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Visits to the Blessed Sacrament
By this devotional practice, which is of comparatively modern development, the presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Eucharist is regarded in the same light and honoured with the same ceremonial observance as would be paid to a sovereign who favoured any place in his dominions by taking up his abode there. The conception is that in the tabernacle Jesus Christ, as it were, holds His court, and is prepared to grant audience to all who draw near to Him, though other prefer to regard Him as a prisoner bound to this earth and to existence in a confined space, by the fetters of His love for mankind. In this latter case the visits paid to the Blessed Sacrament assumed the special character of a work of mercy intended to console the Sacred Heart of Jesus for the indifference and ingratitude shown Him by the majority of Christians, for whose sake He remains in the sacramental species. It must be plain that this devotional exercise of "visiting" the Blessed Sacrament is essentially dependent upon the practice of ceremonial reservation.
As has already been pointed out in this latter article, the attempts formerly made to demonstrate the existence of a custom in the early Church of showing special and external veneration to the Sacred Species when reserved for the sick break down upon closer investigation. To this day in the Greek Church no practice of genuflecting to the Blessed Sacrament is known and in fact it may be said that, though it is treated respectfully, as the Book of the Gospels or the sacred vessels would be treated respectfully, still no cultus is shown it outside of the Liturgy. During the first ten or twelve centuries after Christ the attitude of the Western Church seems to have been very similar. We may conjecture that the faithful concentrated their attention upon the two main purposes for which the Blessed Eucharist was instituted, viz. to be offered in sacrifice and to become the food of the soul in Holy Communion. It was only by degrees that men awoke to the lawfulness of honouring the abiding presence of Christ outside of the sacred mysteries, much as we may conceive that if a monarch chose to dress in mufti and to lay aside all marks of rank, people might doubt of showing him demonstrations of respect which he seemed purposely to exclude. In any case the fact is certain that we meet with no clear examples of a desire to honour the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament reserved upon the altar before the twelfth century.
Perhaps one of the earliest indications of a new feeling in this regard is revealed in a direction given to the anchoresses in the "Ancren Riwle": "When ye are quite dressed...think upon God's Flesh and on His Blood which is over the high altar and fall on your knees towards it with this salutation "Hail thou author of or Creation, etc.". So again, in one of his letters St. Thomas of Canterbury writes: "If you do not harken to me who have been wont to pray for you in an abundance of tears and with groanings not a few before the Majesty of the Body of Christ" (Materials, Rolls Series, V, 27). This example, perhaps, is not quite certain but we know from instances in the Holy Grail romances, that the idea of praying before the Blessed Sacrament was growing familiar about this period, i.e. the end of the twelfth century. The English mystic Richard Rolle of Hampole, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, explicitly exhorts Christians to visit the church in preference to praying in their own houses, for he says "In the church is most devotion to pray, for there is God upon the altar to hear those that pray to Him and to grant them what they ask and what is best for them" ("Works", ed. Horstman, I, 145). But in the course of the same century the practice of visiting the Blessed Sacrament became fairly common, as we see particularly in the case of Blessed Henry Suso and Blessed Mary de Malliaco (A.D. 1331-1414), who, we are told, "on solemn feasts kept vigil before the most holy Sacrament". It was often at this period joined with an intense desire of looking upon the Blessed Sacrament exposed, a most striking example of which will be found in the "Septiliilium" of Blessed Dorothea, a holy recluse of Pomerania who died in 1394. But the practice of compiling volumes of devotions for visits to the Blessed Sacrament, one of the best known of which is the "Visits" of St. Alphonsus Ligouri, was of still later date.
The information given by writers such as CORBLET, Hist. de la sainte Eucharistic (Paris, 1886) and RAIBLE, Der Tabernakel einst und jetzt (Freiburg, 1908), must be used with caution as the present writer has pointed out in The Month (April and December, 1907).