Can you catch a disease from Communion?
labidology /ֽla-bi-'dä-lə-jē/ noun [from Greek labid-, labis tongs + -ology science, theory] : the science of the communion spoon; especially: the use of cold, hard facts to bust germaphobic myths about the dangers of receiving Holy Communion from the common cup in the Orthodox Church.
OK, I just made up that word. I might not get it into the dictionary; what I really hope to do is get some basic facts into the heads of Orthodox Christians who stay away from Holy Communion because they fear catching a disease.
Let me say up front to all germaphobes: I am not trying to persuade you to start receiving. If your fear of the common cold outweighs your desire for Christ, you should stay away from Communion. Why? Because you lack the basic requirement of true religion: the belief that God exists and that He is a rewarder (not a hurter) of those who seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). My goal is simply this: I want you to understand that your reasons for refusing Communion are not grounded in science, but in your own unscientific “issues.”
We Have Met Pig-Pen, and He is Us
Germs are all around us: bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa. Folks lather up with hand sanitizer, but they kill only a percentage of those bugs, and mostly not the bad ones anyway. (In fact, research at Purdue University suggests that sanitizers can even increase the bacterial count on your hands.) Not even the rocket scientists at NASA can manage to clean off all the microorganisms on the machines they would like to send sterile to Mars. There are just too many little critters—on every surface, in every breath of air, in every drop of moisture you encounter.
And not just around us. Even inside of us! The June 2012 issue of Scientific American announced on its cover that “In your body, bacteria outnumber your own cells 10 to 1.” Most of the DNA in your body, fully 90%, is non-human. Horrors! Doesn’t that make you feel like a walking biological weapon? Well, you shouldn’t. It’s normal. It’s healthy. We think of a human being as an individual, but we actually function as communities. E Pluribus Unum makes a good motto, not just for these United States, but each “one” of us. We need those germs inside to help with our digestion, growth, muscle metabolism, immunity, sleep states, and even our moods. (Your dog’s no germaphobe: look how happy he is.) We cannot exist without those germs, and they cannot exist without us. There is no “I” in team, or in me or you, either; there’s only “us.” (This fact lines up with Orthodox theology, which teaches that Christ saves the whole cosmos along with humanity. Save me, save my germs!)
Medical researchers are consequently rethinking their view of disease. Previously, doctors looked at the presence of germs as the cause of disease. Now they are looking into the absence of germs as a reason for illnesses of all kinds: asthma, allergies, arthritis, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, heart disease, indigestion, cancer, obesity, autism. There is a book just out, The Epidemic of Absence by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, that catalogs this intriguing new line of research.
So it’s beginning to look like better health lies in fewer antibiotics and less hand sanitizer. Your body is like a city: if you are missing key citizens (firemen, nurses), don’t keep chasing folks away. You’d be better off bringing in more help from out of town! I will spare you the details of the story, told by Burkhard Bilger in his New Yorker article “Nature’s Spoils,” about the woman dying from diarrhea. Her life was saved by a transplant of microbially rich, um, “material” straight from the colon of her totally regular husband. The point is simply: with a very limited set of exceptions, germs are our friends (or at worst, neutral bystanders). [Late-breaking news from CNN about another success of this procedure here.]
Germaphobia is Bad Science
I’ve met my share of germaphobes. To a person, they strike me as some of the most fragile, unhealthy people around. They wash their apples with special soap, they wipe down their counters with antibacterial sprays, they set their dishwashers on “sterilize,” they wear surgical masks on airplanes … and they always seem to be nursing a sniffle anyway.
A little learning really is a dangerous thing, I guess. These folks paid attention in high school biology, and as a result they developed an irrational fear of microbes. I say “irrational” because (i) they underestimate the number of germs around us, and thus (ii) they overestimate their own technological ability to eliminate all those germs, and (iii) they exercise no disciplined scientific observation as to the effectiveness of their antibacterial efforts.
Case in point (and here’s where we get to the labidology). There are, I regret to report, Orthodox Christians who never come forward for Holy Communion because they’re afraid of catching a disease from our common spoon. (Somehow, though, they survived childhood, when their parents took them up in the Communion line regularly …) In my experience, these folks tend to be at the more educated, more affluent end of the spectrum (i.e., they have a “little learning” about microbiology). I guess they think they’re being scientific about the Sacrament.
But are they? There is an experiment that has been run thousands of times a week for nearly the last two thousand years. The hypothesis being tested? That serving bread, wine, and hot water (humanly speaking, now) to hundreds of people via a single spoon will be an effective vector for the spread of disease. Now, to be fair, we are not looking for instances of mild illness like a cold or flu (that could just as easily be traced to casual forms of human contact at Coffee Hour). We are looking for a clear instance of a serious disease (HIV, hepatitis, Ebola, et al.) that was spread to people who had no other known risk factors for the disease.
The results so far? We have yet to hear a report of a single infection that can be traced to the holy chalice. Not one. In two thousand years. How much more scientific data does the germaphobe need?
Let’s get serious. If diseases were getting spread by the Communion spoon, priests would be dropping like flies. Priests do have health problems—an analysis of our Archdiocese health insurance data shows a high prevalence of stress-related illness. But there is not a single instance of an Orthodox priest contracting HIV or hepatitis from Communion, even though the priest consumes all the leftovers with the very spoon that went into every parishioner’s mouth.
In my two-year tenure as a deacon of the Archbishop, I had to finish the leftover Communion of two, three, sometimes even four chalices. I may have gotten a little tipsy, but I never once got an infection. And I know with absolute certainty that I have consumed the chalice after communing people with very serious infectious diseases. All Orthodox priests everywhere are in the same position. We are dying … but it ain’t from Ebola (or whatever the germaphobes are afraid of catching from Communion).
Dr. Gabor Maté writes that up to now, medical theory has left an important question unanswered: “Why will the same bacterium or virus spare one person but fell another? An organism such as streptococcus, responsible for the so-called flesh-eating disease, lives in many people but triggers illness in only a few.” Such questions were first raised in the 18th century by physiologist Claude Barnard, who thought that Louis Pasteur had overstated the role of microbes and neglected the underlying fitness of the body in the disease process. Modern medicine too long overlooked Pasteur’s deathbed conversion: “Barnard avait raison. Le germ n’est rien, c’est la terrain qui est tout.” [Barnard was right. The germ is nothing, the (human) terrain is everything.]
What this means for the germaphobe is that the very bug you fear from the communion spoon may very well be already present in your body. Whether or not you get sick … well, that depends more on your overall health than one more microbe from your neighbor’s mouth. (And Dr. Maté’s book, When the Body Says No, argues that your psychological fitness may be a huge factor your terrain’s resistance to infections and degenerative diseases like arthritis, demyelination, and osteoporosis.)
Some priests try to argue that Communion is germ-free. They point to the sterilizing alcohol in the wine, the antiseptic properties of silver in the plating of the vessels, and the disinfecting action of the boiling water added just before Communion. This strikes me as bad science (and weak faith). There are plenty of germs that could survive, even thrive, in those conditions, and by the time the folks at the end of the Communion line get to the chalice, the conditions have changed anyway. So let’s just be honest: the sacramental body and blood of Christ—like the historical body and blood of Christ—should not be thought of as surgically sterile. But who knows? Maybe, just maybe, that microbe on the spoon is the very citizen missing from your human terrain’s community, and therefore the best medicine you could receive from Christ! In any case, if Orthodox Christians were transmitting swine flu to each other via Communion, surely, surely, we would have seen evidence of it by now.
Let’s get to the bottom line: Can you get sick from Holy Communion? On this point the Scriptures are crystal clear. The answer is: Yes. You can get sick; you can even die. Saint Paul writes about this in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. The Christians in Corinth were using church as an opportunity for cliquishness and exclusion. So Christ chastised them—not with germs—but by the power of the Sacrament. Saint Paul told them: Examine yourselves before you receive Communion. Pay attention to how you are treating your fellow parishioners in the Body of Christ. Your spiritual terrain is everything. See to it, so that you may receive the Body and Blood of Christ—not for judgment or condemnation—but for the forgiveness of sins and for life everlasting. If someone’s spiritual terrain is not in good shape, they should refrain from Communion, lest they fall under judgment. And if you believe the healing touch of Christ Himself can leave you with a secondary infection … your spiritual terrain is not in good shape.
And so, pastorally and scientifically, the call goes out: Not with the fear of germs, but “With the fear of God, faith, and love, draw near!”
One final note—These remarks are not meant in any way to excuse those who come to Communion without having performed basic oral hygiene on Sunday morning. Please brush your teeth and rinse out your mouth. Christ is coming to visit the house of your soul, as our Orthodox Communion prayers say. Just as you would straighten up your living room to receive Him as a guest at home, so too you should tidy up before Communion. Tending to your mouth is one small way you can be attentive to the needs of your fellow parishioners as well. There’s nothing prayerful about halitosis! So do everything your dentist tells you, especially on Sunday.
Another final note—Nothing in this article should lead you to believe that I practice anything less than fastidious hand hygiene when I prepare the Holy Gifts.
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