There is something gracious and tender about washing feet. By this I don’t mean the person washing feet is being gracious and tender, even though they are, but that graciousness and tenderness are present in abundance when feet are being washed because it can be felt and experienced by people watching or hearing about it. There is a genuine, kind, and loving presence which is shared when two people humbly sit down and care for each other in this way. It feels beautiful, strengthens humility and love for both participants, and is actually really fun. Perhaps my favorite thing about it is: it’s extremely difficult to misinterpret the message of care.
The Burning Man festival is an arts and culture event which takes place in the Nevada desert north of Reno. A temporary encampment called Black Rock City pops up in a circle stretching three miles across centered on a large wooden statue of a man. At the end of a week, the “man” is burned, and people head home. It has been, and will continue to be described in many different ways, but the word which really captured me was “radical.” There are ten principles of Burning Man, the first is radical inclusion; there’s also, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, and an economy based on giving. The costumes, sculptures, structures, traditions, and activities of the festival are quite impressive, but do not entirely describe the openness and receptivity of the people who have traveled to be there, and of the place itself.
This year, after a successful lecture the year before, a group of Christian Scientists planned, built, and hauled a camp to the desert with more than one hundred gallons of extra water just for washing feet. I was extremely grateful to be included at the last minute, and traveled to Black Rock City a couple days after the festival began.
While I was washing my first pair of feet and enjoying delightful conversation with a Frenchman from Montreal, he commented, “It really helps you understand why Jesus did it.” As someone who has sometimes found it difficult to share what I know and love about Christianity and Christian Science, this was such a joy to hear. I hadn’t been thinking of it in those terms, but of course he was right. What my friend was talking about wasn’t the physical touch alone, but the mental expression of care and tenderness, of presence imbued with love, and without expectation. When we were done he asked if he could wash someone else’s feet and did, and he returned on another day with friends to wash and be washed. There are many stories like this from the week in the desert, unique and personal expressions of love and care which dotted the landscape of the inspired adventure, but what I hadn’t anticipated was how easy and natural it would be to discuss deep spirituality while washing feet. I had always expected the metaphor and the gift of washing feet to be clear, what I hadn’t expected was how easily the spirit of this activity would be to enjoy and share.
Why was it so easy to share? Why were people so receptive? Mrs. Eddy writes “Grace and Truth are potent beyond all other means and methods.” S+H 67. With a focus on presence, and giving, instead of convincing, we found our voice in the only language that matters: love.
The folks whose feet we washed constantly mentioned they felt as though they were completely clean, as if not just their feet were washed. Many of them participated in washing, and even more brought friends and neighbors, and returned on other days. Topics were discussed, prayers were said, copies of Science and Health and Sentinels were handed out, all of it without a sense of pushing or proselytizing.
An atmosphere of love pervaded our camp and activities, including two lectures, a Wednesday testimony meeting, and a Sunday morning service. It really did feel like First Church Black Rock City, and reminded me of Jesus’ words “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matt 18:20. We were able to feel and express church even there.
After spending some time in the desert it is easy to see why washing feet became a tradition of hospitality and care for the people of Israel. In the desert you don’t notice your feet getting dusty, you know they are, but you don’t experience the increasing dustiness in the way you might experience an increase in weight. But you certainly notice them getting clean. It’s a lot like negative habits of thought. The assumed knowledge, the insistent senses, and human conflicts, seem to gather together suggesting to us something other than perfect man, the image and likeness of God. Of course the dust on your feet isn’t and can never BE a part of your feet, so those habits of thought which didn’t start as part of you, cannot become a part of you. Which brings us to vinegar.
The desert dust where we were is high in alkaline, a base, which has to be counteracted with a mild acid before you can use soap or water usefully. Diluted vinegar cuts the dust and gets the feet ready for washing. It’s the same way with healing. You can’t ignore the fear and burden mortal mind seems to accumulate, it must be removed in order for the tender comfort of the Christ to be glimpsed and received.
Of course Jesus didn’t do it to fulfill tradition or simply to make his disciples feet feel good; he was handling the question of “who shall be greatest,” among his disciples. Instead of answering the question, he replaced the question entirely with humility and service. Who can contemplate their own greatness when the master is here, forever, washing the feet of his followers? His indelible example, is with us for all time, and reminds us that we are here to give.
In reality who could be, or would want to be, resistant to Truth? It is often our human desire to be successful in convincing someone which finds us trying to take a shortcut through human sense, personality, or coercion. The goal can seem good and so we do not easily recognize the influence of human sense asking to be acknowledged and used. But if we are sharing truth divinely inspired, giving grace and love, these are always accepted and find their proper place. We cannot argue, legislate, or coerce the divine. God does not fight, compete, or contest, the divine mind is supreme. God simply removes the question through the emination of infinite and perfect Life and Love. We should not attempt to contest or convince where God does not. When we look to God, and to Jesus’ example, our path becomes more clear: to witness, express, and understand more of the divine Mind; to remove fear and misunderstanding, not with coercion, but with genuinely expressed love.