Last week, my family gathered to celebrate my sister’s retirement. It was a great party, but it presented us with a problem: What does one sing at a retirement party? “Happy Days are Here Again”? “Sunrise, Sunset”? “Another One Bites the Dust”? Nothing seemed quite appropriate, but I for one felt we needed to sing something. We agreed (which is to say, I insisted) upon “Goodnight, Sweet Jesus.” A cradle song for Catholic children, I’ve sung it every night of my life, right after the rosary: so too have my siblings and their children. The words are hardly sophisticated (some might say “cloying”), and the way we sing them is devoid of all discernible rhythm. Yet the song fills the heart with the warm emotions we associate with our parents and, ultimately, with God. If we want to give glory to God through the mind, we can go elsewhere; but there are movements of the heart that defy words. Music may not be able to produce particular psychological states or behavior, but it is believed to exert a certain “affective power.” St. Augustine tells us:
As if so happy that words can no longer express what they feel, people discard the restricting syllables. They burst out into a simple sound of joy, of jubilation. Such a cry of joy is a sound signifying that the heart is bringing to birth what it cannot utter in words.
Such is our response when touched by the love of God. We know that words reveal something about ourselves, but they conceal other things as well. Those who sing to the Lord surrender themselves fully to the mystery that can never quite be captured with words.
On Monday the Church celebrates the life of St. Cecelia, a Roman noblewoman, who was martyred out of love for Christ. Known for her chastity, and wishing to preserve it, she “sang to God in her heart” on her wedding day, and pleaded with her groom to seek baptism that he might “see” that to which he was blind: an angel next to Cecelia who protected her from impurity of body and soul. He did so, and they went about preaching the gospel and burying those martyrs who had remained faithful to Christ. She was eventually martyred herself for refusing to honor the state gods of Rome. Her death was not swift due to a botched execution, but in the time she had left, Cecelia continued encouraging the faithful.
Other than “singing to God in her heart” on her wedding day, “as the organ sounded,” there is little connection between Cecelia and music, yet she is the patron saint of music and musicians. (Her symbol is the organ.) Her name has overtones of “heaven” and (lack of) “blindness,” both of which are relevant to her life. For the Christian, music is the medium that allows one to transcend the material world and reach out toward heaven.
As we begin a new liturgical year, let us pray that we may be so drawn by the goodness of God and the joy of heaven as to break into song. The Church, I believe, draws more souls to God by showing the beauty of Christ to the world than by persuasive argument or brilliant debate.