Cecilia: The Saint and the Song

As I write this, I’m listening to Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day off YouTube – alright, alright, I’m forcing myself to listen to it.

Truth be told, I haven’t listened to Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day for, lo, these many years…decades even…probably my whole life.

That’s not for want of culture, mind you – I’m no cretin! No barbarian, I tell you! Au contraire! I happen to own lots of classical music CDs, including a recording of Trevor Pinnock’s English Concert and Choir performing that ode by Handel. And if that doesn’t impress you, I don’t know what will.

But, alas, as fate would have it, my musical tastes incline more to classic rock than classical, and even though I have grown-up, serious music stations programmed in as presets #1 and #2 on my car radio, I invariably skip them and go for lighter fare – in other words, Steve Miller and Bob Seger get a lot more airplay in my Honda than Handel, Brahms, and Mozart.

More’s the pity, because I have no excuse then for cringing a bit when St. Cecilia’s day rolls around (November 22) – even though it’s my daughter’s name day. I wish I could say that we dust off that ol’ Trevor Pinnock recording and give it a listen while we sip tea, gaze into the fire, and contemplate the lives of the saints.

Nope. Instead, it’s more often a constant fending off of well-wishers who start singing snatches from Simon and Garfunkel’s familiar rock anthem of the same name. I’m sure you know it – even if you didn’t grow up with it (like I did), you’ve heard it on elevators and store Muzak systems forever. In fact, I’ll bet you started humming it yourself when you saw this story’s title – maybe even sang part of the chorus:

Oh, Cecilia, I’m down on my knees
I’m begging you please to come home
Come on home

It goes on from there, and if you remember, it’s gets a bit salacious pretty quick – the reason for my cringe. The Cecilia that Paul Simon wrote about in his song was not herself a saint quite yet, and it’s hard on a dad when his daughter is routinely associated with a musical legend whose morals are, shall we say, a bit looser than they ought to be.

Anyway, we’ve gotten over it – just like we’ve gotten over people meeting my son Benedict and then querying, “Like Benedict Arnold?” No, not Benedict Arnold; try St. Benedict, the father of Western monasticism. And our Cecilia? She shrugs and smiles when folks start singing to her the S&G pop standard. She knows who her saint really is: An early Roman virgin and martyr who became the patron saint of musicians.

It’s funny, though, that St. Cecilia took on that patronage almost by accident. The details of her life are sketchy, but it seems she was of gentle birth and a secret convert to the Faith. Her pagan father promised her hand in marriage to the noble Valerian, but Cecilia had already espoused herself to Christ and taken a vow of virginity.

On her wedding night, she took a chance and spelled it all out for her groom. Valerian balked at first, but eventually adopted the Faith as his own, agreed to respect Cecilia’s vow, and died a martyr in witness to his wholesale conversion.

And Cecilia? She managed to escape detection a little longer, but when she sought to bury her martyred husband, the Roman authorities captured her and demanded she renounce her Christian faith. When she refused, they killed her as they did her husband, and she was buried in the Christian catacombs.

The music connection apparently came about due to a single line from a fifth-century biography of the saint:

“While the musicians played at her nuptials she sang in her heart to God only” (cantantibus organis illa in corde suo soi domino decantabat).

Over the centuries, as these words were picked up and incorporated into liturgical prayers in various ways, they were truncated and misapplied. The old Catholic Encyclopedia speculates that “possibly the cantantibus organis was erroneously interpreted of Cecilia herself as the organist. In this way the saint was brought into closer relation with music.”

In time, artists began depicting Cecilia as seated at an organ and singing her lungs out – still her predominant iconography to this day. And then, in 1584, the clincher: The Roman Academy of Music adopted St. Cecilia as its patroness, and the die was cast. The entire universal Church soon embraced her as the special celestial intercessor for all musicians.

Sure, it’s all due to a misunderstanding and misattribution, but so be it. She has taken to the role quite admirably by all accounts, and, who knows? – maybe she really was an accomplished vocalist and musician. In any case, even if her singular role in heaven doesn’t match up exactly with her earthly journey, the mismatch doesn’t impinge on her ability to be a special friend and advocate for all those musically inclined.

I’d like to suggest we do something similar with Paul Simon’s song, despite its saucy theme. It’s a shame to avoid what is manifestly a buoyant, joyful tune – just the kind of music you’d want to revel in on St. Cecilia’s special day. It’s such a fun song, and hard not to tap your foot to it – the melody bounces along, and the accompanying grungy percussion along with Simon’s xylophone counterpoint give it an upbeat, happy feel. Can we spin it in such a way as to mute its offensive storyline?

I think so. Besides, there are definite clues that the song has more to it than its superficial tale of a jilted lover who reclaims his paramour. To begin with, Simon obviously knew something about the Roman St. Cecilia and her legacy. He refers to her (erroneously) as the “goddess of music” in a recorded interview, and he mentions her directly in another song – “The Coast,” off his 1990 Rhythm of the Saints album:

A family of musicians took shelter for the night
In the little harbor church of St. Cecilia
Two guitars, batá, bass drum and tambourine
Rose of Jericho and bougainvillea

Musicians and music and St. Cecilia – in a church no less: A clear reference to the saintly martyr’s noble history as well as her association with music making and song.

What’s more, as plenty of others have noted, the lyrics of Simon’s “Cecilia” easily lend themselves to an interpretation more amenable to the saint’s festival. Think of the song as a paean to the patroness herself – a composer’s plea for her intercession and creative agency. The singer is upset that his saintly muse has not only deserted him, but has even granted inspiration to rival songwriters. Yet, by the last verse, inspiration has returned, and the singer-songwriter, having surmounted his artistic block, heaps praise on St. Cecilia again:

She loves me again
I fall on the floor and I laughing

So, whatever we hear on the song’s surface, Simon’s “Cecilia” is also a hymn about the mystery and caprice of artistic creation – that “freely given superabundance of the human being’s inner riches,” as the Catechism puts it. “To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God’s activity in what he has created.”

The irony, of course, is this: While the real St. Cecilia, the patroness of music, was a martyr for chastity, her most popular modern musical tribute superficially portrays a promiscuous and faithless lover.

We know better, and we know that Paul Simon himself received the gift of crafting beautiful music from the One whom Cecilia lived and died for – whether he acknowledges that gift or not.

This St. Cecilia day, when I hear someone start singing that familiar chorus, I’ll smile same as my daughter – and sing along!

image: Rama / Wikimedia Commons

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Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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