TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog


Tomorrow, November 22, Christians celebrate the Feast of St. Cecilia. In the late seventeenth century, the Roman martyr Cecilia became the focus for a strange cult concerning the relation between music and religion. The cult was most manifest in England where it was associated with the foundation of the Three Choirs Festival and a tradition of preaching sermons on Cecilia’s Day in defense of sacred music.

What is the significance for us of the saint who sang divine praises in the sudatorium that was being used as her torture chamber? Perhaps it is that worship, or praise of the divine, is the goal of life. The idea that we live in order to worship might suggest a suspension of life for the sake of pious performances. This need not follow, though, since according to the Psalmist the seas and the hills praise God simply by being themselves (Ps. 98). If the point of existence is to worship, it seems that it is equally true that worship is not an extrinsic task we perform, but consists in authentic existence. Prayer is not something other from us which we take up and put down. It is our very incorporation into the cosmos. This perhaps sounds a little individualistic. However, we can only be ourselves in relation to everything else, and our own harmonious living depends always upon the actions and responses of other people. Not only that, but we develop by borrowing and adapting each other’s rhythms. Human history is a kind of perpetual modulation. This does not mean that life is necessarily harmonious or that we simply tune in to the cosmic vibes. To the contrary, the prime tonal mixture of human life constantly blends sorrow with rejoicing. The Gospels tell us that we must accept that sadness and happiness occur for different people at the same time, often with apparent inappropriateness (Mark 14:3–9). It is also true that all rejoicing is haunted by sorrow, while sorrow is sorrowing because it remembers occasions of delight.

In these ways, our life in space and time is a kind of inhabited music. But here we encounter something rather strange. For music contradicts itself; it seems impossibly to combine pure flow with the clear and articulated presence of individual notes or harmonies and retained melodious sequences. Music does not stand still for a single moment, and before we have had time to absorb a phrase, we must attend to what follows it. Yet despite this relentlessness we are able to apprehend notes as resounding with a kind of discrete delay, and as recalling or anticipating other notes. Without this strange relay of recollection and anticipation, we would not hear music at all. How is it that flux and presence can so combine? And there is something else which confounds us: how is it that silence and sound can be blended, in such a way that silence, which is nothing, enables us to hear sound, which is something? St. Augustine thought that this strange distension of music discloses to us the nature of time itself. It reveals how, through time, being is constantly drawn out of non-being by the lure of eternity. Our human temptation is to seek something beyond the pleasures of this real temporal music. We might try to prise singular notes from their sequence and enthrone them as absolute stable possessions for our private delectation. We forget that they only hold their nature in combination with other notes, and that, in a certain way, all the notes are always present through recollection and anticipation, even when they seem to be absent. By substituting ownership for the pleasures of passage, we lose both time and the echoes of eternity in time.

Belief does not precede worship. If we inhabit life as the mystery of a cosmic music, we are by default creatures who worship and who ascend to God simply by remaining on earth. Dryden contrasted pagan music which raised mortals to the skies with that of Cecilia: “With nature’s mother-wit . . . she drew an angel down.”

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