When I was in seminary, my classmates and I met in small groups on Friday morning for prayer and reflection. We took turns leading the worship, which was usually some form of Morning Prayer. In the fall of my first year, when it came time for me to lead, I asked my group how they felt about beginning the office with the Angelus. Knowing that this was a part of my own Anglo-Catholic tradition but not necessarily their more broad-church Episcopal one, I thought it was best to sound them out before adding in this particular Marian devotion, particularly because it involves praying the Ave Maria, the “Hail, Mary.” One of my colleagues, who is now a brilliant priest, spoke for what I imagined to be much of the group when she said, “You know, I don’t really even know what that is. I know that I’ve heard the Hail Mary isn’t very Episcopal, but I don’t really understand why.” Her candor – and her openness – led to a rich conversation about this prayer, which then, I’m happy to say, led to our praying it together the following week.
Misconceptions about the Hail Mary abound. Responses to this particular devotion range from the bemused (“Why would I ever pray to Mary when I can just pray to God?”) to the antagonistic (“Worshiping Mary is idolatrous!”). There are multiple layers to any of these opposing viewpoints, ranging from the historical to the theological, but many of them share some misperceptions about the prayer itself. Here is the text of the prayer in English:
Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee;
blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners
now and at the hour of our death.
You’ll notice that nowhere in this prayer does the supplicant pray to Mary. Instead, the prayer is a request for prayer – please Mary, the blessed one, pray for us. So, in response to the objections raised above, you might say that yes, worshiping something other than God is idolatrous, but that’s not what this prayer encourages. And yes, of course, you can pray by yourself; you don’t need to ask Mary to pray for you. But do you not, in times of crisis, ask your loved ones to pray for you? Don’t you find holy people in your life and ask them to hold you up in prayer? So why wouldn’t you ask Mary, the holiest of all women, to do the same? If we confess the truth of the Communion of Saints and believe that all of us are tied to one another with a living thread through the gift of our baptisms, then why wouldn’t we ask Mary (or Joseph, or Clare of Assisi, or Jonathan Daniels) to pray for us?
Saturday is the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, and we will pray this prayer together on Facebook Live at 9:30 am. I encourage you to join us – to ask Blessed Mary to pray for you, for us, and for this world. If this devotion is new to you, or even if you have some misgiving or reservations, I invite you to give it a try, to open yourself up to the gift of asking for prayer.
One note of warning: while this devotion carries with it a profound sense of comfort for many, it is also risky. Remember Mary’s response when her cousin Elizabeth called her blessed – she sang a canticle of how God is working to invert the power structures of the whole world. All of Mary’s prayers, the ones that we invoke and the ones that she prays on her own, are shot through with the promises of the Magnificat, that the hungry will be fed, the mighty lowered from their seat, and that God will stand with the humble and meek. When we ask Mary to pray for us now, that is what we are praying for – that Mary will help us to be strong enough, healthy enough, faithful enough, and courageous enough to join her in that world-flipping work.
Heaven knows that the world needs those kinds of reversals, that people are thirsty for that kind of mercy, justice, truth, and love. May the Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary pray for us, that we will be bold enough to pray for all of that!
Yours in Christ,