A Pedicure for God
A few years ago, my students chipped in to buy me my first manicure/pedicure gift certificate—mostly as a joke. The girls in my classes kept telling me how wonderful the whole experience was, and how good it made their feet feel afterwards. Reluctant at first, I eventually gave in to high school peer pressure and went to the salon. I felt out of place surrounded by women being catered to by other women—almost like I had stumbled into the wrong restroom! But it turned out that my students were right: there is something about having someone giving you a pedicure and attending to your feet in ways we cannot do ourselves that is very healing. One time when I went to the salon right after Mass (still wearing my priestly collar), the older Vietnamese woman who was massaging my feet told me that for older people in her culture, being able to serve a Catholic priest was a holy experience—like they were in fact serving God Himself. I was speechless and humbled more than I can say, and the rest of that pedicure kept me in a very spiritually aware state of mind.
I am not overly fond of wearing shoes, and when I come home after Mass or after teaching all day, the first thing I do is to take off my shoes. It’s more than fatigue: I need to feel more attached to the ground, more a part of the natural world. In the spring, summer and fall, I go barefoot as much as possible for the same reasons. As part of my training in Healing Touch Therapy, I was taught that the practitioner must always work without shoes, to consciously connect with the earth and the powerful energies that are contained within it.
Now, I have to admit that other people’s feet are not my favorite things to touch, and for a few years, I didn’t do the Holy Thursday foot washing for this very reason. But then I had that transformative pedicure, and I came to appreciate the truth that to touch another’s feet is an intimate act of acceptance and even affection. And even though our feet are our primary means of connecting with the earth, they are usually prevented from doing do by our shoes or sandals. This is why Jesus chose to wash feet with his disciples: he knew that to wash another’s feet is a sign of trust, closeness and openness.
Ritual foot cleansing has a long and intricate history involving many methods and motivations. It has been used as an initiation, a welcoming gesture, a purification ceremony, and as a means to demonstrate humility and even penitence. (Think of the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair.) This custom was celebrated all over the world, in various cultures. It was part of Middle Eastern hospitality to wash the feet of guests when they arrived. In Buddhism, clean water used to clean feet is one of the eight customary offerings. And by cleansing the feet of an “enlightened” person meant that one’s own karma was being cleansed. This is no doubt the source of the Vietnamese understanding in regard to serving the feet of a Catholic priest.
However we look at the act of washing feet, whether we do it literally or figuratively, we can use the experience to get our spiritual bearings. Soaking our feet in hot water after a long day at the office can be relaxing, but preparing the bath for someone else’s feet is even more healing. It’s all about the intentions we call to mind as we prepare this time-honored ritual. Whether done at the nail salon or as an offering to someone we know and cherish, washing feet can become a sacred action that honors the divine within yourself and within others.