St Cecilia’s Day 2013

St Cecilia’s Day usually leads to reflections on music and musicians. Indeed, on a former occasion, I tagged onto the feast a few thoughts about music and community life:

I think it’s no accident that the concept of ‘heavenly harmony’ and the ‘music of the spheres’ runs so deeply through Western culture and civilization. For instance, I often use the image of playing a string quartet to describe the dynamic of community living. Each brings to the whole an individual talent, but through intense listening to each other, periods of silence as well as playing, something greater and more beautiful is produced than one alone could achieve.

So today, when we thank God for the joy and beauty that music and musicians bring to our lives and to the liturgy of the Church, we might also spend a few moments thinking about something less abstract: the way in which we ourselves contribute to the music of the universe. We may be only ‘average choir fodder’ but we each have something worth giving. (See post for this day 2011).

I stand by every word, but from a liturgical point of view, St Cecilia is celebrated chiefly for her virginity and her martyrdom. Neither is a particularly popular concept, but Christianity has never been about popularity, so perhaps we should spend a moment or two thinking about them and try to ignore the cheapening of words and ideas that marks Western culture today.

For a Christian, martyrdom is bearing the ultimate witness to Christ, giving one’s life-blood. To be a martyr, one mustn’t court death but must accept it as the price of fidelity. The grace of martyrdom isn’t one we can presume upon. It is a harsh grace, unpalatable, contradictory, and none of us knows whether we would have the courage to accept it, should the moment ever come. Cecilia was young in years but old in virtue when she died. We, by contrast, may be old in years and still infants in virtue, but it is never too late to try to cultivate a habit of fidelity, of readiness. That is to accept the seriousness of our faith and its implications for both life and death.

Virginity is another of those things many Christians are uncomfortable with. We are much readier to talk about marriage and family, yet the Church has always honoured virginity freely chosen out of love for God. St Augustine wisely remarks that ‘the whole Church is virginal by virtue of the integrity of her faith, hope and love’ while the beautiful Prayer of Consecration attributed to St Leo carefully insists that ‘the dignity of marriage is not lessened’ even as it becomes lyrical in its enunciation of the theology of virginity. One of the impoverishments of the Church today — and perhaps of society, too — is that the theology of virginity, so clearly linked to our understanding of the nature of the Church, has been almost totally eclipsed by our contemporary obsession with sex.

On St Cecilia’s Day, let’s listen to some good music; give thanks for the beauty of sound and silence; pray for the deaf, for whom music is an abstract concept, never to be enjoyed as we who have hearing can enjoy it; and spend a few moments thinking about the paradox that death is a gateway into life, and virginity fruitful in ways most never dream.



St Agnes was martyred early (at age 12 according to Ambrose, 13 according to Augustine) and is today chiefly remembered for being one of the female saints mentioned by name in the Roman canon. She is the patron saint of virgins, rape victims, gardeners, etc (there is a lot in the etc. but we’ll leave that for the moment) and has a singularly beautiful Office, so it would be easy to drift off on liturgical and historical reminiscence, but I think that might be to miss the point. The saints are not given to us so that we can commemorate them with exquisite art (though we often do) nor are they meant to be the subject of historical enquiry (though they often are). Saints are given to us for our encouragement. What encouragement can we derive from this young Roman girl martyred more than 1700 years ago?

For a start, she is a wonderful example of holiness in the young; and not the namby-pamby kind of ‘holiness’ which is in the eye of the sentimental beholder alone, but the real thing — gutsy, determined, tough-minded. Agnes stood up to her elders for what she believed and paid the price. Moreover, she stood up for something that many today find laughable or even an embarrassment: the freedom to choose whether to marry or not, whether to have sex or not. In her case, she chose a state of permanent virginity as an expression of love for Christ. That was the original ‘woman’s right to choose’ which she defended at the cost of her life. It is worth remembering that whenever we hear her named in the Mass, whenever we hear of someone being forced into an arranged marriage or raped. Let us ask her prayers for all vulnerable girls and women today.