Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Cecilia, Virgin, Martyr, and Patroness of Sacred Music

detail of a stained glass window of Saint Cecilia, church of Saint-Alexis de Griesheim-près-Molsheim, Alsace, Bas-Rhin, France; by Ott Frères, 1914; photographed on 21 September 2016 by Ralph Hammann; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Died A.D. 230.

“At last divine Cecilia came,
Inventress of the vocal frame;
The sweet enthusiast, from her sacred store,
Enlarged the former narrow bounds
And added length to solemn sounds,
With nature’s mother-wit and arts unknown before.
Let old Timotheus yield the prize,
Or both divide the crown;
He raised a mortal to the skies,
She drew an angel down.”

In the early part of the third century there lived at Rome a beautiful girl who belonged to a family illustrious for bravery A and genius. She was a native of the imperial city. Her pure countenance reflected the divine beauty of her soul; and grace, modesty, and the continual thought of God’s holy presence surrounded her, so to speak, with a mysterious charm This was Saint Cecilia, who, in days of girlhood, had consecrated by a vow her virginity to Heaven.

She was now eighteen. The Roman poor knew her charity. Often had they seen her alone in the caves of the martyrs, or perhaps only accompanied by a faithful servant. Her father was a pagan, but he respected the religion of his good and lovely daughter.

It was the earnest wish of her parents that Cecilia should marry, and they chose for her a distinguished husband. He seemed not unworthy of the honor. Valerian, though still a pagan, possessed at least those natural gifts which prepare the soul for faith, hope and charity.

But who can express the anxious fears of Cecilia? She had offered her heart to God, and He had accepted the precious offering. Could a pagan, however, understand this mystery, and would not this union of the soul with its Creator seem a strange folly to a young man like Valerian, still living in the world of the senses?

More than one Christian soul has felt these chaste doubts. It is honorable to hesitate before making for a mere mortal a sacrifice for which a young girl sometimes can never console herself. Cecilia trembled, and prayed, and hoped almost against hope that she would not be forced to lose the palm of virginity.

It must be said that she was very unhappy, but she threw herself on the protection of the good God. She prayed and fasted, and the nearer the wedding-day approached the more she increased her devotions and her penances. But the Almighty is always near those who call on Him He could not leave His loving child alone and comfortless. In an hour when her sorrow was deepest He revealed to her that He had accepted her generous vow, in token of which He would send an angel to guard her chastity.

At length, however, the wedding-day arrived, and Cecilia, dressed in shining robes of silk and gold, became a bride against the dearest wishes of her heart. When the wedding-party broke up she found herself alone with him who was to be her life-long companion. It was now that she confided to him, as far as she could, the secret of her pure, anxious breast in a conversation the charm of which has come down to us.

“Valerian,” she began, fixing her sweetly brilliant eyes on the attractive young nobleman, “there is a secret that I wish to confide to you. I have a lover, an angel of God, who watches over me with jealous care. If you preserve inviolate my virginity, he will love you as he loves me, and will overpower you with his favors.”

Valerian was much astonished, and wished to know this angel.

“You shall see him,” said Cecilia, “when you are purified.”

“How shall I become so?” asked Valerian.

“Go to Urban,” whispered the beautiful Saint. “When the poor hear my name, they will take you to his sanctuary. He will explain to you our mysteries.”

Led by an unknown power, the young man consented to go. We know the happy result of this step – his interview with Pope Urban in the catacombs, his conversion, and his baptism Still dressed in his white robe, he returned to Cecilia.

Valerian could now understand the love of the angels and its perfect beauty. In future he loved Cecilia with a love that was more than love; but it was as his sister in God, to whom belong the heart, and soul, and intellect. He understood the value of the soul. Nor is it mere conjecture to say that others loved in those Christian ages more as the spiritual and pure-minded Valerian did.

Valerian’s brother, Tiburtius, soon sought the residence that was blessed by the presence of our Saint. They did not labor in vain to show him that his gods were only idols. Subdued by the mysterious charm of the Christian virgin, conquered by the eagerness of his brother, Tiburtius also wished to see the angel who watched over Cecilia. If for this it was necessary to be purified, purified he would be; and thus he became the first conquest of Valerian, who had ardently besought Heaven for such a result.

Souls such as these were too beautiful for pagan Rome. The governor, in the absence of the emperor summoned Valerian and Tiburtius before his tribunal.

“Valerian,” said the governor, “your brother’s head is evidently crazed; you, I hope, will be able to give me a sensible reply.”

“There is only one physician,” answered Valerian, “who has deigned to take charge of my brother’s head and of mine. He is Christ, the Son of the living God!”

“Come,” said the governor, “speak with wisdom”

“Your ear is false,” replied Valerian; “you cannot understand our language.”

The two young nobles, like brave men, proclaimed their faith in Jesus Christ. Valerian died a hero and martyr. He went to wait for his pure and beautiful Cecilia in heaven. Nor was he forsaken by Tiburtius.

Cecilia piously took charge of their bodies, and prepared to follow them on the path to eternity. Soon she was called to answer for her conduct, but she disconcerted the judge. Before such loveliness, purity, heroism, and innocence threats and entreaties utterly failed, and corrupt paganism felt abashed.

The noble young lady, however, received her sentence. She was convicted of loving the poor and of adoring a crucified God, and was instantly confined in the bath-room of her own house. She was to be suffocated in a hot vapor-bath. But in the midst of this fiery atmosphere the holy Cecilia remained uninjured.

The stupefied jailers related that they had discovered her singing the praises of God. On hearing this the wrath of the pagan governor knew no bounds. The executioner was summoned. With a trembling hand he inflicted three wounds on the neck of the virgin-martyr, but failed to sever the head. Terrified himself, he then ran away.

Cecilia, however, lived three days, bathed in her blood and stretched on the flags. The Christians gathered around her. She was able to bid farewell to the poor, to whom she had given all her property. Then, feeling her strength fail, and while Pope Urban was in the act of giving her his blessing, she drew her robe around her, and joyfully gave back to God her bright and beautiful spirit. This memorable event happened about the year 230.

According to her last desire, the Pope transformed the house that had witnessed her martyrdom into a church. The bath¬ room became a chapel, and by its arrangement bears witness to-day to the truth of the Saint’s life. One can still see the mouth of the pipes which let in the vapor, covered with a grating; and on the same flags where the Roman virgin expired, the kneeling Christian can ponder down deep in his heart the example of lofty heroism which the gentle and pure-souled Cecilia gave to the world.

The Christians of the Eternal City erected a church in honor of Saint Cecilia. This edifice however, having fallen into decay, Pope Pascal I, began to rebuild it but he felt troubled as to how he should find the body of the Saint. It was thought that, perhaps, the Lombards had taken it away, as they had many others from the cemeteries of Rome, when they besieged that city in 755.

One Sunday, as this Pope was assisting at Matins in Saint Peter’s, he fell into a slumber in which he was told by Saint Cecilia herself that the Lombards had in vain sought her remains, and that he should find them Accordingly, he had a search made, and discovered those sacred relics in the cemetery called by her name. The body was clothed in a robe of gold tissue, with linen cloths at her feet, dipped in her blood. With her body was also found that of her husband, Valerian. The Pope caused them to be translated to the Church of Saint Cecilia in 821.

Is it wonderful that such a touching and beautiful story should be repeated, age after age, by poets, painters, and sacred orators? Saint Cecilia has been praised by the pen of the venerable Bede and other illustrious saints. The great Saint Thomas Aquinas preached sermons in her honor. Raphael, Rubens, Guido, and Era Angelico have employed their exquisite genius to picture the divine patroness of music, whose rare soul like a celestial lyre had responded to the faintest inspirations of heaven. For over fifteen centuries her name has been mentioned in the Canon of the Mass – an honor truly extraordinary.

What food for wholesome reflection there is in the short but sublime life of this virgin-martyr! It warns us to lift up our hearts. It points to the skies. We are made for heaven. The soul daily whispers this, for it is naturally Christian. Let us, then, know how to turn from the hurry of life and the tinkling sound of human words, and think occasionally of the great God. It will bring peace to the troubled spirit. Oh! look at the example of this bright and blessed girl. Pray to her. Ask her protection. She has known how to find that love, and peace, and happiness which the world cannot give.

“Music the fiercest grief can charm.
And Fate’s severest rage disarm;
Music can soften pain to ease
And make despair and madness please:
Our joys it can improve,
And antedate the bliss above.
This the divine Cecilia found,
And to her Maker’s praise confined the sound.
When the full organ joins the tuneful choir,
The immortal powers incline their ear:
Borne on the swelling notes our souls aspire,
While solemn airs improve the sacred fire;
And angels lean from heaven to hear.
Of Orpheus now no more let poets tell;
To bright Cecilia greater power is given –
His numbers raised a shade from hell.
Hers lift the soul to heaven.”

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Cecilia, Virgin, Martyr, and Patroness of Sacred Music”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 24 September 2018. Web. 17 November 2018. <>