Looking Again to
Our Lady the Untier of Knots
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
This reflection is, in my own way, a further step on the conversation we have been having: how to lean more fully into honoring the contemplative dimension of embodying the call of the Gospel of Christ on our lives. So many have shared insights with my last post, regarding my feeling a bit like a chocolate frog—and a failure at some preconceived notions of what it looks like to “succeed” at efforts at social justice as an Episcopal priest. Thank you for those images and words.
A day after I posted that reflection, I met with an incredible person whose family just gave a substantial gift to Grace. He brought a stack of papers with him detailing the financial arrangements of the trust, but we talked for an hour about life, ministry, the complex dynamic of Christian community—and Pope Francis. Charlie told me he had a book he wanted to give me that I could, in turn, give on when I was finished reading: The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, by Austen Ivereigh.
I have learned to pay attention to threads that weave through the seemingly sporadic moments of my life, and my heart swelled when I got to the part of the book that described Jorge Bergoglio’s journey to the Jesuit church of Saint Peter am Perlach, where he spent time reflecting on the image of Our Lady, the Untier of Knots, Maria Knotenlöserin. As Ivereigh describes, it was a profound moment for the future pope, one in which he contemplated his own struggles with obedience—recognizing, in particular, that obedience finds its root in obaudire, to listen.
This image of the Blessed Mother resonated deeply with the future pope’s own struggle to reconcile within himself how to live into his own vocation in the midst of political and ecclesial turmoil. Bergoglio realized that he could not solve this problem through his own power.
Ivereigh’s description of the image and its impact are powerful:
At first glance, it is nothing out of the ordinary: the painting shows the Virgin, surrounded by angels and protected by the light of the Holy Spirit, standing on a serpent with the child Jesus in her arms. But the middle of the painting is striking: an angel to Mary’s left is passing her a silk thread full of knots that she unties, handing on the unknotted thread to an angel on her right.
(Mary, the Untier of Knots,
by Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner, c. 1700,
in the Church of St. Peter am Perlach, Augsburg, Bavaria.)
This image of Mary the Untier of Knots keeps turning up…
The roots of the painting are profound to me, based, as it were in the prayers of the local Jesuit priest, Father Jakob Rem, who asked the Blessed Mother to untie all the knots in a particular household that was facing a potential crisis of trust. There was a chance that the household would crumble, and the husband sought help in seeking reconciliation. He had exhausted all his emotional resources and turned to God for guidance. Father Rem drew on the ancient words of St. Iranaeus of Lyon (2nd century), who described how The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. The family worked through its struggle, and the son commissioned the painting to honor the trustworthiness of God in supporting his family in such a time of struggle.
It is an image worth contemplating in our day and time when our “family” faces such turmoil and pain. How do we respond when we hold such anger, frustration, confusion, and cynicism—on all sides? What do we do when we seemingly reach the end of our emotional resources?
I think back to many conversations with Tilden Edwards at Shalem gatherings and conversations as we reflect on how “radical” it is to truly trust in the Spirit’s guidance in our lives. So often, we fall prey to believing that is through our own efforts that we overcome difficulties. We so easily trust in our own cleverness…and we are shocked when our ego tendencies raise their heads. How often do I smile when I win an argument?
Trusting in God’s grace to guide us is paramount, yet this is so difficult to do. We are plagued by a mentality of “us” and “them,” by a zero-sum game where there are winners and losers. Church is not immune from this egoistic tendency. Hence my frustration that arose in our conversation with having “people of faith” go and protest and speak out. What do we do about the others who claim the mantle of “people of faith” and speak out against what we speak out against? It’s like when you look in a mirror over your shoulder with a large mirror to your back…the image just keeps bouncing back and forth…forever.
How do we get past this block? What are we missing here?
On Monday, Cynthia and I have the chance to meet with Doug Collins, our local congressman. It’s interesting to me that the group who hosted us last week has invited us to this meeting. Something is going on. We have been told that immigration is on the agenda. I yearn for something deeper. If we’re going to talk about faith, I want to really talk about faith. I want to move beyond talking about how faith informs policy decisions and rest in that space that experiences faith in terms of union…dare I say offers a glimpse of that beatific vision that allows us to contemplate, simultaneously, our propensity to be oh, so human, and oh, so the beloved of God.
What if we sought a way where all people could come together not to speak to one another or debate one another, but to pray together. To sit in silence together. As human beings. As fellow strugglers. People of anxiety and fear and despair…and people yearning for hope…and union. No explanations. No policy statements. How might we move away from holding a political posture to holding a contemplative posture?
When is the last time I sat next to a Southern Baptist in a pew and prayed alongside them? When is the last time I risked being vulnerable…risked being silent alongside someone whom I feel I could not disagree with more?
Some might feel that this would be pointless because nothing would happen. Nothing would be done. Yet, perhaps we need to try silence more. In a silence such as this, we are doing nothing more than yielding—and there is nothing more important to do! Perhaps we need to risk holding our tongues and reaching out our hands. I was talking with Cynthia, wondering about this possibility, and I told her the image I had was that, before you say what you feel you need to say, try to pray how you know you need to pray. Risk trusting in God to offer insight into how a situation can shift. How new insights can break through. How, in listening to the pain of another, we end up hearing the Spirit’s call on all our lives. How, in the Christian contemplative tradition, the rational impulses of our minds fall into…settle into…lean into…rest in our spiritual heart, that mysterious place in us where God makes a home and calls us to dwell.
So, on Monday, I’m bringing an image of Our Lady the Untier of Knots with me to our meeting with Doug Collins. I’m going to invite us to wonder what shared silence might be like—what this image might offer us to reflect on as our family faces the painful struggle of our day and age.
 Austen Ivereigh, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014), 199-200.