This post is happening because last week I got linked to an 8tracks playlist about the martyrdom of Saint Cecilia. What an incredible idea! Playlists! For the lives of the saints! Where are the rest?! How do I access them?! Why am I not listening to them right now?! ….Because I’m still not done listening to this glorious medieval electro-goth-folk bullshit, I suppose.
The playlist tells, in the song comments, a condensed version of the legend of Saint Cecilia. The story – involving marriage to an angel, a teleporting pope, and at least two postponed martyrdoms – was gripping enough that I went and looked up the lady herself. SAINT OF GAME: GO.
Cecilia, like so many saints, very likely did not exist. The historical record is vague, and her legend simply too… legendary to hold water. However, if she did live, then her martyrdom would have been in the first half of the third century, in Rome. Nowadays she’s the patroness of musicians. My personal connection to her, despite my personal connection to so much of church music, is vague – when I hear her name, I associate her with the only boy in my Confirmation class to take a female saint as his patron. He played in a metal band. He had long, long hair and was a very good guitarist. No one gave him shit for taking the name Cecilia.
Cecilia, catching some music lessons from an angel who
lugged that viol all the way down from Heaven (source.)
Funnily enough, it’s not clear whether Cecilia was a musician. The connection comes from a line from one of her biographies about how she sang to God in her heart, during her wedding to the Stock Roman Douchebag, Valerian. In fact, there are multiple prayers that begin O Holy Saint Cecilia, we do not know if you were a musician, but…. Music is what she’s remembered for, but honestly, I think that’s just to give her something for which to stand out. Chastity, and not giving a fuck about weddings and shit, is kind of the centerpiece of Cecilia’s story. Her virginity is her central attribute, as is so often the case among young ladies who decide to give their lives over to the God of all creation in these damn stories.
Or, anyway, this is what I thought before I read about her. Cecilia, it turns out, is a study in the subtle ways we make our ridiculous canon less outright embarrassing. And it’s great.
So! Cecilia was born into a Christian family. When she was old enough to be married, she was paired off with a guy called Valerian, a Roman pagan. Upon being led into the wedding-chamber and disrobed, she informed him that, sorry, but she was engaged to an angel, who would rain down destruction on anyone else who tried to touch her – and see, normally, this is the end! This is the martyrdom! “WHAT,” roars the Stock Roman Douchebag, “YOU DO NOT WANT YOUR VIRGINITY VIOLATED? WE WILL NAIL YOU UPSIDE DOWN TO A LION RIGHT NOW,” and that is it for our noble virgin. However, Valerian is not your Stock Roman Douchebag – his reaction, as a gods-fearing pagan, was to ask if he could see the angel.
Cecilia told him he could, if he would go to a certain milestone along a major road and meet the Pope. I don’t know how she got the Pope to just show up on the road, here; it’s not specified why the Pope would do that, or how he knew that there would be a pagan to convert there on that particular day, but! Valerian made the hike, found that the Pope was in fact there, converted, and returned to Cecilia, whereupon her angel fiance appeared to them both and gave them flower crowns. Seriously.
Now, Valerian having failed in his role as the Stock Roman Douchebag, another sprang up to take his place: Namely, his equally-pagan brother, Tiburtius, who I guess was unhappy about the fact that his brother had converted to Christianity and sworn off sex forever and now traveled the countryside with his beaming wife wearing a flower crown and washing the feet of beggars. Again: This SHOULD have been a martyrdom. Tiburtius should have come upon them and torn Cecilia off her husband– he should have brought guards with him! Roman Douchebags in little leather skirts!– and had her beheaded right there, after failing to make her swear to sacrifice to Minerva or some shit. That’s how this goes.
…Except in this case. Valerian and Cecilia, between them, converted Tiburtius; and the story continues with the three of them traveling the countryside wearing flower crowns and washing the feet of beggars.
ENTER: THE THIRD STOCK ROMAN DOUCHEBAG. Turcius Almachius, hearing what these two gods-fearing pagans had done, condemned the both of them to death, and dispatched his leather-skirted toady, Maximus, to get the job done. Maximus, upon finding the three flower-crownéd saints…. put down his sword and also converted. (I have to imagine Turcius Almachius’ expression upon hearing about this – I’m disappointed that more people don’t paint that part of the story.) This makes the third time a major martyrdom trope was subverted in this one story, and now Cecilia had this wonderful team of cheerful men in flowers crowns following her around, as well as an angel boyfriend – I’ll be real, I’d be singing in my heart, too, and I think most of Tumblr would, as well.
Unfortunately, their luck could not hold. Following Maximus were more Stock Roman Douchebags, equally leather-skirted but more committed to their jobs, and Valerian and Tiburtius and Maximus were all martyred together – presumably, Cecilia was not present, or she would have started fielding her own converted army and this story would have had a much different ending. (I picture Turcius Almachius delivering orders to his troops, handing out primitive earplugs – “She starts talking about Jesus, you put those in, you put those right in, do you hear me–“)
Their martyrdoms were not particularly metal – but as though to make up for the fact that she’d dodged three different Catholic Narrative Bullets in her lifetime, Cecilia’s was lengthy and gruesome in a way befitting only the most beloved of saints. First, she was condemned to be suffocated in her own bath, a punishment that apparently involved putting her into a sauna until she died of overheating; but this failed, and so they decided to behead her instead. The prefect assigned to do this made three attempts, and failed at every single one – the source I have says nothing about the parallel to Cecilia’s three major conversions, but I choose to believe that the parallel TOTALLY EXISTS – and they left her bleeding and partially-beheaded on the floor of her house. She lived for three goddamn days – another three!! I’m not imagining this!! – in which time she asked that her house be made into a church, because apparently, despite being nearly headless, she still had her priorities straight, and at least half a functioning windpipe. Metal.
But– look. Real talk, here, guys. I like Cecilia. I like Cecilia’s story, much more than I thought I would. In the end, I think it is Cecilia who lives at the center of her own story – not her virginity. Her story is wrapped up in her femininity, it’s true – but her virginity is used more as a device to take the focus off of her sexuality than to make it the center of the narrative. You could be a saint back then for no other reason than dying a virgin for a religious reason, but this is very obviously not Cecilia’s role – her continued chastity has little to do with her accomplishments following her conversion of Valerian.
She is not Joan of Arc. She breaks no major boundaries. She conquers no armies. But she is fascinating to me, as a woman in the presence of whom violence and anger and doubt simply can’t exist. Every sword raised against her falls from numb fingers to the floor. Every attack made on her character slips off her without gaining purchase. Accounts say that when men came against her in anger – Valerian, Tiburtius, Maximus – their anger didn’t seem to touch her; she was so happy, so confident, so calm, that it inspired nothing but a longing in others to find in themselves what made her that way. Angels don’t swoop from the sky to defend her; nature doesn’t bend to her will; her power is all in herself. Her bevy of flower-crownéd men exist only as proof of her goodness.
I find that narrative powerful. I find Cecilia powerful. I find this playlist absolutely fucking baller.
PLEASE GO LISTEN TO THIS PLAYLIST, GUYS