Catholic Church, Communion of Saints, Theology

Mary, Undoer of Knots

This article was originally published in The Catholic News Herald of the diocese of Charlotte.

“Eve, by her disobedience, tied the knot of disgrace for the human race; whereas Mary, by her obedience, undid it.” – St. Irenaeus, martyred AD 202.

Have you ever been working with a ball of yarn or string and got it tangled up in knots? Perhaps at first it doesn’t seem too bad, but then as you try to untangle it, matters just seem to get worse. I have always loved knitting and other fiber art hobbies, and there have been more times than I can count when I was faced with a tangled ball of yarn that I despaired of ever salvaging. But I knew better than to just give up; instead I would give it to my mother, who truly has the patience of a saint when it comes to unraveling messes. Perhaps this is why I respond so readily to the Blessed Virgin Mary’s title as Our Lady Undoer of Knots. Are there any problems that a mother’s patience can’t solve?

Everywhere we look these days, it seems that there are knots to be undone. The complications of family relationships and friendships, of discerning the proper path in life, of knowing how to respond to the many crises in our country and in the world. One has only to look at any topic in the news or on social media to know that there are no simple issues. Everything is a mass of different threads; you pull on one part, thinking you are helping to solve a particular problem, but you end up just tightening the other threads around you.

In a world of such convoluted problems, where we can see only our own small piece of the larger picture, it’s important to know whom to turn to in order to help us untangle the mess.

In September 2015, I was blessed to attend the World Meeting of Families and papal visit in Philadelphia. During that time, there was an art installation on display at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul. Called “The Knotted Grotto” and dedicated to the devotion of Our Lady Undoer of Knots, the installation was a beautiful representation of the many prayers that we all have related to the knots in our lives and in the world. The installation featured a latticework dome 20 feet high by 13 feet wide, and attached to it were thousands of knotted prayers written on strips of white fabric. Before the official dedication, organizers of the exhibit collected the written prayers from local prisons, homeless shelters and soup kitchens, and people of all beliefs and demographics were encouraged to place their needs before Our Lord. Asking for Mary’s intercession, visitors to the grotto could write their own petitions on the ribbons of fabric and tie them to the wooden structure, and were then invited to untie the knotted prayers of others and to pray for them.

The dome was lovely to view from the outside, with its strips of white fabric fluttering in the breeze, but it was even more powerful to stand within it. As I walked inside, the open latticework of the construction still making it light and airy, I was very aware of the thousands of prayers surrounding me on those strips of fabric. I was close enough to make out some of the words, to notice the variety of handwriting (some obviously by children), and to take in the immensity of need even in this one small corner of the world. Even with the cheerful, open-air quality of the exhibit, I could feel the weight of all those thousands of prayers pressing down on me, calling out to be read, begging to be answered.

Sin and concupiscence tie everything in our lives into knots. Sometimes you can feel the knots tightening around you, squeezing you like the proverbial serpent. Those knots are everywhere, in every community, affecting every class and demographic, wrapping around every relationship.

“Undoer of Knots” is a title of Our Lady that did not result from an apparition or other vision of the Blessed Mother; instead, it arose from a need in her children. Inspired by the meditation of St. Irenaeus quoted above, at the end of the 17th century, a German Baroque painter named Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner created the image known today of Mary surrounded by angels, undoing the knots of sin. For the past 300 years, this image has received great devotion and reverence –in turn showing a great need and desire for Mary’s aid in our tangled lives and times. Apparitions such as at Lourdes and Fatima show the Blessed Mother’s love and concern for her children on earth, and devotions such as Our Lady Undoer of Knots show how we recognize our own need for her intercession.

One of my favorite mental images when praying the rosary is that of a chain linking heaven and earth, with one end held in my own hands and the other held in Mary’s. When I pray for her intercession these days, I have an image of the many knots and entanglements in my life, the ball of which I hold out to her in petition. Just as my earthly mother would, I can see Our Blessed Mother take that knotted ball and slowly, patiently and with great care begin to tease out the tangles, smoothing it all out and bringing it back to order. But I have to remind myself that if I want her help, I must first hand over the ball.

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