Cloud of Witnesses

An Ode to St. Cecilia

In the book The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien, the creation of Middle Earth is described as cosmic musical composition, a harmonious and melodious work of beauty and order. This is, how I think, St. Cecilia must have perceived the universe. She had an affinity for creating beautiful music which in turn must have led her to find the God who created music, along with everything else, in the first place. Almighty God, who is truth, beauty and goodness, guides everything according to his providential love much like a composer conducting an orchestra. St. Cecilia saw herself as one with an indispensable part to play in the symphony that reached its crescendo in the Incarnation of Christ, in the Paschal Mystery, and continues on to eternity. Speaking of beautiful works of art, there are sculptures, paintings, and works of music in honor of Cecilia and of her witness in praise of God. Recently, I heard one such beautiful work of art, “Ode to St. Cecilia,” a high quality radio drama put out by Augustine Institute Radio Theatre. It’s a small but powerful tribute worthy of Saint Cecilia. The last time I looked, the digital audio can be bought and streamed on Audible and is also available from the Augustine Institute’s and (Catholics, if you have a subscription through your parish you can access the platform for free). It stars Hayley Atwell who plays Agent Carter (Captain America’s love interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), and a bunch of other actors.

I have listened to “Ode to St. Cecilia” several times on her feast day. The first time I listened to it, I was very impressed by the way the drama not only told the story of her life but also weaved in themes of truth, beauty, and virtue in such an engaging way. The audio drama is set as a presentation of St. Cecilia’s story to a group of artists who have been brought together from their historical time periods. Composer Joseph Friedrich Handel, English poet John Dryden, sculptor Stefan Maderno, and a fictional music student named Benjamin are united in their search of inspiration to create works of beauty in her honor. Like spectators at a play, they watch the life of Cecilia unfold before their very eyes.

For the Roman maiden Cecilia, “beauty is an expression of the heart.” She would rather create music and sing for the King of Kings who won her heart than for pagan society that seems to stifle it. Cecilia would have us know that it is virtue that must guide beauty to the truth. And what is truth except for Christ who is the Way and the Life? Cecilia’s goodness and beauty draws the attention of a Roman senator named Valerian who Is himself an artist in pursuit of beauty, truth, and music. He is intrigued by her and eventually the two are married. On their wedding night, Cecilia reveals that she is a Christian and that she has made a vow before God to remain a virgin. Not only that, she has a fierce guardian angel with a sword watching over her. That’s certainly a whole lot for Valerian to take in, but he is undeterred and wants to make good on his wedding vow – – he wishes to be where she is. Cecilia readily shares her faith with her husband who is genuinely intrigued by it. After receiving baptism, Valerian is granted a vision of the angel who protects her. That is enough for him. And ultimately, because he loves Cecilia and the God whom she introduced him to, Valerian is faithful to the very end. Both Cecilia and Valerian assist the conversion of Tiburtius, Valerian’s genial tagalong brother. The three of them are eventually found out and sentenced to death. Along the way to their martyrdom, a soldier who is initially unmoved is won over by their undaunted courage and faith in Christ. While the two brothers and the soldier Maximus are martyred straightaway, Cecilia undergoes slow torture. After three failed attempts to behead her, she is eventually killed in a steam bath traditionally believed to be in her own home. It is very beautiful story that is movingly presented. Needless to say, the company of artists who hear the story find the inspiration they were looking for. At the church of St. Cecilia in Rome, there is an incredible statue of Cecilia sculpted by the Italian artist Maderno: she lies with her head turned inward with one hand extending three fingers and the other extending one, a gesture professing belief in the Holy Trinity, One God.

Today, the gospel reading is on Luke’s account of the parable of the man, soon to be king, who entrusts his servants with extremely valuable gold coins – – talents. I think it connects very well with the life of St. Cecilia. The Lord gave her the gift of beauty and music with which she glorified him. The heavens proclaim the glory of God and we are to do the same. Artists, musicians, writers, and actors expressly give glory to God by creating works of beauty. But all of us are called to glorify God – – to create a grand symphony with the entirety of our lives, to make beautiful music in praise of God, attracting others towards him. May the life and witness of Cecilia be an inspiration to us. St. Cecilia, pray for us. And Saints Valerian, Tiburtius and Maximus, pray for us as well.

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