‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.
– John 13:12-14
One of my favorite stories of the Desert Mothers and Fathers is the one in which one of the monks owns a precious book. It is illuminated in rare inks and gold leaf and so is very valuable. It’s a Psalter, and he uses it all the time in his daily worship.
One night a thief – maybe someone visiting the community, maybe someone of the community – sneaks into this monk’s cell and grabs the book. The monk, waking with a start, is just in time to see the robber running out of the room. He jumps up and follows in hot pursuit. It’s not that he wants the book back. What he wants is for there to be no sin laid on the head of the person who has stolen the book. So what he shouts as he runs is, “It’s yours! It’s yours! I give it to you!”
When I think about washing the feet of those in my community, this story is what I think about. This story captures for me the essence of ministering to others. It is the care of the soul. It is also both a willingness to participate in and a demand for relationship.
With his theft, the robber put himself in a wrong relationship with the book, the monk who owns it, and God. He violated all of them. The book owner’s response is his way – the only way he has – of setting things right again. It is pure gift to the thief, who may or may not respond. If the monk had cared only for the physical well-being of this person, he would have stayed in bed and let them have the book without protest. But he sees that more is at stake, and so he gets up and goes after the one who stole from him.
We wash not hands nor faces, but feet – “the dogs” as my grandfather used to call them. Feet are the servants of the body. They hold us up and get us where we need to go. They are also that part of us connected to the ground, to the dirt and debris of life. They symbolize the place in us “where the rubber meets the road”, the place of our real actions as opposed to what we imagine we will do, or what we dream we are capable of. Getting that part of us back into relationship with God and community aligns us entirely. Washing my sister’s feet means caring for her where she is real and human. Caring for the soul.
I am working on being clear enough to respond to my brothers and sisters in need in the way in which the desert monk responds to the person who tries to steal his book. I am rarely that selfless. Sometimes I get close after several false starts and much reflection, but usually I am nowhere near being able to be such a good servant. But there are probably as many ways to wash one another’s feet as there are ways to pray. The important thing, I think, is being willing to be both the giver and the receiver of this crucial act of ministry.
Laurie Gudim is a writer and religious iconographer who lives in Fort Collins, CO. You can view some of her work at Everyday Mysteries.
Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons