To the 12th century Benedictine Abbot, Eckbert of Schoenau, is attributed the first written prayer to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In it, Our Lady’s Heart is compared to many Old Testament symbols and images: as the “holy of holies,” the “ark of sanctification,” the “urn of gold,” the “royal court,” the “enclosed paradise,” etc. — a Heart so pure and lovely as to attract the gaze of God and of all men.
Eckbert of Schoenau (1132-1184) was Abbot of the Benedictine Abbey in Schoenau, located in the Rhineland, near Trier, in Western Germany, from 1166 until his death. He brilliantly defended the Church against the dualist heresy of the Cathari, and in his writings he promoted devotion to the Heart of Our Lady. With Eckbert, devotion to Mary’s Heart, specifically under the title “Immaculate Heart,” undergoes marked development. According to Fr. Theodore A. Koehler, S.M., he was the first to compose a prayer in honor of Mary’s Immaculate Heart.
Significantly, Eckbert begins his prayer, which he composed in Latin, by addressing his words directly to Mary’s Heart, as if speaking to a person: “Loquor ad cor tuum, O Maria.” In light of this, Father Koehler maintains that he is “the first to initiate an act of devotion, or cult, towards the Immaculate Heart,” and that “[t]he private cult to the heart of Mary begins with that prayer Eckbert composed as abbot.” The English text of this beautiful prayer follows:
I shall speak to your heart, O Mary, I shall speak to your heart so pure, Sovereign of the universe, and I shall offer my veneration from the depths of my soul. From the depths of my heart I shall greet your immaculate heart which, the first in this world, was worthy to receive the only Son of the Supreme God, coming forth from the bosom of the Father.
(Greetings.) Hail, singular shrine, that God has sanctified for Himself in the Holy Spirit. Hail, holy of holies, that the Sovereign Pontiff has consecrated by his ineffable entrance. Hail, ark of sanctification that contains the writing of the finger of God. Hail, urn of gold that contains the heavenly manna, filled with the delights of the angels. Hail, royal court, the true Solomon’s house of cedar, whose sweet fragrance surpasses all the woods of cedar. Hail, couch of gold, the most agreeable rest for the desirable beloved whose head is of perfect gold. Hail, room filled with a heavenly perfume, bringing the precious spices of all the virtues and graces. Hail, enclosed paradise, wherein the cunning seducer of Eve had never dared to crawl. Hail, sealed fountain, whose secrets the violator of hearts has never tasted, not even by the slightest sip. To whom do we compare you, to what do we assimilate the beatitude of your heart, O Mary? By what words do we worthily greet the intimate sweetness of your chaste breast?
(Congratulatory greeting.) Live, live and rejoice eternally, O holy and immaculate heart in which the salvation of the world was begun and in which the divinity has embraced our humanity, bringing peace to the world. Be filled with an eternal jubilation, you, emerald conch, whose color has never faded, you who have poured out to the Supreme King, thirsting for our salvation, the sweet nectar of faith, at that hour when, at the greeting of the archangel, you pronounced the good word (Ps. 44 :2), saying: “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38). Thus, you have delighted, you have filled his heart, in such a degree that from now on, from his heaven, He would proclaim more joyously: “My delights are to be with the children of men” (Prov. 8:31). May every soul magnify you, O mother of sweetness! And may all pious tongues praise together for ever and ever the beatitude of your heart, from which our salvation has flowed forth. Amen.
A careful analysis of this beautiful twelfth-century prayer reveals a literal treasure house of teachings and themes on Our Lady and her Heart. In the prologue, Eckbert personifies the Heart of Mary, identifies it with her very person (and her womb), by saying that her Heart, “so pure” and “immaculate,” “was worthy to receive the only Son of the Supreme God.” Here we have an echo of the “prius in corde” notion which began with the Fathers – that Mary conceived Jesus first in her mind/Heart, and then in her womb/body. The Son “coming from the bosom [sinu in the original Latin] of the Father” reflects the popular medieval theme that the Eternal Word comes from the Heart, or bosom, of the Father (cf. Jn. 1:18), who eternally begets the Son. The person praying both venerates and petitions Mary’s Heart from “the depths” of his own heart, intimating a desire to have his heart united with that of the Blessed Virgin’s.
In the “Greetings” section, Eckbert portrays Mary’s Heart with a number of symbolic images:
– as the Holy of Holies (cf. Ex. 26:34; Heb. 9:3) where Christ the High Priest entered (cf. Heb. 9:11-12);
– as the new Ark of the Covenant (cf. Ex. 25:10-21; Rev. 11:19) in which the “Finger of God” (the Holy Spirit) had “written” to bring about the Incarnation;
– as the “golden urn” which contains the true “heavenly manna” (cf. Heb. 9:4; Jn. 6:32), Our Lord Jesus Christ, the “Living Bread from Heaven” (Jn. 6:51);
– and as the couch or seat of gold (cf. Sng. 3:10) where rested the Bridegroom whose “head is of perfect gold” (Sng. 5:11).
Mary’s Heart, says, Eckbert, was “filled with heavenly perfume,” bringing with it “the precious spices of all the virtues and graces” (cf. Lk. 1:28, “Hail, full of grace”). Then he uses the Song of Songs metaphors of the “enclosed paradise” and “sealed fountain” (Sng. 4:12) to convey the truth that Satan, the “cunning seducer of Eve” and “violator of hearts,” was never able to crawl near the Heart of the Virgin, nor to “taste” or “sip” the secrets which lie therein; for her Heart was immaculate. In light of the fact that at the time of Eckbert’s writing there was a growing acceptance of Mary’s Immaculate Conception in the Christian West, his words appear to reflect a belief that Mary was preserved from all stain of sin and that Mary’s Heart, a symbol of her person, is also a symbol of her spotless purity from her conception.
In speaking of Satan as a “violator of hearts” and of “crawling” towards Eve, Eckbert no doubt has in mind the Protoevangelium of Gen. 3:15, which speaks of the “enmity” between the serpent, Satan, and “the woman,” Mary, the “New Eve” who crushes the serpent’s head, as well as the preceding verse (Gen. 3:14) which speaks of Satan “crawling on his belly.”
Thus, in these verses from the “Greetings” section of Eckbert’s prayer, we have three classic arguments from Sacred Tradition in support of Mary’s Immaculate Conception: her fullness of grace (Lk. 1:28); the metaphors of the enclosed garden and sealed fountain (Sng. 4:12); and Satan’s inability ever to approach, to touch, to contaminate the All-Holy, All-Pure and Immaculate Blessed Virgin (cf. Gen. 3:14-15). Eckbert, with masterful insight, applies these concepts to Mary’s Heart, the symbol of her very person and of her interior life of purity and grace. Moreover, relating Mary’s Immaculate Conception to her Heart may help to explain why Eckbert twice uses the adjective “immaculate” to describe her Heart in his prayer.
In the third part of the prayer (“Congratulatory greeting”), Eckbert likens the Blessed Virgin’s Immaculate Heart to an “emerald conch, whose color has never faded,” to stress that she never sinned and maintained her spotless purity throughout the whole of her life. Then he takes up another popular theme dating from the Patristic era: Mary’s faith. The Incarnation, he says, was realized in part through the “sweet nectar of faith” which poured forth from Mary’s Heart when she uttered her “Fiat” in response to the archangel’s announcement. This response in faith from Mary’s Heart, says Eckbert, “delighted” and “filled” the Heart of the Supreme King who was “thirsting for our salvation.” The “Supreme King” no doubt refers to Jesus Christ, who in the Gospels manifests His thirst for souls (cf. Jn. 19:28; Jn. 4:7).
We see here in Eckbert’s prayer words which imply a link, or even a bond or a union between the Hearts of Jesus and Mary based upon the Virgin’s response from her Heart, in faith, to the Announcement of the Good News (cf. Lk. 1:28) which filled the Heart of Jesus, the King of kings, with gladness. In this section of the prayer we also see a variation of the medieval theme that the virtues symbolized by Mary’s Heart “attracted” God: Here it is Mary’s faith, rather than her humility, which so pleased the Eternal Son that he desired “to be with the children of men” (Prov. 8:31).
Eckbert ends his prayer with a call for “every soul” to “forever” magnify and praise the Heart of Mary, “from which our salvation has flowed forth.” May his prayer become better known and loved, in order that it may lead the faithful to give greater praise and instill a deeper devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Our Lady; and may devotion to her Heart be a means to give greater adoration and glory to the Most Sacred Heart of our Savior and Redeemer, Jesus Christ!
 Theodore A. Koehler, S.M., “The Heart of Mary in the Latin Tradition From the Seventh to the Sixteenth Century,” in Marian Library Studies, New Series 25 (Dayton, Ohio: Univ. of Dayton, 1996-97), 120 (hereafter cited as MLS), notes that this prayer, entitled, Soliloquium ad B. Mariam Ekberti abbatis, fratris Elisabeth sanctimonialis, was critically edited by F. W. E. Roth, in Die Visionen der Hl. Elisabeth und die Schriften der Aebte Ekbert und Emencho (Brunn, 1884), 286-87; and later was analyzed and compared with a Vatican manuscript for a new critical edition by Henri Barré, C.S.Sp., in “Une prière d’Ekbert de Schönau au saint Coeur de Marie,” in Ephemerides Mariologicae 2 (1952), 409-23. Fr. Koehler’s lengthy scholarly study of the Heart of Mary (175 pages), in which can be found Eckbert’s prayer in the original Latin, can be accessed at: https://ecommons.udayton.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=ml_studies. N.B. Eckbert was the brother of Elizabeth of Schoenau (today acknowledged as a saint in Germany, though never formally canonized), who was a Benedictine sister in the double monastery (both men and women branches) in Schoenau, which helps to explain the prayer’s title.
 Koehler, op. cit., MLS, 120, 122-23.
 Engl. trans. in Koehler, op. cit., MLS, 120-21.
 “Prius mente quam ventre” (“first in the mind rather than in the womb”) comes from St. Augustine in his Sermo 215, 4: PL 38:1074; cf. Pope St. Leo the Great, Sermo XXI, In Nativitate Domini nostri Jesu Christi; PL 54:191: Virgo . . . prius conciperet mente quam corpore. St. Augustine applied this notion to Mary’s Heart; see De Sancta Viginitate, 3, PL 40:398: “The closeness given by motherhood would have been of little advantage to Mary, if she had not been happier to bear Christ in her heart than in her flesh.”
 The liturgical feast of Mary’s Conception by St. Anne was celebrated in the Byzantine East from about the 7th century on Dec. 9 (based upon the account in the Protoevangelium of James); and it moved to the West, being celebrated first in Naples in the 9th century on Dec. 9, then in England and Ireland in the 10th and 11th centuries on Dec. 8, from whence it passed into France, Spain and Germany. The feast was celebrated by the Canons of Lyons in the 12th century, and we know that St. Bernard opposed it, as he held against Mary’s Immaculate Conception, i.e., her freedom from Original Sin; thus, it seems that there must have been an understanding at the time that the feast was celebrating Mary’s Immaculate Conception. In the first half of the 12th century, Eadmer of Canterbury, in his Tract Concerning the Conception of the Virgin Mary, defended Mary’s Immaculate Conception by positing that the power of God could preserve someone from Original Sin. See “The Immaculate Conception – From Liturgy and the Popular Devotion,” The Marian Library Newsletter, no. 47 (New Series) (Winter, 2003-04), 2; Michael O’Carroll, C.S.Sp., Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 2nd rev. ed. (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1986), s.v., “The Immaculate Conception,” 180-81; and Ignazio M. Calabuig, O.S.M., “The Liturgical Cult of Mary in the East and West,” in Handbook for Liturgical Studies, ch. in Vol. 5, Liturgical Time and Space, ed. Anscar J. Chapungco, O.S.B. (Collegeville, Mn.: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 284-87.
 See Eckbert’s sermon on the Annunciation, Dei Visionen . . . : “Super missus est angelus Gabriel,” quoted in Barré, “Une prière d’Ekbert,” op. cit., 415, where Eckbert speaks of Eve, who brought death, as the anti-type of Mary, whose consent from her Heart can bring life.
 Eckbert most likely would have used Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, which translates this verse: ipsa conteret caput tuum (“she will crush your head”).
 The NAB translation of Gen. 3:14 is: “On your belly you shall crawl”; the Douay-Rheims translation is: “upon thy breast thou shalt go,” from the Latin Vulgate, which reads: “super pectus tuum gradieris.”
 Bl. Pope Pius IX, in his Apostolic Constitution defining the Immaculate Conception, Ineffabilis Deus, Dec. 8, 1854, says that the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers looked to Lk. 1:28, Sng. 4:12 and Gen. 3:15 as a basis for teaching that Mary was conceived without sin. One can find an English translation of Ineffabilis Deus in Papal Teachings: Our Lady, eds. Benedictine Monks of Solesmes, trans. Daughters of St. Paul (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1961), nos. 31-65; for the above biblical verses, see nos. 46, 47 and 49.
 Cf. Eckbert’s sermon on the Annunciation, Dei Visionem . . . : “Super missus est angelus Gabriel,” in Barré, “Une prière,” EphMar 2 (1952), 415; citing Roth (ed.), 252, where Eckbert says that Mary’s unique love for God especially attracted Him.