Skip to comments.St. Augustine on our sins in the enjoyment of the Mass
Posted on 06/14/2014 9:32:42 AM PDT by NYer
It is hard to read Augustine’s Confessions without understanding human nature better, and particularly our own weaknesses. Writing in the form of a prayerful reflection on his life and a general confession of his faults to God, Augustine carefully describes the course of his life from his birth to his conversion at age 31. Then he concludes his confession with an examination of the current state of his soul. He closes the work by reflecting on the nature and meaning of God’s creation of all things, including man.
I have been reading the Confessions again this year. For obvious reasons, I prefer not to dwell on how Augustine has helped me to see my own sins more clearly. For even more obvious reasons, I cannot say much about what he reveals of your sins. But there are many broader and more practical applications for the spiritual life. Let us take just one from Book Ten, in which Augustine explores his susceptibility to the temptations which arise from each of the senses.
His comments on the temptations that come through hearing have a clear and immediate application to the liturgy. To put the matter simply, Augustine is concerned that he often seems to enjoy spiritual realities more when beautiful hymns are incorporated into their presentation. He regards this as a significant problem, a personal stumbling block. Were he alive today, he would doubtless recognize this "problem” as a key component of what we might call the liturgy wars.
Let us listen to the greatest Father of the Church:
The pleasures of the ear did indeed draw me and hold me more tenaciously, but You have set me free. Yet still when I hear those airs, in which Your words breathe life, sung with sweet and measured voice, I do, I admit, find a certain satisfaction in them…and I find it hard to know what is their due place. At times indeed it seems to me that I am paying them greater honor than is their due—when, for example, I feel that by those holy words my mind is kindled more religiously and fervently to flame of piety because I hear them sung than if they were not sung…. It is not good that the mind should be enervated by this bodily pleasure. But it often ensnares me, in that the bodily sense does not accompany the reason as following after it in proper order, but having been admitted to aid the reason, strives to run before and take the lead. In this matter I sin unawares, and then grow aware.
Having stated the nature of the temptation, Augustine weighs the benefits of music in Church against its dangers. He wishes to avoid the severity of banning it altogether, though that often seems best to him, because he knows it can do good. Here is how he expresses his conclusion:
Thus I fluctuate between the peril of indulgence and the profit I have found: and on the whole I am inclined—though I am not propounding any irrevocable opinion—to approve the custom of singing in church, that by the pleasure of the ear the weaker minds may be roused to a feeling of devotion. Yet whenever it happens that I am more moved by the singing than by the thing that is sung, I admit that I have grievously sinned, and then I should wish rather not to have heard the singing. See in what a state I am!...But do Thou, O Lord my God, hear me and look upon me and see me and pity me and heal me, Thou in whose eyes I have become a question to myself: and that is my infirmity.
In these days in which we quarrel and complain incessantly about the liturgy, I wish we had more like Augustine who could see the very real temptations which assault us, recognizing that none of us is so spiritually strong as to be unaffected by them. Clearly, what is most conducive to worship for one person at one moment may not be most conducive for another in a different moment, or may even constitute a temptation. Above all, I wish we could all be more aware that just when we think we have reached the summit of worship, we may actually be at a low point. If we but knew ourselves better, we might realize that we have enjoyed a bodily sensation rather than the ineffable Word of God.
Just so, in all aspects of the spiritual life, the presence of consolations may be helpful for a time, but if we cannot transcend the consolations, we are the most abject of Christians. Augustine is not afraid to describe those who depend on these things as having “the weaker minds”. When we begin to feel very strongly about our liturgical preferences—and especially when those preferences lead us to look down on others as inferior, and to separate ourselves from the fundamental ecclesiality of worship, then we are wise to remember St. Augustine’s heightened awareness of the point at which sin entered his own acts of worship.
Liturgical worship is the action of the Church. We participate by joining ourselves to her, despite the imperfections of all her members and of all their efforts to serve God. Catholicism is universal because it is the religion of “here comes everybody”. At the apex of the Mass, we are all weak, imperfect and sinful before God, and we all benefit from His merciful redemption. This is true no matter what our senses say to us, pro or con, about the external forms which are used to guide our ascent to the source and summit of the Christian life.
Any other attitude comes from the Devil, including many of our particular satisfactions or dissatisfactions with worship. We must always be on guard against his snares. One of those snares is laid through our attachment to our own preferences. Augustine teaches that this attachment leads us into the “peril of indulgence.” Hopefully, then, our recognition of this attachment—which we gain by seeing as God sees—will lead us to confess that we “have grievously sinned.”
I believe it was St. Benedict Joseph Labre, the beggar saint, who slept in the colosseum. Each night, he would sleep in a different spot so as not to become attached to one location.
I has helped me, when confronted with liturgical banalities or incompetencies, to remind myself that they're probably doing the best they can.
To further the thought, I used despair of the fact that the clergy and the liturgists were insulting our intelligence until I came to realize they actually think their gruel is sirloin.
Well, I’ve seen a lot of abuses, and lot of innocent silliness, in the masses I’ve attended in several parishes over the years.
I just tell myself that the Mass is the Mass is the Mass. As long as the priest gets it right enough to say a valid Mass, then all that other stuff is far less important than participating in the Sacrifice of the Mass and receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
At one time we lived next to the HQ of the priests of St. Pius X in Connecticut. No doubt their Mass was more beautiful than ours, and their church better decorated. But I stick with the Church, warts and all.
Our present Pastor is a bit infected. He always ad-libs the canon of the Mass at one point: “Look not on our sins, but on the faith of our Church . . . the faith of each and every one of us.” Still, the sacraments are valid, and the remaining members of the congregation are good people. The only thing I feel really badly about is all those people who have been unintentionally driven away, and who only attend Mass once or twice a year.
The Church is the Church. Stay with it, and do the best you can, and pray to God that things will get better, through His grace.
I recall reading “Confessions of St. Augustine” as part of the 4 semesters of philosophy that was required at St. Joseph’s College of Indiana, 40+ years ago. Of the many philosophy books we had. the one that I have re-read several times is Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
This reminds me of something C.S. Lewis wrote, perhaps in “Mere Christianity,” about how the best thing for a Christian was to attend his local parish, no matter what the Vicar was like, no matter how good or bad the choir was, no matter whether he liked the other parishioners.
That was to emphasize that feeling superior to “those people” is not a sign of excellence, but a temptation to sin. In “The Screwtape Letters,” the demon mentions that the tempter should encourage his “client” to focus on the sins and failings of others in the congregation, as a way of drawing him away from the love of God and neighbor.
“Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility consider others as better than yourself.”
Our last Sunday lector made a DOOZY of a mistake that gave me the giggles. It's not NICE to giggle through Mass, but since God DID make the giggle, I suppose He didn't mind me enjoying a few of them for a while.
It made that Mass memorable. Heehee.
One Palm Sunday, a lector at our parish in Oklahoma kept saying, “the Procreator of Judea.” My husband whispered, “Played by Anthony Quinn in the movie,” and the whole row broke up.
This past Pentecost Sunday, the Pope prayed with Jews and Muslims.
I didn’t giggle, I didn’t whisper and I didn’t “break up”; I cried.
Lol. True and SO funny.
That was definitely worth a giggle in Church. Our God-given giggle!
Lots of gasps and choking at that point ...
(It’s not uncharitable to laugh if you recognize that you could do something just as funny.)
Humor requires intellect. When one sees it the way you do...we say, "I'm laughing WITH you, NOT at you."
Yes, or “I’m laughing at what you said, not at you.”
I “mostly” speak Spanish, too. I once gave a harangue to the congregation about Stewardship, and I started by telling them that if I said something really funny (like be careful about showing bosoms, especially in front of children) it was okay if they laughed!
Seems like a faulty comparison to equate St. Augustine's personal journey toward spiritual perfection with the idea that in the present times, a desire for spiritual "consolations" is the underlying motivation for "liturgical preferences". For Catholics, the purpose of beautiful liturgies, vestments, music, art, chalices made of precious metals, great cathedrals etc. is to honor God. Obviously St. Augustine would not condone the profanation of worship which has become widespread since Vatican II. And the notion that beauty in worship is objectively wrong is a Protestant one.
Ever hear a lector mispronounce brazier?
THAT would finish me for the entire DAY!!
Our good Lord might have even smiled.
More likely He groaned at the pun, with a roll of his Almighty Eyes.
He did invent the pun so He has to hear them.
At one of the parishes I used to attend there was one, VERY loud, off-key woman, singing her heart out. OWWWWW.
The organist told me: "God have her that voice so HE should have to listen to it too!"
When we have volunteers for our choir who aren’t quite up to it, we just adjust the microphone pickup at the central sound board. A singer who’s all on the same note actually isn’t a problem, if the volume is set right.