Knots have been the bane of my existence. As a Boy Scout I mastered the overhand - forget the clove hitch or the bow line. Sure, I eventually learned to tie a tie and my shoes, but I have never tied a knot except under extreme duress.
Imagine my dismay when I heard what Sister Mary Scullion has been up to as she prepares for Pope Francis' two-day visit to Philadelphia in September. Sister Mary, our tireless laborer on behalf of Philadelphia's poor and homeless, is chairing the Hunger and Homelessness Committee of the papal visit.
Says Sister Mary: "The pope has great devotion to Mary, the 'Untier of Knots.' She will be the core of our effort."
Mary, the who of what? This was a title I'd never heard of, and I've heard Mary called "Tower of Ivory," "House of Gold," and "Singular Vessel of Devotion."
Untier of Knots goes back to St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who, in about A.D. 140, claimed that Mary undid the knot tied by Eve. (I guess Adam was as undependable as I am at knot-tying.)
The pope has a special affection for the Untier, whose painting he discovered as a priest studying in Germany. The Virgin Mary is seen serenely undoing a tangle of knots reminiscent of the tangles in our individual lives and in the world at large. If you were looking for an image to encapsule Pope Francis' papacy, untying a gaggle of knots might do the trick.
Philadelphia artist Meg Saligman was commissioned by the committee to come up with an idea centered on this image of the Virgin Mary but also giving a unique voice to the poor and marginalized.
Saligman has garnered input from civic leaders and the poor themselves. She will construct a grotto featuring thousands of suspended knots representative of the struggling, the poor, the homeless. You and I will be able to affix a knot to the work, and on it we can write a word or two depicting a struggle, a knot in our own lives, one that needs an expert untier. We will also take the knots posted by others and pray for them. We untie one another's knots, you see.
This is monumental. You can buy at least 10 different implements that will remove a cork from a wine bottle, but no one has invented a tool that reliably unties a shoelace. Now, we can leave our knots at the grotto, and ask the lady who has untied humanity's toughest knot to help loosen them for us.
Exactly how the grotto will look depends on Saligman's creative artistry, but in my imagination I see a kind of wall where people step up and pin their knots. Our deepest worries and most intractable struggles are written upon them."Illness/cure." "Friend/grief." "Eagles/Super Bowl." (Sister Mary is an Eagles fan.)
Amid the vast tangle of knots, I see a man's hand, beautifully manicured, encased in a cuff of the finest quality, moving tentatively to attach his knot. I glimpse the words he has written, son/heroin. The man looks down and notices a second, much smaller hand, its soiled fingers straining up, also holding a knot. "Food/home," it reads.
The man reaches down and lifts the boy and together they affix their knots, side by side, before Mary the Untier. Equal now in anguish, desolation, and perhaps a bit of hope, each utters a prayer that the other's knot might be loosened, even untied.
That is the moment for which the grotto will be constructed. It is the moment to which this pontiff has beckoned our troubled, knotted world, the moment for which Pope Francis visits our city. It is the Moment of Brotherly Love. Brotherly love - the best tool we have for untying the toughest knots.