Today (22 November) we celebrate the Feast of Saint Cecilia who is the patroness of music and musicians. This is because she sang to God in her heart while the musicians played during her forced wedding to Valerian, a pagan nobleman. She was apparently known for her musical talents and, it has been said, the songs she wrote and sang were so lovely that the angels descended to earth to listen.
Music is a major part and passion of many people’s lives, including mine, and not only do I delight in the fact that we actually have a patron saint dedicated to it, but St Cecilia’s story – despite the gruesomeness of her martyrdom – makes me think about the holiness of and reason for music.
As a choir member at my church for many years, I know about the tangible side of being a chorister in the service of music for the Mass – the hard but deeply rewarding work which is done behind the scenes. There is a lot of time, preparation, and commitment that is put into daily vocal practice, learning hymns, maintaining good body and vocal health, improving music theory knowledge, etc. But there is a far more important aspect which church musicians must never ignore and is the crucial foundation of all of this – a holy and spiritual side which is all about remembering God in the music in order to appropriately deliver His message to His people – in other words:
We need to find the meaning behind our music.
What is the message being delivered through our music, and who is the focus? Is it us, or is it God? Are we ‘performing’ as if at a concert, or are we using our gift of music in a prayerful manner in the sacred space that is the church, to bring attention to Him alone? Are we using our musical skills to glorify Him and not seek self-glory? Are we singing or playing our instruments with confidence and faith, or are we hiding our musical light under a bushel? Are we sombre or bored when we sing or are we truly happy to be a musician for Him? Does our choir pray before Mass when about to freely give of our musical service? Have we forgotten about God and the sacredness of music? Is God a part of our choir or ensemble – did we invite Him to be with us? Have we talked about God as part of our hymn preparations and during rehearsals? Are we praying and practicing our faith in daily life throughout the week to nourish our musical talents? Are we thanking God for giving us and blessing us with our love of music?
This is a lot to think about. But without reflecting on these things and applying them, our sacred music risks being empty, insincere, and even a chore. We will be singing and playing without feeling and purpose. Our hearts and souls will certainly know it, and so will the people who hear us.
Of course we always want to execute our gifts to the best of our ability, and feel that we can offer something beautiful to God and to all who listen to us sing or play. But as church musicians our focus should be on Him alone, and our motivation should be to serve and supplement the Mass, not be the centre of it. Choirs are part of the congregation, and are not better or worse than it – we lead and support but never distract from the true purpose which is worshipping the Holy Trinity and the Eucharistic celebration.
Be aware that you are God’s instrument through your music ministry!
Music is a vital part of the Mass and what we bring to it makes a difference. I have seen people be moved (and I have been affected) by the music at Mass, and leave uplifted. It is something that cannot be put into words when it happens, but can only be felt in an instant. Who knows how many others, especially downcast, suffering, or lonely souls, have silently left our churches and Masses feeling touched by God’s love because of the music they heard that day? Perhaps someone in the pews needed solace due to the death of a loved one, unemployment, or a medical condition? Music, combined with the prayers of the liturgy, has the power to reach the heart and spirit like nothing else can.
One of my favourite parts of the Mass during the Eucharistic prayer is the preface just before the Sanctus is sung, when the priest ends with “…And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim…” Here I imagine the angels assembling above the altar as we sing together “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts…” all of us, visible and invisible. If only we could hear that celestial music blending with our own earthly ones!
‘Vide, ut quod ore cantas, corde credas, et quod corde credis, operibus comprobes.’ (See that what you sing with your lips you may believe in your heart, and that what you believe in your heart you may show forth in your works.) — Installation of Cantors, from the 10th Canon of the Council of Carthage, 398 A.D.
Holy Saint Cecilia, on this your Feast Day,
intercede for us before the Lord,
Implore Him to sanctify us
and our service through the beauty of music,
And as we sing and play together,
give us the grace to do so with deep feeling, love,
and commitment in body, mind, and spirit.
May He bless our voices which He created,
and speak through our sung prayer,
May He strengthen our fingers
as we play our instruments,
And give us the ability to focus
on praising and glorifying Him alone.
If suffering befalls us,
and the music falls silent,
Teach us to sing to Him in our hearts,
like you did.
Even in death.
Make us remember that He
is in the tempo, the lyrics, the rests,
the dynamics, the high notes, and low notes,
He is the crescendo and decrescendo
throughout our years,
And only He is the key signature of our lives.
St Cecilia, help us to sing His Majesty and set the world ablaze with His love!
Image Credit: Das Spiel der Hl. Cäcilia von Engeln begleitet, 1886, Simon Glücklich [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons