Image credit: Ben Yanke
At one point in Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus, the nihilistic proponent of might-makes-right, asks his interlocutor Socrates: “Am I to take my argument and pour it into your very own soul?” To which query Socrates replies: “God forbid, don’t do that!”
I was thinking about this recently in connection with some truly despicable church music I had heard: a Mass setting with lounge-lizard jazz harmonies, Broadway melodies, and not a milligram of sacrality. The vivid description given by Thrasymachus is, in fact, just how liturgy operates—especially its music. Liturgy pours an argument directly into our souls, before we have any chance to evaluate what is being done to us. Our reason is not capable of being a filter when the music comes into our ears, when various images pass before our eyes and become lodged in our memory, to be carried with us until they are either brought to perfection in heaven, scoured away in purgatory, or permanently fastened to us in hell. What happens experientially shapes us into an image of itself, before we have a chance to evaluate or accept or protest. This is why I once wrote that whoever attends a service is implicitly saying to it: “Shape me, make me like yourself.”
God intended that it be so, and it is a fine thing as long as the liturgy is done properly. We ought to be formed like clay in the hands of the potter, rather than sitting with arms crossed like theatre critics. When the sound of the chant or bells floats into our ears, when the scent of incense creeps into our nostrils, when the sight of flashing raiment reminds us of an anointed mediator offering holocausts on the altar, then we are caught up in the worship of the one true God, plunged into His holy mysteries, and renewed beneath and beyond all rationality. In this act of self-surrender we water the roots of our everyday consciousness and, one might say, tie it and bend it towards heaven.
However, nowhere is the axiom corruptio optimi pessima (the corruption of the best is the worst) more true. Socrates uttered his exclamation “God forbid, don’t do that!” because he knew that if Thrasymachus could pour nihilism into his soul, the argument would scorch or freeze it before there would be time to react. It is too late to raise difficulties about arsenic once one has ingested it. In like manner, if the content or manner of the liturgy is flawed, God will be dishonored and our souls will be injured. There is no “perhaps” or “maybe” about it. We are choosing a blurred vision of the Mass, the liturgy, the act of adoration, the life of prayer, and thus we are deviating from the Catholic Faith as it has been taught and lived by the great saints who came before us.
So, then, we always stand at a crossroads. Is this liturgy in which I am about to participate going to be a healthy and health-giving ‘argument’ to pour into my soul? Will it be God-glorifying in its essence and in its accidents, and therefore perfective of me as a creature made in God’s image? Or will it be sickly and sickening, harmful to the development of the interior life, missing the mark, displeasing to God because it is an exhibition of wilfulness, indolence, narcissism, tawdry pop culture, or any other corrigible defect? I have heard church music that is so completely unsuitable for the freight of its words and the seriousness of its purpose within the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that it constitutes a form of spiritual self-mutilation to allow oneself to be sonically assaulted by it, and a form of cruelty to allow impressionable children to be subjected to it. When I have been confronted by such situations (which were usually surprises), I have left the building or taken my family out until the music ended. Afterwards, I considered carefully how to avoid the same problem in the future.
We ought to get into the habit of thinking about this crossroads ahead of time so that we can make sound decisions for ourselves and our dependents based on what we can reasonably expect and hope for in our circumstances. We will be rewarded for our good efforts to seek truly divine worship as well as punished for our collusions and compromises, especially if we were free to choose among better options available to us in our vicinity.
As to how far one should be willing to go to find a liturgy that is worthy of God, of man, and of the God-man Jesus Christ, that depends on how bad the nearer options are. If they are bad enough to disturb your inner equilibrium, interfere with reverent prayer, set your teeth on edge, or make you want to incarcerate the perpetrators of abuse, it’s surely time to travel further afield, or even to consider pulling up tent pegs and moving. Given the massive crisis of faith, morals, and liturgy in the Church, Catholics should no longer expect to entertain, much less achieve, the old-fashioned ideal of long-term stability in a single place. We are never permitted, on account of work, family, or friends, to make a continual sacrifice of our spiritual health or our access to a God-pleasing liturgy, as this would conflict with the virtuous self-love that belongs to the theological virtue of charity (“love your neighbor as yourself”). Sometimes we may be forced to postpone a needed move by circumstances beyond our control, but this is manifestly a bad situation, not one that can be taken as permanent. Divine Providence has permitted the ecclesial crisis so that we may be tested as to whether we are, in fact, living according to the command to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” with faith that everything else we need will be added on to us. Most of us know of families that drive one or two hours every week to get to a traditional Latin Mass, or families that go to a Byzantine Divine Liturgy in order to avoid the Western morass of their region. This is the stuff of heroism. It is the dry martyrdom that will populate the heavens.
Let us return to Plato. Socrates claims in the Republic that as the participants in the dialogue create a city through their speech, what is justice will eventually emerge. In a way hardly surprising for those who are acquainted with his uncanny proto-Christianity, Socrates managed to hit upon a fundamental truth of worship. Liturgy is a certain “city in speech,” within which God’s justice, His righteousness, emerges—or fails to emerge. When we celebrate the liturgy, we are necessarily creating the image of a city. Which city is it? It will be either the City of God, the heavenly Jerusalem, or the City of Man, the worldly Babylon. What are the traits of these cities according to St. Augustine? A modern scholar, Robert Barr, offers a vivid summary:
The City [of God] knows and worships one God only, and lives by His Law. Its directing virtues are faith in Him Who intends to save the city and humility in His sight. This is the faith which is necessary for salvation, and without which there is no return to the City—for which therefore the martyrs have borne whatever might come; and it is this humility which principally distinguishes the citizens of the City of God from their irreconcilable enemies, the subjects of the Devil. … The City of God is God’s temple and true Sacrifice. While physically distinct from the Offering of the Mass, it is mystically identical with it.
In its venerable forms handed down through the ages, Christian liturgy is the foremost representation and guarantee of the orthodox Faith, and by our Marian receptivity to it we live most fully the virtue of humility in the face of divine revelation. When we worship in any traditional liturgy, Eastern or Western, we know that we are safely drawn into the holy city of Jerusalem, exercising our rights of citizenship, letting the King Himself rule over our hearts and minds.
Far different is modern committee-fabricated liturgy, replete with dubious theological modifications and extemporaneous adaptations. It is not an age-old, universally accepted proclamation of the orthodox Faith, a measure against which all else must be measured, a trustworthy invitation to self-surrender. This novel liturgy evokes the City of Man, promoting the all-too-human agendas of its compilers and impresarios. Describing Augustine’s view of the citizens of this civitas terrena, “earth-born and earth-bound,” Barr writes:
Their interests are private, yet they lust to dominate the world. As a result their city is torn by passion, plague, and revolt. They only unite, it seems, against a common enemy—the City of God: glorying in their numbers and strength, they persecute that city—to the latter’s advantage! … Really the most deadly persecution the devil and all his hellish minions can launch is that against the Faith itself, by inspiring heresy. He would, if he could, deprive the elect of God’s Revelation, of their unanimous subscription to the teaching of the few writers of Sacred History [i.e., the inspired authors of Scripture], and scatter them among the adherents of the numberless philosophers of the City of Confusion.
The City of Man is aptly expressed by two popular songs, one of them completely secular, the other faux-sacred: “We Built This City on Rock n’ Roll” and “Let Us Build the City of God.” In spite of the latter’s title, its logos, ethos, and pathos (message, character, and feeling) is unquestionably by, of, and for the City of Man. It is horizontal, humanistic, constructivist, pragmatic, superficial, and dull. If this is what we listen to or sing, we should not be surprised at the results we get: in our souls, the result of cleaving to this world; in our communities, the result of looking to each other for a salvation that comes only from God. God’s justice will fail to emerge.
The City of God, in contrast, is beautifully expressed by two truly sacred songs: the Gregorian chant Urbs beata Jerusalem, which expresses the beauty of the heavenly fatherland for which we long, and which we glimpse past the veil of the sacred liturgy when it is true to God—
Urbs beata Jerusalem, Blessed city of Jerusalem,
dicta pacis visio, called “vision of peace,”
Quæ construitur in coelo Which is built in heaven
vivis ex lapidibus, out of living stones
Et angelis coronata And crowned by the angels
ut sponsata comite. like a bride for her consort.
—and William Byrd’s motet Civitas Sancti, which expresses the deep sorrow of the exile who has lost his earthly home. If these are the songs we sing or listen to, the wings of our soul will sprout and grow strong, and we will find ourselves yearning for the Lord more than watchman for the break of day. This, this is the city we must build in our souls, in our churches, on our altars. This is the argument, the Logos, that we want to have poured into us and into our children.
May God grant us grace to be faithful to His righteousness as taught and lived in traditional Catholicism, clear, strong, and beautiful as it is, and may He keep us from succumbing to the poisons offered by the world—including the world within the Church. “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (Rev 13:10).
 Plato, The Republic, 345b, trans. G. M. A. Grube, rev. C. D. C. Reeve, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 989.
 See my article “Mosebach’s Paradox.”
 See my article “Traditional Liturgy Demands More and Delivers More.”
 Robert R. Barr, “The Two Cities in Saint Augustine,” Laval théologique et philosophique 18. 2 (1962): 211–29; here, 214–15.
 Ibid., 215–16.
 A recording of this motet may be found here.