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To thee do we cry

30 November, 1999

Gerald writes: Dear Father, ‘To Thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.’ This passage in the Hail Holy Queen strikes me as depressing. It is little calculated to lift anyone’s spirits. Fr Bernard J McGuckian SJ replies. The prayer in question, known universally by its […]

Gerald writes: Dear Father, ‘To Thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.’ This passage in the Hail Holy Queen strikes me as depressing. It is little calculated to lift anyone’s spirits. Fr Bernard J McGuckian SJ replies.

The prayer in question, known universally by its Latin name, Salve Regina, is a hymn attributed to Hermann the Cripple, a physically handicapped 11th century German with rare poetic and musical genius. For centuries Christians have recited his prayer on completing the five decades of the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

During most of the Liturgical Year it completes Compline, the official Night Prayer of the Church. The final phrase, ‘O Clement, O Loving, O Sweet Virgin Mary’, comes from St. Bernard. He used it spontaneously on hearing a large congregation sing this hymn as he was entering the Cathedral of Spiers. I first heard it sung by one hundred and fifty boys in the College Chapel at St. Malachy’s College, Belfast on my first night as a boarder there, over sixty years ago. I thought I had never heard anything so beautiful in my life. I have had no reason to change my opinion ever since.

No prayer should leave anyone depressed, even in the least. If it does, as it would seem to do in your case, find another one. There are thousands of them. In the Divine Office around Christmas time, the Salve Regina is replaced by Ave Regina Coelorum, a hymn which celebrates Mary as the ‘Gate’ through which the Saviour came to us at Bethlehem. During these days the Liturgy puts on hold the more trying aspects of life implied in the Salve Regina and concentrates on the joyful aspects of salvation, encouraging us to be childlike and playful.

It is reminiscent of what happened at Christmas 1914 during the First World War. Soldiers from both sides decided to forget the horrors of war and fraternize with one another for a few hours, even managing a game of football. It was not long, however, before the harsh realities broke in on them again.

Christian prayer is situated in real life. It may look forward in hope to something else, later on, but it is firmly rooted in the ‘human condition’, in the here and now. This expression, commonly attributed to Andre Malraux, the 20th-century French writer, is shorthand for the situation in which we all find ourselves as human beings.

The author of the Salve Regina, given his disability, was probably more keenly aware than most of the challenges of the ‘human condition’. For him, to make merry and laugh may not have come all that spontaneously. All the evidence, however, indicates that he did not let his disabilities get him down. He accepted the consequences of our banishment from Eden as revealed in Genesis but he believed that this was not the whole story. He was confident that ‘life, sweetness and hope’ are permanently on offer through Mary, the New Eve.

C. C. Martindale, the English Jesuit, observed one time that while not too many people show signs of mourning and weeping at bus stops or on public transport, we all know only too well that a brave exterior can hide much heartbreak and secret tears.

The Salve Regina encourages all of us, in whatever circumstances we may find ourselves, to turn our gaze towards Mary, confident that she will help us find a way out of whatever is causing our tears. She is not a fairy godmother who waves a magic wand causing all our difficulties to disappear. She is more of a real mother, gently nursing her child towards health and wholeness.

We should not always see tears in negative terms. A mystic once said, probably speaking from experience: ‘There are some things that can only be seen through eyes that have been filled with tears.’ This was true of Peter who wept bitterly when he realized how cowardly he had been in denying that he even knew who Jesus was. These tears of sorrow were to lead to his salvation.

Mary Magdalen, that woman of great love, was so distraught at the death of Jesus that her tears blinded her. They even led her to think that Jesus was the resident gardener. Even 2000 years later it is hard not to be moved at her palpable excitement on realizing that it was truly the Risen Jesus that was standing there addressing her by her first name ‘Mary’.

‘After this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus.’ Hermann, like St. Paul, is very clear that we ‘have here no lasting city but seek one that is to come’. He is unapologetic in describing life here in this world as, at best, an exile. But it is not permanent exile. If it were, we would really have something to be depressed about.

Mary first showed the fruit of her womb to Joseph and the shepherds on the night he was born in Bethlehem. Hermann the Cripple encourages all of us to look forward in hope to that tearless day when Mary will lovingly show Him to us and He addresses each one of us by our first name.


This article first appeared in The Messenger (December 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

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