forbid fasting on Saturdays. It is true that the Eastern Church rejected the Roman Church’s practice of making Saturday a fast day. But that does not mean that it is compulsory to eat meat on that day, only that it is not forbidden! Similarly, it is not forbidden to fast on Saturdays in preparation for Communion the next day.

But suppose that the three-day rule is observed together with the rule of compulsory Communion at every Liturgy. In that case, two possible consequences may be foreseen. Either laypeople, in order to preserve some normality of family and marital life, will go less often to the Liturgy, and perhaps leave the Church altogether. And that, of course, would be a tragedy… Or they will drastically curtail marital relations to a very few times in the year and introduce a semi-monastic regime into the family.

Now the latter consequence might seem attractive and desirable to certain Manichaean heretics who see sexual relations in marriage as sinful. But it does not correspond to the Apostolic teaching. For St. Paul says to married couples: “Deprive ye not one another, unless it be with consent for a time in order that ye may have time for prayer; and come together again, lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (I Corinthians 7.3).

So married couples are exhorted to strike a balance. On the one hand, they must devote certain periods to prayer and fasting and sexual abstention. These include the Wednesday and Friday fasts, the four major fasts of the Church year and additional three-day fasts before Communion in non-fasting periods - provided both partners agree to them. But then they must come together again. For married couples are not given the grace of complete abstinence, and to force them to that, even under the pretext of piety, is to go against, not only human nature, but also the will of God. In the worst cases, - and I have seen one such “worst case”, - it will lead to the break-up of the family and the falling away of all of the family members from the Church…

To conclude: in this, as in many other Church questions, we have to take account of the real while never losing sight of the ideal. The ideal, no doubt, is frequent liturgies, the attendance of all parish members at all liturgies and the communing of all members of the parish at all those liturgies. But it is doubtful whether that ideal has ever been attained, even in the Early Church. And by striving too inflexibly for the ideal without taking into account the real we may actually make the reality worse. It is better to tread “the Royal Way” between the extremes of excessive zeal and excessive slackness, striving for the heights but humbly recognizing our weaknesses. St. Seraphim said that virtue is not like a pear – it cannot be swallowed all at once. The slow but steady path of doing what we can in obedience to the Church’s rules, pushing ourselves forward, but not beyond our personal strength and in full consciousness of our weakness, is the way that will lead us to the heights in the long run…

Vladimir Moss.

January 27 / February 9, 2008; revised August 2/15, 2010.



[1] Especially St. Macarius of Corinth (1731-1805), St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (1749-1809), St. Nicephorus of Chios (1750-1821) and St. Arsenius of Paros (1800-1877).

[2] Constantine Cavarnos, St. Macarios of Corinth, Belmont, Mass.: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Studies, 1972, p. 21.

[3] St. John Chrysostom, Homily 27 on I Corinthians, 7.

[4] Archimandrite Lazarus (Moore), St. Seraphim of Sarov: A Spiritual Biography, Blanco, Texas: New Sarov Press, 1994, pp. 67, 68.

[5] St. Symeon, “Concerning Communicants and those who Partake of the Holy Mysteries Unworthily”, Orthodox Life, July-August, 1975, p. 11.

[6] St. Nicodemus, commentary on the 13th Canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council; quoted by Bishop Photios of Marathon, personal communication, March, 2008.

[7] St. Theophan, The Path to Salvation – A Manual of Spiritual Transformation, part III, chapter 5, section 9, pp. 269-272.

[8] Victor Afanasiev, Elder Barsanuphius of Optina, Platina, Ca.: St. Herman of Alaska Press, 2000, pp. 565-566.

[9] Velimirovich, Sabrana Dela (Collected Works), vol. 12, Khimelstir, 1984, p. 298.

[10] “Zhizneopisanie Ieromonakha Nikona Optina Pustin’” (A Life of Hieromonk Nicon of Optina Desert), Nadezhda (Hope), Frankfurt: Posev, 1982, p. 230 (in Russian).

[11] St. Symeon, Dialogue, chapter 78, P.G. 155, col. 252CD.

[12] In the interpretations found in St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite’s Pedalion on Apostolic Canons 8 and 9, the 13th Canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council and the First Canonical Epistle of St. John the Faster, mention is made of different categories of repenting faithful, one of which is the synestotes, that is, those who “stand with” the other faithful until the end of the Liturgy, but do not receive communion for some reason. (Bishop Photius of Marathon, personal communication, March 31, 2007).

[13] Romanides, “The Life in Christ”, first published in French in Synaxe, 21, pp. 26-28 and 22, pp. 23-26, and then in English by Romanity Press, Norman, OK, 2008.

[14] Bishop Photius, personal communication, March 20, 2008.

[15] Manna from Athos, Bern, Oxford, New York: Peter Lang, 2006, p. 100.

[16] Bishop Nicodemus, Pravila Pravoslavnoj Tserkvi (The Canons of the Orthodox Church), St. Petersburg, 1911, Moscow, 2001, volume 1, pp. 68-69 (in Russian).

[17] St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite, On Frequent Communion; in Manna from Athos, op. cit., pp. 106-107.

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