(This is part of a blog series for my Formation of Christian Traditions class)
One of my very favorite stories from the Desert Fathers is from Abba John the Persian. “It was said of Abba John the Persian that when some evildoers came to harm him, he took a basin and wanted to wash their feet. But they were filled with confusion, and began to do penance.” This is more than a scene of “kill them with kindness.” This is a full-blown response of humility and love towards someone who is “other,” who exhibits violent tendencies, towards someone whose life is very different. Instead of calling the authorities (if one could even do so in those days), or rebuking them, or even preaching at them, Abba John simply bends down in front of them and washes their feet. No kidding, these bad dudes were confused! What would you do if you were making fun of someone or were trying to fight someone and they wouldn’t cooperate, but instead humbled themselves before you and began to wash your feet?
Foot washing is a very old practice that dates back to times before Jesus. In my church, we practice footwashing at the Maundy Thursday service before Good Friday, in memory of the night that Jesus gathered his community around him, called them friends, and washed their feet. The symbolism within the actual act is important to understand. Feet in ancient times were considered unclean, a part of the body that touched the ground and could be contaminated by all sorts of things–plants and dirt and decaying things. And remember that before the last century or so, people were not bathing all that often, especially if you weren’t a rich person. So, these feet that Jesus was washing were pretty stinky. It was considered a low-class job to wash feet because you were touching the most undesirable part of the body, so the task required someone to do it who was not very worried about status.
Abba John, in this story, is similar to Jesus, was not worried about status or class, and concerned himself with spiritual things. He knew that his life was just as valuable as the lives of the bad dudes who intended evil against him, no matter if he was a spiritual leader or not. As Brother Roger of Taize wrote, “Only compassion allows us to see others as they are. When we look at them with love, we discern in each person the profound beauty of the human soul.”
The Simple Way community, founded by Shane Claiborne and others in Philadelphia, PA, holds as one of their principal values “Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.” That means that the community values the people around them, the churchfolk who are the body of Christ. They also value racial reconciliation, shared economics, and care for the earth, each issue necessitating a humble attitude. If racial tensions are going to be healed, we must recognize that #blacklivesmatter and that white folk don’t experience the racism that black folks do. If the hefty gap between rich and poor is going to be narrowed, we must get used to the idea that the wealthy will come down from their thrones and help increase the minimum wage and work to eliminate cycles of economic injustice that have existed for centuries. If the earth is going to be delivered from the plight of climate change, and if we are going to still be here to see that, we must get used to the idea that we cannot continue to violate the wealth of the forest, mountains and plains by extracting lumber, coal and natural gas.
If we truly believe in being humble before God, we must be humble before one another, as the ancient ascetics taught us through their practices of welcoming, feeding and healing the poor. If we are to be humble before each other, we ought to be humble before the earth which sustains us. Shane writes, “The kingdom of God is not just something we were to hope for when we die. It is something we are to live out here on earth.”
For this week, practice humility by remaining attentive to any unkind thoughts that might pass through your mind. Be aware of when you are passing judgment on others. Practice sending out “good vibes” to those around you. Recognize any inclination you might have to think of yourself as “better” than others. Remind yourself that you, like all those around you, are a child of God, beloved, and beautiful to behold!
Reflective questions to consider while trying your new practice:
- What about this practice feels good to me? What does not feel good? What assumptions and motivations are behind both of those feelings?
- Do I feel closer or farther from God when doing these practices?
- How do I want to be a humble servant of God in the world?
Peace be with you!