Postcard from Rome, Italy: A literal definition of a marriage made in heaven

But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher:
When to her organ vocal breath was given,
An angel heard, and straight appeared
Mistaking Earth for heaven.

“A Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day,” John Dryden, 1687

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 below it can improve,
And antedate the bliss above.
This the divine Cecilia found….

“Ode on Saint Cecilia’s Day,” Alexander Pope, 1708

Some time in the first or second century, the daughter of a wealthy family in Rome was betrothed to a young pagan. A Christian, Cecilia was dragging her feet about entering into the arranged marriage, fasting and pleading with God and the Virgin Mary to help her preserve her virginity. Definitely not the vow a prospective groom envisions.

As the musicians played at the feast celebrating the wedding, Cecilia stared upward, focused on serenading the heavens with the song in her heart. Valerian, the groom, was miraculously understanding when she explained her wedding night plans to him did not include consummation of their marriage.

Cecilia claimed she had an angel protecting her. A little suspicious, he asked for proof. She directed him to the third milestone on the Appian Way and to be baptized by Pope Urban I (died in 230). Valerian complied and, upon his return, saw her guardian angel with her, crowning her head with roses and lilies. In addition to his religious conversion, he accepted her vow of chastity.

Valerian’s enthusiasm was so great, his brother followed suit. Christianity was far from the official religion in Rome at the time, so Valerian and his brother busied themselves gathering the bodies of executed Christians and providing them with burials. This chore kept them quite occupied until their dedication attracted too much attention, and they themselves became martyrs.

Cecilia then threw herself more fervently into spreading the word, converting more than 400 pagans to the still somewhat new religion. Until…

… you know where this is leading, she attracted attention of those in power. But Cecilia’s angel did not let her succumb quickly to the efforts to dispose of her. First condemned to death by “spa,” she was locked in the baths with the heat and steam stoked up unbearably high. She emerged unfazed, so a more direct approach was taken.

Chop off her head. The executioner swung his axe three times. Despite profuse bleeding, her head remained in a semi-attached state. This afforded Cecilia time to make arrangements to distribute any remaining wealth to the poor and to donate her home in Trastevere for a church. Pope Urban I complied.

In the 800s, Pope Paschal I rebuilt the church. Desiring to locate Saint Cecilia’s remains and transfer them to her church, the pope searched the catacombs. After a vision, he finally located them and those of her husband and brother-in-law. Saint Cecilia’s original robes, blood-soaked, were at her feet; she was clothed in gold. All three bodies were moved to the church.

While the mosaic in the apse from that period survives, much remodeling followed. Fast forward to the 1500s, Cardinal Niccolo Sfrondrato (1535-1591), later becoming Pope Gregory XIV, was trying to confirm the location of the remains of Santa Cecilia.

Workers uncovered a marble coffin and opened it in front of the cardinal and, even more conveniently, sculptor Stefano Maderno (1576-1636). And there she was. Santa Cecilia incorrupta. The first Catholic saint recorded as emerging in this totally preserved state, further demonstrated by the fact that she had rolled over to a more comfortable position on her side.

Word spread like wildfire in Rome, and the cardinal was fortunate to escape being crushed by the crowds eager to view their patron saint of music, still cloaked in golden cloth. Maderno recorded this miracle by sculpting a realistic depiction of her body for the altar. But her actual body was reinterred elsewhere in the church.

The Mister is wise. A sign on the left side of the church offered entrance to the basement for a couple of euros, and he said, “Never turn down an invitation to visit the crypt.” And he proved so right.

Down underneath the church are ancient crypts and the remains of an old tannery, but then you stumble into a magical space. Arcades and walls covered with glittering mosaics heralding Saint Cecilia’s final resting place.

The Mister’s fingers seem to be gliding across his travel guitar’s strings more effortlessly ever since.

 

Postcard from Puebla, Mexico: Saints to answer any prayer

Not only is there a church on almost every corner in Puebla, but they are filled with saints to meet almost every need imaginable.

One often reads about the fall in the number of Catholics in Mexico, but maybe many simply don’t have time to devote attending a full Mass. Leave a church unlocked during the day, and there is always someone dropping by for a quick prayer for help with some difficulty encountered in life.

Catholicism in Mexico, or in all of South America and Europe, is a totally different animal from the religion of my childhood. I find myself mesmerized by the magical mysticism permeating their churches.

Sure we had incense wafting about at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at Star of the Sea, but, beyond that, things were pretty tame. There were Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s offered aplenty. But, when we were growing up, we pretty much missed out on the more than 10,000 saints hovering above waiting to answer our prayers.

If I’d only known. I mean, how many times would I have turned to St. Anthony with help locating that lost homework or to St. Jude when I totally missed the teacher telling us about a test? Gladly, I would have parted with every charm on my bracelet if I’d known leaving them as milagros might improve outcomes.

So many people in Puebla pin their hopes on saints, tuck photos of loved ones near their favorites, leave flowers as thanks and light candles to brighten the chance their prayers will be heard.

Miracles might not always arrive, but maybe comfort does. Time alone thinking calmly in a pew might be what’s needed to face life’s everyday challenges.

Certainly viewing a statue of a saint in flames or Jesus suffering from his wounds diminishes the size of one’s own troubles.

Lest you jump to conclusions prematurely, the red guitar balloon was not left by the Mister. Although perhaps that presents a far less dicey alternative to going down to the crossroads.

But, if one is going to place faith in a balloon, of course there’s a saint for that. Bluesmen would best be served by leaving their tributes floating near the harp-bearing hands of Santa Cecilia.