by Maria Evans
Daily Office readings for Tuesday, May 10, 2016:
Every time I hear “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” in our Exodus reading, I can’t help but think of the time many years ago I did a family medicine rotation in Moose Factory, Ontario, up in the James Bay area. (Yes, Virginia, there really is a place called Moose Factory. The head of the Hudson Bay company in a region was called the factor. Just like how a rector lives in a rectory, well…the factor lived in a factory.)
The custom there before entering a building was to remove one’s shoes, on account of all the mud and muck and snow and slush. The hospital where I was assigned always had a big pile of footwear just inside the front entrance. The Anglican church there was no exception, and any given Sunday morning there were several pairs of boots and mukluks in the narthex. It was definitely the first time I had ever worshiped in my stocking feet. Shoot, it was the first time I’d worshiped in a place where everyone was in their stocking feet. What I remember about that experience was it lent an air of intimacy to the worship experience, to approach the altar and actually be able to feel the wood or the carpet underfoot. Stripped of our shoes, the holes in our socks were exposed, if we had any, and everyone could be assured of having a little grime on the bottoms of our socks at the end of services.
Amazingly, no one seemed to ever go home in the wrong shoes.
The traditional way to see this reading is that the removal of shoes is a sign of respect. In Hebrew culture, shoes/sandals were a symbol of identity and socioeconomic status. One could tell a lot about someone by the materials and appearance of their sandals. Removing our shoes in holy places suggests a certain amount of becoming more naked in the presence of God.
Yet, what if God’s intent with Moses was not to prove that one has to ingratiate or depersonalize oneself in the presence of the Divine, but a desire on the part of God for us to feel with our own two feet what it feels like to be a little closer to God in a tactile way? Our tendency in this reading is to focus on the distance between God and Moses, but it’s paradoxically a false distance. Moses is told to “come no closer” but the stark reality is his feet are already intimately touching the holy mountain. He’s already as close to God as one can possibly get, the soles of his feet pressed against the holiness of God’s personal space.
Sometimes I wonder if, in those times we have a genuine chance to encounter the holy, we balk. When we have a chance to stand in it barefoot, we choose to insulate ourselves from it instead and keep our shoes on. Something holds us back. Perhaps we worry that if we leave our shoes at the door, someone will make off with them. Perhaps we’re worried the person next to us will make fun of our gnarly or hairy toes. It’s not a God who demands obsequiousness separating us, it’s us and our inability to take off our shoes.
How might God be inviting you to kick off your shoes and socks and wiggle your toes in the squishy sand of the Real Presence?
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. You can also share her journey on her blog, Chapologist.
Image: By Domenico Fetti – Web Gallery of Art: Public Domain,