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Breaking Open the Ordinary

Sandy Prather



‘When life gets tangled, look to the Undoer of Knots

It seems as though I've been undoing a lot of knots lately. I'm back to crocheting and, at some point, that inevitably means dealing with snarled yarn. I sit with the mess in my lap and, not too patiently, attempt to pull the strands apart, trying to loosen the tangles. Weaving the free end in and out, creating gaps and holes, is a time-consuming process, but I know if I get impatient and pull too hard, everything tightens up and it becomes harder and sometimes impossible to unravel.

I've been doing the same thing with a gold chain that came out of my jewelry box twisted and jumbled. I've spent considerable time picking delicately at the various knots, trying to loosen and work them apart. It's painstaking work but again, I know if I pull prematurely or too hard, I'll ruin any chance I might have of repairing it.

I wish I could transfer such patience to my life. There are a few too many “knotted” situations where people I love are involved in complicated circumstances. For some it is family relationships; for others, money and work problems, while some are struggling with health issues. In every case, it seems that the options are limited and every choice would only make things more difficult. Often the individuals involved feel trapped, caught in a tangled weave. Not understanding and not seeing what to do, they are either frozen, unable to act, or they act impulsively and end up making things worse; the knots tighten. Watching and caring, my helplessness leaves me with an aching heart.

Where to turn? What do we do when faced with seemingly intractable, difficult situations that leave us tied up in knots? Perhaps we could learn from Mary, a woman who faced many an inexplicable event and troubled circumstance in her life. Scripture will tell us that, faced with situations she couldn't understand, Mary's response was “to ponder.”

The Greek word used in the Scriptures for her action is symballein and it means to puzzle things out, to toss them together until they make sense. It's derived from the action of untangling yarn or rope: you toss it gently to loosen the tangles so you can free the strands, and it's what Mary does when faced with the inexplicable.

Perplexed by the angel's announcement of a possible pregnancy, Mary “ponders” what its meaning might be. When the shepherds show up at the stable with an surprising message about her babe, she not only treasures their words, she also ponders them. At Simeon's prediction, upon losing and then finding Jesus in the Temple, and whilst standing under the cross, Mary ponders what is happening. She tosses the facts about, seeking to unravel their meaning. She metaphorically picks away at the knots, trying to release the tension, trying to understand what God is doing in her life and in her son's, and what her next steps might be.

It's a comforting and helpful image, Mary's pondering that unravels knots. It's also become a popular devotion. Amongst other titles, Mary is now becoming known as the “Undoer of Knots.” A Baroque painting dating from the 1700s in a church in Augsburg, Germany, shows Mary with a skein of knotted rope in her hands, which she is gradually untying. As a student, Pope Francis saw it while in Germany and he carried the veneration into Argentina and then spoke about it as pope. The image has flourished and icons, novenas and shrines dedicated to Mary as the Undoer of Knots have sprung up. People, along with their prayers, often leave pieces of knotted rope at the shrines.

We all have times when life gets tangled and stuff gets tied into knots. There are two dangers then. The first is that we feel so tied up that we freeze. Since we can't see a good way out, we are afraid to act and so we drift. As the situation continues unchanged, we are tempted to despair and life darkens.

The second danger moves us into impulsive, ill-considered action. Still without seeing a clear way, we flail about, thinking that any action is better than none. Regretfully, we often end up making things worse, complicating things even more and effectively tightening the knots. Neither response is helpful.

Mary's way of pondering life's knotty realities invites us to something different. We want to untie the knots, not by frozen inaction nor by impulsive action. Like her, we want to loosen everything by tossing things about, mulling them over and seeking to understand what God might be doing in our lives. It's a prayerful, reflective stance of holding the complexities of a situation even as we try gently to unravel it.

As such, there's great comfort in bringing the knots in our lives to Mary. It's a great reminder that, just as God was at work in all the circumstances of in Mary's life, so God is in ours. Even in the worst tangles, God's presence is to be sought. When we ponder such mysteries, like Mary, we help to unravel them. Mary serves as both companion and intercessor in this: we can turn to her and say, “Mary, Undoer of Knots, pray for us.”

Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.