Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Mourning Into Joy
A few years ago, in the first week of my doctoral studies, I came across a fleeting reference in a footnote to the book Mourning Into Joy: Music, Raphael, and Saint Cecilia by Thomas H. Connolly. I immediately knew that I had to read it. I was preparing for Confirmation at the same time (although a cradle Catholic, that sacrament had gone missing during the time of my family's first heady, later sad and sodden, experiments with aggiornamento), and considered taking Saint Cecilia's name as my Confirmation name, for the obvious reason that she is the patroness of music and musicians. But that seemed a little corny to me, and I was unsure. When I read Connolly's book, however, my mind was made up: Cecilia would be my name -- not just because of her association with music, but also because of her much more ancient association with the profoundly Christian concept of mourning turned to joy, and, thus, with radical spiritual conversion. Connolly links the history of Saint Cecilia's portrayal with musical instruments to the history of the iconography of King David: the image of David-in-Penitence, with his crown and harp cast down in mourning for his adultery with Bathsheba and his de facto ordering of her husband Uriah's murder, was a popular one in the Middle Ages, and even Henry VIII had himself painted as David-in-Penitence to advertise his humility. David's life and words, through the Psalter, made up the meat of the early and medieval Church: seven times a day, monastics prayed (and still pray) the Psalms, thus identifying themselves and the Church with a man whose ethos was not only penitence, but even the paradox of complete reversal: David was a shepherd and a king, a "man after God's own heart" who was also a grievous sinner, an unarmed boy who slew a giant, the great musician and poet who sang and danced before the Lord, and the penitent who cast down his harp and crown in grief and recognition. That mysterious paradox of reversal, it seems to me, is essential to the Christian message: the words of Christ in John 16:20 -- "Amen, amen I say to you, that you shall lament and weep, but the world shall rejoice; and you shall be made sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy" -- exemplify this paradox.
While searching for something else, as always seems to be the way, I came upon a lovely post about living the Psalms of David on a blog evocatively called Cloud by Day, Fire by Night, referring the guises under which God led Moses and the Israelites out of Egypt. The blog's author, Kirsten, beautifully emphasizes David's iconography of holy paradox as she writes:
I do not know whether we need to experience the infinity of grief in order to know its counterpart in joy, but I do know this: David’s heart held the breadth of it and did not seek to contain it, this heart that was said to be like God’s own.
And that is truth I can grab onto.
(P.S. Kirsten has images of some of the female Roman martyrs named in the canon of the Mass along the right side of her blog, including Saint Cecilia.)