In 2009, I was introduced to the Marian devotion of Our Lady Undoer of Knots when I was given an assignment to write about this little-known devotion. Discovering Our Lady Undoer of Knots was the answer to a prayer I had to made for help in mending a relationship. Through the novena, a rift was repaired. I felt I had been given that assignment for this express purpose. Since then I have tried to promote this powerful devotion.
How the devotion spread
When it came to light that Mary Undoer of Knots was Pope Francis’ favorite Marian devotion, this did much to propagate the novena. While studying in Germany in the 1980s, the Holy Father learned about Maria Knots (Maria Knotenlöserin). Pope Francis, who was then the auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires, brought this compelling devotion back to Argentina, where it appealed greatly to the people but remained mostly local—except for its growing popularity in Brazil around a decade later.
In Brazil the devotion was spread by Dr. Suzel Frem Bourgerie and her husband, Denis Bourgerie. In the early-mid 1990s, the couple was so moved after meditating before the Mary Undoer of Knots painting at Saint Peter in Perlach Church, located in Augsburg, Germany, that they got permission from the Archdiocese of Campinas, Brazil, to build a small church called Mary Gate of Heaven.
The 500-seat church fast became too small. Edson Bosetti, who is the director of National Sanctuary of Mary Undoer of Knot’s official US website, MaryUndoerofKnots.com, told Catholic Digest, “So many people were coming to the Masses that they had to put speakers on the street.”
Consequently, in 2006 the Bourgeries, with their bishop’s approval, opened the National Sanctuary of Mary Undoer of Knots. Located near Mary Gate of Heaven Church, the shrine seats 3,000 and has welcomed hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.
Dr. Suzel Frem Bourgerie has also worked to spread the Novena of Mary Undoer of Knots worldwide through her booklet, Mary Undoer of Knots Novena, which has the nihil obstat and imprimatur. Her little book has been printed in 19 languages, including Braille. More than 1.7 million copies have been distributed, according to MaryUndoerofKnots.com.
Dr. Bourgerie, who resides in Campinas, told Catholic Digest, “I am happy to see people—many of them distant from God—who, when they have met Our Lady and have seen their knots undone, find they’re not alone anymore, and so they begin the a process of conversion.”
Pope’s mediation on knots
What causes knots in the ribbon of our lives? What makes us unhappy and separates us from God and humanity? In his address at Saint Peter’s Squareâ¨on October 12, 2013, Pope Francis said that knots are created by disobedience and unbelief, both of which take away our peace and serenity. The Holy Father was reflecting on what St. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon, pondered in his book, Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies), about the parallel that St. Paul made between Eve and the Virgin Mary:
“Eve, by her disobedience, tied the knot of disgrace for the human race; whereas Mary, by Her obedience, undid it…. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the Virgin Mary set free through faith.”
The Holy Father offers us the supernatural remedy to untie the knots of sin:
“[W]e 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. We all have some of these knots and we can ask in our heart of hearts: What are the knots in my life? “Father, my knots cannot be undone!” It is a mistake to say anything of the sort! All the knots of our heart, 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.”
Powerful intercession of Our Lady
Sometimes the knots in our lives are caused by other people. Lisa Wheeler and her husband, Timothy, had fallen in love with their three-year-old foster daughter, Elizabeth, and they were assured that they would be able to adopt her.
Prior to coming to live with the Wheelers, Elizabeth had a dangerous home life: Her biological mother was a lifelong drug addict. When the toddler was put in the foster care system, blood tests revealed that she had cocaine in her system.
The biological mother was supposed to be going to prison for violation of parole and child endangerment. However, despite the mother’s dangerous history, the court advocates were pushing for the child to be reunited with her biological mom, providing that she abstain from drugs.
“It was mind-boggling; after caring for Elizabeth for almost a year, it looked like we would lose her to a broken system and a lifetime of possible abuse,” Lisa recounts.
For 15 years the couple had suffered infertility. Not being able to have children was a gaping, open wound. “As faithful, pro-life Catholics, we are surrounded by friends who have been blessed with big families,” she says.
Elizabeth coming into their lives was balm for that wound, and now she was going to be taken away from them.
It was during this turbulent time that a priest-friend of Lisa’s introduced her to a devotion she had never heard of, the Novena to Our Lady Undoer of Knots. This happened before Pope Francis had been elected, so the devotion was still relatively obscure. “We began the novena in earnest about three weeks before we were to go back to court. We prayed for what was hidden to be brought to light and for the judge and court advocates to be shown what was in the best interest of Elizabeth,” she explained.
The Wheelers had over 200 people praying the nine-day Novena of Our Lady Undoer of Knots. “On the last day of the novena, it all turned around. Drug screens that had previously come back negative were revealed to have been positive. It came to light that Elizabeth’s mother was still selling drugs, and her stability, which hinged on the security of a domestic partnership she had with another woman, was dissolved. When we came to court, the advocates and the judge all concurred with a decision for termination, and this change in the trajectory of Elizabeth’s case was permanently altered.”
On December 16, 2013, Elizabeth’s adoption by the Wheelers was finalized. Lisa shares her story in the hope that “others will come to know the power and active intercession Our Lady has in the world today, even for the simplest among us.”
Possible history behind the painting
The image that is associated with the devotion is attributed to a German artist, Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner. It was commissioned by a priest named Hieronymus Ambrosius Langenmantel (Canons of St. Peter from 1666 to 1709), according to the St. Peter in Perlach, where the painting is housed.
Reputedly the artist was inspired by miraculous story that happened to the priest’s grandfather, Wolfgang Langenmantel (1568–1637). Wolfgang and his wife, Sophie, had been experiencing serious marital problems. The nobleman sought counsel from a holy Jesuit priest named Father Jakob Rem. The two met and prayed for the Virgin Mary’s intercession, and before her image, Father Rem lifted up the marriage ribbon (a ribbon that the maid of honor wrapped around the arms of the couple to signify their invisible union) and prayed that the Blessed Virgin solve and smooth out all of the knots of the marriage. The marriage ribbon became intensely white, and the couple’s marriage was healed.
The symbolism of the painting
Painted in Baroque-style, Our Lady is clothed in a crimson gown draped with a deep blue mantle. She is depicted loosening the knots in a white ribbon with the aid of two angels. Signifying spiritual guidance, the Holy Spirit—in the form of a dove—is poised above her head. The Virgin’s hands work at uncoiling the ribbon, which is symbolic of the divisions caused by sin in our lives. The knots are mirrored in the knotted serpent’s body. The Virgin stands calmly as she crushes the head of the serpent, the diabolical creator of knots. At the bottom of the composition, an angel is guiding a figure. Some have attributed these two figures as Wolfgang and his guardian angel, while others say they represent the archangel Raphael leading Tobias.
The Mary Undoer of Knots Novena booklet can be purchased at MaryUndoerofKnots.com or by calling 905-495-4614. All proceeds go to the shrine and their palliative care facility.