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Dancing to a different tune

Peter Fleming  |  02 February 2017

What music did St Cecilia hear as she sat alone on her wedding day, singing to God?

The Christian tradition has always seen the realm of Heaven, the place where all tension ends, as a world of pure song. We imagine the heavenly host singing of the endless glory of our Father. As that most famous of Christian hymns, ‘Amazing Grace’ puts it,

When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun.

We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.

What might this music be which the choirs of saints triumphantly sing, which grows unalloyed, endless joy? Pondering this brings us to the famous if misunderstood patron saint of musicians in the Catholic Church, St Cecilia. In fact, it brings us to consider the part of her ancient Roman story that is hardest for many a modern Christian to take, that is, her determination to remain chaste.

St Cecilia is patron saint of musicians for the simple fact that, according to legend, on her wedding day she sat apart and sang to God in her heart, rejecting the pagan music surrounding her during the nuptial rite, and rejecting her pagan husband at the same time. For this she has been the subject of a million paintings, some of which include her holding a violin, some even with her playing the organ. (Don’t be surprised to see Cecilia one day conducting the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera; to hold their power of truth, legends always grow.) 

St Cecilia, who lived in the second century AD, was opposed to this enforced marriage to a non-believer. In fact she was opposed to any marriage for herself, as she had consecrated herself to the Lord Jesus. This dedication to virginity, specifically as an act of faith, seems alien to modern Christians, who see little point in celibacy in a post-Vatican II church which even celebrates sexual relations in marriage as a sign of love and not just a means of reproduction. 

In Cecilia, however, we see the early signs of a devotion which became a major part of the architecture of the Church as a whole – the diligent labor of the nuns, monks, brothers and priests who have eschewed commitment to a single earthly spouse so that they might instead minister to many of their brothers and sisters in Christ. 

The ancient world’s obsession with lust, as opposed to respectful sexual love for a fellow human being, can be witnessed by a visit to the ruins of Pompeii, where pornography abounds, as it does again now, in our day. Artistic fertility and sexual congress were united in the pagan mind: Dionysus (or Bacchus) governed both. No act of creation was divorced from the physical appetite. 

Sometimes we need to go the opposite extreme to make a middle-ground point. The music St Cecilia sang to God in her heart was not some act of denying the reality of what was happening to her; rather it was the music of the new creation in Christ, a call to higher respect for women, indeed for all men and women, based on recognising their spiritual integrity as well as their physical allure.

Before St Cecilia’s time, the pre-Christian world would never have understood that love of the whole person can lead to a music which reflects the glory of Heaven.


Peter Fleming is the author of Would I like Jesus, Paulist Press, 2015.



Topic tags: women’sspirituality, vocationsandlifechoices, church-thepeopleofgod, thecatholictradition

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