They often come to me, frustrated to the point of tears, and thrust the source of their pain into my lap— the tangled mess of puppet strings, the heap of Mardi Gras beads, the untold quantities of entwined homemade necklaces, the lump of rainbow yarn destined for a loom project, the double-knotted shoelaces of soccer cleats, the twisted ribbons for ribbon dancing, the knotty bits of endless and very important twine needed for all sorts of mysterious purposes. And I undo them. With patience (and teeth and maybe a little inner cursing), I undo the knots and hand the unraveled strands back to the child with tear-stained cheeks.
Of all the images and titles of Our Lady, I did not expect that Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, whose feast we celebrate today, would be the one I most relate to and cling to as a mother. But in a way, it shouldn’t surprise me. After all, my relationship with Mother Mary was forged over rocks and ropes and literal knots. That is, I am a convert, and the same year that I became interested in Catholicism and thereby had to confront new, and at the time unpalatable theology about Mary, I also took up rock climbing. Skeptic though I was regarding Marian dogmas, I would find myself, time and again, high up a cliff face, confronting a precarious move, and muttering, “Hail Mary, uh, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. But don’t let your child die now.” And time and again, I would return safely to the ground, wondering to myself why I kept appealing to Mary (of all people!) and her protective motherhood during these times of desperation. As my love of climbing grew during those years, so did my love and trust of Mary.
One of the things I love about climbing and the drama of sports in general is how readily they lend themselves as metaphors for the striving endeavors within our larger lives. As much as climbers depend upon their knots to stay knots, we also eventually have to undo them. Yet every climber will tell you there are moments of deep, at times comical, humility wherein, having returned to the ground, we cannot untie the rope from our harness by ourselves. The harder or more frequently one has fallen on a route, the more the knot cinches down upon itself and cannot be undone with spent, shaking fingers. So, there I have often stood, defeated from a route harder than my capabilities, pain coursing through my forearms, my hands useless from exhaustion, and I must turn and ask my partner for help to be released from the rope binding me to the rock wall.
But in these moments of failure, there is grace. The person holding the end of the line, who has watched over and protected my life as I’ve struggled with problems beyond my strength and skill, who has encouraged and cheered me on, who has caught me when I’ve fallen, now brings me near, and mercifully loosens my knot. In these moments, I think of Our Lady. While I’m grateful for the adrenaline-fueled joy and triumph I’ve experienced in climbing, it is the failures that have best prepared me to recognize my own limitations, to know that I cannot overcome every obstacle through the strength of my will and that there will be times to back down, and to humbly ask for help. For someone who likes to think I conquer cliffs solo, those lessons may grate, but ultimately, what a relief to know my heavenly mother has her hand on my rope.
The truth is that each of our lives so easily becomes an overwhelmingly knotty mess. What we thought would be straightforward relationships become tangled with complex human emotions, disparate perspectives, and divergent expectations. Negligence, ingratitude, and selfishness snarl them. The blessed ties that bind become fraught with conflict, anger, and resentment, and we have neither the strength nor vision to straighten them. Yet Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, knows the twists and turns of each thread more than we ever will. My hope is that as my children grow, they will still bring their knots of broken hearts, fractured friendships, difficult marriages, and tangled situations to their mama. And I pray that we will readily hand them over to Our Mama and wait patiently as she most faithfully unties them.
Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, pray for us.