Hail, Holy Queen is a beautiful medieval hymn, written perhaps by Hermann Contractus, a brilliant monk, crippled from birth (contractus means something like bound up, or handicapped), around the year 1000, at the dawning of a great age of Marian piety. It was adopted by the Dominicans early in the thirteenth century as their prayer at Compline, from whence it has passed both to the end of the rosary and the liturgical end of the day for much of the Church. For many years it was also prayed at the end of Mass.
If you have not heard this beautiful hymn, in both its shorter and its longer, monastic version, please listen here!
Unfortunately, the English translation leaves out a beautiful line, eia ergo! I’ll show where it goes:
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 send up our sighs
Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears
— Eia ergo! Oh! therefore, a sigh! —
Turn then, most gracious advocate,
Thine eyes of mercy toward us
And after this our exile
Show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Oh! clement. Oh! loving. Oh! Sweet Virgin Mary
Pray for us!
Today I would just like to point out the element of sighing.
In the first half of the hymn, we do little but cry out: “To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping.” In the second part, we ask for something . . . but not much. Just remember us, turn thine eyes of mercy toward us – and someday, show us Jesus.
“Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us,” said the Apostle Philip. Jesus responded, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8-9).
The Hail, Holy Queen does little more than give expression – beautiful, emotional expression – to this line from the Gospel. We want nothing but to see Jesus.
And so the turning point of the hymn, the lynchpin, is Eia ergo! Ergo means “therefore”: since we mourn and weep in this valley of tears . . . therefore, what? Therefore eia. Eia is not a word, it is a sound, a cry, a sigh. Like “Oh!” But, a bit more expressive, I think. Try it: eh-yah!
Ultimately, what we sigh for us is to see Jesus: “show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb!” What the hymn does is build up that line, give it expression. We sigh for that line. The hymn adds a gloss, a kind of commentary, or poetic interpretation, to Philip’s line. Not just “Lord, show us the Father,” but “oh, oh, eia!”
In addition, of course, it uses Mary to give greater emotional energy to the cry. The balance of “children of Eve” crying for the “Mother of Mercy” not to forget us; of being “banished” in “this valley of tears,” but praying that we may never be forgotten by those in heaven: “turn thine eyes of mercy toward us!” (And what is it to be poor and banished? Nothing more than not to see Jesus. Who is our most gracious advocate? She who sees Jesus.)
From “show us the Father” we come to a dramatic vision of Jesus (the more emotional, vivid image of the Father), a vivid image of our distance from that vision, a vivid image of our advocate, she who stands close to Jesus, and loves us – and a sigh, a real crying out of longing.
Notice, first, that the medieval tradition is anything but stoic! Jesus is an emotional thing. Longing for heaven is something we are supposed to feel, and sigh for. The medievals love to talk about people crying when they pray. To be sure, we don’t always feel like that. But let us not become too complacent in our unfeeling! Our prayer should be vivid enough, heartfelt enough, that we can sigh, and groan, and weep, for love of God. Prayer should make us say eia!
That doesn’t mean, of course, manufactured crocodile tears. To the contrary, notice also the funny conjunction of words and sighs in this hymn. The end is nothing but a groan, eia, beyond words. But the path to that end is strong, Biblical, Christ-centered words, an intelligent meditation on the sadness of our plight and the goodness of our heavenly friends. The path to real Christian tears is through solid Christian doctrine.