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St. Cecilia And A Truth Worth Dying For

November 22, 2018 Featured Today No Comments


This year Thanksgiving Day falls on November 22. Here in the United States, a Mass of Thanksgiving in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite will pre-empt what is normally celebrated on this day. But elsewhere around the world, and in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, it will again be the memorial of a young Roman bride who had resolved in life and in death to remain a bride of Christ.
In the basilica of Rome that bears her name and guards her tomb, the altar will be decorated for this feast with white and red flowers in testimony to who she was and what she died for. And at the center of the sanctuary, before the high altar, can be seen mortal man’s highest tribute to her — an exquisite white marble statue of a beautiful teenage girl peacefully asleep on her side, a snapshot in stone of what God has done to honor her for all time.
For about as long as there has been a roll call of early saints in the Roman Canon of the Mass, the name of St. Cecilia has been included. The fullest account of her life, the Acts of St. Cecilia, dates from between about AD 450 and 500, but the events it relates are set in the third century. It is an account that some have found too fantastic to believe, yet the statue in St. Cecilia’s Basilica is one sculptor’s sworn affirmation of a miracle that he and many others witnessed in confirmation of what the Acts assert.
“Neither by day nor by night did Cecilia cease from divine colloquies and prayer,” her Acts relate, noting that this Christian daughter of a pagan Roman family carried the Gospel always with her, hidden within her clothing (Antonio Bosio, Historia Passionis. S. Caeciliae Virginis, Valeriani, Tibertii et Maximi Martyrum, necon Urbani, et Lucii, Pontificum, et Mart. Vitae, Rome, Stefano Paolini, 1600, p. 3).
A young man named Valerian sought from Cecilia’s family her hand in marriage. For her wedding day, Cecilia was clothed in a golden dress, its splendor concealing the hair shirt she wore as a penance. As musicians played the wedding music of pagan Rome, Cecilia sang to God in the depths of her heart with words adopted from Psalm 118: “May my heart and my body be blameless in thy statutes, that I may not be put to shame!” (cf. Psalm 119:80) (ibid., pp. 3-4).
Having consecrated her virginity to God, but compelled by her family to marry, she had fasted and prayed for divine intervention, inviting the angels to her assistance and beseeching the intercession of the apostles. Her invitation to the angels was answered when her guardian angel began to make himself visible to her.
When nightfall came and Cecilia and Valerian were at last alone, Cecilia summoned her courage and said to him, “O dearest and most beloved young man, there is a secret, which I must confess to you, if you would swear to preserve it with total observance.”
Valerian trusted Cecilia so deeply that he readily agreed. She continued, “I have a friend, an Angel of God, who guards my body with zeal beyond measure. If you touch me with polluted love, in his fury he will drive you out and drive away the flower of your most beloved youth; but if he will perceive that you love me with a sincere heart, and a pure love, and you guard my virginity whole and unblemished, he will love you thus also, like me, and show you his favor” (ibid., p. 4).
Unnerved by his bride’s astounding revelation, Valerian replied, “If you wish me to believe your words, show me the Angel himself, and if I assent that he is truly the Angel of God, I shall do what you exhort; but if it is another man you love, I will slay both you and him with the sword.”
Cecilia responded calmly to this threat, and said, “If you would follow my counsels, and allow yourself to be purified in the everlasting fount, and believe the one God to be living in Heaven and true, you will be able to see him [the angel]” (ibid., p. 4). Valerian’s deep trust in his bride again gained the upper hand, and he agreed to go out that night to see Pope Urban I (+230) and seek Baptism from him.
When later Valerian returned to Cecilia, he was dressed in the white robe of the newly baptized, truly now a new man in Christ. And he upon entering found Cecilia at prayer and saw at last her guardian angel, who held in his hands two wreathes of shining roses and white lilies.
A painting by Guido Reni (1575-1642) in the Basilica of St. Cecilia beautifully depicts this moment. The angel then said to the two newlyweds: “Preserve with a pure heart, and a clean body, these crowns, which I have brought you from the Paradise of God….And because you, Valerian, have consented to the counsel of chastity, Christ the Son of God has sent me to you, that whatever petition you would wish shall be conveyed” (ibid., p. 6).
Valerian knew at once what he wanted above all else: “There is nothing dearer to me in this life than my one brother, and it is unthinkable to me that with myself having been delivered, I should see my brother in peril of perdition; this alone I set before all my petitions, and beseech that it may be vouchsafed to deliver my brother, like me, and make us both perfected in the confession of His Name” (ibid., pp. 6-7).
Valerian’s petition was granted. Through the words and example of Valerian and Cecilia, Valerian’s brother Tibertius subsequently embraced the Christian faith. And when in turn he and Valerian were arrested during a new wave of persecution for having buried the bodies of those martyred for their faith, they themselves faced martyrdom together.
On the morning of their execution, Cecilia exhorted them to take courage, telling them: “Make haste, soldiers of Christ, abjure the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light” (ibid., p. 20).
There was considerable reluctance to arrest Cecilia, for she was greatly respected as the daughter of a noble Roman family. But after she resisted an attempt to persuade her to “conform” to the pagan religion in private, refusing to offer sacrifice to idols, she was put on trial. Her spirited and brilliant replies to the prefect of Rome Almachius enraged him, but he did not want to risk the spectacle of a public execution.
So he attempted to put her to death by confining her to the bath in her home, the caldarium, having it heated to the point of suffocating her. But this bizarre method of execution failed, and in the end Almachius sent a lector to behead Cecilia in her house. So unnerved was the executioner by his task that he could not carry it out with a steady hand. Even after three blows to Cecilia’s neck, he failed to sever her head. He fled, leaving her to bleed to death.
On October 20, 1599, Paul Emilius Cardinal Sfondrato, having embarked upon a project to renovate the Basilica of St. Cecilia, had the altar pavement removed in an attempt to locate the tomb of the martyr, built by Pope Paschal I in 821, who had brought her body to the church from the Catacomb of St. Callixtus outside the city. Pope Paschal had attested that the body when he saw it was intact, incorruptible.
When at last Cardinal Sfondrato found Cecilia’s tomb that day, and opened her cypress casket, what he saw and subsequently others as well inspired awe, as another witness, the illustrious historian Venerable Caesar Baronius (1538-1607), relates:
“We found Cecilia’s body in precisely the same condition in which it was when Pope Paschal discovered and buried it. At her feet, the blood stained linen [the linen cloths with which her blood was gathered by those at her death, as her Acts relate]; the dress of silk and gold, which the Pontiff described….We were struck with admiration that the body was not stretched out in the coffin, as the bodies of the dead generally are. The chaste virgin was lying upon her right side as if gently sleeping on a couch. . . . Everyone was deeply moved with veneration” (quoted in Dom Prosper Gueranger, The Life of Saint Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr, New York, P.J. Kenedy and Sons, 1866, pp. 275-276).
A talented sculptor, Stefano Maderno (c. 1576-1636), also saw Cecilia at that time, and put what he saw to marble. Inscribed on his sculpture of Cecilia in the martyr’s basilica is his sworn attestation that what he had carved is a true image of the recumbent saint just as she was, over thirteen centuries after her death:
“Behold the most holy virgin Cecilia, whom I myself saw lying incorrupt in her tomb. I have made for you in this marble an image of that saint in the very posture of her body” (quoted in Fr. Herbert Thurston, SJ, and Donald Attwater, editors, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Allen, Texas, Christian Classics, 1996, volume 4, p. 404).

Sacred Music

Although the association of St. Cecilia with music was most probably inspired by the reference to her singing to God in her heart found in her ancient Acts, the earliest artistic depictions of the martyr with musical instruments date from the fifteenth or early sixteenth century.
Regardless of what role music may have played in Cecilia’s short life upon Earth, it was the plan of God that long after her death she was to become the patron saint of music. And it is more for her angelic purity than for any musical talents or interests she may have possessed that she is so well suited to this role, especially in regard to sacred music.
For sacred music is the song of the Church as the sinless Virgin Bride of Christ, and that song needs to be holy and pure, unsullied and untainted by the spirit of the world.
This in turn points to why the example of St. Cecilia is so much needed in our own age. At a time when the poison of lust has spread as never before, Cecilia summons us to cherish purity as a truth worth dying for. Her priceless gift of purity to her husband Valerian attests that love is indeed “strong as death” (Song 8:6), and that true love is above all else about yearning for the eternal salvation of those whom we love.

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