Editor’s Note: DC Service Corps volunteer Joanie McMahon reflects on the ministry of presence and the importance of giving the burdens of life to Mary, the Undoer of Knots, to untangle. 


As Programs Associate, my ministry of presence often looks different than my housemates’. Most of my fellow DC Service Corps volunteers serve in more “active” ministry roles in the DC community, in settings like high schools and soup kitchens, where they accompany individuals face-to-face on a daily basis. In my position at the FMS office, I mostly encounter people over the phone or through email,

Artwork by Joanie McMahon

where I answer questions, spread the word about FMS, and guide people through the many stages of discernment. However, my fellow volunteers and I share the same mission: presence. The simple concept of accompaniment has been the life force of FMS since its beginning, and it continues to be the priority for staff, volunteers, and missioners today. 

The wonderful part about accompaniment is that it is an accessible ministry. Anyone can offer a listening ear and comforting word to an individual, whether it be in the home, on the bus, at school, or over the phone, and everyone deserves to receive that presence. The man who is discerning the Overseas Lay Mission program deserves my full attention and care over the phone, because he, like all individuals on the other side of the phone or screen, is fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. Likewise, the cashier at CVS and the community member in the Casa deserve that same presence from me. When I have nothing “special” to give, no skill or talent or magic words, I can offer my attention to my neighbor, and that is a sacred gift.

Of course, the not-so-wonderful part about accompaniment is the fact that I cannot always fix a problem. In fact, I rarely can. This has been the most frustrating aspect of my year of service. When I committed to serve with DC Service Corps in August, I opened myself up to my Casa community, my neighbors in Brookland, and every individual I would offer my presence to this year. This means that I hear about both joys and challenges, and these challenges are often beyond my control. More than just hearing about them, I am also present to and invested in these personal challenges. I want to take the burdens away, or at least offer solutions to challenges that face my family, community members, and neighbors. These problems are like cumbersome knots that are too tight for me to untie, and I’m left with no option but to give the knot to someone much stronger than me.

Thankfully, there’s someone with the patience and strength to undo these knots. One of my favorite Marian devotions is the image of Mary, Undoer of Knots. The devotion originated in the seventeenth century when the artist Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner painted an image of Mary untying knots on a long, white ribbon. The ribbon symbolizes our lives, which are so fragile and vulnerable, and the knots represent our many sorrows, doubts, and challenges. When I have no solution to the problems in my life or in the lives of those I am present to, I give them to Mary, Undoer of Knots. I trust her to sit with these knots and pry them apart when I cannot. These knots of financial burden, mental illness, broken relationships, and disappointment can take time and patience to untangle. 

In the past few months, I have given Mary many knots to undo. It was mostly an act of desperation after having no solutions for the people in my life, but Mary has responded with her own ministry of presence. I am met with few immediate solutions because, of course, that’s not how prayer works (and it’s not how knots get untangled). Instead, I see small reminders of Mary’s care, presence, and protection throughout the day. It’s like Mary is assuring me that she is real and that she is listening to me and watching out for me. Her response, though slow and quiet, has given me more strength and patience to continue my ministry of presence. Mary, Undoer of Knots, has reminded me that presence alone is powerful, and knots can only be undone with care and patience. So I do my best with what strength I have, and I pass the rest on to her.