A Methodist friend of mine has always been puzzled by the emphasis Catholics place upon ready-made prayers. She considers recourse to the Hail Mary to be little more than prayer on autopilot, the rote droning of words learned and memorized as children. How, she wonders, can it possibly produce an intense and focused spiritual experience? Self-sprung prayers, on the other hand, she views as genuine evidence of a willed act to commune with God, relying upon individual creative and expressive abilities.
My casual response has always been to mention precisely where we first find the Hail Mary. It is the form of address the Angel Gabriel uses when he informs Mary that she is to be the Mother of God. As creative and expressive as I may be, the words of God’s appointed angelic messenger, conveyed to us through sacred Scripture and written by way of Divine Revelation, have always struck me as possessing a certain perfection that I could hardly outdo. And yet, on more frequent occasions of recitation than I’d like, I must admit to lacking the fervor that can overcome me when I remember I am speaking holy words. Too easily, I neglect to be thankful and reverent for the awesome power explicitly granted by God to His people by allowing us to share the greatest of the angels’ unending hymns of praise.
The literary critic Harold Bloom once explained that after a career’s worth of reading and analyzing Milton’s Paradise Lost, a single, focused reading one evening brought the work back to life, recast its meaning in a wonderfully vital and revealing way. My adult understanding of the Hail Mary derives from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and from the opening of Luke’s Gospel, where we find the words that together comprise the main substance of the prayer. First, Gabriel’s address, “Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favor! The Lord is with you”; second, Elizabeth’s praise of her cousin, “Of all women, you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:28,42). Recently, I have taken to reciting the prayer with slow and deliberate care, mindful of Bloom’s example and the Catechism ’s assertion that “Prayer cannot be reduced to the spontaneous outpouring of interior impulse . . . . Nor is it enough to know what the Scriptures reveal about prayer: one must also learn how to pray” (§2650). In learning how to pray the Hail Mary, I have come to a most surprising, most joyous realization: its greatness is not its words, but its silence, a moment of pause integral to its meaning as a prayer, and, moreover, to our meaning as human beings.
Mine is a strong contention, I know, and to explain it, I ask you to poke around the cobwebbed recesses of your mind, back to your high school days. Tucked just behind the Pythagorean theorem and beneath the state capital of Florida, you will find a term from English class: the “turn.” When it comes to rote memorization and mindless droning, is there any set of formulas that more deserved such a treatment than the terminology we learned while studying poetry? Alliteration, assonance, simile, metaphor, onomatopoeia, iambic pentameter, quatrain, and, most pointless of all, the turn. When we read a sonnet of Shakespeare’s and the last two lines were apparently markedly different from the first twelve, our teachers taught us that a sudden change in the poem’s idea structure and argument transpired in the space between lines twelve and thirteen. It always seemed an easy way out of explanation to me, or, more often, a less than sudden or exciting change. For example, as Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet XVIII nears its end and we are unsure of how the speaker’s love will overcome death or how “in eternal lines to time [she will grow],” there occurs a tiny typographical indentation and line space. After which, we read: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Ah, the turn. So what?
The value of this seemingly insignificant literary term came to me during my recent recitations of the Hail Mary, when I began to think of it as a poem. Understanding God’s work in a literary context is a centuries-old practice. In a 1622 sermon at St. Paul’s, for instance, John Donne described “the Holy Ghost [as] an eloquent Author, a vehement and abundant Author, but yet not luxuriant; he is far from a penurious, but as far from a superfluous style too.” And since the medieval period, as George Steiner eloquently explains in his recent Grammars of Creation, there has existed an oft-changing relation of human author to Divine Author, of the human creator of literature to the Divine Creator of all.
The Hail Mary suddenly seemed a poem to me when I noticed the pause that we always include halfway through the prayer, after the words “thy womb, Jesus” and before continuing with “Holy Mary, Mother of God.” When recited communally, the Hail Mary’s pause is usually the moment where the gathered join the leader in prayer, in part signifying our human response to the Divine words that comprise the first half. According to popular legend surrounding the prayer, its second half also replicates the joyous cries of villagers who witnessed Mary’s assumption into heaven. Thus is explained the rationale for the pause during group prayer. And yet, even when I recite the prayer privately, I include the pause. I imagine we all do. With that pause in mind, the prayer can be seen, spoken, and heard as a poem.
Hail Mary, full of grace, The Lord is with Thee. Blessed are 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. Amen.
What happens in the space, that moment’s breath we take before continuing the prayer? The lines of the prayer itself, understood in poetic terms, provide us with the answer: the turn that occurs in the Hail Mary signifies the birth of Christ. Consider the time sequence at work within the prayer. “During” the second half of Elizabeth’s blessing, “blessed is the fruit of thy womb,” Mary is pregnant with Jesus. When we pray the next line, Mary is holy because now she is the Mother of God. The moment in between constitutes the most important change in the human narrative; it registers the greatest event in history, when God took human form and redeemed us.
Because I now study and teach literature as a profession, I am constantly on guard against the dangerous fallacy of imposing my personal meaning onto a literary work, let alone onto the words of an angel sent by God to herald the birth of His Son, savior of the world. And yet, thinking of the Hail Mary in literary terms, I realized that no imposition was occurring; rather, the prayer includes this logic within it. When I teach poetry to my students, I ask them constantly to search the poem for moments of “self-demonstration,” where the poet has been able to convey meaning through phrases or structures that demonstrate the very idea they describe. If we are reading the words of an Author, not an author, this self-demonstration attains an altogether greater significance, which in turn reminds us of its greatest: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
The reality of which John writes I found in the Hail Mary, in a pause without words precisely because in that space and time the Word has become flesh. After a lifetime’s worth of recitations, that prayer remains alive because of its internal, sacred energies, collected together and ritualized into a formal prayer that Catholics have prayed together and alone for centuries. No matter how fine a turn of phrase I may devise on my own to express myself to God, there will always exist the greater version in the Hail Mary: Christ’s turn.
Randy Boyagoda is professor of American studies at Ryerson University. His latest book is Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square.