When life gets tangled, who better to go to than our mother?
Envision the knots that you have tried to untie in your life—a gold chain, a phone charger, or a vacuum cord. Maybe a string in the waistband of your sweatpants. And did you, as I have done, worsen the problem by being impatient? Did you pull the knot even tighter, becoming angrier? I think of all the times I tried to undo a knot by poking it with a needle or nibbling at its strings with my teeth.
These are the literal knots in our lives. And thus, we have the exquisite metaphor that is “Mary, Untier of Knots,” a Marian devotion inspired by a painting of the same name. Because, as we know, it’s not the snarls in our hands that cause the most pain, but the ones pulling tightly within us—the scary knots that become unbearable. As Pope Francis once pondered, “Those are the ones that are out of our hands, the knots of selfishness and indifference, economic and social knots, knots of violence and war.”
We can trace the journey of her ribbon of hope through the pope himself, as he’s treasured this Mary within his own heart for decades. He first discovered the original painting in the 1980s when he was a student. The artwork, dated around 1700, is by Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner.
Pope Francis transplanted this image from Augsburg, Germany, and brought her to Latin America. The adoration of the Blessed Mother has spread across years and continents. And now it has landed right in the middle of the world’s heartache over COVID-19.
Personally, after these years of the pandemic, I’ve been saddled with brain fog, unable to finish most books that I start, unable to concentrate, relying on the calculator on my phone to add and subtract the simplest of numbers. The list goes on.
My intellectual sharpness has eroded, and I’m emotionally numb. I find this is true for most people I encounter—both strangers and those close to me. Perhaps the word to best describe it is disorientation. I don’t know when exactly, but at some point, Mary burst through my weariness and became a central part of my prayer life. Because, in all honesty, I have been floundering there too.
Let Go of Suffering
Mary entered, as she always does, because of grace. What burned through my gray sky, my despair, my loneliness? The simplicity of Schmidtner’s painting. All I had to do was think of my problems as knots and give them to her. It was so simple that, even in my pervasive exhaustion, it could be done.
In the painting, Mary is lit by the orb of a dove. She stands gazing down at a white ribbon, untangling a knot. With a calm expression, head tilted, the knot she’s working on is at the precise moment of opening wider and becoming loose. I know that feeling—when the knot finally yields.
The angel assisting her on the left stretches out his bare arm. The silky tip of the ribbon hangs from his open palm. He stares out at us, the viewer, composed and confident. The expression on the angel’s face says, to put it in contemporary language, “She’s got this.”
The angel on the right is assisting with the messy spool of ribbon. It’s enormous. But why fear problems and pain that might be in the future? Why not just trust? It’s hard, especially when our knots are situations that never seem to heal, never shift, never stop. It’s overwhelming, but not so much if we simply ask, “Can you help me with this?” And, being a mother, she responds with: “Let me try. Hand it over.”
I’ve spent a lot of my life chasing after God, thinking my efforts were what would lead me deeper. And I do admire my discipline, my desire for an ever-deepening intimacy. But what this image has been showing me through all that has frayed in the pandemic is that it’s time for me to know that God reaches us.
Our simplest stories have pointed to this over and over. We are the lost lambs being met more than halfway. In fact, we’re met all the way. I’ve wondered if it is the ingrained part of our American culture, the belief that striving is a virtue. Is this the result of a misguided belief that we somehow must earn God’s love? This is in direct opposition to what we have been told: of a love everlasting, unfailing.
It’s harder to pare down, to simplify, to trust the process of stillness. When I saw the photo of Pope Francis in 2021, praying before Mary, Untier of Knots, I was moved by the gift of his continually modeling that we place our trust in God. We are deserving of love and grace. It’s not about the doing, but about the receiving. And if we put that knot into Mary’s hands, we can let our suffering go. Then our own hands are free to receive.
I’m no expert on novenas, but I’ve done one for Mary for a very simple reason. During my morning prayer time, I’ve been slipping and sliding, unsure of how to get any traction. I do novenas because they allow me to use a predetermined structure: day one, day two, day three, and so on. Wake up, get coffee, light a candle, start the prayer.
If I’m honest, my tightest knots have to do with family situations—ones that have been there a long time or more recently. I know that the point of a novena isn’t like making a wish on your birthday cake and wanting it to come true. But I can say that, doing this novena, I have found more peace as the knots begin to dissolve.
The request I’d been making concerned a family matter weighing heavily on my heart since the death of my father last year. On day five, something happened in my life that was a miracle of sorts. It wasn’t huge. But it was, to me, a knot that started to loosen. I took a risk with a family member to say the truth of where I stood amid a complicated conflict. “My heart is still open,” I confided to one of the family members angry at another. He laughed and said, “Well, my heart isn’t. It’s closed.”
But then, within days, the tone of his text messages shifted. Just a little. Just enough for a miniature silken thread of peace to slide through. Truthfully, the knot is still in my life, but there’s the beginning of its becoming ribbon—moving forward and growing softer in her hands.
Lost and Found
Another time Mary found me was when I took the back roads home from visiting my daughter in Boston once. I had the opportunity to visit the Shrine of the Little Flower in Harrisville, Rhode Island. I had also begun to read St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s words every day. A story that St. Thérèse told illuminates this idea of God coming to us, finding us.
She said that we are like toddlers climbing stairs and struggling to lift our legs up. God is at the top of that staircase, will see us worn down with struggle, and will come and lift us up.
Again, in these times of dis-orientation and grief, it is straightforwardness and simplicity I need most. Anything else only increases my burden of separation and isolation, from both God and others. Is it possible that one gift of these pandemic years has been the realization of knowing that grace eases our uncertainty?
At this particular shrine, the acres are full of dozens of statues, lovingly maintained by local parishioners. There is a moss-tinged outdoor Stations of the Cross, statues of Mother Teresa, the Holy Family, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Gabriel. Silvia, the director of the shrine, gave me a tour on a cold winter day when I was the only one wandering happily, kicking through the leaves that swirled along the paths.
As we stood at the bottom of a set of concrete stairs leading up to a tall pavilion with the crucifixion, she pointed to an empty area to the side of the railing. “I’m hoping to put another statue here,” Silvia said.
In that extraordinary assortment of walkways and statues—some fresh, some eroded by years of winter ice and time—I couldn’t imagine who might be missing.
“Who?” I asked.
“Mary, Untier of Knots,” Silvia responded.
I laughed, knowing this is how Mary works. In the empty spaces—the places before you think you have to push yourself and work harder and climb—she will meet you there. What I have learned mystifies me. I only need to allow the Blessed Mother to do what she wants to do: comfort me.
It’s understandable why Mary, Untier of Knots, has become a part of our lives. My inability to concentrate, the grief I feel over the loss of a parent, over leaving a job of 25 years, have led me to a new place. I’ve been a “spiritual seeker” for a long time, and I thought I had to work hard to find my mother.
I had it backward. It is our mother who will never forget. It is our mother who will always find her child. Hand her your ribbon.
Mother Mary: Pray for Us!
If you are new to Mary, Untier of Knots, you will find that, as Our Lady is renowned for doing, she will appear in places in your life now. One example is a recent trip I took to New York City to St. Francis of Assisi Church on 31st Street to do a talk with the friars there. I had quality time with my new friend, Father Tom, and I told him about my recent trust in this Mary. “Oh,” he grinned, “go on our website. We have a devotion to her.”
When I looked it up, I was moved, perhaps because the first four items in the litany were my own most painful and primary knots. The list was so concrete, so physical, so purely addressing how hard it is to be human here.
With all struggling families, we pray: Mary, Untier of Knots, pray for us.
With all beset by financial struggles, we pray: Mary, Untier of Knots, pray for us.
With all seeking employment, we pray: Mary, Untier of Knots, pray for us.
With all suffering from mental and physical illness, we pray: Mary, Untier of Knots, pray for us.
With all bound by political ideologies, we pray: Mary, Untier of Knots, pray for us.
With all the homeless and the destitute, we pray: Mary, Untier of Knots, pray for us.
With all burdened with loneliness, fears, or worries, we pray: Mary, Untier of Knots, pray for us.
With all living with addictions, we pray: Mary, Untier of Knots, pray for us.
With all estranged from the Church, we pray: Mary, Untier of Knots, pray for us.
With all who have been abused by the Church, we pray: Mary, Untier of Knots, pray for us.
With all enduring religious or ethnic persecution, we pray: Mary, Untier of Knots, pray for us.
With all overwhelmed by shame or despair, we pray: Mary, Untier of Knots, pray for us.
With all traumatized by violence or neglect, we pray: Mary, Untier of Knots, pray for us.
With all targeted by racism or discrimination, we pray: Mary, Untier of Knots, pray for us.
With all struggling to let go of grudges, we pray: Mary, Untier of Knots, pray for us.
With all working to protect our planet, we pray: Mary, Untier of Knots, pray for us.
With all seeking peace, we pray: Mary, Untier of Knots, pray for us.
Maureen O’Brien’s award-winning short stories and poems have been published widely in magazines and anthologies. She lives in Connecticut, where she’s been teaching creative writing to teenagers for twenty-five years. She holds an MA in creative writing and a BA in philosophy and religion. Her latest book is What Was Lost: Seeking Refuge in the Psalms (Franciscan Media).
Used with permission from St. Anthony Messenger (www.stanthonymessenger.org).