Untying Knots with Mary

Over the last two weeks, I have reflected on the need to unlearn what we have learned and to be disentangled from unholy agreements. Today I would like to reflect on the assistance we can find by turning to our blessed mother Mary as we seek full freedom in Christ.

Mary is sometimes referred to as the “Undoer of Knots” – a devotion popularized by Jorge Mario Bergoglio (better known as Pope Francis). In 1986, Bergoglio spent a few months in Germany. He never finished his doctoral thesis, but he found himself captivated by  an image of Mary in the church of Saint Peter in Augsburg. The painting is the work of Johann Georg Schmidtner (completed around 1700).  It depicts one angel feeding a knot-laden ribbon into Mary’s capable hands. Beneath her calm and persistent gaze, we see the other end of the ribbon passing back down, knot free, into the hands of another angel. Bergoglio took his newfound devotion back to Argentina. With his papacy, it has spread throughout the world.

Its popularity is not a surprise. The image speaks so readily and so deeply to the human heart. Children instinctively bring their tangles and knots to their mother, often in frustration and exasperation. Under her calming and soothing gaze, what had seemed overwhelming and impossible becomes livable and manageable. They find that she has eased their agitation and restored their hope.

This childlike need for soothing and calming does not go away when we enter adulthood. We get just as tired and just as agitated. We have our “meltdowns” and frustrations and tantrums. We are merely much better at hiding and pretending and denying our need for help. If anything, the tangles and knots we experience in adult life are far more complex and scary!

The idea of Mary as one who unties knots is actually an ancient one. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, writing about A.D. 180,  describes Mary as the New Eve who unties the knot wrought by our first mother: “And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” Just as Eve became the mother of all the living, so is Mary now the mother of all those who are alive in Christ as members of His Body.

Jesus knew our lifelong need for a spiritual mother, and so He gave Mary to each of us when He died on the Cross: “When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple there whom He loved, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (John 19:26-27). If you read John’s Gospel carefully, you will note that the name “John” is never given. Rather, he uses “beloved disciple” or “the disciple whom he loved.” This allows each of us to put ourselves into that identity as a beloved disciple. When Jesus gives Mary as a mother, he is not creating a mother-son relationship between Mary and John only, meant to last merely a couple of decades. In that case, why bother to record the conversation? If ever there was a dying man whose last words are charged with meaning and intentionality, it is the eternal Son of God who died on the Cross for us! He wills us to receive and be received by Mary as our mother. We need her motherly care as we grow into our identity in Christ.

Although Schmidtner’s painting is beautiful, I chose instead to share this less-known icon written by Alfred Rebhan. It speaks powerfully to my heart. Living now by faith in Christ Jesus, we are one with him. The life we live now is not our own (Galatians 2:20); we literally become Christ. His Father is now Our Father. His mother Mary is now our mother. When we need a soothing and calming mother who can aid us, she is there, just like the Virgin in this icon, placing her gentle and encouraging hand on our shoulder as we (one with Christ) find the freedom to face our knots and untie them.

That has certainly been my story – especially during the last couple of years of my life, which have been truly transformational. Devotion to Mary has been at the center of that conversion. I sought her aid in my desire to untie one or two frustrating knots. Little did I realize that I would need to face a massive tangle of interconnected knots, long ago buried and forgotten in the basement of my heart: including lies, unholy agreements, unhealed wounds, and much more. Little by little, I have been learning to be open and receptive like the Christ Child – who emptied himself completely and let himself depend upon His heavenly Father and upon Mary His mother. Apart from Christ (and apart from his blessed mother) I am powerless to disentangle these knots. But one with Him, close to His blessed mother and close to other members of His Body, I am finding the freedom and peace I need to proceed and persevere.

Forgiveness: Counting the Cost

Jesus teaches us to be merciful like the Father, to forgive from our heart. The “Our Father” is a daily reminder that we must seek to forgive if we ourselves desire to be forgiven. Easier said than done!

Sometimes we just don’t want to forgive. The hurt can be so deep. The damage can be so lasting – or perhaps ongoing.

Even those determined to forgive can feel stuck. Just when we think we have finally let it go, some little event of daily life sets off a reaction in us, exposing new layers of bitterness and resentment. Will it never end?

Today I suggest a shocking concept: in order to forgive, we must learn to count the cost, yes, even when counting the cost involves feeling angry. Allow me to explain.

The Bible often describes forgiveness in terms of writing off a debt. In the Old Testament, God instructed the Jews to observe a Year of Jubilee every 50 years. It was to be a year of liberation and consolation, a year of setting slaves free and writing off old debts.

In Matthew 18, Jesus offers us the parable of the unforgiving servant. He owes his master a vast sum of money, impossible to pay back, and his master writes off the entire debt. The same servant goes out and throttles a fellow servant who owes him a mere pittance. Jesus offers the moral of the story: that we who are forgiven so much by God must go forth and forgive from our heart.

But let’s not lose the image of writing off a debt. To write off a debt, I must name what is owed. Then I can declare that I release the other person from the debt.

This is where so many of us get stuck in our unforgiveness. When it comes to serious betrayal, cruelty, abuse, or neglect, the wound can be so deep and painful that we prefer to ignore it. It’s so much easier to turn to a cliché like “forgive and forget” or “move on with life” or “water under a bridge.” But if we minimize or deny just how serious the pain is, we leave ourselves unfree to write off the debt. Part of us will hold on to the resentment and bitterness. It will keep leaking out until we finally face it. If we are obstinate, it may even lead us to harden our heart and block ourselves from ever receiving or giving love again.

“Counting the cost” means giving ourselves permission to feel deeply angry at those who have hurt us and (-gasp-) even at God himself. He can handle it! If a flawed parent can handle the anger of an unruly child, surely our heavenly Father will love us tenderly when we come to him upset and in pain. If you don’t believe me, I urge you to read the Book of Job or to pray some of the Psalms. God delighted in Job and David precisely because they came to him with an open heart: no wearing of masks, no pretending or protecting. God healed their hearts.

Unfortunately, in the name of being Christian, many make the mistake of viewing anger as a bad thing, a shameful thing, an unacceptable thing. It is not uncommon for Christian families to train their children that they must never express anger. So the children learn from their parents to minimize or deny, to pretend like they’re not actually angry. Their anger turns to passive aggression and breeds toxic relationships that never seem happy.

Yes, there are destructive ways of expressing anger that we should avoid. Lashing out at others physically or verbally is a bad thing. Damaging people or property is a bad thing. Stubbornly holding a lifelong grudge is a bad thing.

But anger can also be a healthy emotion, an important part of the human experience. Like it or not, it is often there – and will stay there – until we finally face it and resolve it. The same holds true for even more painful emotions such as shame or fear, which often lurk beneath our anger and fuel it.

It is so much easier to avoid our wounds – especially for those of us who pretend that we are in control.  If we have been hurt, and hurt badly, we instinctively resist and avoid the prospect of going toward the painful emotions. We fear that once we start feeling them we may never stop. We will lose control. The pain will never end. And so forth.

That is why it is so important to draw close to God and others in our pain – not just anyone, but those who are truly trustworthy – those who will empathize and encourage and accompany, challenging us without trying to “fix” us. With communal support, our wounds will not be too much for us. We can face them. We can name them. We can claim them. Then we can call upon Jesus to heal us and set us free.

All too often, our Christian communities have been dysfunctional, not seeking to heal the whole person. Instead of showing empathy and accompaniment to the broken-hearted, instead of weeping with those who weep, we try to fix them with rule-following. We tell them what they should feel and think. Or we help them numb their pain with more socially acceptable drugs like busyness or volunteering. Like Job, they just need someone to acknowledge their pain and be with them. God will provide the healing. But we are saved as a believing community, not as isolated individuals.

When we find authentic community with others and with God, we can probe the depths of our wounds. We can “count the cost.” And then – calling on Jesus – we can truly release it all. We can forgive from our heart.

Watching and Waiting with T.S. Eliot

I love the poetry of T.S. Eliot. To kick off Advent, I recently got together with a friend and pulled out his play entitled Murder in the Cathedral. It recounts the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket in the Canterbury cathedral on December 29, 1170. In typical T.S. Eliot fashion, he also offers much for our modern culture to think about.

The play begins during Advent, on December 2. Becket is returning from France, where he has been living in exile for seven years, protected by King Louis (for whom the city of “Saint Louis” is named). Becket had been an old drinking buddy of King Henry II. They caroused and womanized together, as well as engaging in political affairs together. Becket was the brains behind Henry’s operation. As chancellor, he helped the king forge a greater unity in the island and rule more forcefully – sometimes even at the expense of the Church. Henry thought it would be a brilliant idea to promote his friend and chancellor as the new archbishop of Canterbury. Then everything changed. Becket took his identity as priest and archbishop even more seriously than his role as chancellor. He embraced a life of penance and prayer. He resigned the chancellorship and led the flock courageously. He defended the religious freedom of the Church – even when it enraged his friend the king.

The audience is presumed to know the basic story (back in 1935 in England they would have). By December 29, Henry grows tired of Becket’s unwillingness to compromise, he eventually cries out in anger, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest???” Four of his knights pick up on his cue. They arm themselves with alcohol and swords and assassinate Becket at the altar during Vespers. After the fact, Henry II repented, doing penance at Becket’s tomb. Sad to say, it was not the last time in England that a King named Henry would murder an ex-chancellor or a bishop over the issue of religious freedom. 460 years later, Henry VIII came along and killed both John Fisher and Thomas More.

T.S. Eliot loves to explore the human heart. He offers the reader a window into Becket’s soul during his moment of martyrdom. In the estimation of some historians, Becket obstinately and recklessly rushed into his death. They believe it was preventable. There is no question that he saw it coming. T.S. Eliot depicts Becket’s attitude in a way that shows true human freedom and fulfillment.

The beginning of the play is set in Advent and offers some very Advent-y words. Becket foresees the end that is coming, but abides in a time of watching and waiting:

End will be simple, sudden, God-given.
Meanwhile the substance of our first act
Will be shadows, and the strife with shadows.
Heavier the interval than the consummation.
All things prepare for the event. Watch.

It is not the actual moment of trial or martyrdom that is difficult. It is all the successive moments leading up to it. “Heavier the interval than the consummation.” Abiding in love, watching and waiting, is so much harder than a brief moment of pain. I think college students preparing for their final exam can relate!

I have already written about the “already but not yet” of Advent, and of our Christian existence in general. Christ comes to us at each and every moment, standing at the door of our heart, knocking and waiting patiently for us to admit him. We only live in the present moment and can only say “yes” in the present moment. Jesus teaches us that it is by being faithful in small things that we learn how to be faithful in large once. Our “yes” or “no” to God’s will in the present moment sets the stage for the Day of Judgment. That Day of Judgment is already present in each of those moments.

Becket faces four tempters (played by the same actors who later enter as the four knights). One by one, he resists their efforts – tempting him to go back to his old pleasures of the flesh, to go back to the power of the chancellorship, or to ally himself with the barons and stick it to the king. Then comes the final and most enticing temptation: for Becket to position himself as a martyr, admired and honored, with his enemies reviled and repentant. Becket resists. The tempter even tempts him to think of centuries beyond, when his shrine is long since rotted and corrupted, but he will experience endless heavenly glory. Even there, Becket resists. Pursuing martyrdom, even for heavenly glory, would ultimately be feeding his own ego and dishonoring God.

Becket renounces his pride. He surrenders his will to God’s. He neither seeks nor avoids. He neither lets himself  be a victim of fate, nor pretends to be master of his own destiny. He does not disagree with the words of one of the tempters: “Only the fool, fixed in his folly, may think he can turn the wheel on which he turns.” However, Becket sees in faith that God is the one turning the wheel. He positions himself in peace at the “still point” in the very center of the turning wheel – neither active nor passive, neither controlling nor controlled. He is truly free as God’s instrument:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason…
I shall no longer act or suffer, to the sword’s end.
Now my good Angel, whom God appoints
To be my guardian, hover over the swords’ points.

In holy and free receptivity, his prayer is like that of the Virgin Mary in the Annunciation: that it be done unto him according to God’s Word. As each of us watches and waits for the final consummation of our own lives, may we also abide at that “still point” of God’s love.

The Communion of Saints

As most of you know, “Hallowe’en” is short for All Hallows’ Eve. Tonight is the vigil of All Saints. On this day, we rejoice in the victory that God has already won in the lives of the holy men and women who have gone before us in faith. They are now fully alive in the heavenly Body of Christ. Their triumph in Him gives us hope amidst our difficulties.

They also give us comfort and support. We are not alone in our struggle. We are united with them in love. For Christ’s Body is one.

You may recall the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus. He heard the voice of Jesus questioning him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Not “Why are you persecuting my followers?” But “Why are you persecuting me?” Christ and his members are one. Many parts but one living body. Branches abiding on the vine. Living stones in the temple. Bride and bridegroom united as one flesh.

Paul’s encounter was not simply a one-on-one personal encounter with Jesus. It was an encounter with the whole mystical reality that is the Church. The encounter changed Paul’s life was forever. His old self died, along with his desperate striving for self-righteousness. He took on a completely new existence “in Christ” – a phrase that he went on to use 165 times in his letters! He understood our existence “in Christ” as a totally new identity, now no longer in isolation, but in an abiding communion with God and neighbor. In Romans 6 he described faith and baptism as causing us to die with Christ and rise with him to new life.

We are united in Christ in a living communion of love that far transcends the here and now. Saint Augustine offers a panoramic view of the Church as the whole Christ united in love:

“His Body is the Church, not this or that church, but the one that is spread throughout the world, not only that which exists now in the men and women of this present life, but includes also those members who existed before us and those who will exist after us – all the way to the end of the world.  For the whole Church, made up of all the faithful (for all the faithful are members of Christ) has in heaven that head placed over her that guides his body. Though separated in vision, she is united as one in love.”

The Apostles’ Creed is a prayer treasured by Catholics and Protestants alike. In it, we profess our belief in the “communion of saints.” The Latin phrase is sanctorum communio, words that are delightfully ambiguous. They can mean “fellowship of holy people” as well as “sharing of holy things.” In fact, “communion of saints” means both. When one member of the Body suffers, all suffer. When one is exalted, all are exalted. Christ and his Bride are truly one flesh. They share everything together.

In our present days of darkness and division, this heavenly communion should give us great hope and encouragement. We are not alone. We are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). They have already conquered in Christ. They are now cheering us on as we run the race and fight the good fight.

Their triumph and their love also nurtures our deepest and holiest desires – which often lie dormant and forgotten, buried beneath the stress and chaos of our lives. Chief among those desires is the virtue of hope. Christian hope is a deep and intense longing for our true heavenly homeland.

There are many counterfeit versions of “hope” these days – political ideologies, fantasy escapes, worldly success, or the promise that technology can solve all our problems. These false hopes promise much but deliver little. They leave us disappointed, as the thing-hoped-for proves not to be the answer to our heart’s deepest questions.

True hope does not disappoint. We are destined to be perfected in the love of Christ. If we freely cooperate with his free gift, we will one day be strong enough and pure enough and holy enough to see God in the face and live. Mind you, He already loves us dearly. But we are not yet ready to receive all that love in all the ways he would love to share it. He prepares us step by step. Our capacity to receive needs to be stretched. Our desire needs to grow and grow. The more intense our longing for the Lord, the more capable we become of receiving true holiness.

Often, it is precisely through the painful trials of life that God blesses and strengthens us the most. In the moment they are cause for misery, but over time they emerge as part of a larger and beautiful story. Jesus compares the experience to a mother in labor, who finally gives birth. Paul compares it to athletes in training, with their eyes on the prize. Scripture frequently speaks of gold or silver plunged into the furnace, purified of all dross so that God’s glory can shine forth.

In this life or the next, all of us are destined to be purified by the fire of God’s love and come to shine with the saints in heaven. I have never heard that encounter described more beautifully than in the words of Pope Benedict XVI:

“…the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with Him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw … and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of His heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire.’ But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of His love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.”

May we all draw inspiration from the holiness of the saints. May we be unafraid of the intensity of God’s love, which is indeed an all-consuming fire. Rather, may we be filled with true hope, abiding in God’s love until all his promises are fulfilled.