St. Cecilia at the Organ by Carlo Dolci.
I love this story so much that I have to tell it again.
Today is my birthday, and it is also the feast of St. Cecilia, a martyr who lived about two hundred years after Christ, and the patroness of musicians. I have a unique history with this woman, and with each passing year she grows dearer to me. The story I love to tell is the story of how we met.
On Christmas Eve of 1991 I attended Midnight Mass with my friend Keith, who was home from seminary in England. It was the first time I ever attended Mass with any openness to worship, although I was still very edgy and skeptical entering Catholic territory. We went to this Mass with two friends of Keith's, and other friends joined us later. I am quite sure they all prayed for me, because I had been trying to pick a fight with my friend Keith about his newly re-discovered Catholicism ever since he left the charismatic fellowship where I'd met him. Really, I was grilling him to hear his defense of his decision. But instead of arguing, he kept encouraging me to read and pray, and I had been doing just that for the better part of 1991.
So, there we were at Mass. One of his friends asked when my birthday was, and I told her: November 22. The group of them all tried to remember who was celebrated that day, but they couldn't. It really seemed to frustrate them.
The Mass that night completely changed my life. It deserves a post of its own, but the two intense movements in that Mass were the penitential rite and the distribution of Holy Communion. At the penitential rite, towards the beginning, what I saw was the priest leading his people, the Catholics, in confessing their sin. I was so convicted. My heart cried out "Lord, they are not the ones who need to repent -- I am. I have insulted them and belittled them for so long!" And at the distribution of Holy Communion I was suddenly struck with the reality that the One on the altar was none other than Jesus Christ. It was a complete shock to me. I never in my wildest dreams imagined meeting Jesus Christ in a Catholic church.
For three days I was too shocked to pray or touch what had happened with my mind. But finally it was as if the Lord was tapping me on the shoulder, saying "I'll be right over here on the couch when you're ready to talk." (That was my favorite prayer spot.) As soon as I tried to pray, the Lord challenged me to follow Him just where He had shown me He was, in the Catholic Church. I countered with my confusion about this one doctrine I just couldn't handle: intercession and veneration of the saints. I really didn't understand how honoring human beings and asking them to pray (they were dead, after all!) didn't detract from the worship of God. The Lord made it clear that His question to me was whether or not I would follow Him. And He knew the answer. As utterly weird as His proposal seemed, I knew I could not live without Him. That night I gave Him my heart in this completely new way.
The next day, now December 27th, was my grandmother's funeral, so I did not go to work. The first thing I did that morning was go to the Catholic bookstore to buy a breviary. As I looked around the store, I was drawn as by a magnet to the section where all of the saint stuff was. I suddenly remembered the consternation of Keith's friends several nights before when they couldn't remember who was the saint on November 22. I grabbed a book and paged through. I found the date, and I read "St. Cecilia, Patroness of Musicians." My eyes ran with tears. For the first time ever in my life, I knew a very real reassurance that my life was not a mistake, a goof, an unfortunate accident. I thought, "Maybe, just maybe, God has a plan and my life has a meaning." It was as if heaven held its breath, waiting for this moment when I, who couldn't handle the veneration of the saints, was met by not only the one honored on the day of my birth, but who prays for and assists those who have a passion for music, as I did then and do now. It was no small thing for me to give up the musical community I left to become Catholic. But when I "met" St. Cecilia on that December morning, she was like the advance runner of all the host of heaven and all believers on earth who came to embrace me and welcome me into the family of the Church, and to introduce me to so many others.
And I am so, so grateful.
St. Cecilia, I love you! Pray for us!