Although the story of St. Cecilia may be a myth, it is still very endearing and inspiring. Two parts of her story are true: she was a real person in Rome and she was martyred there. The earliest appearance of her story comes from around the middle of the 5th century, and many of these hagiographic accounts composed in the 5th and 6th centuries were exaggerated and romanticized. Because of this, her story technically lacks critical historical value.
However, one thing I have learned in my personal experience is that when it comes to these kinds of myths, especially old myths, it can sometimes be hard to separate what truly is fact and fiction – and sometimes the most mystical parts of these stories turn out to be more true than they seem. In this case, there really is not much historical evidence to support the claims of the popular story of St. Cecilia’s life, but the story that we have of her is very beautiful.
It is said that St. Cecilia was given to marriage by her parents, who were Christian, with a pagan nobleman named Valerianus. She did not want this. During her wedding ceremony, St. Cecilia was disinterested. Instead, in her heart, she sang to God. Because of this, she is known as the Patroness of Musicians.
After the wedding, when it came time to consummate the marriage, St. Cecilia informed Valerianus that she was betrothed to an angel who was guarding her body, so Valerianius was not to threaten her virginity. The implication was that if he did anything inappropriate he could face serious punishment, but if he respected her purity then he would stand well with the Lord.
Valerianus listened to her, but he wanted to see this angel. St. Cecilia told him that he would have to go to the third milestone on the Via Appia and meet with Pope Urban I to be baptized. Valerianus obeyed. After his baptism, he returned to his wife. Then her angel appeared to the two of them, crowning them both with roses and lilies.
Her influence did not stop there.
Even Valerianus’ brother, Tiburtius, was won over to Christianity. The two zealous brothers gave rich alms, and also buried the bodies of some confessors who had been martyred due to persecution from the local government. The local prefect, Turcius Almachius, condemned them to death for burying the confessors. But the officer appointed to execute them, Maximus, was converted to their cause, and he was martyred along with them.
Next the prefect sought St. Cecilia’s execution. Before her death she made arrangements for her home to be converted into a church. She was ordered to be executed by suffocation in her own bath. Her executors filled the room with so much steam that she could not breathe. But this attempt to kill her failed; she was not harmed.
Next the executioner tried to chop her head off with a sword. He swung through her neck three times, but he could not completely behead her. He ran away, but she continued to live for another three days before dying.
Pope Urban I buried her, along with all the martyrs and confessors mentioned in this story, in the Catacombs of Callistus. Today it is not uncommon to see music festivals pop up on her feast day, November 22, and one of the oldest musical academies in the world is still named after her in Rome, the National Academy of St. Cecilia. Her home is preserved in Rome, as a church, of course.
Today many film and media critics praise stories which feature impressive female leads, stories which show that women can be strong and independent heroines in the same way that men are often depicted as heroes in popular stories. The story of St. Cecilia, then, might give us pause to consider what real heroism is. In this story our heroine is independent, and she remains convicted to her values, but she doesn’t seek anything grand in this world.
There is no wondrous adventure to foreign lands. There is no discovery that she is really the long-lost princess of some other country. She does not complete herself by marrying a charming man – in fact, the man is the one who learns from her. She does not experience great career success despite difficult odds and discriminatory social norms.
She is only strong in her faith – and you have to be very strong to deal with multiple attempts to take your life – and she is strong in her purity. Today many scoff at the idea that purity should be held as an ideal for women because it can seem repressionist and puritanical. In reality, true purity, which is purity of heart, is the ideal for both women and men and leads to true freedom.
As Jesus taught us, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
So the next time you play an instrument, hear the church choir, or even turn on the radio, consider taking a moment to pray to St. Cecilia, patron of music who sang to God from the purity of her heart.