By Angela McCann
Truth and beauty come from the Lord. Music can be a collision of truth and beauty made manifest for the glory of God while edifying the human spirit. Music can heal hurts, augment prayerful repose, or ignite a flaming passion within our already grateful hearts. One of our great Doctors of the Church wrote:
“How I wept, deeply moved by your hymn, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears, distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face- tears that did me good.” (CCC 1157, St. Augustine Conf. 9, 6, 14)
Countless times I, too, have felt this surge of devotion upon hearing a beautiful piece of music. As we, the Church approach the feast of St. Cecilia, patroness of music, on November 22, I reflect upon her life and the power of music. I often invoke her intercession, painting in my mind the familiar Renaissance image of a beautiful young woman peacefully sitting at the organ or holding a harp. However, in truth, there is actually little known about this highly regarded and referenced saint.
St. Cecilia is believed to have been born into a wealthy Roman family in the 2nd century. Though promised in marriage to a pagan man named Valerian, she had long taken a vow of virginity. At her own wedding celebration, while raucous music played, she was said to be singing her own song to God in her heart. It is thought that from this instance is how she garnered her patronage of music. When the time came to consummate her marriage, she told Valerian of her vow of virginity, which was protected by an angel. He wanted to see this angel as proof of this, but Cecilia said that only through Baptism would he then have eyes to see. He went on to be baptized, and then saw the angel. Valerian’s conversion also led to the conversion of his brother, with whom he began burying the Christian martyrs, an illegal act eventually leading to their own martyrdom. Cecilia continued to live devoutly, preaching and aiding in converting many to Christianity, before she was martyred as well.
Most alluring is the unwavering song of her heart, a song to God that accompanied her through her short life of trial and persecution. Just as it was for St. Cecilia, music can be a powerful form of prayer in our lives, and there are some practical ways that we, too, can better utilize this gift from God. One does not have to skillfully play an instrument as the voice itself is a beautiful instrument sufficient for praising the Lord.
- Personal prayer and meditation. While our personal prayer time can take on many forms and incorporate many different styles, including music can help elevate our hearts and minds to God. You can sing traditional or modern hymns acapella or, with a smartphone or computer, access a sacred music album or Catholic music playlist from one of the many streaming apps (Spotify, Amazon, Apple Music, etc.). Beautiful musical settings of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, the Rosary, and other canticles are available. Oftentimes, simply listening to instrumental sacred music or hymns as background for prayer enhances our prayer time, ushering in the Holy Spirit and directing focus to God. Consider listening to Gregorian chant or polyphony, which are some of the most beautiful and heightened forms of sacred music and held in highest esteem in the Catholic Church.
- Praise and worship. When attending a Catholic conference or retreat, music can play a major role in creating an environment that helps to foster a personal cathartic encounter with the Lord. Again, styles of music at events can vary, but contemporary Christian praise and worship songs are very popular and engaging, particularly amongst teens and young adults. Whether the music is live or recorded, our singing along can have a powerful communal impact when our hearts are postured in prayer and open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. The popularity of contemporary Christian music, coupled with its accessibility through radio and personal streaming devices, can also provide a custom soundtrack to accompany us through the day, focusing our attention to God and giving language to the prayers of our hearts.
- Music in Liturgy. “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art” (CCC 1156). There is no better setting for music in prayer than in the most holy Mass where were are invited into deeper union with God by engaging our body, mind, and soul in the various parts of the liturgy. To fully participate, we are called to raise our voices to God in the designated vocal responses both spoken and sung. Singing in Mass allows us to give glory to God and aids in our own sanctification.
While music style preferences vary from person to person, there is no denying that prayerful music has the power to connect us to the Divine. Like St. Cecilia, we all have a song in our hearts for God, and like her, may we have the courage to sing it, giving praise back to the Giver through the use of one of His greatest gifts, the gift of song.