Singing to God in Her Heart
Picture it: Delaware County, Pennsylvania, 1999.
A remarkably tall 6th-grader clad in a navy blue plaid jumper and sky blue short-sleeved blouse listens to the Rent Original Broadway Cast album on her discman on the 5-minute bus ride to her Catholic grade school. Classes are a little shorter today thanks to First Friday Mass, where she enthusiastically leads the Responsorial Psalm accompanied by her beloved, guitar-strumming music teacher. Later in religion class, she learns that it will be time to choose Confirmation saints soon, and she is psyched. Unfortunately, there will be no time for Carmen Sandiego in computer class next week, because instead, the sixth grade will be using the period to type up their saints’ biographies on Windows 98. Fair enough. After school, she breaks out her Lives of the Saints book to commence her research before pizza and TGIF. There is a patron saint of music?! Are you serious?! Life is good.
I cannot help but smile looking back at 11-year-old me, truly earnest in my search for a Confirmation saint who reflected and encouraged the person God made me to be…or at least one who reflected what I understood so far about the person God made me to be. I love that 11-year-old. Music was my life, my identity, so to learn of St. Cecilia, this courageous woman who “sang to God in her heart” when life was hard, meant a great deal. There are musical compositions dedicated to her, musical institutions founded in her honor, and artistic images depicting her singing and playing instruments. From my earliest memories, music has connected me to myself, other people, and the Spirit in a way nothing else could. And singing, both within and outside liturgy, helped me find my voice as well as an outlet for expression that has made Church a home for me since I was a child. Cecilia got me.
Upon discovering St. Cecilia for the first time, I’m sure I read and even wrote about her admiringly as a “virgin martyr.” But how could a sixth-grader even begin to comprehend the significance—or the complex darkness—of such a title? Once I became old enough and interested enough to pursue greater knowledge of her story, my response was mixed. On one hand, my heightened awareness of the profound persecution faced by early Christians deepened my awe at her devotion to Christ. At the same time, I experienced strong reactions to the role Cecilia’s legacy plays in Catholic women’s fraught relationships with our bodies to this day. It became clear that while St. Cecilia is understood to have been a historical figure, much of her story had been romanticized and dramatized for effect within a culture that praised perpetual virginity as the ultimate sign of holiness for a woman. Over the years, therefore, Cecilia and I sort of “lost touch,” so to speak.
This past summer, I was blessed with the wonderful opportunity to travel on pilgrimage to Rome with a group of students and colleagues, including a visit to the beautiful fifth-century church, St. Cecilia in Trastevere. Upon our entrance into the shady narthex in the height of another 90+-degree day, we stumbled upon a professional orchestra rehearsing for a concert. Glorious. I felt our Spirit of surprises there with me, dancing to the story of my ever-unfolding vocation: music and students and friends and Godself. One of my favorite, music-loving, question-asking students and I took silly, excited selfies outside the church, dedicated to our shared Confirmation saint. And I remembered 11-year-old me…and courageous Cecilia…both singing to God in their hearts when life was hard.
As with most sacred stories, there are meaningful truths worth cherishing in Cecilia’s, alongside the real problems that come with emulating someone from the second or third century. Along with all my questions and challenges, this Catholic musician is grateful for Cecilia’s inspiration and for God’s gift of music that connects us with the Spirit within, among, and beyond us.