St Cecilia, the patron saint of music celebrates her feast day on 22 November.
As with so many saints, the story of Saint Cecilia has been added to in ways that bring together different aspects of Christian faith. Though she was most likely to have been martyred in Sicily, later stories moved her to Rome and gave her noble birth. She also received a pagan husband and a call to virginity, two apparently incompatible things that were harmonised in her husband receiving a miraculous appearance which led to his conversion and eventual martyrdom with her. At her marriage she was said to have sat alone singing to God in her heart.
In the story, virginity, nobility, family, church, faith and martyrdom are ordered and brought together with music. Her singing in her heart led to her becoming the patron saint of musicians, with the result that many medieval and later paintings depict her with various musical instruments. Much beautiful music has been composed in her honour.
Her feast day invites us to reflect on her story and on the place of music in the church today. Virginity and martyrdom are both signs of a radical way life that prizes faith above sexual fulfillment and life itself. Her elevation to nobility indicates that she had the freedom and resources to choose how to live. Both declining to consummate her marriage and holding to her faith when it would have been easy for her to have renounced it and avoided execution were radical decisions. Through them she made clear what mattered to her most: her relationship to God. The story also suggests that her choices were not a grim expression of duty. That she sat alone and sang in her heart during her marriage ceremony, however we imagine the scene, indicates that she redefined her marriage and went to her death with joy.
Music expressed the joy in her heart in accepting freely the costs of a life lived for God. That is why she is a thought-provoking patron of music. It suggests that music comes best out of a single-minded focus on what matters, prepared to suffer for remaining focused. It sits in a place of large desires and of pain in their pursuit. What matters will always be musical and human integrity. It also suggests that Church music will always be ultimately an expression of joy in the pursuit of what matters. Joy will be filtered through the seriousness and the pain of the pursuit.
St Cecilia is commonly pictured carrying a musical instrument just as other martyrs bear the instruments of their execution. In both cases the sweetness of a life given simply to God makes the instruments joy mastering.
Fresco of St. Cecilia patroness of musicians by Josef Kastner the younger, from 20thC, in the church Muttergotteskirche. depositphotos.com