Mary Undoer of Knots

I want to tell you the story of this picture which I first saw on the front cover of my father in law’s Church Times when I was on holiday in Aboyne this summer. I think it was the colours, the rich red and the blue, that first caught my eye, and then I was drawn to the female figure doing something that was very familiar to me – untangling yarn. I liked the way the flowing fabrics loop around the woman, and the way words and little creatures are woven into the pattern. It was clear to me that this was an image that had emerged from prayer but the idea of Mary as an undoer of knots was something I hadn’t heard of before. Intrigued, I quickly turned to the article it referred to, hoping to learn more about it. You can imagine my disappointment when I realised that there was nothing in it about the picture except that the person who created it was a Church of England priest who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADHD and autism at the age of 42 and was seeking to find a way to be herself in her role. With my father-in-law’s permission I cut out the image and tucked it in my diary with a note of the artist’s name, Rachel Noel.

I would probably have forgotten about it if it wasn’t for the fact that later that day it rained and as we were unable to go out walking, I picked out a paperback from among the books I’d hastily thrown into a bag in case I had time to read. It was a biography of Pope Francis by the journalist Paul Vallely. I don’t remember where or when I had acquired it and until then I hadn’t noticed its full title, Pope Francis: untying the knots. My curiosity aroused, I started reading and to my surprise, I almost immediately came across the story of another, much older painting of Mary Undoer of Knots. This one was commissioned over 300 years ago for a German church, and had been barely known in its own country until it was discovered in 1986 by Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man who was to be Pope Francis.

It isn’t hard to understand why this painting spoke so powerfully at that time to the fifty year-old priest. He had been sent to Germany because his superiors wanted him out of his post and out of Argentina. His leadership of the Jesuits there had caused deep and bitter divisions in the Order at a time of political oppression in his country. He must have been a very hurt and disappointed man with many knots in his soul when he first came across the image of Mary surrounded by angels unravelling a long ribbon while her foot rests on a snake curled in knots.

The story goes that the painting was commissioned around the year 1700 by the grandson of a Bavarian nobleman whose marriage was in difficulties. Wolfgang Langenmantel and his wife Sophia were on the brink of separating, which would have been a huge scandal in those times when he sought the advice of a Jesuit, Jakob Rem, who was known for his wisdom. The priest had asked him to bring to their meeting the long white ribbon used in the celebration of the couple’s wedding. Holding the ribbon he prayed for the two of them through the intercession of the Virgin Mary that all the knots in their relationship would be untied and made smooth. Tradition holds that this prayer was answered. The couple reconciled and remained together for the rest of their lives. Decades later their grandson, a monk in the monastery in Augsburg, apparently commissioned the painting in thanksgiving for the miracle which saved the reputation of his family.

Deeply moved by this very unusual image of Mary, Padre Bergoglio prayed that the knots of doubt and disappointment within him may be untied and that he would experience peace in his heart and mind. His prayers were answered and within months he was back in Argentina. He had prayer cards made from a postcard of the painting and for many years when he was Bishop to Buenos Aires, he would hand them out to anyone he met. Devotion to our Lady, Undoer of Knots, took hold in Argentina and continues to spread throughout South America and beyond.

It was at a retreat at St Beuno’s in Wales just two years ago that Rachel Noel was introduced to Mary Undoer of Knots. She had arrived totally exhausted by the pandemic, struggling to live with her mental condition, unsure if she could continue as a parish priest. In a blog, Mary, Undoer of Knots –, she recalls that in order to slow down her troubled mind, she began to draw. She first created the little characters you see in the painting which represent all the different lenses through which she is seen and sees herself. And as she sat with them, it seemed to her that there were so many tangled threads in her life She scribbled out of frustration feeling, she said, ‘like someone overwhelmed with a box of old jewellery with the chains all knotted together or with a basket of knitting wool which has gone out of hand and the yarns have tangled together’. When she shared her drawings and her feelings, her retreat guide gave her a copy of the painting of Mary, Undoer of Knots and suggested she sat with it for the next few days.

‘It unlocked something for me’, she wrote. ‘This is a way that I can be with the mess, with the tangles that face me’. She hadn’t prayed with images of Mary before – it wasn’t part of her tradition – but she could accept that Mary is alongside us as we pray to God. So she doodled her own Mary Undoer of Knots and wrote a prayer to go with it: Our Lady, undoer of knots, unlock the knots that bind us. Connect us to the joy of God’s light and hope.

Over the following days and then months when she got home, she continued to work on the image and to let the painting be her prayer for peace and courage to face the knots in her life and to allow the light of God’s love to shine within her.

In the weeks since my holiday, I also have made the image a focus of my prayers. It has enabled me to become aware of the knots in my life and to ask God to help to smooth them out so that love can flow through me into the world. It has also helped me to pray for the knotty issues we have been exploring in Night Church during the summer: Climate Change, the Israel/Palestine conflict, the war in Ukraine and the Refugee Crisis to name but a few.

So now, I invite you in turn to sit with the painting, aware of God’s love within and around you as you pray.

Lord, you have searched me out and known me:
you know when I sit down, and when I rise up,
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You know my journeys and the places where I rest:
you are acquainted with all my ways.
You are behind me and before me:
you have laid your hand upon me. (Psalm 139)