St Cecilia’s Day: When Words Are Not Enough

Published on 19 Nov 2018
Sr Teresa White fcJ reflects on the importance of music in our spiritual lives for the feast of St Cecilia.

Music has always seemed to occupy a unique place in the human imagination. Pythagoras and his harmony of the spheres and Homer’s tales of ‘siren songs’ luring sailors to their deaths, are two of many examples from the ancient world that illustrate its peculiarly imponderable, almost mystical, hold upon us. Rose Tremain, in her 1999 novel, Music and Silence, says that music is ‘the human soul, speaking without words’ and describes it as ‘a reaching out in the soul towards God’. Centuries before, St Augustine, in his sermon on Psalm 32 (given in the Office of Readings for the feast of St Cecilia), had a similar message:

At the harvest, in the vineyard, wherever people must labour hard, they begin with songs whose words express their joy. But when their joy brims over and words are not enough, they abandon even this coherence and give themselves up to the sheer sound of singing. What is this jubilation, this exultant song? It is the melody that means our hearts are bursting with feelings words cannot express. And to whom does this jubilation belong? Surely to God, who is unutterable. And does not unutterable mean what cannot be uttered? If words will not come and you may not remain silent, what else can you do but let the melody soar?

Augustine, himself a man of countless words, spoken and written, is not here downplaying the importance and dignity of words; like Tremain, he is simply claiming that there are times when music transcends language.

Harmony and dissonance

No doubt life, any life, is a mixture of harmony and dissonance, but music brings a refinement of eloquence into that complexity, offering infinite variations on our human themes. Music speaks to the soul, attends to its longings, gives ‘substance’ to its dreams: ‘Music,’ said Ravel, ‘is dream crystallised into sound’. Like Ravel, Wallace Stevens, in his poem ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’, hints that music mysteriously changes reality: ‘Things as they are’ says the guitarist, ‘Are changed upon the blue guitar.’ His companions want him to play a tune that represents ‘things exactly as they are’. ‘So that’s life, then: things as they are?’ he asks. Knowing in their hearts of hearts that there is more to life than this, they seem to take upon themselves the mystery of things, and beg him for ‘a tune beyond us, yet ourselves’. They want to see themselves in this ‘new’ reality created in their green world by the music of the blue guitar. Perhaps their hope is that the music will lead them to embrace in a single vision what is and what might be, the dream at the heart of reality ... Music, like poetry, helps them and helps us to grasp elusive truths.

Music engages the human spirit

In every human culture, there is an impulse to make music, to express the inexpressible through music. When words are inadequate, when silence too is inadequate, music engages the human spirit. In poetry, in prayer, the words speak, but the ‘eloquence’ of music is essentially wordless, and through it the soul is reminded of its cravings for the eternal. Music emerges from our world, but somehow dispels the illusion that there is only time, not eternity, and for those with ears to hear and open hearts it can lead to an awareness of God’s presence, of God’s providence watching over creation and guiding our lives. Music, as W.G. Rothery’s poem[i], ‘Art thou troubled?’ says, is the divine voice calling to us, calming the distressed, offering rest to the weary, healing our sadness.

Moments of transcendence

Just as it is the intonation of the human voice that lends grace to what we say, in music, it is melody and rhythm and ‘mood’ that open us to moments of transcendence, to the tenderness of life, to its blessings, to its inevitable sadnesses. Music in the major key is expressive of delight and gratitude, as through enlivening chords and satisfying harmonies we come before God in joy and gladness. By expressing our joy though music, we are creating joy, in ourselves and in others. On the other hand, the minor key cries out to God, sometimes ‘from the depths’ of sorrow or disappointment, fear or helplessness. When nothing seems right and everything is hard, a solo instrument, unsupported, can convey the longing or heartache or shame that we feel. At these times, music can somehow reassure us that God knows our anguish and this solidarity can bring a sense of peace and hope. Even if the suffering continues, we find ourselves able to retain our peace of soul in the midst of the pain. For if, as A. J. Heschel says, ‘Praying means to take hold of ... a line that leads us to God’, then music is a wordless way to take hold of that line. Through it, we invite God to intervene in our lives and in our world, and God, recognising the timbre and tone of the music will surely listen and respond.

St Cecilia

And what of Saint Cecilia, whose feast we celebrate on 22 November, and whose memory has long inspired painting, poetry and musical composition? The legend is that in the early centuries of Christianity (no one knows her exact dates), Cecilia of Rome, despite her vow of virginity, was forced by her parents to marry Valerian, a pagan nobleman. Her association with music arose from the traditional story that, while the musicians played at her wedding, she sat apart and sang in her heart to God. On her wedding night, when she told her new husband that if he respected her vow, God would reward him, Valerian listened to her, and it was not long before he became a Christian himself, eventually preceding his young wife to martyrdom. Whatever the truth of this story, the recognition of Cecilia as the patron saint of musicians has enjoyed a remarkable longevity. During the last few hundred years, in this country alone, there have been many works inspired by her, including songs by Byrd, Dowland, Purcell and Handel, and more recently, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and James MacMillan. It is thought that the ‘Hymn to Saint Cecilia’ – music by Benjamin Britten (who was born on St Cecilia’s Day), text by W. H. Auden – reawakened musicians’ interest in celebrating their patron saint, and in it, poet and composer call on the saint, amidst the horrors of the Second World War, to grace the earth with her presence:

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.


St Cecilia has thus come to symbolise not only the central role of music in liturgy, but also its significance in human life and living, and we have to thank her for that. Her feast day continues to be the occasion for concerts and music festivals all over the world and through her, numerous songs, poems and paintings celebrate the ‘heavenly harmony’ that music brings into our lives.

[i] The music of this song, made famous in England by Kathleen Ferrier, is taken from an aria in Handel’s opera ‘Rodelinda’.