Like many Catholics, I have a rosary that I carry in my pocket. I’m not sure how I got into the habit, but it has been with me for most of my life. I go through lots of rosaries because they tend to eventually break: a tiny strand of its metal gets caught on a thread, or the string unravels, or a bead busts, or it gets knotted and I tear it in the untying process. Though rosary fixers, like my old friend Bob Cunningham, used to repair them for me, there are many pieces that got buried at various places I have lived.
When I learned about Pope Francis’ devotion to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, I became more comfortable with rosaries falling apart, accepting that they don’t last forever. When he was a younger priest forty years ago and carried a heavy burden within his religious order, he witnessed then-pope Saint John Paul II praying the rosary with tender devotion and spiritual fervor. Following the example of the Polish pontiff who dedicated his papacy to Our Lady, the Argentinian began the daily devotion. Soon thereafter, he was sent to Germany where he was enamored by a seventeenth century painting by Johann Schmidtner which depicts the heavenly Blessed Mother, assisted by angels, untying knots on a ribbon while, far below, travelers embark on an earthly journey. He was so taken by the image that when he returned to South America, he included the image of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots in his correspondence.
The story of Mary as one who helps us untangle knots in our lives goes back long before the seventeenth century. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, in the second century, spoke of Christ’s mother as the New Eve whose role in salvation history is to undo the sin or untie the knot of our first parents. In praying the beads of the rosary, we are essentially asking her to assist us; as we contemplate worries of a wayward child, difficult job, sufferable marriage, struggle to make ends meet, violence, drug addiction, or whatever brings discord or hardship, whatever “nots” we bring to prayer, she will aid us in undoing the knots (or nots) and untying the worries and woes. Even if we pray with great fervor that busts a string or pops a bead, we know that we are in good hands as we place our knots (and nots) in the hands of our blessed mother.
As the Beatles famously sang, “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me speaking words of wisdom. Let it be. And in my hour of darkness, she is standing there in front of me…there will be an answer. Let it be.” She is sometimes called Seat of Wisdom because she provided the lap for Jesus, who is Wisdom-Incarnate; she takes on our troubles and works them out with patient care and loving tenderness as she would for her own child. We are graced by such a universal maternal protectress and comforter.
I love the image of Mary taking away our knots and our nots. Stars from Johnny Cash to Elvis to underdog athletes attest that certain earthly authorities tell us: “You ain’t nothin’.” But certain heavenly authorities, like Mary, remind us: “You are something,” and they help us get rid of nots, i.e., the voices of those who tell us we cannot. As Cash was once consoled by one who loved him, “Baby, you ain’t not no nothin’,” so can we realize (without the quadruple negatives) that we have worth, in both this world and the world beyond. Mother Mary, through the rosary, helps us understand that we can undo what is negative, overcome what is troubling, and untie those things that worry us; we have the faith to change “cannot” into “can.” We are something. As earthly travelers, be reminded of our heavenly undoer of knots who encourages us along the journey.