By Cliff Garvey
In the early years of the 17th century, a husband in the Bavaria region of Germany considers a separation from his wife — a truly radical notion at the time. In his confusion and despair, the man seeks counsel from a Jesuit priest. The priest prays for the couple through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. His simple pray is this: “In this religious act, I raise unto you the bonds of matrimony and beg you to untie all the knots and make them smooth.” Tradition holds that this prayer was answered. The couple reconciles and remain together for the rest of their lives.
Decades later, their grandson, a religious brother at the Monastery of Saint Peter in Augsburg, Germany, commissions a painting in thanksgiving for the miracle that reconciles his grandparents and saves the reputation of his family. In 1700, the completed painting is donated to the Church of Saint Peter where it remains to this day. It is painted in a lavish Baroque style. And it depicts Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception standing on a crescent moon. The serpent at her feet represents sin and darkness. It is angry and frustrated because it is tangled up in knots.
In this painting, the Blessed Mother is surrounded by angels. One angel hands her a rope that is also tied in knots. These knots represent our sins and shortcomings; our divisions and disagreements; our failings and frustrations; and the petty tyrannies of life that test our faith and lead us to doubt and despair. But as the rope passes through the favored hands of the Blessed Mother, the knots are easily undone and united. Each untied knot, whether large or small, is a miracle made by the grace of God and the prayers of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots.
For nearly three hundred years, this miraculous image is barely known in its own country, let alone around the world. But in 1986, something amazing happens. Father Jorge Bergoglio, a Jesuit priest from Argentina, is ordered by his superior to leave his post as rector of the Jesuit seminary. It is a job that he loves, but his vow of obedience leaves him no other choice. He is doubtful, unhappy, and struggling to reconcile his vows with his desire to train young Jesuits to serve the poor. While traveling in Germany, Father Bergoglio wanders into the Church of Saint Peter and sees the painting of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. He prays to the Blessed Mother for peace of mind and peace in his heart. He prays that the knots of doubt and disappointment may be undone. And his prayers are answered.
Father Bergoglio is soon summoned back to Argentina. He becomes the confessor and spiritual director of a small Jesuit community in the city of Cordoba. In 1992, he is appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires by Pope John Paul II. In 1998, he is appointed Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Three years later, he is named a cardinal. And in 2013, Cardinal Bergoglio is elected Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. We know him as Pope Francis.
Keep in mind that when he returns in Argentina in the late 1980s, he brings home a postcard of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. He has prayer cards printed. Throughout his tenure as a bishop and then as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he hands out these prayer cards to the countless men, women, and children who ask him for advice and counsel. They meet him on the subway because he refuses the luxury car reserved for the archbishop. They meet him in the central plaza because he walks from his office to the newsstand every afternoon. And they meet him in the streets because he loves to stop and talk with everyday people in the city’s poor and working class neighborhoods. Everywhere he goes, everyone he meets seems to walk away with a prayer card of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots.
In his biography of Pope Francis, Austen Ivereigh writes: “Stories of the favors she had granted — little miracles of healing and reconciliation — began to circulate (The Reformer, 229).” The devotion to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots soon spreads beyond Buenos Ares; from Argentina to Brazil and Paraguay, then throughout South America and beyond. Let’s think on this. If one poor priest can raise up a devotion that spreads around the world, then just think what we could do — you, me, us — if we all worked together.
In 2001, The Guardian newspaper publishes a story about Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. Its first sentence reads: “Confused? Stressed? Unhappy? Then say a prayer to Mary, Untier of Knots.” The Guardian calls the devotion a “religious craze” that has captured the “popular imagination” of everyday people (12-24-01).
Back in Argentina, Father Rodolfo Arroyo, a pastor in Buenos Aires, announces that a copy of the painting of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots will hang in his church on December 8th, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. One that day, 5,000 people turn out to venerate the sacred image. Austen Ivereigh writes: “It was just the beginning. Father Arroyo found his church swamped by 10,000 people on the eighth of each month and tens of thousands each December 8th, reaching 70,000 in 1998 and 130,000 in 2011. The numbers are easy to track because every visitor received a prayer card (The Reformer, 230).”
In 2012, just four months before he becomes pope, Cardinal Bergoglio celebrates Mass in this same church. Preaching to a large crowd, he says: “Knots in our personal or family lives, knots in our communities and workplaces — all of these knots, which are caused by sin, weaken our faith to the point where God’s grace cannot flow freely through the silk threads of our lives. Mary’s kind hands unravel these knots one by one, and the angel shows us that the thread is untied, as if telling us that we can pray with confidence, because we will be heard (The Reformer, 230).”
Years later, in May 2021, Pope Francis marks the end of a month-long prayer campaign for an end to the coronavirus pandemic. He invites various groups to represent the whole Church, the entire People of God. Newlywed couples. Married couples expecting children. Young children who have just received First Holy Communion. Teenagers who have just received the Sacrament of Confirmation. A group of scouts. A community of religious sisters. They process together into the Vatican Gardens carrying a copy of the original painting of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. They are joined remotely by Marian sanctuaries and average people from all around the world. And together, we pray the rosary.
Each decade is introduced with a special intention that Our Lady might untie the knots of violence, unemployment, wounded relationships, sickness and uncertainty, and all that stands in the way of taking care of those in need. Looking up with love at the sacred image that changed his life and the lives of so many others, Pope Francis prays aloud: “We gather before you, our Virgin Mother, venerated in this image as the one who unties knots. In fact, there are many knots that bind our lives and our activities. They are knots of selfishness and indifference, economic and social knots, knots of violence and war. We pray to you, Holy Mother, untie the knots that oppress us, materially and spiritually, so that we may joyfully bear witness to your Son and our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
What are the knots that oppress? What are the problems that we find so difficult to face, so difficult to solve, so difficult to transcend? What are the obstacles that stand between us and the Lord, between us and our neighbor, between us and those we are called to love? We cannot make them go away. But by God’s amazing grace, Our Lady, Undoer of Knots can do it. And so, we join with Pope Francis and we pray:
full of God’s presence
all the days of your life,
you accepted with full humility
the Father’s will,
and the devil was never able
to tie you around with confusion.
Once with your son,
you interceded for our difficulties,
and full of kindness and patience,
you gave us an example
of how to untie the knots of our lives.
And by remaining forever our Mother,
you put in order and make more clear
the ties that link us to the Lord.
Mother of God and our Mother,
to you who untie with a motherly heart
the knots of our lives,
we pray to you
to receive in your hands
(our problems and intentions),
and to free us of the knots and confusion
with which our enemy attacks.
Through your grace,
your intercession, and your example,
deliver us from all evil, Our Lady,
and untie the knots that prevent us
from being united with God,
so that we, free from sin and error,
may find Him in all things,
may have our hearts placed in Him,
and may serve Him always
in our brothers and sisters. Amen.
Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, pray for us!
Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, pray for our beloved pope!
Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, pray for our suffering world!
Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
About the Presenter
Cliff Garvey is a co-founder of the Assisi Project. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine, Saint John Seminary College, and the Catholic University of America. Cliff is a writer, spiritual director, retreat leader, and university lecturer. He also serves as Associate Minister of the Catholic Community of Gloucester & Rockport in Massachusetts where his ministry focuses on adult faith formation. Thank you for listening to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. These audio recordings are produced by the Assisi Project, Inc. For more information about the Assisi Project: A Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit and our ministries for adults of all ages and backgrounds, please contact Cliff at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2021. All rights reserved. May the Lord give you peace!
Art Credit: Detail of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots by Judy Symalla
Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is a Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit with friends and followers throughout the world. We are dedicated to helping Christian believers of all ages more faithfully live the Gospel of Christ in the spirit of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi. The Assisi Project is a non-profit, tax exempt charitable organization. All are welcome to support our ministry via PayPal or AmazonSmile (links below); or by sending a tax-deductible donation to the Assisi Project, Post Office Box 3158, Gloucester, Massachusetts 01931-3158. For more information about the Assisi Project and our upcoming opportunities for formation, prayer, and pilgrimage, please contact Cliff Garvey at email@example.com. May the Lord give you peace!
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