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“Pouring the Argument Into the Soul”: On Taking Care How We Worship

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!”[1]

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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

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[7], 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[8], 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).



[1] 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.

[2] See my article “Mosebach’s Paradox.”

[3] I highly recommend this series of articles: “Focus vs. Blur: Multi-Sensory Learning, Motivated Focus, & The Mass.” Part I; Part II; Part III.

[4] See my article “Traditional Liturgy Demands More and Delivers More.”

[5] Robert R. Barr, “The Two Cities in Saint Augustine,” Laval théologique et philosophique 18. 2 (1962): 211–29; here, 214–15.

[6] Ibid., 215–16.

[7] Changed to Coelestis Urbs Jerusalem under Pope Urban VIII. For a translation, see here. One interpretation of the exquisite chant may be listened to here.

[8] A recording of this motet may be found here.


56 thoughts on ““Pouring the Argument Into the Soul”: On Taking Care How We Worship”

      • Maybe the best explanation for this can be found (as always can) in the words of Holy Scripture. In this case, in the 2. brief to Thessalonians 2,10-11):
        “And in all seduction of iniquity to them that perish; because they receive not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. Therefore God shall send them the operation of error, to believe lying:
        That all may be judged who have not believed the truth, but have consented to iniquity.”
        Sadly, it’s not that we here can speak about just lonely or isolated cases, as I’ve pointed above already to few more cases:

        As Kefa himself says twenty centuries ago, about the false teachers and their teachings in his epistle 2 Peter 2:

  1. I go to a TLM about 2 times a month; the contrast with the NO liturgy is as you say. Even, thank God, my kids notice, and prefer the High Mass! God bless you, Professor!

      • In a very real sense they are the same. Regrettably, none of the five parishes in my area (only three of which I can get to) offers either. None of the NOs arr as bad as that described in the article, but they are still so watered down that the worship is minimal as are the graces received from it. I would seek and move somewhere where authentic Catholicism is lived, but I have a good friend in his 90s who has no relatives anywhere close. Thus, I feel “called” to stay until he dies. But then I WILL do that search and relocation (actually I’ve already begun searching). I wish someone would produce a “phonebook” of truly orthodox/authentic Catholic parishes. I will do it if those who frequent OnePeterFive will provide me with the information (,parish name, pastor’s name, order or diocesan, street address, city, state/province, country, postal code, phone number with country code and area code). Not limited to the USA.

          • Thanks Margaret. While SSPX remains in schism I wouldn’t consider them. What I think is that people need is as complete as possible PARISH directory of orthodox parishes by people who have actually been members — and I mean beyond the Divine Liturgy. Even the eastern rites may have been corrupted. Although I’ll look at the websites you provided, since I don’t know any of the parishes it would be difficult for me to judge how orthodox a given parish is. Also, as I remember, one is not usually permitted to switch rites — the one in which you were baptized normally is your rite for life. From what I’ve seen the process to change rites is almost like getting an annulment. Thanks again.

          • The SSPX is NOT in schism – they’re in an irregular canonical situation. Every SSPX priest prays for Pope Francis BY NAME in the Canon of the Mass, Rosary, Benediction etc.

            This is from a previous 1P5 article:

            Cardinal Edward Cassidy, President of the Pontifical Council for Christian unity, perhaps put it best in a 3 May 1994 letter:

            “… Regarding your inquiry (March 25, 1994) I would point out at once that the Directory on Ecumenism is not concerned with the Society of St. Pius X. The situation of the members of this Society is an internal matter of the Catholic Church. The Society is not another Church or Ecclesial Community in the meaning used in the Directory. Of course the Mass and Sacraments administered by the priests of the Society are valid.”


            If you’re concerned about their irregular canonical status, then I’d suggest the Institute of Christ the King (I’ve heard they’re very good) and the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.

          • Oops, my error. Thanks for correcting me, Margaret. Yet, even the SSPX are missing from our diocese not to mention the other two orders. Nor are any eastern rite parishes here. We’re sort of stuck with varying versions of the NO from quite reverent to bordering the irreverent. In our vicarate, the worst I’ve seen has been priests who rush irreverently through the Mass. Nothing like the sacreligious attrocities mentioned in the comments. Those and others I’ve heard of — the priest dressed as and acting like a clown — are NOT the Holy Mass and lack any semblence of true worship. I thought such “services” (I won’t dignify them by calling them a Mass — although “mass” as in large group might fit) were rare excesses of the 1970s. Sad to see that is not the case.

    • I have gone to TLM three times since I started in January, two low and one high mass. I far prefer it to the Novus Ordo. The same hippy dippy changes of VII that my parents were drawn to are not for me. I hope others of my generation might also join in to this return to Tradition

  2. I attended a mass like that once. The very skillful piano player supplied a soundtrack worthy of a good cocktail lounge.

    I know *I* wanted a drink.

    • If the “presider’s” intention to do what the Church does was made manifestly defective by the Novus rite, then you would have gotten one had you received the chalice.

      • It’s not Drink but Our Lord’s precious Blood. Per John Gospel Chapter Six. We must Eat The Body and Drink His Blood. Two separate actions.

  3. One time I went to a very bizarre Catholic parish named Our Lady of Nazareth, unlike any other parish I have ever been to (needless to say I’ll never return). The building was a square slab of concrete, there was a glass foyer, then one entered the “sanctuary” of the building— instead of being at the highest point, the altar was at the lowest point, the seating arranged like an amphitheatre, with each row descending. The pews were in the form of highschool gym bleachers, only wood on the top— no back rest. No kneelers. The floor gray unadorned concrete. The altar was at least stone, but it was an ugly rough slab, uncentered. Also uncentered, behind the slab, were giant cushy chairs in triplicate, where the priest was supposed to sit. Above that was a truly horrific-looking concrete “sculpture”, representative of something quite unknown. When the liturgy began, an image of a primitive tribal-looking man with arms outstretched was carried in by female altar boys and placed below the concrete monstrosity, he wasn’t on a cross, he was just staring blankly forward with outstretched arms. There was no tabernacle, someone explained to me it wasn’t here. The music was a horrendous cacophony of drums and tambourines. No one kneeled for the consecration. I could go on and on. By the time the ordeal was over, I regretted that I had stayed. It was simply impossible to concentrate or worship with all that was going on around me.

          • When I lived in Tallahassee I was a member of Blessed Sacrament. Although the Mass was NO, it was offered very reverently. There were other Modernistic elements in the parish activities, but more in form than in content. Our pastor, one of the last of Ireland’s exports, Sullivan by name, was very orthodox in his theology. But I moved away in the mid-90s and have no idea what its like now.

  4. How very effective are the subversive subtleties of Vatican II by using music as the key to destroy souls. Truly diabolical!

  5. This article says “…we should not be surprised at the results we get 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.”

    This reminds me of a parish I attended when much younger where the priest *literally* had the congregation looking at each other during Mass “to enable us to worship God in other people.” He re-positioned the pews on either side of the nave at such an angle that a ‘V’ shape was created, thus forcing anyone wanting to face the altar to contort themselves and place one foot on the floor whilst having the other planted on a hassock. Afterwards, I found out that particular parish priest had abandoned the priesthood and gotmarried.

  6. “…pulling up tent pegs and moving.”

    This. One of our priests recently said that on average, three new families arrive every month at our FSSP parish. They are like refugees from the Novus Ordo. I am one of them, having relocated two years ago. It is worth all that it takes to be able to be immersed in the Real Thing.

  7. Unfortunately, abuses of the liturgy is only the visible tip of the iceberg
    Focusing almost exclusively on the liturgy — viz a viz TLM vs NO — ignores or plays ostrich concerning the other ways in which the faith is being dismantled and thrown into the Modermunists’ garbage dumpster.

  8. Great article as always from this great writer.I stop my ears where I’m forced to attend Mass to take my elderly mother. I grinned when I read “raiment”, as I heard recently read at weekday Mass as God’s rainmate!!


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