The Feast of St. Cecilia

David G. Phillips

Holy Communion

King's College Chapel, Halifax NS – November 24AD 2005


Martha, Martha; thou art anxious and troubled about a multitude of things;

one thing is needful; and Mary hath chosen the good portion,

which shall not be taken from her.


Today we remember and celebrate the faith of St. Cecilia, a woman who was one of the most venerated of Christian martyrs in the early Roman church.


Early tradition holds that some time in the third century in Rome, Cecilia, a Christian of the patrician class, was betrothed to a young pagan patrician called Valerian.  On the day of her wedding, she “informed him that she had consecrated her virginity to God” – so she refused to consummate the marriage.  She won him over to respect her vow and also to be baptized.  Both Valerian and then his brother moved by her example became Christians and were soon after arrested and put to death.  Cecilia attended to their burial and shortly after was herself arrested, and when she refused to offer a pagan sacrifice, was sentenced to death by suffocation in her bathroom.  When that didn’t work a soldier was sent to behead her.  He struck her three times and this failed to kill her.  She lay half dead for three more days before succumbing to the wounds. 


Dr. Crouse explains how St. Cecilia has come to be connected with musicians:

St. Cecilia has been associated with music as the patron saint of musicians, “and particularly with the organ, because of the legend of the wedding, and the Vespers antiphon drawn from that legend.  “Cantantibus organis,” says the antiphon: “while the organs – the instruments – were playing, Cecilia sang to the Lord, saying, Let my heart be pure, that I be not confounded.”  From the 15th century on she is often been represented in art, with musical instruments, especially organs; and often with an angel, either blowing the organ bellows, or standing by her side; recalling the angel [that] Valerian saw attending Cecilia’s prayers.”


If Dr. Crouse was able to be here today, he would, no doubt draw out the religious and theological significance of music as an instrument of divine mediation - how it can be a kind of ladder between heaven and earth upon which ascend and descend prayer and divine messages.  And if there are musicians here today, we give thanks to God for your gifts and your art.


But I would like us to turn our attention this afternoon to the decision of St. Cecilia to consecrate her virginity to God.  Whether or not the facts of her particular martyrdom are accurate – one thing that we do know as a certainty is that holy souls throughout the history of the church – women and men – have come to the same point of choosing the celibate life following our Lord’s commendation - Whoever that is able to receive it, let him receive it and St. Paul’s commendation of his own life - I would that all were even as I myself.  But everyone hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.


No doubt in this age of the Church and of our society there is a risk of a certain amount of ridicule even at the suggestion of consecrating one’s virginity to God, and especially to university students, who are battling with (or perhaps, just being led by) the leopard of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Canto 1 of the Inferno).  It goes so much against what we are led to understand is the way of fulfillment and the way of health of body and soul.  Modern secular scientists of the soul, our psychologists, might well speculate about some dark reason why St. Cecilia or any other woman or man might chose such a sacrifice.


And no doubt there is some truth to the idea that it would be unhealthy to live a chaste life outwardly, if inwardly, or privately, it was simply replaced with a life of sustained inner regret at being single or of self abuse or of unresolved repression of sexual desire (rather than the redirection of that desire, by grace, to a love of God and neighbour). 


But this is not what Scripture nor what the Church has ever taught is meant by consecrating one’s virginity to God.


In our Gospel this afternoon, we have put before our minds the story of Martha and Mary.  In the history of interpretation, this Gospel story has been seen as an allegory, as a story pointing to something beyond itself – about two kinds of lives, the active life, Martha, and the contemplative life, Mary. 


Jesus has come to town, and is staying at the house of Martha and Mary.  Martha knows there will be a crowd arriving, disciples, and many others curious about this man.  Martha is running about making preparations to be hospitable and is upset that Mary is just sitting there in the living room with Jesus, listening.  Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me alone to serve?  Bid her therefore that she help me.  And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha; thou art anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful; and Mary hath chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.


One thing is needful.  Mary had chosen the one thing needful – to listen to Jesus’ word – it was divine contemplation, and there is nothing better, it is the life of heaven.


At the time of the Reformation, there was concern about too big a divide that had taken place in the Christian West between these two streams of Christian life – those active in the world and those consecrated to the contemplative life.  The many abuses of monastic living, and the deplorably low comprehension of the faith by those living in the world, were touted as reason for merging these two kinds of life – sending the monks and nuns into the active life and encouraging marriage and commending a kind of monastic discipline for all – daily morning and evening prayer.  And yet there were voices at the time expressing regret about a loss. 


Queen Elizabeth I, a strong supporter of the Reformation, who herself, had chosen not to marry, was displeased with the idea that so many of the Church’s priests were marrying.  She saw it as lowering the standards – the priests in her church would be less able to dedicate themselves to serve others and less able and less apt to have their minds freed up for the one thing needful.


Think of Mary of Bethany, seated before Jesus, and listening only to perfect words, spoken perfectly.  From this encounter there is no regret, but the overcoming of all regret.  From this very private encounter there is no need to hide, but a greater confidence in public.  She hears a word to answer every question; a word of forgiveness for every offence; a word to lead her to a more perfect understanding of God and of her own soul; a word to strengthen and encourage her will to undertake some perfect act of love; a word which brings her the peace she desires at the very depths of her being.  It is to be known and to know, it is to be loved fully and to be able to love fully, it is the consummation of spiritual marriage.


Now can you imagine Mary, after such an encounter, desiring earthly marriage, in the same way that she had thought of it before?


The decision of St. Cecilia and of holy souls through the ages who have chosen to consecrate their virginity to God is so counter to what we might think of as holy and good.  But the witness of holy souls who have so consecrated themselves through the ages, and the incredible fruitfulness of their lives, should give every one of us pause to ponder: what is, and have we attended to, the one thing needful?




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