Mary, Our Lady, the Undoer of Knots

This reflection was originally posted on my Mary Journal blog, and it speaks to what I think is a mindful approach to understanding the circumstances within the Anglican Communion.

Mary, Undoer of Knots

At literally the same time news broke of the primates’ decision at their meeting at Canterbury Cathedral (recommending a restriction of The Episcopal Church’s activity in representing the Anglican Communion and voting on matters of doctrine or polity), I received a note from a college friend asking if I had seen the meditation of “Mary, Undoer of Knots.” Thanks, Allison! She knew nothing of the troubles within the Communion, and I have reflected for the past day on the significance of the juxtaposition of both these bits of news.

Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, is both a meditation (a novena) and a Baroque painting from Bavaria. It has been a favorite devotion of Pope Francis since his days as a bishop in Argentina. What insight do we gain when we reflect on the image of Mary with the ribbon knotted on one side and smooth on the other? I, for one, don’t see this untangling as an easy process. To me, simply having this image to meditate on demonstrates the need we have for God’s grace in untangling the complex and often painful circumstances of our lives. And we should see that the undoing of the knot is possible. Hope abounds!

One could argue that the Anglican Communion has been a knotted ribbon since its origin. When one thinks back through the six centuries of Anglican history—and indeed beyond, back to the earliest Christian embodiments on the British Isles—there has always been tension. One of the most profound moments of tension was with the Synod of Whitby in 664, when the King of Northumbria decided in a council meeting that his country would follow the calendar and customs of the Roman Church rather than the existing customs of the monks of Iona. Interestingly, this council was held at the double monastery of the Abbess Hilda, a profoundly important woman in the life of the church.

Development, tensions, reformation, counter-reformation, later development, the rise of the British Empire, the dissolution of the Empire, and onward to our current context in which many in the Western world find ourselves in what is described as a post-Christian world. It is important to note that this “post-Christian” existence might not be shared by the entire planet.

Tensions have existed within the church since its founding by Our Lord, and, needless to say, they will exist until His return. And, the Spirit continues to breathe through our lives, challenging us to always turn toward an embodiment of God’s grace and compassion. Hence, we are always experiencing the knot being loosened by God’s abiding presence in our lives.

When I was a child, it was common for a small group in a church to break away and start another church. Before long, some would come back, while others in that “daughter church” would break away from that one, starting yet another. Previous churches were punished by the removal of money—a reality I perceived, even as a child—as tacky. Here, in my present ministry at Grace Church in Gainesville, I was told early on of the story of Dewberry Baptist Church #1 and Dewberry Baptist Church #2. There was once only one Dewberry, but resentments and frustrations grew until one day—the story goes—someone took someone else’s piece of chicken at a church picnic. The community split over a piece of chicken—and over so much more. Yet, interestingly, the members still live in the same community, shop at the same stores, go to the same doctors, play on the same sports teams. Their lives remain interconnected, because, of course, all of life is interconnected.

Such interconnection is a reality that I keep returning to as I reflect on how the Anglican Communion moves forward. Our relationships are not determined by the ecclesiastical structures we instituted in 1968 with the Anglican Consultative Council and 1978 with the Primates Meeting. Such recent developments within a dynamic and evolving tradition whose history is rooted at Whitby—and earlier with the rich embodiments of monastic communities—do not define us—nor should they restrict us. Our interconnection is called forth by the Spirit that breathes in us all and calls every one of us to embody Christ’s love in a world that too often suffers.

A seminary professor once explained to me the difference between unity and uniformity, and that has been an invaluable lesson to return to again and again. I think we so often confuse the two. And, I think—speaking for myself—I too often settle for uniformity out of my own fear of stepping into a space where a more authentic relationship can form out of vulnerability and compassion.

Vulnerability and compassion. That seems to me to be the only way to untangle the knot. What might it look like to share a space—a Communion—where the foundation is vulnerability and compassion? To recognize the truly radical call, as St. Benedict reminds us, that “all are to be welcomed as Christ.” Not welcomed out of concern for ourselves but truly welcomed because “he” is Christ. “She” is Christ. They are bearers of God’s love in this world that we share. No one is left out. No one is unimportant or unnecessary.

I have spent my life experiencing the tension between identity and behavior. I was taught as a child that gay people were choosing to act that way—that they were choosing to “live in sin.” I agreed with this until I actually had a friend who was gay—a roommate in college. I experienced his struggle firsthand, listened to his stories of being alienated from his family, sat with him as he cried, and watched and supported him as he struggled with lymphoma before he died. I stepped—or maybe I was pulled—into that risky space of realizing that my worldview had been broadened. My friend didn’t choose to act this way. No one chooses such an experience that leaves them ostracized and rejected. Now, my wife and I have the honor of being godparents to an amazing four year-old whose two mothers are raising her in a home full of love, understanding, and deep appreciation. They aren’t “acting out.” Their love for one another and their daughter is not rooted in a sinful act.

If we keep the argument focused on behavior, then the temptation is always to look for uniformity of action, I think. But, that misses the deep call of interconnection and compassion that comes from a true spiritual unity that seeks to embrace the identity of each person we meet. When we delve into this space of deep compassionate identity work, our theological conversations are very different and profound. Like a friend of mine said the other day, “Being a Christian really is hard work.”

This is my experience. And, it is the experience of so many within The Episcopal Church who have struggled to embody Christ’s love in our world. We stand in a tradition that has prided itself on being the establishment, and, as the establishment, we have been complicit in so much oppression ourselves. In past decades, we have struggled to more fully embody God’s love to all: women, people of color, gay persons, indigenous people, and others who have, for too long, been seen as inferior expressions of humanity. Ours has been a long road, and there are miles to go before we sleep, as the great poem says. The knot remains tangled.

And, to be sure, what I have learned is that the knot is tangled in different ways in different locations around the world. I have no idea what it feels like to have my Christian faith directly assaulted the way so many do in Africa. Churches are burned and people are harassed and killed by those who follow a twisted expression of another great faith practice in this world. In this environment, I am called to have compassion on those who need the reassurance and certainty of a strong Christian foundation—just the foundation that a clear understanding of Christianity within the Anglican tradition can give. I can imagine what the certainty of what many African Christians see as an orthodox and Biblical practice of faith might give to those who feel assaulted. How do they experience the need for strength in the face of persecution? And, how might they perceive a different discernment within Anglicanism as a threat to their security? When I imagine this space, I feel compassion.

So, where do we go from here? What do we do with this tangled knot we have? In all sincerity, we continue practicing our faith as we have. We realize that our relationships are based on Christ’s love, on Our Lord’s call to reach out to those who are hurting in this world. We lean into spaces of risky vulnerability with positions or understandings that maybe feel threatening to us. We continue to seek to embody Christ’s love to all we meet. We continue to welcome all God’s children to the fullness of the church’s sacramental life. We continue to “respect the dignity of every human being,” as our Baptismal Covenant says (what a pesky reminder of the cost of discipleship that promise can be!). We realize that we will have differences with one another. We don’t hesitate to speak out against injustice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. We see to participate with God’s mission in the world: to bind up the broken-hearted, proclaim release to the captives. We lift up those who are downtrodden, and we feed those who are hungry, and we clothe those who are naked. We celebrate Holy Communion and Holy Baptism with those entrusted to our care. We share in the fullness of the sacramental life of a rich, liturgical practice of faith that dares to gaze on and acknowledge the profound mystery of God.

And, we realize that we aren’t going to untangle the knot. That’s what the image of Our Lady, the Undoer of Knots teaches me: that God is at work in this world, through us while not limited to us. We participate with God when we are opened to the Spirit’s presence within us—when, as my friend Tilden Edwards imagines—our spiritual hearts are enlivened and we experience the transformation that comes through being emptied of our own ambition and desires. Let us never think for one minute that our practice of faith is going to be easy, and let us never doubt for one minute that God will not walk beside us and well as dwell within us as we share Christ’s love in this world that we all share.

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