The Salve Regina, or Hail Holy Queen, is the most effusive and poetic prayer of the rosary. This is because it was originally a hymn to our Lady, composed most probably in eleventh century Germany. Quickly it became the practice of religious orders such as the Cistercians and the Dominicans to sing the Salve Regina at the end of their night prayers, known as Compline. The members of these orders would chant the Psalms, as part of their Divine Office (today often called the Liturgy of the Hours). Since for many centuries the majority of the laity were illiterate, they could not pray the Psalms. Instead, they began to recite the Hail Mary one hundred and fifty times, in honor of the one hundred and fifty Psalms. This practice was the origin of the rosary as we know it today. And just as the monks, nuns, and friars would chant the Salve at the end of their daily psalter, so it became the practice of those reciting the rosary to recite the Salve when their prayers were complete.
This prayer is very rich, and deserving of a much fuller treatment that I am capable of providing here. In fact, you can find such a treatment in St. Alphonsus Ligouri's The Glories of Mary, a large portion of which is a commentary on the Hail Holy Queen. Here I simply want to break down the Salve into its four component sentences, and offer some reflections on each one.
"Hail, Holy Queen, our life, our sweetness, and our hope!" We turn to Mary and address her by four titles. I want to save my reflections on Mary's queenship for the last mystery of the rosary, so let me look at the other three. When we call Mary our life, what do we mean? Certainly she is not our life the way that her Son is; we must always be careful to remember that their is an infinite gap between Mary and her Son, the way that there is between any creature and God. Often our Protestant brothers and sisters get nervous when we seem to confuse Mary's role and power with that of Jesus, and rightly so. Mary is our life because we love her, because she inspires us, because she enlivens us, not because she is the source of our life. She is our sweetness because we rejoice in the beauty of her virtue and humility and gentleness. She is our hope because she faithfully prays for us, because she cares for us and loves us, because she will not abandon us. Most of all, she is our life, our sweetness, and our hope because she once gave us her Son, and leads us to Jesus now. And it is Jesus who is our life and the source of our life; Jesus who is the wellspring of all delight and sweetness; Jesus who is both our reason for hope and the object of our hope. Like John the Baptist, Mary is so great because she points to one greater than herself.
"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." From the time of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who was taught by John the Evangelist, we have referred to Mary as the New Eve, the one who cooperates in the new creation, just as her Son is the New Adam. In fact, we see this already strongly hinted at in John's Gospel itself: Mary is always called "Woman" by Jesus, and never by her name. Since John's Gospel has so many literary links to the first three chapters of Genesis, it is not wrong to see here an echo of when Adam turned to Eve and called her "Woman." Jesus points out his mother's dignity by equating her with Eve, the mother of all the living. But since it was through Eve's sin that all the living were cast into a world of fear, of sin, of suffering, and of death, we rightly turn to Mary, the New Eve, lifting up our eyes from the world that is at once so beautiful and so painful, and ask her to pity us, and help us to return once again to Paradise.
"Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us, and, after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus." We call Mary our Advocate! You might not thrill at such daring. But consider this: in Greek, the word for advocate is Paraclete. We are implying that Mary shares in a real way in the work of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. Of all human people, Mary is the one who was most filled with the Holy Spirit, who received the greatest outpouring of the Holy Spirit, who was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. Her docility and meekness allowed the Holy Spirit to paint his self-portrait upon her. He is Love; she is loving. He is Grace; she is full of grace. He is the Gift of God; she is given to us by God as he lay dying on the Cross. The Holy Spirit intercedes for us, for we do not know how to pray as we ought; Mary intercedes for us, because our prayers are so distracted and frail. The Holy Spirit is the Counselor, the Advocate, the Paraclete, a divine defense attorney; as many saints have testified, Mary too, filled with the Spirit, pleads our case before God, asking him to show us mercy, and so we ask for her to pray for us at the hour of our death. As New Eve, Mary shares in the work of her Son; as Advocate, Mary shares in the work of the Spirit.
"O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary: pray for us, O most holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ." Our heart surges up with devotion in this last movement, as we remember Mary's mercy, her love, and her sweet gentleness. It is right that our heart be moved with love for Mary, even though she is only a woman, because she is the greatest of all God's creatures. We do God honor by honoring Mary, the highest and best of all his works. If we do not love her we dishonor him. It would be worse than hating the light of the sun, despising the beauty of a rainbow, or denigrating the majesty of the holy angels. God made all of these things; by appreciating them we honor him. And higher than them all stands the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Moreover, she cooperated in our salvation by freely choosing to bear the Savior of the world. Because of that consent, though she did not save us herself, yet she was intimately involved in our salvation, and instrumental to it. Therefore, as St. Bonaventure says, having devotion to any other saint is optional; having devotion to Mary is required by strict justice. The other saints may or may not inspire us; Mary has participated in the salvation of every single one of us, and in a way that no other creature has. We are required by divine law and justice itself to be grateful to Mary, and to love her. And so when our hearts grow cold, when our love seems thin, we can turn to the poetry of the Salve Regina and let our hearts be lifted up to devotion - because such devotion to Mary is simply right.