By Br Gabriel Theis, O.P. | Today we celebrate the feast of St Cecilia, a Roman martyr and patron saint of musicians.
On the 22nd November, the Church celebrates the feast day of St Cecilia. She was a Roman virgin and martyr, who died for Christ around 230 AD. She promised her virginity to God; after her parents forced her to marry the pagan Valerian, she prayed to God who sent an angel to convince her fiancée to respect Cecilia’s vows. He and his brother went on to give money to the poor and to assist in the funerals of Christian martyrs, for which they were eventually executed by Roman officials. Cecilia herself survived two execution attempts and died only after having given her possessions to the needy.
She remains most famous as the patron saint of all musicians, but especially of Church music. This is due to an account of her prayer to God to protect her virginity: in the night before her marriage would have taken place, she prayed to God cantantibus organis, “to the sound of instruments”.
If we imagine our own faith without music, it seems to be a rather dull affair, while every emotion – joy and exaltation, sadness and grief – is intensified and comes alive by music. This is true especially for the feasts and solemnities of the liturgical year, which can be experienced even more deeply by listening to music: just think of Bach’s music for Christmas (the Christmas Oratorio) or for the Passion of Our Lord (the St John Passion and, maybe the greatest masterpiece of all, the Passion of St Matthew). In our Catholic tradition, the Gregorian chant in its simple and otherworldly beauty continues to comfort and strengthen our faith; in many instances, it has even been a tool for God to convert people to Catholicism.
In general, every kind of music can help us to feel God’s beauty, but also His mysteriousness. Listening consciously to a beautiful piece of music in a quite hour can lead us closer to God and help us to experience His love for us, but also motivate us to give our love to our neighbours, as St Cecilia’s example teaches us.
Photo: detail of an angel in St Maria Rotunda, the Dominican Church in Vienna.