Updated: Nov 22, 2020
This coming Sunday, November 22nd, is many things. It is the feast of Christ the King; it is Stir-Up Sunday (from the Prayer Book Collect for the day); it is the Sunday next before Advent. It is also St Cecilia's day - the patron saint of musicians. I adore the music of Benjamin Britten, and he was born on St Cecilia's day, in 1913. Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia sets a text by W. H. Auden, with the refrain
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions To all musicians, appear and inspire: Translated Daughter, come down and startle Composing mortals with immortal fire.
Quite why Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians is something of a mystery. But she is, and to all musicians she, and her day, are special. As the contemporary composer Sir James MacMillan has said 'any composition dedicated to or inspired by her is a very special statement by any composer; a kind of existential moment which gets to the core of our beings as composers'.
Whenever I go to Rome, I go to visit her church, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere; and so, when Devin and Andrew and I visited Rome in March 2019, I took them along. It was on that visit that I took the photograph accompanying this article, the poignant, heart-breaking sculpture of the martyred Cecilia by Stefano Maderno. He made it in 1599, and, it is said, this is how he found the saint's body, seemingly asleep, uncorrupt, beautiful. The church is located, it is said, directly above the location of Cecilia's house.
The historicity of all this is decidedly dodgy, but does not distract for a moment of the beauty of the legend, the sculpture, and the association of Cecilia with music and musicians. We were reminded earlier this year of the importance of music to us at Great St Mary's, first when the organs could be played again in our worship, and then when our choirs could sing again - and all the time our own pain at not being able to add our voices to theirs. Cecilia's day is a good annual reminder to us to be thankful for music and for musicians, and to pray especially for them - not least at a time when thousands are unemployed.
Perhaps Cecilia's day can also remind us of something else. We heard a great deal last weekend of a 'reset' at Number 10. Whether or not we are musical, this time of year is a good moment for a reset of our own, this season of remembering. A retuning, if you like, to that divine note which was sounded at the very Beginning, and which has resonated throughout the universe ever since. As a beloved friend of mine, the late Dr Gordon Wakefield, once preached
You and I are instrumentalists in the orchestra of Christ playing the work of God. This is a way to understand prayer. It may sometimes be solo and almost as lonely as Gethsemane . . . but prayer is also our part in the divine symphony of the universe. And we – even we, such blundering participants – shall deprive the whole if we are missing, or fail to tune our instrument at Christ’s door.