Skip to content

Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy

December 11, 2015

(A close read of a traditional Catholic prayer, cross posted from Gaudete Theology)

In honor of this past tuesday’s feast of the Immaculate Conception, which opens the Jubilee Year of Mercy, I thought I would do a close read of this traditional Catholic prayer, also known as the Salve Regina.

If you only know the version in the hymnal, or its delightfully joyful rendition from Sister Act, then this will be new to you. The prayer is not a triumphal hymn of praise; it is, instead, a lament. And, I argue, a lament that deliberately counterposes Mary with Eve.

Here is the entire prayer as I learned it in childhood; it is this version I’ll be reading, rather than the original Latin.

Hail Holy Queen, Mother of mercy,
Our life, our sweetness, and our hope.
To thee do we cry,
poor banished children of Eve;
To thee do we lift up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, most gracious advocate,
thine eyes of mercy towards us,
and after this, our exile,
show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, o loving, o sweet Virgin Mary:
Pray for us, o holy Mother of God,
that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Now, my Protestant friends may already find their teeth set on edge at line 2, and I confess I too would be more comfortable addressing Jesus as Life, Sweetness, and Hope than Mary. I wondered, in fact, if this line should actually be interpreted as a continuation of the previous phrase, thus addressing Mary as “Mother of (Mercy, Life, Sweetness, and Hope).” I went so far as to check the original Latin, but it’s clear from the grammar that these images are indeed being used of Mary. Perhaps for your own comfort you may make that adaptation as we proceed; but we will come back to this line later.

So, a quick overview: Mary’s in heaven, we’re on earth, woe is us, because we all got kicked out of the Garden of Eden and that’s why life is so miserable. We ask Mary to mercifully intercede for us so we can get to heaven, too.

A quick sidebar for non-Catholic readers: our tradition has it that at the end of her life Mary was translated (“assumed”) bodily into heaven (the feast of the Assumption you may have heard of), because God would not suffer the body that bore and nursed him to decay. As the mother of God, she is honored more highly than any other creature, even the angels, and is thus called the queen of heaven or queen of angels. (Jesus of course is not a creature, being fully divine as well as fully human, “born of the Father before all ages . . . consubstantial with the Father” per the Christology declared at the Council of Nicaea.) Thus Mary is as bodily in heaven as we are bodily on earth, and the two realms in this text are solidly counterposed.

To thee do we cry,
poor banished children of Eve

Why do we cry to Mary? Because we — fallen humanity — are children of Eve and heirs to her punishment, thrown out of the Garden which was barred against us. So we might as well be motherless… except that from the cross, Jesus gave us — the church — Mary as our mother, in the gospel of John. So we cry to Mary as our mother instead.

To thee do we lift up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.

I’m hearing a riff on psalm 121 here, at least in English: we don’t even lift up our eyes, we’re so despondent; only our sighs waft up to Mary as we grieve here below.

The image of this life as a valley of tears and a time of exile from our true home which is in heaven is fairly common in the tradition, and I grew up understanding this text in that very general theological sense. But I find that it really does work as a very specific prayer of lamentation, for those who are quite literally mourning and weeping because they have lost someone. It is particularly the losses to death that make this world a valley of tears, after all.

Turn then, most gracious Advocate,
thine eyes of mercy towards us

Here it becomes a specifically intercessory prayer: by addressing Mary as Advocate it is clear that we ask her to intercede on our behalf. (Why do we ask Mary to pray for us? John’s gospel again — go reread the story of the wedding at Cana. It’s Mary who notices that they’re running out of wine, and nudges Jesus to do something about it.)

and after this our exile
show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

No Catholic can hear this line without hearing echoes of the Hail Mary: its first half encapsulates Gabriel’s and Elizabeth’s exchanges with Mary, and its second half asks Mary to pray for us both now and as we are dying.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women, and blest is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

We covered the end of our exile as the end of this life when we return to our true home, so that’s the first layer of resonances here. But there’s another.

We have Eve mentioned a few lines up. Now, juxtapose “Eve” and “fruit”, and what comes to mind? Uh-huh – that other fruit.

It’s common in Catholic tradition to counterpose Eve and Mary, especially in light of the doctrine that today’s feast celebrates: that God predestined Mary to be the mother of his son, and therefore preserved her in the womb from the stain of original sin, making her essentially a “pre-Fallen” human, similar to Eve. But this juxtaposition and contrast is generally done pretty literally: Mary’s “yes” redeems Eve’s “no”, Mary’s obedience redeems Eve’s disobedience, and so forth.

I think the author of this text is suggesting a more metaphorical contrast. Whereas Eve showed to Adam the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Mary will show to us the fruit of the Tree of Life: Jesus, whose flesh is life for the world. And whereas Eve picked her fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, Mary bore Jesus just as a tree bears fruit.

Which, poetically, identifies Mary with the Tree of Life.

And thus, perhaps, our life, our sweetness, and our hope.

O clement, o loving, o sweet Virgin Mary

Or in Latin, “O clemens, O pia, O dulcis.” Loving isn’t a very good translation for pia, I don’t think: it’s the root of pious, of piety. This is the last line of the original prayer: it’s a mirror of the first line, which first addresses her and then praises her mercy, and together they make an envelope for the whole piece.

The versicle was added later, and it’s pretty straightforward intercessory prayer:

Pray for us, o holy Mother of God
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Pretty neat, huh? I was fascinated, when I started to look at this text the other night, to see how much more is in there than my initial childhood understanding.

Finally, as a bonus, here is a lovely award-winning video of a skateboarding friar, with the chanted Salve Regina in Latin as its soundtrack. It is a beautiful meditation on incarnate prayer and praise.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2015 2:09 pm

    This is interesting. I understand better how Catholics view Mary. I think reverence for Mary kept Catholicism from some of the worst aspects of Protestant patriarchalism.

  2. December 13, 2015 11:51 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Kristen: it’s an interestingly different perspective on a dynamic that I’ve most often experienced as Mary being presented as a consolation prize for girls, but I do see your point.

    And I hadn’t thought about it before, but on reflection it’s unsurprising that Protestantism, with its strong strand of devaluing the material, would also devalue women: given the classical dualisms and hierarchy that values spiritual/rational/male over material/emotional/female. One can hardly imagine how traditional veneration of Mary could have been retained, once traditional sacramental theology was rejected.

  3. December 14, 2015 12:25 pm

    Good point, Gaudete. Historically, from what I understand, Reformation theology valued marriage over virginity, correcting a then-overbalance in Catholicism to value virginity over marriage. This increased the value and dignity of married women– but the cure was actually worse than the disease, because the Reformation eschewed ALL other roles for women besides domesticity and motherhood. There was no room in Protestantism for Reverend Mothers or St. Theresas.

  4. December 19, 2015 12:40 pm

    Thanks, Victoria.

    I was raised Catholic and left in my college years for Evangelical Protestantism. In middle age, all the theological problems of the latter came at me one after the other. After leaving the Evangelical Wilderness, I migrated to PCUSA in 2000; though I knew that’s not where I would finally end up, it was a good place to stay and serve until things became clearer. I spent a lot of time reading (esp N.T. Wright, deeply) and praying. The door that opened for me – out of left field, to mix metaphors – was that of Eastern Orthodoxy, and I was flabbergasted that I found there what I had already come to believe in my wanderings.

    I had to work through a couple of things, one of which was devotion to Mary; strangely, I already felt warm toward many other Saints, but I had too much Protestant baggage with regard to Mary. On the journey, a friend (also raised and educated Catholic but who went directly to EO without the Protestant detour) recommended that I pray the Hail Holy Queen regularly. At that point, I could do so with a clear conscience. As I did, the devotion to Mary came along with it, and I understood why. There’s a different angle to it in EO than in RC, which I don’t need to get into on your post. Suffice it to say that the prayer holds a very important place as a bridge on my pilgrimage.

    I agree with Karen’s and your further remarks re the relation of the rejection of sacramental theology to bad Protestant theology regarding women.


  5. December 20, 2015 4:20 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Dana! Interestingly enough, although I am a lifelong Catholic, I too have found at least one aspect of the Eastern Orthodox approach to Mary helpful in resolving my complicated relationship with her. As a Catholic girl growing up in the 60s and 70s, I was both scandalized by my mother’s “co-redemptrix” language for Mary, and oppressed by the way in which Mary was wielded in the pulpit, hymnal, & catechism to prescribe acceptable bounds for women.

    So I approached my first field trip to a Greek Orthodox church with some trepidation about the icon of Mary holding Jesus that I knew would be prominently above the altar. But to my relief and surprise, it didn’t bother me at all; indeed, the imagery that Mary brings us Jesus just as the church brings us the sacraments, and vice versa, and that metaphorical identification of Mary *with* the church to some extent, appealed to my ecclesiological imagination.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: