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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Where did that Prayer Come From?

One of the most beloved Marian Prayers after the Angelic Salutation is the antiphon known by its opening words in Latin: Salve Regina, Hail Holy Queen. Those who pray the Rosary regularly know it by heart:

Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy
Hail, 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
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
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary

I recall when I was still a Lutheran pastor, this prayer came up in discussion with an Orthodox priest friend who eventually chrismated me. He had been brought up in a devout Catholic family, praying the Rosary every evening. He told me that from his present Orthodox point of view this prayer was impregnated with a Latin spirit, evident in the tone of "mourning and weeping in this valley of tears," and in an exaggerated emphasis on the Blessed Virgin as the merciful Advocate for sinners.

Among Eastern Catholics there is also disdain for the use of such prayers as the Salve Regina, since it is thought to be of Latin origin. Latinization is a sensitive subject among Catholics of the Byzantine rite. The question is often asked indignantly: Do we not have sufficient --and even superior -- devotions to the Theotokos in our own tradition, that we need to borrow from the West?

Hence it came as a welcome surprise to learn that the Salve Regina is not of Latin origin at all. My pastor recently gave me a copy of An Anthology of Patristic Prayers, compiled and translated by Nikolaos S. Hatzinikolaou. The Anthology ascribes the authorship of this prayer to Saint Isaac the Syrian, a seventh century bishop of Ninevah and one of the great ascetical teachers of the Church, who greatly influenced Saint Symeon the New Theologian and the Russian Mystics as well.

Here is Saint Issac's prayer as translated by Hatzinikolaou:

A Prayer to the Most Blessed Virgin

Rejoice! O Lady, Mother of mercy,
life, sweetness and our hope, rejoice!
To you we cry, the children of Eve in exile.
Upon you we gaze,
groaning and wailing in this valley of lamentation.
Wherefore, go ahead, our defender,
turn your compassionate eyes to us
and with this look show us Jesus
the blessed fruit of your womb,
O sweet Virgin Mary

Who could deny that this is substantially identical to the Salve Regina? Even though the translator has taken pains to choose different wording in places, we clearly see this is the same prayer.

According to Anthony Mazzone in a recent article in The Remnant (New Wine and Old, A Meditation on the Poetics of the Latin Rite, November 15, 2008), the author of the Salve Regina was most likely Hermann Contractus "the Cripple" who died in 1054. However, we know that Saint Isaac the Syrian flourished in the seventh centry. There can be no doubt then, that Hermann translated St. Isaac's prayer to Our Lady from Syriac into Latin, though not in a slavish manner, and making some notable improvements in doing so.

This is just one example of many treasures of prayer, that have blossomed in the West, but came originally from the East. Indeed, a case can be made that all the prayers of the Rosary, and the Rosary itself, are of eastern origin. Do we then intend to exalt one side of the Church at the expense of the other? Let it not even be suggested! Rather, by making such examinations we intend to show how the Christian East and West compliment one another, need one another, and must learn to appreciate our common heritage; the heritage of all the children of Our Lady, the blessed Mother of God.

1 comment:

Deborah said...

I had no idea the Salve Regina had its origins in the Christian East!