You Shall Never Wash My Feet, Unless You Look at Me

I was looking at old Busted Halo columns trying to get ideas for questions that have never been asked for our Googling God features. Sometimes we use solicited questions and sometimes we decide to “cover” a particular topic. So I was looking for things we’ve covered before about Holy Week.

And I came upon a column written by my dear friend, Elizabeth Bonwich, who passed away last year after a long fight with cancer. Her search for spirituality took her to several places: Alaska to the see majesty of the Aurora Borealis, to retreat houses and theatre troupes and the joy of swings in a local park. All of these were great fodder for spiritual reflection from a woman who was simply beautiful and who loved God deeply, even though she would admit to many that she struggled at times to believe in her suffering moments—the “dry moments in prayer” she’d tell me.

But this column was one of her best, I think. And it’s appropriate to share this Holy Thursday.

One needs to remove one’s shoes in a Buddhist temple. Because of my physical disability, walking without shoes was problematic. So after helping me up the stairs, the monk and I developed a routine where he would take my shoes from me when I sat down and bring them back for me to put on at the end of meditation.

One night he put them down, knelt down, put my feet into them and tied my shoelaces. In words it doesn’t look like much, but in that moment, watching a man who was for that time my teacher kneeling on the floor over my feet, I suddenly had a clue about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Like the disciples, I protested and like Jesus, he insisted.

I felt something between humbled and embarrassed. I wanted it to be over quickly and I wonder if the disciples felt that way too. We didn’t talk much as verbal communication between us proved to be confusing. But by his actions I learned volumes about kindness, compassion, and Christ.

Who woulda thunk it? Finding Christ in a Buddhist temple! That guy gets around huh?

This past week a group of campus ministers gathered for our vicariate meeting in Buffalo, which entails a morning “retreat-like prayer” and an afternoon workshop. Both were wonderful experiences. We prayed the experience of Holy Week–taking each day: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter and reflecting on them as a whole. When we got to Holy Thursday the “ritual action” was to wash each other’s feet.

The ritual is very special to me, one, because I met my wife on Holy Thursday and we always remember that each year by washing each other’s feet either privately or if possible, at our Holy Thursday mass. The first time she washed my feet was a year into our relationship and I broke down. My Marion, then my fianceé looked into my eyes as she washed and dried my feet and at that moment I knew she was going to be my wife. I felt so loved and cared for. I noticed that most of the time nobody ever makes eye contact when they wash another’s feet. In fact they are so uncomfortable with the experience that like Elizabeth, they hope it’s over quickly.

But would Jesus have done that? I doubt it. I picture Jesus looking squarely into the eyes of each disciple. And caring about the action he was doing. He loved them all until the end and although he knew that these feet would run away just hours later, he got down and washed the filth and grime away from those feet anyway.

I imagine Peter turning his eyes away from Jesus, unable to look at him squarely as he uttered those now famous words: “Are you going to wash my feet? You will never wash my feet!”

And Jesus’ love goes even beyond Peter’s arrogance. “If I do not wash your feet, then you will have no inheritance with me.”

At our meeting, I had my feet washed by our diocesan director of education, who’s division campus ministry falls under. Carol is a nice woman. We don’t get to talk much but I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent with her. She finished washing my feet and then she looked to me and said, “Mike, thanks for all you do.” She washes my feet—but then she thanks me?

In turn I was invited to wash Nathan’s feet. He’s the campus minister at Fredonia State, a bit off the beaten path from Buffalo and these meetings are often the only time we get to see one another. I looked up at him several times. Smiled once or twice at him as I dried his foot and then we silently moved on. Afterwards, we had time to share some thoughts about the experience with each other and Nathan spoke of our experience.

“When Mike washed my feet he looked at me. Several times. I really felt cared for and I was moved to do the same for the person whose feet I washed.”

And there in a simple gesture, we find each other’s humanity. Something that Jesus knew all too well. It’s not just the action that we do that matters, it’s making our actions personal. It’s connecting with another in the action itself. What if we didn’t just give food to the hungry but we instead sat down and ate with them? What if we looked into the eyes of the panhandler as we pressed a quarter into their hands? What if we had to look at each citizen in the eye before we dropped bombs on them? What if we treated others just a bit more humanely when we serve them instead of rushing to the next person or thing that we choose to spend time with?

Can we dare to look their way? Because it is in their face that we meet Jesus…and like Elizabeth we are humbled by their humanity and love for us.

As we enter into Holy Thursday’s grandeur, may we be humble enough to be washed, to let ourselves be washed and to look into the eyes of those we encounter in this moment.

And let that moment change us forever and bring us Christ’s peace.

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