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Molly CahillNovember 22, 2023
Photo from Unsplash.

A Reflection for the Memorial of St. Cecilia, virgin and martyr

Find today’s readings here.

Listen to me, daughter; see and bend your ear.

My mother has many gifts. I hope she won’t mind my saying that musical ability is not at the top of that list.

When we were growing up, my sister and I were mortified when our mom would sing at Mass. Though she didn’t have a great sense of pitch, she would sing along to every bit of music—loudly and confidently. As she jumped octaves as she pleased, we would turn red and look at each other with embarrassment.

“Do you have to sing so loudly?” we would inevitably grumble on the ride home.

“It’s church! This is the one place where I should be able to sing without judgment from anyone—especially from you,” she would reply.

This cycle went on for years. As a child and teenager, I was learning how to be “good,” believing that doing things as perfectly as I could was what made me worthy. (Of what, I’m not so sure.) My mom’s brazen musical murderings of Mass hymns did not fit into my vocabulary of doing things just so.

Cecilia’s heart song is our example. I’d like to think she would want to hear us all, loudly and proudly—no matter how we sound.

Today is the feast of St. Cecilia. While Cecilia lived an often dark and difficult life as a third-century Roman virgin and martyr, she is perhaps best known as the patroness of music and is often depicted playing an instrument. It has been written that when she was forced to marry a man against her will, she “sang in her heart to the lord.” Even as musicians played for the ceremony onlookers, Cecilia’s song was something more profound, just between her and God.

When I hear that story, I think of my mom, and I look at her with much more warmth than I did when I was a young girl obsessed with order and the illusion of perfection. My mom’s song was one from the heart, one that engaged her in what was going on around her when we went to Mass as a family. When she raised her voice, she was part of a congregation, a community. She was also connecting to God in a way that words or thoughts alone couldn’t quite bring about; that’s the gift that song gives to us.

Music is a beautiful part of the liturgy in two seemingly opposite ways. On one hand, we can listen, meditate and let music made by someone else wash over us, letting God speak to us through its beauty. On the other, we can actively participate from the pews, using the one instrument that costs nothing and comes everywhere with us: our voice. We can say something to God, individually and with the group. Music takes us to a place beyond speech, beyond description—closer, perhaps, to how God communicates.

In God’s house, each of us is invited to be the unique part, the one that only we can be, of a greater symphony, a mystical one. And what a shame it would be if we held back from doing so because we were too worried about hitting the right notes.

In my mom’s song, there might have been an unrecognizable melody, but the joy and expression in it were hers and only hers to bring. Cecilia’s heart song is our example. I’d like to think she would want to hear us all, loudly and proudly—no matter how we sound.

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