Mike Aquilina

Cecilia, I’m Down on My Knees

Thursday November 22nd 2007, 3:06 am

It’s not just Thanksgiving. It’s the feast of St. Cecilia, the patroness of sacred music. And that’s something to sing about. If you’ve had the privilege to visit the Roman catacombs of San Callisto or the city Church of St. Cecilia, you know the story. You’ve seen the famous statue of her body as it lay in martyrdom — and as it was found, incorrupt, more than a millennium later! You can see the sculpture at Catholic Culture‘s page for the feast day, whence cometh this information.

Cecilia was so highly venerated by the ancient Roman Church that her name was placed in the Canon of the Mass. Already in the fourth century there was a church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere, erected on the site where her home had stood. Her martyrdom probably occurred during the reign of Emperor Alexander Severus, about the year 230. In 1599 her grave was opened and her body found in a coffin of cypress wood. It lay incorrupt, as if she had just breathed forth her soul. Stephen Maderna, who often saw the body, chiseled a statue that resembled the body as closely as possible. Since the Middle Ages, Cecilia has been honored as patroness of Church music, a practice having its source in a false application of a passage from the Office (cantantibus organis). Apart from the fact of her martyrdom, we know practically nothing about her that is historically genuine.

An offbeat addendum: Paul Simon dedicated his excellent album The Rhythm of the Saints to “St. Cecilia, patroness of music.” I’m told (but I have not confirmed) that Simon has always considered St. Cecilia to be his muse, and that the Simon & Garfunkel song Cecilia is actually an allegory of his writer’s block — his sense that the muse had abandoned him and given all the good tunes to other songwriters.

May she intercede for him, and for all of us, on this her memorial.