Thursday, April 9, 2009

Holy Thursday – Images of Service

What does it mean to have our feet washed? In our Benedictine community we gather on the morning of Holy Thursday and the prioress, who takes the place of Christ in our community, washes the feet of the community members. Whether in a monastery chapel or church the ceremony of foot washing is a powerful witness of service. We are reminded of the deep humility of Jesus who stooped down to serve the motley, clueless group that constituted his chosen disciples.

On Holy Thursday we usually focus on the example of Jesus, how we are to emulate his servanthood, his humility, his example to his disciples. But this year I began to think about what this meant for the disciples. How did they feel having their feet washed? What did it mean to them?

We did our foot washing ceremony differently this year. Rather than have everyone come forward to have their feet washed we had a list for twelve people to sign up. It was interesting to see how that worked. People seemed very reluctant to sign up and this morning Sr. Mary was walking down the hall to recruit the last couple of people to make sure there were twelve. I was the last one she caught and I said yes before I really knew what I was saying yes to.

I’m not sure why I or any other community members didn’t immediately sign up. Perhaps we are reluctant because we always hear how we should wash the feet of others. We hear how we should be servants. We’re exhorted to be leaders who take the lowest place. But what does it mean to be the one who is served?

The reality is that it is hard to be served. Being served is nice if we are in control, if we come as the rich customers who are paying for service. But if we come as people in need, as people who cannot help themselves and have to give up their sense of control and autonomy, that is something else. When we need to be served it challenges our world view. Most of us cling very tightly to reality of being independent, taking care of ourselves, being in control of our lives. Then, in sickness, in weakness, in need, when we have to rely on others, our sense of self is shaken. We are vulnerable there are cracks in our illusion of autonomy.

Having your feet washed is a very sensual, intimate, vulnerable moment. Twelve times Sr. Clarissa, the head of our community, our leader to whom we promise obedience, carefully and lovingly took a basin and poured water and gently handled our calloused, misshapen, ticklish feet. As Sr. Clarissa knelt down and washed my feet I felt I should jump up like Peter, “wait, it isn’t supposed to work this way, wait a minute, you do so much for us I should be serving you.” Instead I had to allow my sense of order to be shattered. I couldn’t be the servant but had to allow someone to serve me in this tender, gracious way.

I think Benedict knew how being served could shake our sense of the universe. In his chapter on the kitchen servers of the week he has a special ceremony every week in which the incoming kitchen servers wash the feet of those who are ending their service. In his community everyone had to take their turn at kitchen service. This meant that in the course of a year there would be several times when you had your feet washed. In Benedict’s community you would have to submit graciously to having your feet washed by the holiest old monks. You would have to sit and be humbled to have your feet washed by the brother/sister who you intensely dislike whom you just finished criticizing. You will have your feet washed by the brother/sister who can barely handle kitchen duty anymore and this will be the last time they wash anyone’s feet. Each time you will come, sit down, and in intimate vulnerability have your feet washed.

Today, in our monastery we have the ritual of the foot washing only once a year. But if we are truly monks, inside or outside a monastery, in community, in family, we will regularly allow our world to be shattered as we allow someone to take off our shoes and gently wash our feet.

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