Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy

In honor of today’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. If your tradition permits, pray it with me now.

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.

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

Updated to add:

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Icon at Tuam Cathedral of the Assumption, County Galway, Ireland. Photo by Andreas F. Borchert

The presider at Mass Tuesday night offered another rationale as to why we cry to Mary. He talked about this icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and noted that in this picture, Jesus has one sandal falling off. Why??

Well, he said, look at the angels holding the instruments of crucifixion. Jesus saw these, and was distressed, and ran to his mother so fast that his sandal started to fall off. If running to Mary for comfort was good enough for Jesus, then it’s good enough for us.

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