saint cecelia: music and martyrdom

I know it sounds quite close to a heresy, but I don’t like Rome very much, especially all the overblown triumphalistic architecture and overwrought sculpture and art. But there is one little place, one church, that I really loved. It’s at the Abbey of Saint Cecelia in Trastevere, still inhabited by a community of Benedictine nuns. It was built on the site that is by tradition where Cecelia’s family home was. And one of the most remarkable understated statues I saw anywhere in Italy is there, sculpted in 1600 by the sculptor Maderno. In the account of her martyrdom it is said that the executioner struck her neck three times, but she continued to live for three days yet, preaching the gospel! This simple white marble statue has her lying on her right side on the ground, with her head turned in the opposite direction and three axe strokes on her neck. Her grave had been opened in 1599 and her body was found to be incorrupt, with some congealed blood still on the neck. Apparently the sculptor was present at that disinterment because on the ground in front of the statue is a marble slab on which the sculptor himself has etched a testimony that this is exactly how he saw the body in the tomb.

I wanted to see the statue because St. Cecilia is the patroness of music (and also of poetry). The reason she is the patroness of music is because during her wedding ceremony, at which she told her husband she had taken a vow of virginity and had an angel protecting her, she was said––it’s told both ways––either to have sung to in God her heart or to have heard celestial music in her heart. She is often represented in art with an organ or organ-pipes in her hand.

I have a story to tell about myself. Though the Monastic Catalogus records our vows according to simple vows, the anniversary I always remember is the day I made my solemn vows, which was on this day in 1997, the feast of Saint Cecelia. Even as a junior monk I was already in charge of the liturgy, including choosing all the readings for Vigils and the other Liturgies of the Hours. Well, since it was going to be the day of my solemn vows I was trying to subtly orchestrate just about every single detail of the liturgy. I remembered that there was a beautiful reading by Saint Augustine in the Roman Rite Office of Readings about singing the psalms. And I thought that I could sneak that in as the second reading at Vigils instead of a reading about Virgins and martyrs or some hagiography of Saint Cecelia, since Saint Cecelia was the patron saint of music, thinking that no one would notice (since half the people are still half asleep during Vigils anyway). So I got out my Office of Readings book, and in the back there is an index of authors, and of course there are about 70 different readings from Saint Augustine! So I am going through each and every one of them, and I can’t find the one that has this beautiful writing about singing the psalms. I was beginning to doubt myself as I wind down to the 40s, the 50s, the 60s… “Where is that reading?!” And finally I found it! It was chosen for November 22nd, the Feast of Saint Cecelia! (Actually we heard that same reading this morning and our vocational observer, who is also a wonderful singer, asked the Reader for a copy of it immediately after Vigils. Perhaps he had the same reaction to it as I did my first time reading it. It’s worth looking up.)

Anyway, both of those two things––the lovely statue of Saint Cecelia and the beautiful reading from Augustine on singing the psalms for her feast––got me thinking about what an odd thing it is, first of all, that the patroness of music would be a virgin martyr instead of a musician; and, secondly, why on her feast the Church doesn’t offer us her hagiography or a tractate on virginity and/or martyrdom but reflections on sacred music instead. (Even the alternative reading in the Benedictine Book of Daily Prayer is about sacred music.) With all as that introduction, I offer you my own reflections on the connection between music and martyrdom, martyrdom and beauty.

I think it’s something like this: as the proto-martyr of Christianity, John the Baptist, says, ‘I must decrease and Christ must increase.’ The martyrs give their lives over for the sake of something greater. Of course we know that there are all kinds of martyrdom recognized in the Church––the red martyrdom such as that of Cecelia and so many others, and then the white martyrdom of the monks, the green martyrdom of the wandering Irish monks, and of course we cannot forget what is said of Saint Romuald––Martyr fuit, sed amoris––“He was a martyr, but of love.” Could there also be a martyrdom of Beauty?

The best art points away from itself, both the art and the artist decrease so that Beauty increases. Saint Cecelia is specifically the patron of liturgical music and musicians (hence the Saint Cecelia Society for the promotion of Gregorian chant), and this is what characterizes liturgical music at its best, it seems to me: as a friend of mine likes to say, “It has a chastity about it.” It is always pointing beyond itself. It says, “Listen to me” and “Don’t listen to me” at the same time, because it wants to point beyond itself. The same could be said of sacred art in general. “Look at me! Don’t look at me! Look over there!” It points away from itself, or maybe it’s better to say you can see through it.

And it seems to me the best art happens when the artist disappears somehow too. There is that rather shocking quote from T. S. Eliot: “Poetry … is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” The best art is expressing something from a well that is deeper than personality. Of course there will always be the fingerprint of a Mozart or the cultural imprint of the genius of indigenous music, like you will always recognize a Chagall or Modigliani, but still… the artist disappears inside the art, even, maybe even especially the performer, the actor, the dancer, the singer. We’re so used to the Ethel Mermans and Mick Jaggers, so showy. But I think the best performers become kind of transparent. The actor I think of in this regard is Daniel Day-Lewis; note how he disappeared, for instance, into the role of Lincoln.

The other example of this I always think of, having been both a performing musician and a presider at the Eucharist, is the priesthood. (As a matter of fact there was a book once called The Performer as Priest.) The late Aidan Kavanaugh (who I seem to be quoting a lot lately) said that he thought a presider at the Eucharist ought be like a glass of clear water––you can see right through it. Of course this is hyperbole for the sake of the point, but I think the point is valid and important, maybe an aesthetical version of kenosis––I must decrease and Beauty (with a capital “B,” the Beauty “ever ancient, ever new” that Augustine says he loved so late) must increase, so that God be praised. I must decrease so that the Word will increase––I need to get out of the way, even when I preach. My homily is not supposed to be about me; it’s supposed to be about the Word of God, as filtered through me, yes, but mainly about the Word. I must decrease and Christ must increase in the form of the Body of Christ––the community I am called to serve. There are all kinds of martyrdom.

I’m back to that chaste little statue of Cecelia lying on the ground in the church of Trastevere. Maybe this is why I like it so much: There’s another version of the story that I heard about Cecelia, on why she was the patroness of music––that music came out of those veins in her neck as she lay dying, as if out of organ pipes. Maybe that’s a little macabre, but that’s the version of the story I like. Cecelia even disappears on her own feast––we read about music instead of hearing about her; her life fades away and all that’s left is the Beauty, the Word, the Song.

cyprian 22 nov 17

Share Button

1 Comment

  1. Fr. Cyprian: Reading your reflection about art, artists and martyrdom reminded me of the great art of the Eastern Church, iconography, windows into heavenly space present here and now. Icons are meant to be transparent and to disappear into the emptiness of eternity. Iconographers of course never sign their works and many icon painters remain anonymous. The art is truly kenotic. Just a thought. Thanks for your thoughts on art, poetry and music.

    Post a Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *