Thursday, April 2, 2015

St. Cecilia (c. 225) : The Light to the Blind by Chris White

St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music.  In fact, when she is depicted in sacred art, she is always seen tickling the ivories of a pipe-organ and making melody to the Lord.  The only problem with this is that the pipe organ (or anything remotely like it) didn’t exist in her time and St. Cecilia is more known for being a preacher than a singer.  But to loosely quote Emerson here, consistency (even in historic details) is the hobgoblin of little minds.  There are even some who suggest that this most popular and beloved of Roman saints is a pious fiction because the earliest “Passion of St. Cecilia” comes to us in the form of a Greek religious romance which suggests the story is more legendary than factual.  But that said, one of the oldest places of worship in Rome is St. Cecilia’s Church in Trastevere and it is built over a home that stood in the 2nd century and belonged to the Caecillii family.  The archeological evidence points to this house as having been used for Christian worship in later centuries.  While embellishments to the story are certain, there is no reason to doubt that Cecilia was a real person and that her life made an impact on the Christian community of Rome so many centuries ago.
St. Cecilia in Trastevere

According to Caxton’s Golden Legend the name “Cecilia” means either a light to the blind or a lily of heaven.  As often happens in ordinary life, Cecilia lives up to her name.  Cecilia came from a senatorial family and was said to be a Christian from a very early age.  She was given in marriage to a noble pagan youth by the name of Valerianus.  This may be an indicator that her parents were not Christians themselves as it seems a bit odd they would marry their godly daughter off to a pagan.  It may also be that because of the family’s social status there wasn’t a suitable man of her class in the church who was available.  Although the Christian faith does not teach the idea of social status and the church has done much to ameliorate class distinctions among believers, Roman society was extremely stratified and it is unlikely this idea didn’t have any coin among the faithful at this early date.

Cecilia sought holy chastity and didn’t want to be married but was required by her father to do so.  When the hour came for the couple to enter the nuptial bedchamber, Cecilia told her husband a secret that was unknown to all but her: Cecilia had an angel that watches and wards off any who would touch her that she may retain her virginity.

Valerianus wanted proof (as would any man in his situation) and Cecilia told him he must first believe in God.  He is sent to pope Urban who speaks with him and then baptizes him.  When Valerianus returns to Cecilia he sees her in her chamber praying and there is an angel standing by her with flaming wings.  The angel is holding a crown of lilies and roses which he places on both their heads and then vanishes.
Cecilia and Valerianus

Valerian’s brother Tiburtius drops by to see the happy couple and is so astonished by the floral crowns which were completely out of season that he believes their story and he too submits to Christian baptism.

After their conversions, Valerian and Tiburtius devote themselves to burying those Christians who were being martyred by the prefect of Rome.  Burying the dead with dignity was considered in this time a holy work of charity.  It was also quite risky if you were trying to avoid persecution yourself.  Eventually the brothers are hauled in and questioned about their dedication to burying Christians.  When asked to make a sacrifice to the pagan god Jupiter, the brothers refuse and suffer death in the Roman fashion of beheading.

Cecilia was apparently a stalwart evangelist and through her many contacts over 400 people reported to Pope Urban for baptism.  She too is eventually caught and is sentenced to death by suffocation in her bath.  Romans heated their baths with wood fires underneath.  Apparently Cecilia was to be locked in her bathroom and the water would be heated 7 times hotter than normal which was expected to steam her to death.  There are records of this form of execution being used by other Roman emperors and so it must have been a practice in her day.  When it was discovered that instead of being fully cooked Cecilia was unscathed and singing praise songs in her bathroom (the origins of singing in the shower?), the Prefect dispatched an executioner to put her to the sword.  Whether he didn’t have a heart to kill Cecilia or he had a very dull “gladus” (Roman sword), he was unable to succeed in removing Cecilia’s head.  Apparently if this wasn’t accomplished in three strokes the law required the executioner to stop.  Although alive, she was mortally wounded and lived 3 more days.  Many around Rome came to see her as she lay dying in her home.    Cecilia prayed for some and others she evangelized.

Cecilia being asked to sacrifice to Jupiter

One of those who came by to see her was Pope Urban.  Cecilia gave him her house and asked that it be made into a church.  When she eventually died she was buried by Urban and his deacons in the catacombs of Callistus.

So that’s the story of St. Cecilia as it comes to us.  Like many of the ancient Christian martyrs, her story is filled with elements of the supernatural and this is where I would expect you to say “yes, but you did say at the start that there embellishments and those things like the angel with flaming wings are one of them.”  But the funny thing is, the harder part to believe is the historical context not the spiritual details.  Why wouldn’t a sincere Christian have a guardian angel?  But consider the prominent place of  Pope Urban I in the story.  His reign as pope was early in the 3rd century (222-230 AD).  What is problematic is that the Christian church was not under any persecution at the time.  In fact, the Roman emperor Alexander Severus was quite positive in his treatment of the Christians.

The Emperor Alexander gave Christians the right to have houses of worship in Rome.  There was a protest by tavern owners over this, but the emperor felt that any kind of worship of God was preferable to tavern keeping.  This trend continued and built momentum until the persecution of Diocletian when he started confiscating and razing church buildings.
Cecilia before executioner

This makes it difficult to understand how Cecilia, Valerianus, and Tiburtius could be martyred for their faith when there wasn’t any oppression of Christians.  Two possible solutions to this dilemma is Urban was not the pope but a church leader assumed to be pope because of his name.  This then allows the story room to be in the 2nd Century when there was persecution under Marcus Aurelius.  The other solution which is embedded in the Golden Legend, is this was a localized persecution in Rome done by lower level government officials without the knowledge of the emperor.  I know this could never happen today (my tongue is thoroughly embedded in my cheek) but back then governments didn’t always know what everybody was doing.

Another problem with the story is that St. Cecilia is unknown in literature until 496 AD when Pope Gelasius introduced her name into his sacramentary (a book of Christian liturgy).  That seems long after the fact to get your first mention, but where did he get the idea to mention her?  It could be that Cecilia was known but places of her mention in literature simply did not survive.  This is not unusual especially when the total number of books were few prior to the printing press.

In  821 there is a record of an old church in Rome dedicated to St. Cecilia that is being restored by Pope Paschal.  Pope Paschal made a search for grave in the catacombs and when he couldn’t find it assumed it (like other relics of saints) had been stolen by the Lombards.  One night, St. Cecilia appears to him in a dream and tells him he was close to her resting place in the catacombs of Callistus and to make another try.  The pope did so and had her body moved from the catacombs along with her husband, brother-in-law, and Pope Urban to the church in Trastevere when its restoration was complete.
Mosaic of St. Cecilia and Pope Urban

Just an aside, if you ever visit the Catacombs in Rome (and you should if you ever visit Rome), you will find most of them are empty especially of anyone who was famous.  This is because many Europeans in the early Middle Ages wanted to take a souvenir bone of a saint home with them from their trip and were robbing the graves.  This led the Church of Rome to begin moving the graves of saints into the churches and out of the catacombs as a means of protection.

Watch a short video on Life of St. Cecilia here

In 1599 the church of St. Cecila was refurbished a second time.  This time the sarcophagus of Cecilia was opened to inspect the contents.  Her body was found to be incorrupt.  A sketch was made and sent to the pope who came to see the body for himself.  He commissioned the sculptor Stephano Maderno to see the body and sculpt what he saw.  In front of the sculpture in the church is an oath sworn by the artist that we are looking at in stone what he actually saw with his own eyes.

Maderno's St. Cecilia

So if Cecilia is legendary, she is certainly a persistent imaginary person.  As the patron saint of music many poems and songs are written about her or for her feast day known as St. Cecilia’s Day.  But Cecilia should be remembered as a woman so completely given over to Christ that when people came into contact with her, they too were convinced the gospel is true.  And that is a legacy we should all aspire to ourselves.

Listen to a beautiful song about St. Cecilia as patron of Music here

Catacomb where Cecilia was found

Caxton, William.  The Golden Legend.  Mar. 4, 2015

“Cecilia, martyr”  Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity.  Angelo Di Berardino gen. ed.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity, 2014)

“Incorrupt Bodies”  Mar. 5, 2015

“St. Cecilia”  Catholic Encyclopedia.  Feb. 20, 2015. 

“St. Cecilia”  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature.  McClintock and Strong eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Books, 1981

“Saint Cecilia”  Mar. 5, 2015

“St. Cecilia of Rome”  Dictionary of Christian Biography. Michael Walsh ed.  (Collegeville : The Liturgical Press, 2001).

Day, Malcolm  A Treasury of Saints : Their Lives and Times  (New York : Chartwell Books, 2004)

Saint of the Day : Lives, Lessons, and Feasts.  Foley and McCloskey O.F.M. ed. & rev.  (Cincinnati : St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001)

Schaff, Philip.  History of the Christian Church Vol. 2  (Grand Rapids : Eerdmanns, 1910)

The Basilica of Santa Cecilia Rome.  (Genova : Edizioni D’Arte Marconi, 2010)

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