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St. Augustine on our sins in the enjoyment of the Mass

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 13, 2014

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.

Liturgical Concerns

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.”

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: garedawg - Jun. 23, 2014 10:36 PM ET USA

    As a cantor in my church, I just hope that the path to hell is not paved by the skulls of cantors mixed in with those of the bishops!

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jun. 19, 2014 10:04 AM ET USA

    To vjenkins78814: Fr. Zuhlsdorf, an Augustine scholar, says the quote is misattributed. See St. Augustine: "He who sings, prays twice.". But saying something like that would not have been inconsistent. What he was concerned about here was the interior motive--whether the main attraction was God or merely the beauty of hymns. Very likely we have all experienced both, and should be smart enough to be wary.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 18, 2014 7:48 PM ET USA

    This is interesting because it is alleged that Augustine also said that "he who sings, prays twice"! True or false"?? If one sings from their heart, one can inspire others.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jun. 15, 2014 12:35 AM ET USA

    Thank the Church for the low Mass. Blessed silence. No distractions.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 14, 2014 9:15 AM ET USA

    Yes, we are all weak and imperfect, and sinful - and we are also repentant. Thank You, God!

  • Posted by: stpetric - Jun. 14, 2014 7:04 AM ET USA

    So actually I should be grateful that the music at my church is so crappy. Because it is, I know I'm not there for the music but for the worship to which the music is alleged to give voice. Yeah, I guess I see the point of that line of reasoning!

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Jun. 13, 2014 10:20 PM ET USA

    Interesting. Seems like we may as well dispense with choirs,lest we be lead into sin from an unexpected source. Muslims don't sing in their mosques. I wonder if this may be the reason. "Singing is twice praying"...maybe not!

  • Posted by: - Jun. 13, 2014 9:27 PM ET USA

    Dr. Jeff, as this is a Catholic site, providing service and counsel primarily for Catholics, its only natural that u view the liturgical differences among Catholics as modern day examples of Augustine's concerns. Myself, I see more examples coming from our separated brethern, and their emphasis on contemporary music and instruments. I see many Catholics leaving the Church because, as u wrote, "we have enjoyed a bodily sensation rather than the ineffable Word of God." Nice turn of phrase, that.