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.

The Church Jackasses

Today Jesus greets us in the gospel riding in on an ass. In graduate school a professor posited that the symbol of this is a contrast of the Romans in authority riding in on majestic chariots and horses while the King of Kings comes in on a simple donkey without need for fanfare. He went on to say that because the people praised him with “hosannas” this “made an ass out of the Romans.”

It reminds me of my first pastor in the parish where I grew up. Msgr. Cajetan J. Troy, a delightful man, who led our parish with great care, was a man I truly respected. He always had time for us kids and he delighted in the parish events. At the church bazaar he’d play all the games and give kids his own money so they could play too and have Zeppole dust all over his clerical shirt. He had a heart for the poor inviting the downtrodden into the rectory for a sandwich and they’d respond by insisting that they sweep the front steps of the church for him.

One day Msgr. Troy looked tired and upset. He entered the sacristy from the rectory for mass and I was there waiting to serve mass with him. He gave me his usual greeting–a punch in the arm—a playful one–just enough to glance my bicep. Then he said, “Sit with me for a few minutes.”

So I did. He said, “Michael, I have a feeling that you’re going to be a priest one day–or at least be very involved in the church if you get married instead. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret that all pastors have to know about parish life and what all good parishioners need to know as well.”

“What’s that?” I said.

“Every parish has at least 20 of what I call ‘Church Jackasses.'”

He then began to name the church jackasses in our parish. They were all the folks who ran ministries and groups and really kept the parish afloat financially.

I laughed and shook my head. Thinking he just had a bad day and needed to vent. So much for the wisdom that I was hoping for.

But he stopped abruptly and said, “Now Michael, I’m serious. Because you see Jackasses are very useful animals. But you have to be able to identify the best ones and work with them and then the others will get in line.”

I didn’t understand.

He said, “Well, some jackasses buck. They make a mess of things and they turn the entire place upside down, often for no reason. They just can’t keep still and they always seem angry.”

I nodded. “I know a few people like that.”

“Now you’re catching on, Michael” the old priest said.

“Now some other Jackasses go round and round in circles. Never seeming to get anywhere. They almost seem like they can’t do anything because they’re stuck in the same old pattern.”

I nodded again, “Sure some people say things like ‘Well, we’ve always done it this way.'”

“Exactly, they don’t help matters they just keep the parish exactly where it is and it never gets anywhere.”

I agreed.

“But Michael, then there are some Jackasses who are able to be calm and they walk in a straight line and are able to pull plows and actually get the work in the field done. Those are the best jackasses and they are worth everything.”

I smiled and said I got it.

“Now wait!” Msgr yelled. “I’m not finished. Most of the time those jackasses can calm the other ones down if they have a good farmer who keeps them calm but sometimes those good jackasses get all riled up by those others groups and end up bucking or going around in circles.”

I thought deeply, “You’re right!” I said. So how do we keep the good jackasses walking in the straight line so that the work can be done?”

“Smart boy.” he said to me. “You spend more time with them and care for them and then they trust you. You make sure their needs are cared for so they can concentrate on the work of the field and that they are well fed. Then those others want to be well fed and cared for and they start coming over and calming down and before you know it. Nobody’s bucking and nobody’s walking around aimlessly. Everyone’s walking together and getting the work done.”

I nodded.

“You see a pastor’s job is to care for people, to give them all of himself. To let them know that they are cared for and that they are valuable and that he has time for them. Pastors appreciate people and most importantly, a pastor is a calming presence in the parish when everyone else is bucking and circling. So they need to find people who are also calm and logical, who keep their wits about themselves and don’t fly off the handle. They’ll keep everyone else in line.”

Great wisdom, wisdom our church can use today nearly 30 years later, when we in the church can seem quite divided at times.

But together we need to calmly walk that same straight line to Calvary where we meet Jesus. And along the way we might buck or go round and round in unhealthy patterns. But nonetheless we meet Jesus who is the pastor who leads us to serenity where he offers us all that he is and it is always more than enough.

Today, as Jesus takes those first steps to his cross on the backs of all of us jackasses, may he find that we too are willing to go to the cross. To suffer for others and to give all that we have for those who need us. The poor, the homeless, the unborn, the aging, the children who get bullied, those who seek our assistance.

Ride on little donkeys! Ride to Jerusalem–dare to carry Jesus to Jerusalem and share in his suffering. But know that others will probably call you a jackass if you do.

And that is all you ever will need to become.

Abraham’s Faith

Today’s first reading is one of my favorites. I know someone is thinking…”FAVORITES? God asks Abraham to kill his only son–why in the world would that be your favorite reading?”

Well it is. And here’s why.

First of all it’s a dramatic story where God seemingly asks Abraham to do something unthinkable. And the question we have to ask is the one we should ask: Why?

In some ways I wonder why Abraham wouldn’t ask the same question. And I’m sure he did. I can see him standing there wondering why God would ask such a question of him. But I can also see him humbly standing before God, assured that it was God’s voice that asked this of him–because Abraham knew God well–and after all, Isaac was given to Abraham and Sarah in their old age by God. “Who am I to not give him back to God if he wants him?” is something I can imagine him saying in a deep Brooklyn Jewish accent (as I hear almost all biblical characters speak)–a resignation that simply in the retelling of the story says: “So I went. What could I do? I could do nothing else but what God commands.”

But even deeper thinking reminds us not of the horror of the command, but of God’s promise.

God further said to Abraham: As for Sarai your wife, do not call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah.
I will bless her, and I will give you a son by her. Her also will I bless; she will give rise to nations, and rulers of peoples will issue from her.j
Abraham fell face down and laughed* as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah give birth at ninety?”
So Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael could live in your favor!”
God replied: Even so, your wife Sarah is to bear you a son, and you shall call him Isaac. It is with him that I will maintain my covenant as an everlasting covenant and with his descendants after him

Isaac is Abraham and Sarah’s only descendant. So God MUST have a plan. Abraham knows to trust God that he must be going to make this OK.

I can see Abraham’s eyes well up with water when Isaac asks him where the lamb is for the sacrifice. “Son, God himself will provide the lamb.”

I hear that voice of the angel shouting “Abraham, ABRAHAM!” stopping the forward thrust of the knife just in time. And the shock in the angel’s voice “Do not do the least thing to him.”

Child sacrifice was common at the time of Abraham. And God’s test is one of Abraham’s faithfulness. I often think that God wanted to see if even a righteous man like Abraham would think that this could possibly come from God and the truth is that the child sacrifice was so common that even Abraham thought that God could require it. Legend tells us that sacrificing children was ceased after this.

How do we listen to the voice of God in our lives and can we trust enough that we might go somewhere where we might not wish to go? Can we discern between God’s voice and the evil one and know what voice to listen to?

Can we believe that the promise God makes to Abraham is also one he makes to us? That all good things come from God and that our job is to trust God enough to know that God is all we truly need.

And that when God truly calls us, we just might look beyond everything and remember all that God has promised to us.

And Then, She Waved at Me

Today I was riding the Buffalo rail—it’s not much just a subway ride that goes down Main Street from the University to the Erie Canal–or more importantly, the Hockey Arena.

On my ride I encountered a young mother with two rambunctious children and I longed to escape into my book that I’m reading for my spiritual direction course. I was obviously distracted by the high pitched voices of these two kids and my fear that they weren’t sitting back in their seats on the rickety ride downtown.

“Sit back! I’m not gonna tell you again!” their mother yelled. A sudden jerk of the train and the little girl to my left nearly got dumped out of her seat.

“See I told you!” mom said. “Be careful, you don’t want to get hurt.”

I thought of all the times this mother must say things like that to her children. The sheer annoyance of having to repeat one’s self dozens of times has to be frustrating. This mom took it all in stride, mixing instructions with great love and a desire for summer to hurry so they can go to the water park.

I felt anonymous. Not being a father I was a mix of jealousness and relief. I didn’t speak nor really even smile at the children who sat in front of me their backs to me on the quick commute. I prayed for mom, that she had patience for an afternoon of rambunctiousness and that she’d keep everyone safe as they travelled. They were certainly a handful.

“OK here we go let’s get off now.” Mom said as she led them off the train. “Cmon, what are you waiting for! The doors are going to close!” They hurried off into the cold winter afternoon.

I gave some sadness to God at that moment. The sadness of not having children and yet, I found a great relief in doing so as if it were not my calling to be more than I already am. I felt a wave of love comforting my initial sadness and turning it into a life that I have made the most out of, a life in which I parent college students, young adults and even the occasional older parishioner.

I wanted another glimpse of the family as the walked down the street alongside my hurtling train. I looked up and there she was. The little girl’s eyes met mine and she began to wave at me. I waved back and smiled and then came the tears.

That was more than enough grace than I would need to sustain me. It seems that even my prayers for families, for the newly engaged couples that I work with and even for this little girl do not go unnoticed.

When people remark that children are a blessing, it makes me cringe. Does that mean that God has chosen not to bless my wife and I because we have no children. All the old testament stories of barren women like Sarah, who even laughs at the possibility of God giving her a child are not ones that often sit well with me and suspect others like me and even single people who choose singleness over married and religious life.

Sunday’s Gospel is one of my favorites. The healing of the paralytic often focuses on Jesus’ action of healing the paralytic–who rises and picks up his mat and goes home.

I choose, however, to focus on the friends of the paralytic. The friends have great faith in both Jesus and their friend. Scholars say that the paralytic’s illness is perhaps psycho-somatic, that he is a victim of belief in divine retribution. In this culture, sickness was a result of sin–God’s curse on someone.

We can believe a lot of things that can in fact, paralyze us. And for me, not having a child has led me into a deeper place of reflection. It’s made me pay attention to my wife more carefully, loving her better than I thought I could. It’s made me appreciate my dog more, no substitute for a child certainly, but a faithful companion who shares love with us, to be sure. My favorite niece has become a treasure to me, not my child, but a loving child who gives me more love than expected. It’s embarked me on being a better minister, sharing more time with students and hearing where their own parents sometimes fail them, frustrate them and yes, even abuse them. I’m often called to pick up the pieces and lift them to the top of the house and drop them through the roof to meet the healer.

I need to be that friend who has the confidence that no sin could ever make God paralyze them. That God forgives them, loves them and wants them to move on into a greater sense of life—one that isn’t tied up with one particular expectation, but calls them into resiliency beyond expectation and into the hope that God will always lift us up again when we are at our lowest moments.

God is there, waving to us…here I am. Thanks for praying. Everything is OK. Keep doing what you are doing and you don’t need to be more than you are already in this moment or anytime after it.

Those friends deeply believed that their friend was no sinner. And that Jesus could allow him to realize that he didn;t have to accept a bemoaned life of regret. Even if he had sinned, it wasn’t all over. God had much more in store for him. “Now rise, pick up your mat, and go home.”

The tragedies of our lives often tie us down to our mats. Today, let us believe that God wants us to believe that we can get past these things and move into freedom–where we are no longer enslaved to our expectations but can move into a life that leads us up the side of a house and down to a savior–who heals us from our tragedies and shows us that we are always more than enough. It’s a long way to go…and that journey may be treacherous, but we have people who can lend a hand and show us the way to the healer, Christ.

Sometimes it only takes the wave of a hand from a child and we are reborn into life’s newness–finding God lurking where we only saw sadness and pain before and reminding us that there is so much more that is offered to us by God.

Today, let us pray for those who seem paralyzed by their situations. May we be able to lift them to Jesus and bring them beyond their pain into getting on life’s journey once again, where we can find that God always offers us more than enough. And where we can rise, pick up our mats and go home.

Because the Custodian Married the Pretty Brunette

Valentine’s Day of course, makes me think of my darling wife. And I have the opportunity each day to love her and to be a good husband to her because of the now nearly 62 years that my own parents have been married to each other.

I can’t remember a time that those two were not in love. Not the gooey romantic kind per se. They have that too, but I’m talking more about the kind of love that, well…Jesus calls us to.

My mom has been sick for years, since I was about 5 the hospital visits started. That was tough for a little kid to deal with, but probably even harder for a husband to have a fairly young wife so sick. Yet, Dad made it seem easy. He rarely complained and always made sure he took care of us and worked hard when mom was well to make sure the bills were managed. A lot of overtime came his way and he often took it to make sure we were well cared for. He was a school custodian, head custodian, to be more accurate. He was proud of that title and those he worked with were proud of him. More importantly, my mother was proud of him. She beamed when he came home and have dinner ready soon. He’d fall asleep in his chair and the snoring would start at some point and my mom would just smile and wake him up.

Last year my dad broke his hip the the usual role of caregiver was reversed. My mom now visited him in the hospital and the rehab center. He’s back on his feet and doing so well. Amazingly well actually and I dot mean that in that backhanded-compliment way. “He’s doing well for an 83 year old.” No, he’s doing well for a 40 year old. He’s better than ever and most importantly–he’s back with his bride–caring for her in their old age together.

That dedication to his wife, now in his old age that really is astounding.

While miles away in Buffalo, I know that I get to love my wife in our home together because the custodian decided to marry that pretty brunette in 1950. They were good, nay great, models of married love–the kind of self-sacrificing love that marriage calls us to. Without that kind of love, one doesn’t really have a marriage–and I think that’s something that most don’t understand, eschewing marriage when things just get too tough.

What might I have to learn from them today? Well, patience for one. There are going to be tough times in my life and my marriage is something that helps me sustain myself in those tough times because I know that my all-too-patient wife has my back. Do I often have that same kind of patience for her when times are tough? Can she depend on me as my mother has been able to depend on my father? Indeed she can. And I hope she knows that. I’m sure she does but I also know that it’s nice to hear once again.

Today, people will feel any number of ways about Valentine’s Day. Some will be lonely because they are not part of a couple. Others will be frustrated because they are in a couple where there isn’t mutual dedication leading to more commitment. And others will be grateful because they have a partner dedicated to that relationship.

Still, no matter where we are, we are called to love. Not romance. Love goes beyond couple-hood and brings us into being dedicated to those we love–not in the hope that we are loved by them in return (though that is often a nice result), but rather we love because we are already loved.

By God.

God loved us enough to share in our life and through that life we are taught how to love…all the way to death and even beyond death. By that life and love we are taught to care for the vulnerable and to sacrifice our comfort for the needs of those who have little. We shift our desires from what we most want to what those in our world needs and in doing so we find God and ourselves in union together and surprisingly happy–perhaps happier than we thought we would be or even could be.

I know that’s the love that my parents share and have shared now for nearly 62 years. And I know that love too, now for nearly 10 in marriage with my Marion. And we thereby are able to share even more love with those that we are called to love. It’s taken us to Nicaragua to care for orphans. It’s sharing food with the hungry and with food banks who care for them. It’s having a listening heart for students, volunteers and friends.

Simply put, it’s embracing love and all that love calls us too, come what may.

Today, this Valentine’s Day may you share love with whomever you are called to. It might be a partner in love, but it also might be someone that you did not choose to love–but rather someone whom God calls you to love this day.

And that kind of love, is truly what can make this a Happy Valentine’s Day for all.