Finally on silent retreat at St Beuno’s, in October 2021. Eighteen months into pandemic, having shielded for the first six months, alongside working, facing the possibility of job loss, living with the parallel lives, the fears and challenges of others perceptions of me, the challenges of family life within work and pandemic, a daughter who loved being at home in lockdown, and who has had to work really hard at the integration back into school life, the joys and challenges of livestreaming, of growing church within this season, the wonders of disability conference, of connecting with people, of the depth of encounters with God and with others… I arrived on retreat totally exhausted.
I arrived with a mix of trepidation and hope.
The last few years have felt relentless… will I want to pick it up again at the end of retreat? I’m scared that I’ve been in fight mode for so long, am I numbing / protecting myself, am I scared to sit with the feelings of unworthiness, am I really willing to let God’s love in. There have been so many deep encounters in this place before… what might emerge here.
I ask for the graces of peace – to let God gaze on me, and courage to slow down, to trust others, to accept the peace and not run away. I sleep and sleep, I eat and sleep. I play, with origami, fiddling with paper, letting myself slow down. I finish the parallel lives painting, that has been in my head for so long, and I sit with God’s eye painting, letting God gaze on me.
As I gaze, I notice not just the lenses I sense from others. I finally face up to the lenses that I wear, the distortions I place on seeing myself too.
I create characters, to help me to face these lenses.
A spider, representing those that react to me through a lense of risk, who react out of fear in a similar way to those that react to the fear of spiders. There is a release in this. I no longer hold responsibility for their fear.
A peacock, to represent the awe lense. Those that react out of admiration, but for whom there is often an ‘othering’ too. Sometimes the awe makes it harder for people to recognise the needs and vulnerabilities that I have too.
My lense for myself, I choose a humming bird. From a distance, looking incredible, awesome… but up close, you see the wings flapping so quickly, working so hard trying to keep it all going.
I select a mole for self care. For when I burrow and hide, when I retreat and need to remember to care for myself.
As I sit with all these different lenses, with God’s eye looking at me, I laugh again. This is the easiest, hardest things again. I experience the liberation afresh, of God seeing me as a butterfly, with the freedom of wings, of colour, the lightness to be themselves.
As I sit with these lenses, there seem to be so many tangled threads. Eventually I scribble out of frustration. In the scribbles, I add tiny butterflies., amidst the tangled threads, letting there be love and delight in this too.
As I reflect with my director, we talk about Isaiah and paths through the wilderness, about Anthony de Mello and healing of memories. And then she introduces me to Mary, Undoer of Knots. I’ve not prayed with images of Mary before, it’s not been a part of my tradition, and I was unfamiliar with this name.
My guide described it as Mary being alongside me, with God. Of an image of Mary, with a tangled thread, unknotting it.
Isaiah 45: 2-3 “I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and the riches hidden in secret places.”
Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, who stood faithfully at the foot of the cross with her Son, trusting that every Good Friday will pass to the glory of Easter.
It unlocks something for me…this is a way that I can sit with the mess, with the tangles that face me. I go back to my room, eager to get started on doodling. I search on google for the original, and then I laugh, a really deep belly laugh. (I’m six days into a silent retreat at St Beuno’s… deep belly laughs are not really the thing!)
But I laugh and laugh. The original image of Mary, has her with a single, silky ribbon. If I only had a few knots in a single silky ribbon, it would be OK, I could unknot those. As I looked at my scribble, I was feeling more like someone overwhelmed with a box of old jewellery, with the chains all knotted together; or like my yarn basket when it’s gone out of hand, and yarns have got mixed and tangled together. I need to know that Mary, that God, can actually handle a lot of knots. I need to be sure that they can deal with the messiness of my life, I need to know, to feel that God is with me in this.
So I doodle my own, and write my prayer to go with it.
Over the coming days, and then months when I get home, I continue to paint, to let this painting be my prayer. Whilst part of me wants magic, to walk through a door into a different life, with the challenges all solved, with the knots all unknotted and clear; I know that life isn’t like that. I pray for peace and courage to face the knots, to keep walking, and to allow light and hope to shine within it, in ways beyond my wildest imaginings. To allow myself to sit, present, to bring this into awareness, of God’s love within and around all that is.
So this is my Mary, Undoer of Knots, in front of my image of God, the white of contemplation, the red of that contemplation in action. This Mary is surrounded in knots, all the weight of the world, the fears and risks, the love and delight, the mess and complexity that feels overwhelming.
In this painting, I slow down, sitting with Mary, as she unknots the threads, one knot at a time. I imagine myself in the baby, curled up by her feet. Curled up in the safety, a child of God, letting Mary, letting God hold the weight of all those knots, to pray for peace beyond all understanding that might flow from the unknotting.
I choose to pray
Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, unlock the knots that bind us, connect us to the joy of God’s light and hope.
Prints and items featuring the image can be purchased here: https://www.redbubble.com/people/PenChurch/shop (with proceeds going towards the work of St Mark’s Church, Pennington.)