When Pope Francis was headed to Mass in front of the Philadelphia Art Museum on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, he stopped at a makeshift grotto outside the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul there. It may have looked like Halloween mischief come early to anyone watching without explanation. There, people had left their prayer intentions — knots in their lives they need undone. Since becoming pope, one Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s devotion to Our Lady, Undoer of the Knots has been popularized. Marge Fenelon, author of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots: A Living Novena, talks about it. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is Our Lady, Undoer of Knots?
Marge Fenelon: Our Lady, Undoer of Knots is a Marian devotion that began in the seventeenth century with a German nobleman, Wolfgang Langenmantel. He and his wife, Sophie, were having marital difficulties and were on the brink of divorce. In desperation, Wolfgang sought the counsel of Jesuit Father Jacob Rem, a holy priest known for his wisdom. In the course of their sessions, Father Rem was inspired to have Wolfgang bring in his marriage ribbon — an old custom in which the bride and groom’s hands are bound together with a silk ribbon during the wedding ceremony. Together, Wolfgang and Father Rem presented the ribbon to the Blessed Virgin Mary, asking her to undo the knots that had occurred over the years. She did as instructed, and Wolfgang and Sophie were reconciled and enjoyed a long and happy marriage thereafter. Many years later, the couple’s grandson, Hieronymus, commissioned an artist to create a painting depicting the story of Wolfgang and Sophie’s reconciliation. The painting became known as “Our Lady, Undoer of Knots,” and the devotion developed from that.
Lopez: Why was the man who would become Pope Francis so into her?
Fenelon: While he was in Germany studying for his doctorate, Pope Francis (then Jorge Bergoglio), visited the church in which the painting of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots was displayed. He learned of the painting’s origin and the ensuing devotion to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots and “fell in love” with it. He bought a postcard of the painting and brought it with him when he returned to Argentina after he’d completed his studies. There he began to spread the devotion.
Although he has not given the specifics, Pope Francis credits Our Lady, Undoer of Knots for seeing him through a very difficult time in his life, and so he is convinced of the devotion’s power.
Lopez: There was a Knots Grotto in Philadelphia that Pope Francis saw while he was there. What was that all about?
The handwriting was illegible, but that didn’t matter to me. There were lots and lots of hearts drawn on the ribbon, and that’s all I needed to know.
Fenelon: The grotto was created by artist Meg Saligman in anticipation of Pope Francis’s visit and also to raise funds for Philadelphia’s Project HOME, a ministry for the poor and underprivileged.
Meg used a beautiful, delicate latticework of wood to form a knot large enough for people to walk around inside — 20 feet high by 13 feet wide. She invited people the world over to write the knots in their lives on a silk ribbon and tie or weave it onto the slats of the grotto.
She’s also been taking submissions online. A volunteer scribe writes the knot on a ribbon and other volunteers attach the ribbons to the grotto. At the time of World Meeting of Families, there were 100,000 ribbons and counting.
Meg also began the tradition of “leave one, take one.” When you leave a knot on the grotto, you are encouraged to read the knot someone else left there and to commit to praying for that person, for the untying of their knot.
It’s a very moving experience. I left a knot there, and chose the knot of a child to take with me. The handwriting was illegible, but that didn’t matter to me. There were lots and lots of hearts drawn on the ribbon, and that’s all I needed to know. I’m carrying that child in my heart from now on.
Lopez: Why did you tie her to the Holy Land in your book?
Fenelon: I traveled to the Holy Land with the Catholic Press Association as part of Pope Francis’s historic pilgrimage there in May of 2014. I experienced the Holy Land for myself and on top of that, saw it through the pope’s eyes as I received his words and actions while he was there.
He repeatedly called for peace and spoke of the divisions, discord, hardships, and injustices that the people of that region were enduring. As I reflected on his words, it occurred to me that these were knots not unlike the knots we all face in our lives, and with similar sources.
Because of Pope Francis’s and my own devotion to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, the concept of a novena began to stir in my heart. I wanted to carry out the Holy Father’s request for all of us to pray for peace in the Holy Land. Now other regions are in need of prayers for peace as well. My conviction is that peace — any peace — begins in our hearts and homes and extends into the world.
In the Holy Land, I observed the knots and also the solution for those knots, as I followed in the footsteps of Jesus and Mary. Meditating on what I experienced at the holy sites helped draw me into deeper introspection and examination of the knots in my own life.
I wanted to share the gift I’d been given with others, and so Our Lady, Undoer of Knots: A Living Novena was born.
Lopez: You write that “We can become so used to harboring bitterness and sorrow in our hearts that it starts to feel completely normal to us.” How do we let that happen and how is it undone?
Fenelon: It happens over time, with one little incident, then another and another. Pretty soon it becomes a way of life for us. When we harbor bitterness and sorrow, we crowd out the graces that our Lady has in store for us and we cripple the Holy Spirit’s effectiveness in our souls.
It’s undone first by honest self-examination, prayer, and frequent reception of the sacraments. Then, we must put it into the hands of Our Lady. That doesn’t mean that the feelings will immediately dissipate; rather, it gives her an open door to our hearts. As she unties the knot, our hearts soften and the bitterness and sorrow begin to fade away.
Lopez: Should we always forgive a betrayer? Is that even just?
Fenelon: Our Lord requires us to forgive all things, every time. Yes, we must forgive a betrayer, no matter how hard that is. Yet, there’s a difference between forgiveness and justice. Yes, forgive. But damage done must be repaired, compensation must be made, and further damage needs to be prevented.
Lopez: What does the Temple Mount have to do with envy and pride?
As she unties the knot, our hearts soften and the bitterness and sorrow begin to fade away.
Fenelon: Temple Mount is considered the holiest site in the world in terms of the three major faith traditions — Christian, Jew, and Muslim. For Christians, it’s the site where the sacrifice of Isaac took place. Jews honor it as the site of the destruction of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem. Muslims believe it is the site from which Mohammed ascended to heaven.
Each group sees it as “their” holy site, and there have even been some minor altercations there between members of the religions. Each group would prefer to have Temple Mount to themselves and not share it with the others.
All three groups, when they think that way, are caught in envy and pride.
Lopez: How is it that “Mary feels our affliction profoundly”? How do you explain that to someone for whom this is foreign? And for whom Catholic devotion to Mary sounds pagan at best, even Satanic?
Fenelon: Mary was a human being and in that respect, experienced all of the emotions that we do. She was a living, breathing woman who knew poverty, danger, uncertainty, sorrow, and pain. She was a wife and mother, raised a child and then saw him tortured and murdered before her eyes. Affliction? Mary lived with great affliction often during her earthly life.
As far as our devotion goes, it’s like this. We say she was born without original sin, but the better way to say it is that she was pre-redeemed by our Lord in anticipation of her becoming his mother. Her role as Jesus’ mother gives her a certain privilege to distribute his grace and intercede for human beings in their need. For Catholics, our Lord’s directive to St. John from the Cross, “Behold your Mother,” and to Mary, “Behold your son” was the establishment of a relationship between Mary and all humankind.
Gabriel made it clear that Mary was highly honored and chosen by God specifically to become Christ’s mother. Christ could have effected our salvation through a multitude of other ways, but Mary was chosen as the instrument through which he would save us. Because of that, she’s given the unique position of his Helpmate in God’s plan of salvation.
What’s more, Mary loves Jesus with all of her heart. Consequently, she loves all whom he loves, and that includes us. She cares about us in untold measure. When we rejoice, she rejoices. When we suffer, she suffers. She is truly our Mother, and what mother doesn’t feel the joys and sorrows of her child?
We do not worship Mary; we venerate her for the honor and position God has given her.
Lopez: What’s your opening pitch/invitation to someone who is finding this “Undoer of Knots” thing intriguing but not quite sure it’s for them?
Fenelon: Our Lady, Undoer of Knots touches upon the various knots that we all face at one time or another in our lives. We are all knotted, whether we realize it or not. It’s part armchair pilgrimage, part devotional, and part self-help book and designed to be used in small increments over time. In that time, you’ll discover the knots that bind you and be led to turn them over to our Lady so that she can undo them for you.