Phrases and Shapes in Two Languages: Hail Mary, Ave Maria

maria_gravida_or_mary_at_the_spinning_wheel_from_nemetujvar_c-1410_hungarian_galleryThe other night, I got to praying/playing around with the Hail Mary in both English and Latin, and found some interesting differences in shape.

Here’s the traditional text, as every English-speaking Catholic child learns it:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed 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.

The line breaks represent the typical phrasing when it is recited.

Most Catholic children learn this prayer when they are very young. It may not be until later that we learn to recognize the scriptural origin of the first half of the prayer.

The angel appeared to Mary, and said to her:saint_gabriel_-_stained_glass_window_in_the_cloisters_of_chester_cathedral

Hail Mary, full of grace: the LORD is with you.

Her cousin Elizabeth, who was great with child in her old age as the angel had foretold, greeted her and said:

Blessed are you among all women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

Because of the last phrase of the prayer, many Catholics say a Hail Mary when they hear a siren or see an ambulance; and of course it is traditional to pray at the bedside of someone who is dying.

Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death,
Amen.

So I’m starting to see this shape, here: downward (angel from God), parallel (Elizabeth to Mary), upward (soul to heaven).

And then I decided to start praying it in Latin.

I had a couple of years of Latin in high school. It gave me enough background in the language that the Latin texts I sang in choir are reasonably comprehensible to me, so I’m actually reading the Latin, not just sounding it out. Here’s how it reads in Latin, with line breaks again indicating the phrasing that is natural to me when I recite it.

Ave Maria, gratia plena,
Dominus tecum.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
et benedictus fructus ventris tui,
Jesus.
Sancta Maria, mater Dei,
ora pro nobis,
peccatoribus,
nunc et in hora mortis nostrae,
Amen.

The first thing I noticed is that the three-beat cadence of those first three phrases rhymes perfectly. A-ve ma-RI-a, GRA-ti-a PLE-na, DO-mi-nus TE-cum. Hail, Mary, grace-filled, God-with-you.

What struck me in the next line was the phrase in mulieribus. It may simply be my unfamiliarity with the language, but somehow that phrase conveys much more of a sense of solidarity, of withness, than the English: in among the women instead of out of all women. It struck me as the same kind of withness as Immanuel, God-with-us. (That’s the same imma as immanence.)

With benedictus fructus ventris tui phrasally separated from Jesus, my attention rested more on fruit than it does in English. (In English, we race to the end of the line and no one really wants to be thinking about wombs anyway so let’s get to Jesus already.) As I prayed it repeatedly, fructus ventris started to conceptually morph into fructus vitae, the fruit of one’s life. Don’t we all hope and pray that our lives bear good fruit, as Mary’s did?

In Latin, Jesus occupies an entire line. Not only that, it’s the central line of the piece. In biblical poetry, the central line is often the position of most significance; often as the central point to which the first part flows and from which the second part flows (rather in the way that the eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Christian life, come to think of it!). What occupies this central position should condition the reading of the entire piece.

This is the best evidence I’ve seen for the idea that when we pray the Hail Mary, we are praying to Christ through Mary.

The next Latin line is the one that first caught my theological attention years ago. What you have to know here is that the word for holy and the word for saint are, in Latin, different forms of the same word. This is highlighted in some of the older liturgical forms of the Mass: when the priest lifts up the consecrated bread and wine before distributing them, the invitation he speaks is Sanctos sanctis: holy things for the holy people.

So when you pray the Litany of the Saints in Latin, you pray

Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis
Sancte Petre, ora pro nobis

and so on.

And of course, when you are talking about several saints with the same first name, you typically elaborate the names so they are distinct. For example,

Saint Teresa of Avila, pray for us
Saint Theresa of Lisieux, pray for us
Saint John the Baptist, pray for us
Saint John the Evangelist, pray for us

Given that context, what does this sound like to you?

Sancta Maria Mater Dei, ora pro nobis
Saint Mary Mother of God, pray for us

as distinct from Saint Mary Magdalen, or Saint Mary MacKillop, or Saint Mary of Egypt.

In Latin, this line doesn’t reverentially emphasize Mary’s holiness and her singular status as the Mother of God. In Latin, this line invokes her as one of the saints.

The Latin word peccatoribus is so much more substantive than the English word sinners. It takes longer to say, peh-cah-TOR-ee-boos; and because the previous line carries its own sense of completeness, matching an invocation of the Litany of Saints, peccatoribus stands on its own, in the central location of the final part of the prayer. Saint Mary Mother of God, pray for us who are sinners, because we are sinners, who need your prayers because we are sinners.

Having placed Mary among the saints in the previous line, the “hour of our death” makes me think of the ancient tradition, beginning with the veneration of the early Christian martyrs, that honors the day someone died as the day of their birth into heaven.

And that ties the end of this prayer back to its beginning, as the angel greets Mary to tell her that she will bear a child: a heavenly Child born to earth, to walk among us, then return to heaven, opening the way for us to follow.

Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death,
Amen.

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4 Responses to Phrases and Shapes in Two Languages: Hail Mary, Ave Maria

  1. kategladstone says:

    Re: “Immanuel, God-with-us. (That’s the same imma as immanence.)” —

    Since the “imma” of “Immanuel” is the Hebrew word for “with” plus one-third of the Hebrew suffix for “us” — “imm-anu-el” = “with-us-God” — please help me understand how you decided it was the same as the “imma” of “immanence” which came from Latin “immanentia” which came from “in-“ + “manere.” Since the “in-/im-“ means “in” as in English, and “manere” means “abide, remain,” I’m struggling to understand how fragmenting two syllables out of something in Latin makes it “the same” as fragmenting two syllables out of a different something in Hebrew. So, please clarify how to come to the conclusion you reached — because I do not know how to reach it myself.

    • I’m sorry, you’re quite right, Kate: I was misled by the conceptual rhyme of “withness” in both words, and the coincidental similarity in spelling. Thanks for pointing that out.

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