I find the idea of touching other people’s feet, feet which may have been sweating into shoes all day long, kind of weird, which is why I was twenty-eight before I attended Maundy Thursday services. Having become an active member in a wonderful parish, I decided to scrub my feet really well, pray for an absence of disgust, and celebrate the first Lord’s Supper with my beloved church family.
That night’s sermon prompted us to consider that Christ’s disciples were also His friends, the people He saw every day and loved deeply. I was overwhelmed with this image of Christ looking at the Twelve as I look at my own friends, of Him feeling that same special love for them. This parallel was awesome, in the true sense, a dimension of the Incarnation I had never considered. Christ knew suffering, of course, but Christ also knew friendship. With this fresh awareness, I went forward for the foot washing. We were friends, people who love each other as Christ and the disciples loved each other, performing this act of love because we love each other and because we love Christ. It was a powerful awareness. As I knelt to wash the feet of a kind man, a cradle Episcopalian and vestry member, I had a vague feminist concern about the picture we would make: older man sits, woman kneels before him, skirt fanned around her, washing his feet.
It came with no warning, as usual. I’ll be reading a book or walking up the street when something–a piece of dialogue, the lilt of someone’s voice–catches me off-guard and reminds me of my ex-boyfriend, who emotionally and mentally abused me. I feel destabilized, sometimes for a moment, sometimes all day. For years after I ended our relationship, I chose to cope by repressing as much as I could, pretending it was just another former relationship, much like anyone else’s. Finally, after one of those moments left me feeling destabilized for months, I sought spiritual counseling.
This Maundy Thursday was a few months after I began counseling, which was going well. I rarely thought of my ex. But then, this. A clear, sudden, specific memory, and I am back in that moment: he sits, and I kneel before him, stroking his calves and his feet, looking up at him with both adoration and subservience, and a tinge of fear. It is a Saturday morning, sun streaming through the high windows. There are pictures on the wall, bookcases behind me, several chairs, papers, and a large wooden door to the room. Our relationship has taken a turn, and I am terrified of losing him because I do not know how to be happy without him. I will do anything to keep him. He knows this; he asks of me anything he wants, and I give and do it all. I had forgotten all about this morning, but the act of kneeling before this man in church brought it all back in an instant: the adoration, the fear, the sunshine, the feel of my abuser’s feet. I was disturbed, disgusted, angry that this memory had interrupted my worship.
But then I looked at this man’s feet. They were not those feet. They were paler, they had less hair, they felt different. Then I looked up. I looked into this man’s face. This was not the man who manipulated me, controlled me, didn’t hit me but was probably never far from doing so. This was the man who says “God bless you” every time he hugs me, a member of my church family, my brother in Christ. Christ. Christ, in whose memory I was washing these feet. Christ, whom I love inexpressibly, which is why I was here in the first place. Christ, who was there with me during those terrible years of abuse. Christ, who loved His friends so much that He would do this for them, though maybe He wanted to do something else instead. I understand the sign of humility and respect that washing feet was in those days, but I also understand that Christ had doubts that night in Gethsemane. I imagine part of Him was washing those feet but thinking, “I don’t really want to do this.” During the sermon, Christ’s love for His friends overwhelmed me because I love my friends so much. Now, I thought about how much my friends love me. While I was involved with that abusive man, my friends stood by me. They did countless things they surely did not want to do in an attempt to help me. They loved me. And thus, thinking of the love and friendship inherent in foot washing, the subservient picture was transformed into an image of love and redemption. I cried as I walked back to my seat in the last row on the Gospel side, and I cried through Communion. When the service ended, I hurried to tell my priest and counselor of this extraordinary moment. I was euphoric.
Good Friday morning saw me keeping three hours of the vigil and reaching unexpectedly for a hymnal. As a rule, I don’t sing unaccompanied, and I don’t sing joyously on Good Friday. But something extraordinary had happened to me. Something with the power to wound me, to debilitate me, had been redeemed, transformed into an image of love. And so I sang aloud, loudly, all six verses of my favorite hymn, “Earth and All Stars,” for I would and will and do praise Him with a new song. In the midst of abuse, in the midst of healing, in the midst of grace, in the midst of the somberness and the glory that is Holy Week, I, too, will praise Him with a new song.
Recovering from abuse is a journey. It is slow, and it is hard, and perhaps it is never finished. Certainly my own recovery is far from over. As a sat down to write this piece, a Jeopardy! clue reminded me of a song my ex taught me, and I flashed back to that room. This may never stop happening, but on Maundy Thursday, I learned to reclaim those memories. My abuse will always have happened to me, but that makes it part of my story, just as Christ is part of my story. I will always have sat and rubbed my abuser’s feet, but I will also always have washed a fellow Christian’s feet in memory of Christ. What could have been a story about my abuser is in fact a story about God. He has turned my wailing into dancing; He has put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy. This is grace, and this is hope that what was broken might be made whole.