I am spending my Triduum with the Dominicans this year, guided by their wisdom and basking in their warmth. A week ago, discussing the Holy Thursday Mass, my vocation director mentioned to me that at the church where we’d go we’d have an option to have our feet washed by the local young people. The washing of feet on Maundy Thursday is a long-standing Christian tradition with roots in the Gospel of John’s description of the Last Supper, when Jesus stopped everything, undressed, wrapped himself in a towel, and, reversing every conceivable social role, washed the dust and grime of Judah’s roads off his disciples’ sandaled feet, drying them with the very towel he was wearing. In our times, many churches include into the liturgy commemorating the Last Supper – the Holy Thursday – a ritual washing of a foot for anyone in the pews who cares to step forward.
Sr. Pat mentioned this so I’d wear socks and shoes easy to remove, but it stopped me in my tracks. The mental image of another person servicing my feet in the middle of a church – not in a hospital or a salon but just because – made me profoundly uncomfortable, and I gather it immediately showed on my face.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
Sr. Pat’s voice shifted a third lower. “It’s a very humbling experience.”
It seemed, I could urgently use one, but I was honestly not sure why. I was not sure what was making me so uncomfortable nor why that discomfort placed me on the wrong side of something important – humility, perhaps. Yet it obviously did.
I fumbled for something to say but on such short notice could come up with nothing but a genuine yet analysis-free statement of fact. “I think I’d rather serve than be served.”
Sr. Pat nodded and threw me one last glance before changing the topic. “Maybe you should think about why that is.”
So I did. Beginning that very moment, I thought about it almost non-stop, on one level or another. I thought about what that foot-washing meant and why I’d love to be the washer but not so much the washed. I thought about its cultural meaning for us and its equivalent meaning two thousand years ago. And about what He wanted, and what He asked, and what He did. And about what in the world people mean when they call both standing by the Grand Canyon and winning an Oscar “humbling” experiences.
Some of it is pretty forthcoming: Jesus does explain his actions in the scripture, and they are to give us an example – a model of behavior. He showed The Twelve what he wanted them, too, to do – “You ought to do what I have done to you.” Which means we ought to do it. We ought to wash the feet of our fellows, most of the time figuratively speaking. More even than that one moment, He offered His whole life and His death as the epitome of humble service. Jesus was the ultimate caretaker, and we who are called to follow in his footsteps would do well to take care of others – once again, to wash the feet of our fellows.
But that’s obvious, at least to most of humanity, give or take some Christian rhetoric. The images of healing, cleaning, farming, teaching, feeding, or building children of God are ubiquitous and unsurprising. I must wash feet and I want to. While I am able to serve – I want to serve.
The question is, must I be washed? While I am able to serve, must I be served?
This answer was less forthcoming, though it shouldn’t have been. I’ve been served plenty in my life – taught and treated and helped in various ways – and I am now and I will be always. There is simply no way to live in society without being helped. Jesus himself, the ultimate servant, let himself be served in some very conspicuous ways, most notably to our particular topic by having his own feet anointed and wiped not with a towel but with hair. Besides, having reversed social roles by washing the feet of his disciples, he did not simply instruct them to do the same but to do the same “to each other.” Naturally, that means that some would serve and others be served, switching roles. A community of mutual aid and equality.
Enlarging the principle to the whole Church and to humanity in general, no other logic works: all cannot serve at all times (even if magically all were able to) because they’d have no one to serve. If I refuse ever to be served, I deprive another of an opportunity to serve. In a twisted sort of sense, it is too selfish only to give, never to receive. It interferes with another’s journey to fulfillment and expression of love, and it upsets the natural balance of give-and-take in a healthy community that functions by utilizing the talents, skills, and gifts of each of its members for the benefit of all. Just giving is as self-centered as just taking – and, upon reflection, signals the same dangerous levels of hubris. If not greater.
We tend to think of the “takers” as arrogant because they walk through the world as if it “owed them” service, care, and homage. They walk as lords. But “givers” walk through the world as if they could fix it without getting fixed, as if they needed nothing from it they couldn’t get themselves – invulnerable sources of goodness. They walk as gods.
We are empowered and imperfect creatures, complicated by our social nature and our good intentions and our perpetual falling short of them, our pride and our love, our ambition and our fatigue all swirled up together, and our always, always – from the crib of humanity – wanting to be like God. We walk many fine lines of mortality and eternity, community and individuality, revelation and limitation, reason and faith, divinity and humanity… This one, perhaps, is one we must straddle of agency and vulnerability.
To serve is to love the world in action – to be useful and to know it, to feel it, to sacrifice status and comfort for its sake. To give up worldly pride.
To be served is to be vulnerable and open to the love of others, to let it flow and pool, to sacrifice control, independence, maybe even dignity for its sake. To sacrifice the pride of the one who will persevere through everything, who will achieve. To be served is to allow yourself to fail – into somebody’s arms. To give up real pride, the one that’s sin. To give up thinking we can be as strong as God.
To be fully human, we must serve and be served.
I’ve struggled with the meaning of humility for a while now – not because it seemed especially hard but because the usage of the term seems so inconsistent. I could not get my bearings, and I could not figure out why some around me thought I profoundly lacked in that department and others had a completely opposite reaction. I am beginning to wonder if there aren’t (at least) two kinds of humility. The letting go of the (at least) two kinds of pride: in the world and in the heart, in relation to people and in relation to God. I wonder.
I also wonder why none of this had coalesced in my mind in time for me to make a decision on whether or not I would be stepping forward on Holy Thursday in church, to have my feet washed. At the time I rose to sing the opening hymn last night, I still didn’t know what I was going to do. I’d been thinking on and off for days, but all I had was a strong feeling of shreds of thought and emotion being tossed around my head like in a tornado, knocking against the inside of my skull. The most I could catch would be half a sentence, and every time then I’d be lost. Babbling. Incoherent. Saying “but” and “but” on and on and trailing off.
And then the priest read the Gospel. It was, of course, the very passage that stands as a basis for our custom of foot-washing now, the one I spoke of earlier. But there was something I’d almost forgotten – a moment between Jesus and Peter. Peter again. The most familiar, human, vivid-color, up-and-down, flight-and-disaster disciple. The best and the worst of the lot. Jesus’ favorite. How many of us don’t find we are so much like him? How many of us haven’t found both terror and hope in Peter’s revelation, denial, conversion, forgiveness? In this passage it is he again who recoils from the Teacher’s hands, embarrassed and horrified at the thought of the Master washing his feet. “Never!” he says. He is to serve, not to be served, certainly not by the Christ himself. I know how he feels, a little. He says what I would say, I’m sure. But Jesus doesn’t get into a discussion about pride and mutual aid just then. He answers Peter like this: “If I do not wash you, you have no part with me.”
If you have even a fraction of feeling about Jesus, even a glimpse of Christianity in you, this one sentence is a morbid blow of a heavy whip – sudden, loud, so painful that your heart takes seconds to recover. It’s cold. Blood-curdling. There is nothing worse to say. Jesus is not being nice. Just then he doesn’t make Peter understand – understanding will come later. He tells. Do or leave me. Do — or away from me! Exile, into darkness and despair. Alone. Nothing to do with him. An ultimatum more terrible than anything Peter or I can imagine.
What struck me the second the passage was read is how identical our reactions were, Peter’s and mine. It’s not that I hadn’t read the passage before, but somehow my memory…suppressed it to some degree. In the days I’d been turning over in my mind reasons for washing and being washed, Jesus’ actions in John’s Gospel, I hadn’t thought of this part at all. I listened as if for the first time to Peter shying away and hearing, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with me.” And together, that second, all hesitation gone, Peter and I said, “Then, YES, LORD.”
“Yes!” we said. This, and then some! Anything else! More!
Peter said, “Then, not only my feet but the hands and the head!”
And I thought, I’ll do anything!
Like Peter, I was in a place of confusion, and I understood maybe some or maybe none of the reasons for why He was asking me to step forward and sit and take off my shoe and have a young woman kneel before me and pour water onto my foot and take it in her hands and wipe it with a towel. But the thought occurred in a flash: What if indeed my refusal of this gesture is decidedly dispositive of some pride, some rejection – something that might separate me from Him? That one horrifying thought was enough to dispel the tornado in my head, and in a ringing emptiness my doubts were gone, my reluctance was gone, and I was ready, and I knew what to do. I’d keep thinking about it – later, now, and probably till the end of my days, such is my nature, trying to understand things – but I no longer needed to understand it all in order to do it.
I’ve acted, as they say, “on faith” before, but I don’t think I’ve thought of it quite in these terms. I have last night. Peter’s ultimatum crystallized something I suppose I’ve been taking too much for granted to formulate: separation from Him is the one price I am never willing to risk for anything. If I ever think I am risking losing my “part” in Him, losing sight of Him – losing my connection – I will do anything. Anything. Without hesitation. Shoot me. Hang me. Anything not to lose the one thing that matters above all things.
Last night’s liturgy was at a new church for me, where I’d never been before, and my sisters told me of a custom (also new to me) that one makes a wish walking into a new church. I did. It was easy, for I always make the same wish. I have been since three and a half years ago. I only ever dare ask for one thing because all other things are part of it, though I don’t always know how. I always make the same wish because there is only one thing I want – and not for two years did I realize that I shared my wish with Thomas Aquinas. I’m sure we share it with countless others:
Only You, Lord. None but You.