A Harmonious Heart: St. Cecilia, Patroness of Music

Sacred music is a sacramental, just like a Miraculous Medal, a painting, or a devotional book. It can dispose our minds and hearts to receive the graces God has in store for us. 

By Br. Stephen J., MIC

The classic Rogers and Hammerstein musical "The Sound of Music" begins with the famous words: "The hills are alive with the sound of music." Something stirs to life in our hearts when we hear beautiful music, something as primal as creation itself. 

It is no accident that two great Christian fantasy writers, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, imagined their fictional worlds beginning with song. Tolkien's creation myth begins with the "music of the Ainur," with the hosts of Heaven singing for their Creator before Middle-Earth began, while Lewis envisions the Creator Himself as Aslan the Lion wandering through Narnia and shaping it with His song. Biblical scholars have long been aware that the first chapter of Genesis, too, is actually poetry, an artistic account of the work of the First Artisan.

Music and beauty
The Feast of St. Cecilia (Nov. 22), patroness of music and musicians, is a good day to reflect on what music is and does - particularly sacred music.

Music in general offers an experience of beauty. Even people considered tone-deaf because of their poor singing can still appreciate beautiful music. This appreciation, moreover, is cross-cultural: Jesuits entering non-European cultures frequently introduced themselves with music before (or as a part of) preaching the Gospel. In their "reductions" in Paraguay, Jesuit missionaries both brought and built wind and string instruments, even organs and violins. While they taught the indigenous peoples how to play these instruments, composers such as Domenico Zipoli in Argentina opened up new bridges between the two cultures.

Beethoven said in a letter written after his Missa Solemnis, "My chief aim [in writing the Missa Solemnis] was to awaken and permanently instill religious feelings not only into the singers but also into the listeners" (emphasis mine).

Now, I want to clarify that "religious feelings" are not synonymous with faith. The virtue of faith, as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas say, empowers the intellect and the will to "think with assent." Faith is first of all engaged with truth and goodness, but truth and goodness together are made evident in beauty.

In order to contemplate the transcendent beauty of God and be raised up toward Him, the Church both produces and promotes "sacred music." The two purposes of sacred music, according to the Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, are "the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful." It is easy to point out the foreshadowing of God's glory in a sublime piece of sacred music.

However, can sacred music really sanctify us?

Sacramental quality
The surprising answer is yes!

Sacred music is a sacramental, just like a Miraculous Medal, a painting, or a devotional book. It can dispose our minds and hearts to receive the graces God has in store for us. Its chief avenue for doing so, however, is through our emotions, as Beethoven wrote in his letter. Saint Stanislaus Papczynski's book Mystical Temple of God, an extended analogy of the human person as a temple of the Holy Spirit, speaks of human emotions as the singers in this temple.

This is also one of the main reasons why St. Cecilia, the early third-century Roman martyr, is invoked as the patron saint of musicians. It is not because she is actually recorded as singing or playing an instrument. Rather, her biographer records that, as the musicians played at her wedding to the pagan Valerian, she was singing a song of love to the Lord in her heart. St. Cecilia had made a vow of virginity, reserving her deepest heart for Christ, and her steadfast witness converted not only her husband and his brother Tiburtius, but as many as 400 others.

For preaching an outlawed religion and assisting in the illegal burial of Christians, St. Cecilia was condemned to death by suffocation in an overheated bath. She was miraculously spared, and an executioner was ordered in to cut her head off, but he only succeeded in mortally wounding her. She lay dying in the bath for three days, during which she continued to speak about the Gospel and offered her home to be consecrated as a church. St. Cecilia's husband and his brother, who continued to bury fellow Christians despite the laws, were martyred soon after.

Saint Cecilia's heroic life and martyrdom reveals the spring from which music flows, particularly sacred music. Music is present in creation as a reflection of the glory of God, but it is more deeply present in human actions which reveal the convictions of the heart. Music is not merely emotional, but also deliberate. Working through emotion, music engages the will and its deepest desires.

Our ultimate desire for God, which lies at the root of all the others, is what sacred music is intended to arouse. As the Lord says through the prophet Hosea in the first reading of St. Cecilia's Mass, "I will lead her into the desert, and speak to her heart" (Hos 2:16).

Saint Cecilia, pray for us!

Credit: Detail, "The Ecstasy of St. Cecilia" by Raphael (1514), public domain.


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