St. Cecilia is one of those great saints who receives a great amount of devotion, especially from musicians. As a matter of fact, I chose her for my confirmation saint because I played the piano! She was born in Rome in the 2nd or 3rd century to a noble family. After having made a vow of virginity to God, she was given in marriage by her parents to a pagan nobleman named Valerian. On the evening of their wedding, she shared with him that an angel was guarding her virginity, and that if he was baptized, he would be able to see the angel. At this, Valerian was converted and went to be baptized by Pope Urban I. At his return, he witnessed the angel, and shortly after, Valerian’s brother Tibertius also converted. Cecilia, Valerian and Tibertius were dedicated to serving the poor and burying the dead, especially martyrs. This lead to the martyrdom of both Valerian and Tibertius. Eventually, Cecilia was also condemned to death by suffocation in the hot baths. When this failed to kill her, she was to be beheaded, but after three blows, her neck was only severed and she died after three days, continuing to praise God.
The story of St. Cecilia is an incredible one. However, I have to admit that after a while, I had difficulty accepting her. Her courage in expressing her faith in the face of martyrdom made me feel weak and incapable of becoming a great saint. And so I experienced times in which I didn’t want to pray to her, or times in which I felt jealous of her. However, there was one day in particular that I had a powerful experience with her. I was studying at KU and had just finished praying in the St. Lawrence chapel. I was walking to my class, and I decided to ask St. Cecilia:
How were you so bold and courageous, especially in the face of death?
Her response was very simple and caught me off-guard. She said, “It wasn’t out of boldness or courage that I acted, but out of love.” She explained to me how boldness, courage, temperance, and all the virtues are encompassed by love. In that moment I also thought of St. Therese and how the more she loved, the simpler she became. The more we love, the less we act out of the other virtues, but we simply act out of love. As I continued walking, I felt the Holy Spirit confirming St. Cecilia’s words to me as I recalled St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians:
Love is patient and kind;
love is not jealous or boastful;
it is not arrogant or rude.
Love does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor 13:4-7)
In the end, everything boils down to love. This is not to say we should ignore the other virtues. It can be very useful for us to focus on growing in a particular virtue! But even as we grow in the virtues, they are nothing without love. In fact, St. Paul also writes:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor 13:1-3)
St. Cecilia became an example for me and continues to teach me to live solely for love. What does this mean? How can we practice living solely for love? I believe that we can begin by examining the intentions or motivations behind our actions. We can live solely for love by purifying our intentions. One of the ways I like to show love for people is by performing acts of service for them. Sometimes, for example, I offer help to a sister with the dishes when it’s not my turn. In itself this is a good action. However, when I examine my intentions for doing it, I recognize that they need to be purified. Part of my motivation sincerely comes from a desire to love my sister through an act of service. However, I also recognize my attempt to make myself worthy before God (we do not need to justify ourselves before God, but simply receive His love!). And then there is still the part of my motivation that desires to be seen as holy by my sisters, and so I seek praise and esteem. When I recognize all the different motivations behind my good action, I try to consciously choose to make my intention solely for love. Even though I may still be inclined to act out of self-interest, I ask God to help purify my intention so that I can be free to act for love alone.
This process of learning to act out of love takes time. However, we can begin by becoming more aware of what motivates us to act. Sometimes our deeper motivations are not even known to us unless we take time to examine our hearts. It may even be scary to take the step to recognize our motivations because we may discover that there is more self-love than we thought. However, we should not be discouraged because God, who knows our hearts more than we do, loves us as His children and desires for us to grow in love. If we offer to Him our desire to love with a pure heart, He will give us the grace to grow and He will help purify our intentions. He will help simplify us in order to make us free to love for love’s sake.
St. Cecilia did not die for courage, but for love. For love of the God she had come to know. Her courage became a fruit of that love. However, her ability to offer her life in love didn’t come from just one moment. Rather, it came from years of growing in faith, sharing the good news with others, detaching herself from her riches, offering charity to the poor. Her constancy in seeking to grow in virtue and charity purified and simplified her heart, and made it possible for her to die for love.
Lord, through the intercession of St. Cecilia, purify our hearts and help us to live and die for love alone.
I will make an examination of conscience in which I ask myself, “What were my motivations behind my actions today?” Not only do I want to notice my impure intentions, but I also want to recognize my good and pure intentions. This will help me grow in self-knowledge. At the end of my examination, I will thank God for walking the journey with me, and I will ask Him the grace to continue purifying my heart.