Readers of Rachel Held Evans’ blog, or of her book, A Year Of Biblical Womanhood, will probably have come across the phrase Eshet Chayil. This is a phrase used by the Hebrew scripture to describe a “woman of valour.” There are a number of them throughout the Hebrew scriptures, and Rachel and her friends have begun to use the phrase to describe those women in history and in our own time who have provided leadership by either standing themselves, or encouraging others to stand, against some of the gender stereotyping and manipulation that has been, and still is, rampant in our societies including the church.
Today is Saint Cecilia’s Day in the Anglican and Catholic calendars. Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians. According to legend, Cecilia refused to consummate an arranged marriage because she had taken a vow of virginity. Both her husband and his brother became Christians but were then martyred by the Romans. Cecilia buried the two but was then brought before the Roman authorities and refused to offer the required pagan sacrifice. For this she was eventually beheaded, becoming a martyr herself. An account of this legend included a description of Cecilia singing in her heart during her wedding that she might remain pure – hence the connection with musicians.
Just over a year ago, I went on an Ignatian pilgrimage which included a visit to the Benedictine monastery at Montserrat where there is a Black Madonna. As visitors approach the shrine of the Black Madonna they are taken through a staircase on either side of which are mosaic images of female saints which include people like Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen and, yes, Saint Cecilia – all women who made a significant contribution to the spiritual life of the church of their own day and whose influence continues to resound in our own 21st century to rpovide an example and inspirition to women and men alike. This passageway is beautiful, it glows with a golden light and makes a fitting approach to the icon of Mary, the mother of Our Lord.
So today, I want to pronounce Saint Cecilia as eshet chayil, a woman of valour. And in celebration of this I am looking forward this afternoon to joining Octave, a choir of male and female priests from our diocese, as we rehearse for our concert at Emmanuel Church in Loughborough this Saturday, 24th November.
Happy Saint Cecilia’s Day!