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.

Holy vs. Unholy Agreements

In moments of heartache, we humans are prone to make poor decisions by entering into unholy agreements. Jesus teaches us that the devil is the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). He does not abide in truth, and strives to keep us from doing so. In times of trauma he sows many lies, hoping that even a few will sprout. They often do.

That is why Saint Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, urges us to be discerning about when and how we make decisions in life. Entering into an agreement is serious business, and should only be done under favorable circumstances.

In my last post I described my need to unlearn what I had learned in order to be more receptive to the love of God and others. I am convinced that all of us have much “unlearning” to do as we seek to abide in love and truth.

We learn many lessons in our life. Not all of them are good or true or beautiful. Some of them are lies about ourselves or God, unholy agreements that get ratified and renewed as we proceed through life’s more overwhelming moments.

By “agreement” I mean that we somehow give our consent to a false core belief or an ungodly vow that gets presented to us amidst a difficult situation in life. For example, if a child or a spouse is repeatedly called “stupid” or “fat” or “ugly” or “bad,” all too often she internalizes that identity; she begins believing at her core that it is actually true. Later in life, when others tell her she’s good or beautiful or a blessing, she doesn’t believe it! They’re just saying that because they don’t really know her. Many of you know all too well how difficult it can be to break out of these identity lies – even with all the divine helps at our disposal.

I have made unholy agreements in my life. Part of me really believed lies of shame – that something was wrong with me, that I was not lovable for who I was, that I could only be loved if I achieved or performed well enough, and so forth. Part of me believed lies of abandonment – that no one would ever really understand me, that others could not be trusted and would ultimately let me down or leave me alone to face the most difficult moments of life.

I have also entered into agreements in the form of unholy vows. Around the age of 11, I vowed that I would never be like my stepfather. True, my desire not to imitate his abusive behaviors was praiseworthy. But making that vow wounded me deeply. It distanced me not merely from my stepfather, but from my heavenly Father and from my own healthy masculinity. I began striving to perform and be strong on my own, rather than abiding in the Father’s love. I have since called on Jesus to deliver me from that vow and have received much healing and peace. I find myself more and more free to relate to God as a loving Father and to be his beloved son.

In my last post, I mentioned another inner vow, one of self-protection. Even as an infant I began believing that it was better to face life independently, figuring it out myself rather than crying out unheard. We are made by God to be interdependent, receiving and giving love in a community of faith. The unholy agreement that I made so long ago (and renewed often enough when I felt like others had let me down) has restricted my freedom to receive love. The end result has been a fruitless attempt to live against the full truth of my human nature. We are made by God for  communion and  vulnerable receptivity. Instead, there I was, striving to be in control and independent. It would never work in any lasting way. Thankfully God has been leading me in a new and better direction.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises (nn. 175-177), describes three moments in which we can rightly enter into holy agreements. The first is when God attracts our will in an almost irresistible way. Think of Jesus calling the apostles, and the way they left their nets behind and followed him. When God inflames our holy desire in that way, we have no doubt of his goodness and truth and beauty, and say “yes” quite eagerly and easily.

Secondly, there is the experience of “consolation” and “desolation,” and the discernment that follows. This was how Ignatius discovered his own conversion and his new calling. Once a vain and proud man, this wounded soldier spent months in a hospital with only a Bible and lives of the Saints to read. Even though he found these stories to be dry and dull (unlike the spirited tales of knightly escapades that he was hoping to read), they left a deep and lasting impact. He began to notice a difference. Even though the fantasy thinking of his knightly tales would get him excited in the short term, it left him empty and distracted and distressed. By contrast, the Scriptures and the lives of the Saints would inflame holy desires in his heart that would abide for long periods of time. They continued bearing fruit days afterward. This growing awareness of a difference led Ignatius to accept the fruitfulness of his new calling and to reject the empty and fruitless fantasy of his old ways.

Thirdly, there is the use of our natural faculties of reason and deliberation to make the best decision possible – but only in a time of inner quiet. Ignatius repeats, “I said time of quiet, when the soul is not acted on by various spirits, and uses its natural powers freely and tranquilly.”

Notice the contrast with false core beliefs and unholy agreements, with which the devil is so eager to ensnare us! In times of trauma and heartbreak, he enters in, preying upon our fear and confusion, our sadness and loneliness, our powerlesness and hopelessness. He tempts us to give our consent and enter into an unholy agreement with his lies.

May we, like Ignatius, be set free from all unholy agreements that impede us. May we discern and embrace the full truth of our calling in Christ, and say “yes” freely and wholeheartedly.

Lessons from Master Yoda

“You must unlearn what you have learned.” These days I find myself pondering those words of Master Yoda. For the sake of the unfortunate uninitiated souls somehow still unfamiliar with the Star Wars universe (I suppose there are still one or two left), I can remind everyone of the plot of The Empire Strikes Back. After a dull childhood on a desert planet, Luke Skywalker has found himself swept up into great space adventures, joining the rebellion against the evil galactic empire. He begins to discover his true destiny as one of the Jedi, the ancient noble protectors of the galaxy, who are able to tap into “the Force” to do things that normally would seem impossible (e.g.,glimpsing the future or moving objects through telekinesis).

Much of the movie depicts Luke’s training with Yoda, the legendary Jedi Master. After Luke crash lands his spacecraft into a swamp, he encounters an odd creature. He does not realize it is Yoda, whom he seeks, because he is expecting a massive and mighty warrior. Instead, he encounters a diminutive 900-year-old Muppet.

Yoda proceeds to train Luke with all the methodology of a Zen master. Again and again, Luke discovers that his preconceived expectations do not match the deeper reality. The training stretches him physically and mentally and emotionally, often resulting in childish pouting and fits. At one point, Yoda asks the impossible – for Luke to use the Force to lift up his spacecraft that has sunk into the marsh. Yoda assures him that the task is no different than moving a small rock. It is only different in one’s mind. It is at that point that Yoda utters two of his famous taglines: “You must unlearn what you have learned” and “Do or do not; there is no try.” Luke “tries” and does not. Yoda then stuns Luke by doing the impossible and lifting the ship.

Eventually, Luke grows and matures. He needed more time to unlearn what he had learned. His transformation was slow and gradual, sometimes painful and frustrating, but also featuring moments of  breakthrough and liberation.

I can definitely relate. As you probably know by now, during these past couple of years, I have been on a journey of personal healing and freedom. To summarize the experience, I can turn to the words of another Luke, namely, the Gospel writer. Mine has been the experience described by Simeon during the Presentation in the Temple. As the Virgin Mary brings the baby Jesus, Simeon speaks a cryptic prophecy over her: “A sword will pierce through your own soul, so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:35). These past couple of years, I have experienced an ever deeper relationship with Jesus’ mother Mary. Staying close to her sorrowful heart, I have found my own heart being laid bare, layer by layer.

Like Luke Skywalker, I have found some steps of the journey to be exhilarating. He discovers hidden abilities and begins doing things that he never would have imagined possible. I have definitely discovered new joy and freedom, hidden blessings and gifts. Many of you have marveled at the way I slowly but surely lost weight (over 70 pounds!). That has been more a side effect of healthier living than a direct goal. The journey into my heart showed up in my body. What had previously been impossible suddenly began happening.

At other times, like Luke in his training, I have found myself pushing against invisible barriers – the diabolical lies and unholy agreements forged long ago in my heart. God has been delivering me from lies of shame, fear, rejection, and abandonment.

Lately God has been uncovering layers of self-protection, going back even to my earliest years of life. I have been learning to see my whole life as a big and beautiful story, guided by God and, yes, sharing at times in Christ’s suffering. Obviously, I do not explicitly remember my infancy, but I am beginning to understand how profoundly painful it was. My father was recently returned from the Vietnam War, in which he had navigated bombing missions. He felt personally responsible for those deaths. As I was born, he was plunged into addictions and significant mental health challenges. My mother, overwhelmed, moved back to Wisconsin for support, seeking to reconnect with the Church and with extended family. But in the meantime, with both parents traumatized, there were inevitably times in which I as an infant found myself feeling alone and unnoticed, uncared for and unloved. At times during my prayer, I have experienced fragmented and very painful emotional memories – along with deep consolation and healing. God has been showing to me that, even before conscious thinking, I made a vow that it would be much safer and much less painful to be “independent” and look after myself. I repeatedly ratified that vow over the course of my childhood amidst painful family situations. I used my imagination to forge an enormous inner world, one to which I could safely escape, and in which I could avoid the awful pain of feeling unwanted or unloved or rejected.

That inner world was beautiful, but lonely. I suppose that I needed some level of self-protection, and continued to need it for a while. The problem is that I don’t need self-protection anymore – yet still find myself engaging in it – even against God himself. I daily call on the name of Jesus to break the chains that I forged when I made that unholy vow, all those years ago. With help from God and others I am unlearning what I have learned. I am learning to be loved and to love.

I suspect that most of you, like Luke and like me, have many lies to unlearn as we all seek to abide in love and truth.