When Pope Francis was introduced to the world, tidbits about his life and preferences began to emerge: little things, such as how he enjoyed the South American beverage mate and how he was a lifelong fan of the Saints of San Lorenzo soccer team. One article about his likes made reference to a favored devotion of his—Our Lady Undoer of Knots. The moment I read that, my internal ears perked up.
I had discovered this devotion a few years before, and it quickly became one of my own favorites. The first time I prayed it was as a novena for a difficult “knot” in a relationship. After my nine days of prayer, I was amazed and grateful for how easily the knot of miscommunication was resolved. Learning that Pope Francis was instrumental in spreading this devotion from its native Germany to Argentina and now to the entire world solidified my fondness both for him and for this approach to prayer.
A Knotty Marriage. The portrayal of Our Lady as Undoer of Knots has only recently become well known, but its origin dates back more than three hundred years. Unlike devotions that are rooted in Marian apparitions such as Lourdes and Fatima, this one springs out of Mary’s intercession in a troubled marriage. It happened in September 1615, when a German nobleman, Wolfgang Langenmantel, and his wife, Sophie, were experiencing serious marital problems. In a last-ditch effort to avoid divorce, Wolfgang sought counsel from Fr. Jakob Rem, a Jesuit priest who was known for his devotion to Mary. Fr. Rem encouraged Wolfgang to bring his marital issues to Our Lady.
The two men prayed together four times over a period of twenty-eight days, and at their last meeting, Wolfgang gave Fr. Rem his wedding ribbon. (As was customary at the time, the bride and groom were tied together with a ribbon during the marriage ceremony, a symbol of their new unity as a couple.) While they prayed, Fr. Rem held the ribbon up to a picture of Our Lady of the Snows, offering her “the ties of matrimony” and asking her “to untie all knots” in the Langenmantels’ relationship. Afterwards, as the priest smoothed the ribbon, it became snowy white.
Wolfgang took heart and returned home with new hope for his marriage. While the details are lost to history, it is known that he and Sophie did indeed reconcile.
The story of their saved marriage was passed down over time—first to their son, and then to their grandson, Hieronymus Langenmantel, who became a priest. Around 1700, Fr. Langenmantel commissioned a painting of his grandparents’ story. The artist came up with an image that depicts Our Lady working to untie knots in Sophie and Wolfgang’s marriage sash—symbols of the problems that had led them to the brink of divorce. One angel presents the knotted ribbon to Mary, and another receives the smoothened ribbon from her hands.
The painting remained in obscurity in Augsburg, Germany—first in the Church of St. Peter am Perlach, then in the city’s Carmelite convent. In the 1980s, it was returned to the church, which is where a visiting student named Jorge Mario Bergoglio first saw it. The future Pope Francis was taken with the image, bought a postcard of it, and brought it back to his native Argentina. The devotion surged in popularity as he promoted it.
Faith Unties the Knot. While the illustration that normally accompanies the devotion shows Mary untying the knots in the Langenmantels’ white wedding sash, I prefer to think in terms of a necklace chain. If you’ve ever owned a necklace made of fine chain links, you know how easily it can knot and tangle. And you know how incredibly difficult it can be to try to pick apart those tangles. I had one such chain, which became snarled from my habit of tossing it carelessly into the drawer. The knots were so impossible to undo that I finally gave up and discarded the chain.
This is the image that sticks in my mind when I think about Mary Undoer of Knots. Sometimes the knots and tangles in our lives become so ensnarled that we begin to think it’s hopeless even to try undoing them.
The idea that we can bring these problems to Mary, asking her to carefully pick them apart and make the “chain” of our lives fit to wear again, is one of the most comforting aspects of this devotion. For me, at least, it brings up the image of Mary patiently and tirelessly tweezing apart the knots until, at last, the chain lies smooth and clear.
Pope Francis has talked about this devotion and how Mary’s faith “unties the knot of sin.” This idea alludes to Mary’s role in salvation history. St. Irenaeus, writing in the second century, put it this way: “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by the obedience of Mary. What the virgin Eve bound by her unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosened by her faith.”
We, too, can be bound by our own disobedience, Pope Francis explained. When we do not follow God’s will for our lives, “a kind of knot is created deep within us.” These knots take away our peace and serenity. They are dangerous, since many knots can form a tangle which gets more and more painful and difficult to undo.
But we know one thing: nothing is impossible for God’s mercy! Even the most tangled knots are loosened by his grace. And Mary, whose yes opened the door for God to undo the knot of the ancient disobedience, is the Mother who patiently and lovingly brings us to God, so that he can untangle the knots of our soul by his fatherly mercy.
The Knot in My Life. What are these “knots of our soul”? Knots of financial stress, wayward children, addiction, illness, depression, divorce, infertility, unemployment. . . . Most of us are dealing with at least one large knot. Not all of them are the result of our own sin. Some are simply the painful situations that come from living in a fallen world.
Whatever their cause, the knots can become so entangled that we fall into a sort of despair that they will ever be undone. I know I have. One aspect of my life—my finances—became so knotted that until recently I had just about given up on trying to untangle it.
The knot began when I left my job to take care of my mother in her last year of life—a year that extended to five. The situation became complicated by the theft of her investments in a Ponzi scheme that wasn’t revealed until the week of her funeral. It cascaded when I developed some health problems. Countless nights since then have been eroded by panic and worry.
The whole knotty mess has been so overwhelming that I didn’t even think about turning to Our Lady Undoer of Knots. However, as I began to write this article, I felt a gentle nudge: Perhaps it’s time to hand this area over to Mary’s care. I’ve done that—and would like to report that the knot has been completely untied. Although that hasn’t happened, I remind myself that Mary may be untying the knots, but God has promised us “daily bread,” and I have indeed received some daily bread. As I wait, I take comfort in Pope Francis’ words:
All the knots of our hearts, every knot of our conscience, can be undone. Do I ask Mary to help me trust in God’s mercy, to undo those knots, to change? She, as a woman of faith, will surely tell you: “Get up; go to the Lord: he understands you.” And she leads us by the hand as a Mother, our Mother, to the embrace of our Father, the Father of mercies.
Nothing Will Be Impossible. What knot in your life is creating pain for you? Turn over your problem to Mary. As she works on the knot, she will point you to Jesus. He tells us in no uncertain terms never to limit what God can do: “Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).
Woodeene Koenig-Bricker is the author of several books, including Facing Adversity with Grace, which is available from The Word Among Us at wau.org/books
Prayer to Our Lady Undoer of Knots
Holy Mary, full of God’s presence, during your life you accepted the Father’s will with full humility, and the devil was never able to tie you up with his confusion.
Since then, you have interceded for all our difficulties, as you did at the wedding feast of Cana. Full of kindness and patience, you show us how to untie the knots of our lives. By always being our mother, you arrange and clarify the ties that link us to the Lord.
Holy Mary, Mother of God and of us all, you untie the knots of our lives with a mother’s heart. We place our intentions in your hands [mention your prayer request], and we ask you to disentangle every knot and confusion.
Through your grace, intercession, and example, protect us from all evil, and untie the knots that keep us from being united to God. Free from confusion and error, may we find him in all things, keep our hearts in him, and serve him always in our brothers and sisters.