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The Many Strands of Sanctity Found in Mary, Undoer of Knots

Your servant, Lord, your servant am I,

the son of your handmaid;

you have loosened my bonds.

A thanksgiving sacrifice I make;

I will call on the name of the Lord.[1]

The marriage of Wolfgang Langenmantel was headed for disaster—his wife Sophia contemplating divorce. Seeking help from the Church, Wolfgang found good counsel in Father Jakob Rem, a Jesuit priest with a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Father Rem was able to meet with the couple several times, entrusting their marriage to Our Lady of the Snows. On their last meeting, Father Rem took the white ribbon which bound their arms together on their wedding day and held it up to an image of Our Lady of the Snows. As if recalling the danger of man being “tangled in the ropes of his own sin” (Proverbs 5:22), the priest untied several knots that had found their way onto the ribbon and at that very moment the ribbon became dazzlingly white.

Wolfgang and Sophia, along with Father Rem, took this as a sign of grace from God through the intercession of Our Lady, and they remained happily married. Almost 85 years later, around 1700, a painting of Our Lady of Good Counsel was commissioned by their grandson, Father Hieronymus Langenmantel, in thanksgiving for the graces given to his family. Placed over a family altar at St. Peter am Perlach in Augsburg, Germany, the image prominently depicts Our Lady, standing on the head of a satanic serpent, untying knots of sin in the ribbon, helping to clear the way for the family to find peace in Christ. In this way, the devotion to Maria Knotenlöserin (“Mary Undoer of Knots”) was born in the context of two of life’s knottiest struggles: marital strife and familial difficulties.

At its heart, devotion to Our Lady Undoer of Knots has to do with the whole drama of salvation history: loosening our bonds to sin and binding us to the Lord Jesus. The central Old Testament episode in this regard is the sacrifice of Isaac—known best in Rabbinic circles as the Akedah, the “Binding of Isaac.” Isaac is bound and lets himself be bound in Abraham’s offering, entrusting himself wholly to his father and to the Lord—and Abraham “received Isaac back” (Hebrews 11:19). Lazarus illustrates this in the New Testament, being bound by the shroud of death and freed by the call of Jesus. Culminating in Jesus himself, the Lord allows himself to be bound by Roman authorities and crucified, only to be raised—loosed from the bonds of death!

The great fourth-century Mystagogic Catechesis illustrates this binding and loosing in the drama of baptism: the one being baptized is loosed from a “former treaty with hell,” trampling “underfoot [his] entire covenant with” Satan.[2] Next, the one being baptized enters into a new pact—undertaken in the baptismal liturgy itself—a binding union with the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Tim 6:15). With regard to binding and loosing of the Sacrament of Penance, St. Hilary of Poitiers says that whomsoever are left “bound in the knots of their sins” are bound to destruction; those whom are loosed from the knots of their sins are “those who by their confession receive grace unto salvation: these, in accord with the apostolic sentence, are bound or loosed also in heaven.”[3] It is from the loosening of the bonds of sin and the tying of allegiances to the Lord which the devotion to Our Lady Undoer of Knots has its origins.

While the untying of knots seems to be at cross-purpose with a popular image of marriage as a matter of “tying the knot,” nevertheless, the unravelling of marital difficulties has been one of the chief petitions put to Our Lady in this devotion. Our society tends to think of marriage as an individual choice for personal happiness—as long as happiness may last. Sins that cause marital difficulties are seen as isolated actions committed by individuals. Contrary to this individualism, we know that in the interconnectedness of all things, sin has the character of twisting itself around every aspect of life and relationships to the extent that it seems incapable of being extricated.

Because of the serpentine character of sin, one of several novenas composed to Our Lady Undoer of Knots dedicates days of prayer to a number of knotty issues: addictions, the reunion of Christians, conflicts within the Church, unbelief, unrepentant sin, and healing in general. Pope Francis prays that with her “motherly heart” Our Lady may “untie…the knots of our life,” freeing us from the “knots and confusion” that “prevent us from being united with God.”

While Pope Francis brought this devotion out of obscurity, the foundations of the devotion to Mary under this title rest on the shoulders of the second-century bishop of Lyons, St. Irenaeus. Irenaeus famously wrote that the “knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience. For what the virgin Eve tied by her unbelief, this Mary untied by her belief.”[4] Since sin had come into the world through a man and a woman (Adam and Eve), so sin had to be undone by a reversal through a man and a woman. Thus, for Irenaeus, “it was necessary that Adam should be summed up [recapitulated] in Christ, that mortality might be swallowed up and overwhelmed by immortality; and Eve summed up [recapitulated] in Mary, that a virgin should be a virgin’s intercessor, and by a virgin’s obedience undo and put away the disobedience of a virgin.”[5]

As Basil Studer expresses it, recapitulation is “the fact that Christ and Mary, through their obedience, have repaired Adam and Eve’s disobedience.”[6] Yet, Irenaeus goes further, employing what the late Mariologist Luigi Gambero calls the concept of “recirculation.” That is, not only do Christ and Mary repair the disobedience of Adam and Eve, but that the “process of restoration…had to correspond step by step, but in the opposite way, to the story of the fall.”[7] Thus, just as Eve had bound herself to the truths of Satan, believing his words over God’s, so Mary bound herself to the Lord, entrusting herself to God through the words given by the Archangel Gabriel. In this way, the lines of Mary’s obedience follow back through the looped path created by Eve’s disobedience.

So it is that what sin has twisted and tied, Our Lady unties. The one whom Gabriel called “Full of Grace” prepares the way for the Lord to bind us more closely to himself. As with the underside of a tapestry, the ties by which the Lord binds us to himself do not look like they are bringing about healing and restoration. Yet, when seen from the other side, these unseemly knots and jumbled strands of string work to reproduce the glory of his image and likeness in us. As we weave the tapestry, we normally look at it from the back side, focusing ourselves on the individual knots and loose threads. It is the Lord who sees the whole, who guides Our Lady in her work of untangling the threads. And once this is done, she turns and utters her final words of the Gospel: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).


Pope Francis’s Prayer to Mary, Undoer of Knots:

Holy Mary, full of God’s presence during the days of your life, you accepted with full humility the Father’s will, and the devil was never capable of tying you up with his confusion.

Once with your Son you interceded for our difficulties, and full of kindness and patience, you gave us the example of how to untie the knots in our life.

By remaining forever Our Mother, you put in order and make more clear the ties that link us to the Lord.

Holy Mother, Mother of God and our Mother, to you who untie with a motherly heart the knots of our life, we pray to you to receive in your hands (the name of the person), and to free him/her 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.


[1] The Benedictine Monks of Conception Abbey, The Revised Grail Psalms: A Liturgical Psalter (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, Inc., 2010), Ps 116:16–17.

[2] E.C. Whitaker, Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy (revised and expanded; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), 31.

[3] W. A. Jurgens, trans., The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 1 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1970–1979), 373.

[4] Irenaeus of Lyons, St. Irenaeus of Lyons: Against the Heresies, Book 3, ed. Irenaeus M. C. Steenberg, trans. Dominic J. Unger, vol. 64, Ancient Christian Writers (New York; Mahwah, NJ: The Newman Press, 2012), p. 105: Iren., Adv. Haer. 3.22.4.

[5] St. Irenæus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, ed. W. J. Sparrow Simpson and W. K. Lowther Clarke, trans. J. Armitage Robinson, Translations of Christian Literature. Series IV, Oriental Texts (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; The Macmillan Co., 1920), 100: Iren., Demonst. 33.

[6] Basil Studer, “Recapitulation,” ed. Angelo Di Berardino and James Hoover, trans. Joseph T. Papa, Erik A. Koenke, and Eric E. Hewett, Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic; InterVarsity Press, 2014), 383.

[7] Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought, trans. Thomas Buffer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 47.

Jeremy Priest

Jeremy Priest

Jeremy J. Priest is the Director of the Office of Family Life and Pro-Life Activities for the Catholic Diocese of Tulsa, OK. He recently completed his STL at the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL. He and his wife Genevieve have two children and live in Tulsa.