O Clement, O Loving, O Sweet – Mary in the Salve Regina

The Deposition or "The Florence Pieta", Michaelangelo

The Deposition or “The Florence Pieta”, Michaelangelo

As a complement to last Thursday’s meditation on the sigh at the heart of the “Hail Holy Queen” (Salve Regina), today let us consider the prayer’s portrayal of Mary. We can learn much about her, both as our advocate and as our mother, by leaning on these beautiful words.

The final sighs are perhaps the most telling. Just as the whole prayer revolves around sighing for the sight of Jesus, so the ending has the three beautiful “oh’s”: “O clement, o loving, o sweet virgin Mary! Pray for us!” The final word to Mary is nothing but that sigh.

And yet the sigh is couched about with descriptors, and they are very rich.


First, “o clement.” Clement is not a word we use much anymore. The only place I can think of is that when a Governor takes someone off death row, it’s called “clemency,” I think. That’s not a bad place, though, to look for the meaning of the word.

In Latin, clementia means not punishing someone even when they deserve it. To appeal to Mary’s clemency is to say we do not deny that we sin, do not claim that God owes it to us to let us see Jesus. To the contrary, we acknowledge that we are “children of Eve,” caught up in this world of sin.

But neither do we grovel. The way the Salve Regina speaks of sin is as an exile, and it begs for help. Get me out of here! Not out of this world, but out of my sin. Help! Consider not what I deserve: just love me.


The central word for Mary in the Salve Regina is “mercy.” “Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy . . . turn then thine eyes of mercy toward us.” Mother of Mercy, I think, is about the hardest phrase imaginable in Catholic theology. What does it mean to call Mary “Mother of Mercy”? She is merciful – but even more, Mercy himself is her Son. We need to lean into this, to think hard about what it means that Mercy himself came that close to us. But we need also to tread lightly, lest we flatten the mystery. The Salve Regina is a gentle meditation on Mary’s involvement in the Mercy of Jesus.

We see her first as the clement mother, she who does not punish.


But then the prayer takes us a step further: “O loving.” The word in Latin is pia. It’s one of the most fabulous ideas in the Latin mind . . . but we just don’t have it in English. Pietas does not mean pity, nor does it mean piety – though in a moment perhaps you will see how it is related to both. Pietas is “family feeling.” It means treating your father like your father, your mother like your mother, your son or daughter like your own child.

In a technical definition, St. Thomas says it is justice as it relates to family. I’m not going to try to unravel that, except to say, we need not be unjust to other people in order to recognize that our family has special claims on us, deserves a special something. In fact, we would undermine the deepest meaning of justice as right relation if we didn’t embrace those family relationships.

In Michelangelo’s Pietà, that’s what Mary is experiencing . . . .

Rondanini Pieta, Michaelangelo

Rondanini Pieta, Michaelangelo

We take, then, a step deeper in our understanding of the Mother of Mercy when we say she is not just clement, she is pia. Indeed, she is clement because she is pia: we are spared punishment, given another chance, because we are family. We needn’t say Mary is our mother to say that, when we stand beside her at the Cross of Christ, we become family, and we gain a special affection. Indeed, this is the deepest meaning of calling Mary mother.


And so, in fact, the prayer takes a step further. To be truly pia is not only to be clement, but to be sweet. A loving mother, or sister, or any kind of family member goes far beyond just sparing punishment. A loving family is sweet to one another, helps one another. This is the deepest meaning of mercy: not just clemency, but sweetness, because of pietas.

That is why Mary is our life, our sweetness, and our hope: because she bespeaks the mystery of Jesus becoming family. Mother and mercy are intimately intertwined. A mother is merciful – sweetly merciful, not just sparing but praying for us, and keeping her eye on us. And when Mercy himself takes our sister as his mother, the sweetness truly reaches to the depths of God.


How do you experience, and live pietas: with Jesus, with your own family, and with Jesus’s family?

Eia Ergo –The Sigh of the Hail, Holy Queen

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

Our Lady of Altoetting, oldest Marian shrine in Germany

Our Lady of Altoetting, oldest Marian shrine in Germany

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.