Music from the Heart: Celebrating St. Cecilia

celebrating st. cecilia

If you sing well, sing loudly in order to thank God for the gift He has given you. If you don’t sing well, sing even louder to remind Him of what He forgot.

My choir director and friend, Frank, begins every choir season with this encouragement. And I have a sneaking suspicion St. Cecilia would agree with him.

Who exactly was this romanticized woman before she became the patron saint of musicians? And how can we celebrate her life and intercession 1,800 years after her death?

Singing in Her Heart to God

St. Cecilia was born in second century Rome and consecrated herself to a virginal life as a young girl. When she was forced to marry (another future saint) Valerian, a pagan, it is said that she sang in her heart to God to protect her virginity. She was responsible for the conversion of her husband and his brother. Together, they dedicated their lives to burying all of the martyrs killed by the Emperor Tibertius.

While the men buried the dead, Cecilia used her voice to preach the good news of Jesus. She is credited for bringing over 400 people to a life of Faith. Eventually, this evangelization led to her arrest and martyrdom.

She was sentenced to be suffocated in the baths, but survived for three days as the fires raged on. Despite the heat, she miraculously never broke a sweat.

After that, she was sentenced to decapitation. The executioner made three attempts, but her head was never severed. She lived for three more days, preaching God’s Word all the while.

When she finally died, she was buried in the catacombs outside of Rome. In the 16th century, her body was exhumed and found to be incorrupt, even releasing a slight floral fragrance.

St. Cecilia is often depicted with a red string or strand of pearls around her throat, flowers in her hair, and with an organ or organ pipes. (source)

Celebrating St. Cecilia: Patron Saint of Musicians

I’ve been praying, “St. Cecilia, pray for us!” before concerts, either with choirs or by myself, for decades. Her intercession has helped me through tough times and performances that were plagued with sickness, anxiety, and ill-preparation. In addition to prayer, some performers wear her medal on a chain or pinned inside their dresses; some keep one of her holy cards in their folder of music. And there are many daughters of musicians named in honor of this beautiful patroness.

While singers and musicians honor St. Cecilia year-round, here are some broader ideas for celebrating her feast day!

1. Thank your parish’s music director.

Write a note or stop by the piano/organ after Mass one day. Thank them for the hours and hours they put into practice, for the time spent behind the scenes researching music, and for honing a craft that generally goes unnoticed by most of the congregation. In many parishes, music directors aren’t highly-trained classical musicians or liturgists. They’re just regular people who love their God and feel they can serve Him best through melodies and harmonies. Even if their song choices aren’t ones you’d make, they would certainly appreciate any kind words you can offer.

2. Attend a St. Cecilia Sing in your area.

This event was not something I was familiar with growing up. In fact, I had never even heard of such a thing until I was in my late twenties! This concert or singalong is put on by a choir or combination of choirs each year. Don’t have anything like this in your parish? Check around the diocese. Many parishes, mind included, will hold their fall concert in mid-November in honor of St. Cecilia.

3. Jam out to some fantastic Catholic musicians!

There are truly amazing Catholic musicians publishing now. Some of my favorites are the ubiquitous Matt Maher, Audrey Assad, and Ike Ndolo. Others to look into are Emily Wilson, Jackie Francois, Josh Blakesley, and Fr. Rob Galea.

4. Incorporate music into your prayer time.

Not interested in praise and worship music? Then I suggest listening to Marian Grace. In their sacred music project, duo Colleen Nixon and Jimmy Mitchell have taken old hymns and given them beautiful, peaceful new settings. Press play, close your eyes, and let them sing in your heart to God.

And if you are a lover of Gregorian chant, which is absolutely sublime for meditation, look up the rosary in Gregorian chant on YouTube or any recording by Benedictine nuns. Those ladies know how to sing!

5. Join the choir!

OK, OK, OK. I know and I hear you, sisters.

“I can’t sing. I don’t know anything about music. I only play an instrument. My kids are too little and I can’t leave them with my husband for the entire Mass.”

Here are my answers for you:

  1. Everybody can sing. Maybe not well, but if you’re putting your soul into it, it will sound beautiful to God.
  2. No problem. Join the choir and you’ll learn really fast.
  3. Great! Lots of choirs incorporate different kinds of instrumentalists. From guitars to violins, flutes to drums, trumpets to tambourines (…and now I’ve lost the traditionalists for sure! Sorry, girls!). A good choir director can find a use for anyone who wants to help.
  4. OK, that is actually a decent excuse. Here’s what I did each time I had a baby: I would take a couple months off from singing until the baby could make it through Mass without needing to be fed. Then, when I went back, I sang with the choir at the beginning of Mass, sat with my family during the homily and prayers of the faithful, then went back to the choir for the offertory through the end of Mass. I promise you that, if the desire is there, you can totally make it work.

So, there you have it! I hope your St. Cecilia day is harmonious in every possible way. And, no matter what else you do, remember to always keep a song in your heart for the Creator. What a symphony He has written in all of our lives!

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Do you have a gift for music? What are some ways you use it in praise of God?

Written by Beth Williby. Find out more about her here.

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