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.

Hiraeth Part II: Beauty Breaks Through

In my previous post I explored the human experience of hiraeth, which the Welsh describe as a bittersweet ache of our heart for some kind of elusive homeland. It’s a rather unique word describing a rather universal human experience – at least for those willing to look deeply within their heart.

I suggested that the experience of hiraeth is ultimately an invitation into Christian hope. In the remotest depths of our heart we “remember” a homeland that has not yet come into full existence. We have tasted its fruits, like the Israelites on the edge of the promised land. Like them, we are held back by sadness and fear. By the power of God, Joshua (Yeshua in Hebrew) led the Israelites through dangers and into the promised land. Jesus (also Yeshua in Hebrew) will lead us through the dark valley and into his Kingdom, the fruits of which we begin to enjoy even now.

Even with Jesus at our side, it can be so hard to muster the courage to re-enter the dark and scary places of our heart. We live in a world that encourages us to escape reality and numb our pain. Instead of grieving well, many brokenhearted people turn to manifestly destructive behaviors: drunkenness, illegal narcotics, internet pornography, sexual promiscuity, impulse shopping, overeating, chain smoking, or compulsive gambling. Aside from addictions, we find more subtle ways of hurting self and others as we try to cope: being critical or sarcastic, “fixing” others, engaging in manipulative behavior, lying, peevishness, or fault finding.

Perhaps we don’t turn to behaviors that are directly hurtful, but run from our pain all the same. I think here of activities such as daydreaming, spending long hours playing video games, binge watching TV shows, a never ending quest for tattoos or piercings, fanatical exercising, plunging into busyness or careerism, obsession with sports, and so forth. We numb and anesthetize, hoping somehow to avoid our pain forever. But it will not go away on its own.

Please don’t get discouraged in reading these lists! Probably all of us engage in some level of coping. It’s part of our survival instincts – which are there by God’s design to help us get through the troubles of life. The problem is when the “high alert” switch gets stuck in the “on” position and we don’t learn how to calm down and face reality.

I look back now on my childhood and realize that I had an enormous amount of emotional and spiritual pain without knowing how to face it. I coped for several years by turning to extensive daydreaming, and so I struggled in school and in sports. As I entered adolescence, I learned how to pay attention and became an overachiever. All seemed well, but it was actually a new way of trying to escape from pain. I spent my down time playing thousands of hours of video games, and otherwise strove towards every accolade I could achieve. There was good that came from all of these things – but they ultimately avoided the pain rather than help me overcome it.

Thankfully, truth and goodness and beauty have a transcendent power. They are always capable of lifting up the human spirit. In my Catholic high school years, I experienced a significant spiritual conversion. Even as I strove to “achieve” in my religion classes, I was captivated by the objective truth and goodness and beauty that I encountered. God writes straight with our crooked lines. My faith and spiritual life deepened, and I went on to have many profound moments of conversion.

Nonetheless, there was still plenty of minimizing and false hope, ignoring the signs that all was not well with my soul. It was only during the most recent years of my life that I realized the need to grieve some of those old wounds in earnest.

For me, as for many others, there were formidable walls of pride and self-protection. In my need to feel safe, I found ways to isolate and protect those places of pain – also keeping the out the good in the process. At times truth and goodness would beat at the door, and I would yield, even if it was painful. I cannot stand to live a lie. But I can be pretty darn skilled at minimizing. My mind is a gift that sometimes works against me.

But beauty breaks through. It has a way of catching us when our guard is down and sneaking past our defenses. Occasionally over the years I would find myself tearing up at scenes in movies. I didn’t always understand why (and was glad no one could notice in the darkness of the theater). But when I became serious about facing past wounds and growing in hope, I realized that I would benefit from turning actively to art, music, poetry, movies, and other aesthetic expressions. I sought and found those that spoke to my heart. And speak they did. I let the tears flow – sometimes cathartically. I talked to trusted friends and to the Lord about what I was experiencing. Layer by layer, the encounter with beauty has helped to heal my heart and increase my hope.

We all have dark and scary places in our heart that we would rather avoid. Thankfully, like Peter and James and John on Mount Tabor, we occasionally receive a glimpse of glory, a foretaste of our true destiny. Like them, we can find the strength to endure the darkness of Good Friday and journey forward in hope to the glory of the Resurrection and Ascension.

Come, Lord Jesus!

“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Countless Christians profess these words in the Nicene Creed every single Sunday. But do we pause to reflect on the reality of Judgment that is coming?

Perhaps we are uneasy or afraid at the thought of all things being laid bare for all to see. As Jesus tells his disciples, “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known” (Matthew 10:26) – an unsettling thought indeed.

Yet we beg God repeatedly that this Judgment will happen. Every time we pray the Our Father, we beseech Him, “Thy Kingdom Come.”  Or we pray with great longing, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Somehow, this Judgment, painful though it may be, is definitively Good News for us. Rather than dread it, we can learn to hope and long for it, to see it as our one and only way to true freedom.

A wise man once told me, “The truth can hurt, but it will never harm.” An even wiser man once said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

Truth is indeed a central theme in Judgment. Jesus is the just one who will bring forth the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. There will be no shading of the truth on that day, no half-truths or equivocations, no pretending or putting on masks, no selective reporting of the facts. Those are tactics we turn to in our insecurity, but they won’t work on the Day of Judgment. The full truth will emerge.

Paul perhaps puts it best, in his typically confusing way: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

We will know ourselves as God knows us. Our full truth will be brought to the light of day. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. He is God’s eternal Word. In the beginning, God spoke that Word, and it was made. On the Day of Judgment, He wills speak that Word in glory. All that is true and definitive will emerge, with all falsehood melting away once-and-for-all.

Thankfully, the full and definitive truth about ourselves includes God’s tender and merciful love for us as his beloved children. He only wants to love us. He is not out to get us. In our distorted view of God, we tend to think that He is trying to trip us up, catch us in our sins, yell “Gotcha!!” and then smite us. Those are lies about God and ultimately lies about ourselves.

Yes, hell is a real possibility. Jesus speaks of it often. But God is not out to get us. Hell is real because love is real. God has created us to love and be loved. That includes freely receiving and freely giving. He will never force us – otherwise it would not be love!

If there is any consistent theme in Scripture, it is that God always respects human freedom. He never makes anyone do anything. He invites and entices. He exhorts and urges. He corrects and chastens. But He created us as free sons and daughters, and desires to save us as free sons and daughters. Our free “yes!” is part of the story. In the end, God gives us what we want. His Judgment lays bare all that we have freely chosen for ourselves. Jesus is God’s Word, and he says “Amen!” to what we have chosen during the time allotted to us.

Thankfully he does not leave us alone and unaided in our exercise of human freedom. We truly share in the death and resurrection of Jesus. His life becomes our life. And the Day of Judgment becomes a Day of Justice. Our King comes to settle all affairs, and to set things right once-and-for-all. Is that not our heart’s deepest longing?

Part of that setting right is the setting free of our own hearts. Our false self must die definitively so that our new self can emerge victorious. That experience proves to be painful and liberating at the same time.

The image offered frequently in Scripture is that of fire. “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). His love blazes mightily. The prophet Malachi foretells the great and terrifying Day of the Lord, coming like refiner’s fire. Gold is plunged into the furnace, not to destroy it, but to purify it of all that is not gold. God wants each of us to pass through the fire of Judgment and emerge as his free and glorious children.

When Paul talks about being known as we are known by God, he also says, “Faith, hope, and love endure, these three. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). All else is burnt away in the fire of Judgment, except that which is graced by our union with the Lord Jesus. Earlier in the same letter, Paul speaks of many of us being saved on the Day of Judgment, “but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15). All within us that is wood and hay and straw will be burnt away – our own feeble attempts at self-assertion and self-protection. But the gold, silver, and precious stones will endure – all that we have freely received from God in faith, hope, and love. In the beautiful words of Benedict XVI, the fire of Christ’s love will sear us through. We will become truly and totally ourselves, and thus truly and totally of God.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Not-So-Great Expectations (Part 2 of 2)

In my last post, I described our human tendency to impose silent expectations on others, rather than asking for what we desire or need. That behavior works well enough for everyday interactions. It becomes irrational or foolish when we are expecting others to make our pain go away or to fulfill the deepest yearnings of our heart.

I mentioned the book Seven Desires by Mark and Debbie Laaser. They identify seven universal human longings: to be heard and understood, to be affirmed, to be blessed, to be safe, to be touched in a meaningful way, to be chosen, and to be included. They also offer the image of an iceberg. What we think of as “the problem” is often just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, silent and massive, lurks a strong force in motion that warrants much greater attention. If ignored long enough, it will advance with unstoppable momentum.

As I read their book, I felt the scales falling from my eyes. I now recognize that I was sometimes unwittingly placing expectations on others and that I was letting others place them on me. I realized that I often felt anxious or unsafe, rejected or shameful, alone or misunderstood. It was not other people’s fault that I felt those things. It was okay that I felt those things. I was not trapped. I was not doomed to feel those things forever. I could do something about it. My heavenly Father, my Blessed Mother Mary, and my true friends were there, if only I would ask for help. Not everyone can help me all the time.

In fact, it is much more appropriate that they do not. It is so important for us ordained ministers to have a strong support network outside of the communities we serve. That allows us the freedom of heart to love and serve the people in front of us.

After years of downplaying my emotional and spiritual pain, I began seeking and receiving additional support in facing my wounds of fear, shame, rejection, and abandonment. One of my friends and I have been on a similar journey, and regularly encourage each other to stay on the path of healing. It’s tempting to turn aside! He and I like to quip, “The problem with facing painful emotions is that they’re painful.” It is no surprise that many of us prefer to avoid them.

I totally relate to the analogy offered by Sister Miriam Heidland in her book Loved as I Am. She describes the numbness we feel in winter if we come indoors with frostbite. Following the numbness comes an excruciating pain – which is a step in the right direction – and finally the recovery of normal sensation in our appendages. Like little children, we often need to be encouraged that coming in from the cold is good for us, and that the unbearable pain is only temporary.

Jesus modeled for us a willingness to depend upon others, to ask for and receive what he needed. The Gospels describe how frequently he withdrew to abide with his Father, and how he radically depended upon his Father. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus humbly asked his friends to spend an hour with him in prayer – perhaps knowing that they might not give him what he asked for. Imitating his Father, he respected their freedom. He was secure in his identity as God’s beloved Son and had full confidence that his real needs would still be provided for.

Above all else, Jesus modeled true freedom for us. I yearn to imitate that freedom: “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely” (John 10:18). He offered himself freely as the spotless Lamb of God, but he never played the victim card.

I must admit that I still find it challenging to let my “yes” mean “yes” and my “no” mean “no” (cf. Matthew 5:37). I sometimes find myself saying “yes” grudgingly, and then needing to battle through resentment or self-pity. I sometimes experience irrational guilt or shame when I say “no” – even when my “no” is for very good reasons. Instead of a simple “yes” or “no” I often feel the need to justify myself.  My heart is a work in progress.

In my lack of full freedom, I can see that I am still struggling with unreasonable expectations – sometimes with those that others try to impose on me, but especially with the unreasonable expectations that I place on myself.

I’ve learned to listen attentively to my heart and lips, guarding against those words, “I have to…” In truth, I never “have to” do anything. No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely. There is always a choice. God always respects our freedom. Look at Adam and Eve. Look at the prodigal son. The Father allowed them to go their way. He allowed them to learn from the consequences of their choices. He never “makes” us do anything. We are always free.

I have to” is a lie. Often we believe it because we are avoiding a conflict or running from a challenging situation. Other times we tell ourselves “I have to” because we somehow believe that our self-worth will be diminished if we don’t fulfill this expectation of the other person. That’s a lie. We remain God’s sons and daughters; his Fatherly love never changes. When we can believe the full truth about who we are as God’s beloved children, then we can break free from the prison of fear. We can shake off the shackles of unreasonable expectations and begin freely giving and freely receiving, abiding in authentic human love.