Blessing of the Feet

            “I want you to join me in a ritual for one of my patients,” M. said.

            M. was a smart, insightful, and creative social worker at Hospice of Santa Barbara.  My job there was largely administrative, and only rarely was I asked to participate in patient care.  But I trusted M.’s professional skill, her instincts, and her chutzpah, and told her I would do whatever she needed.

            One of our guiding principles was, “The family is the unit of care.” Was it a cohesive and caring family unit?  Or would long-standing tensions come to the fore as they were about to lose a loved one?  The family dynamics would play a large role in the experience of the patient in the dying process and how that family would evolve after the death has occurred.

            M. gave me the background.  The patient was a woman in her 80s whose husband had died some years before. Two adult daughters were caring for her.  There had been some issues between them, and M. wanted to do something that might bring them together. The mother was not responsive at this point, but “still here.” M. felt she could create a simple ritual to bless the mother as she came close to dying.  She introduced the idea to the daughters. They would dress mom up in nice clothes, fix her hair, put make-up on, and give her a pedicure and a manicure, talking to her as they worked.  At the appointed time, M. and I would come to the house. M. would stand at the head of mom’s bed and lead us with a daughter on each side, and me at the feet.

            M. and I met at the house at 7 PM. M. introduced me, noting I was a pastor as well as Hospice Director.  Mom’s bed was in the living room, and had been elevated enough that we could each standby it.  M. praised the daughters for how classy mom looked.  Lights in the room were dimmed and candles lit.  She told us each to take our position and explained what would unfold. 

            After a moment of silence, M. began with words of affirmation to the mother, reminding her of all she had accomplished in her life, telling her who was present in the room and what we would be doing.  Each daughter then took a turn, holding one of mom’s hands and telling her how much she had meant to them.

            I remember thinking, “I have no idea what I’m going to say. They didn’t teach how to do this in seminary.”

            When the second daughter finished, I looked at the woman’s bare feet visible past the bottom edge of the blanket. The nail polish was bright red.

            I placed my hands under her feet and raised them a few inches.

            My mind began imagining what these feet had experienced.

            “These feet were part of you when you were a toddler learning how to walk. They were with you in childhood, running out the door at your command to play in the neighborhood and rush to school.  They grew with you as you became a teenager, then a young woman. They enabled you to have your first dance, to walk next to the man you fell in love with, to process down the aisle at your wedding.  After you gave birth to your daughters, it was these feet that carried you as you carried them, pacing back and forth at night comforting them.  In all the years that followed, these feet did as you wished, faithfully supporting you through your challenges and joys. They have been loyal and faithful servants.  We give gratitude to God for them, for you, for your family, for your many years, and for all the love that is in this room with you now.”

            I lowered the feet back on the bed.

            M. spoke to mom, summarizing what each of us had said and closed with a final blessing for her and her daughters.

            I felt Presence in the room.

            Mom’s eyes remained closed, her breathing steady.

            We began to bring our awareness back to “ordinary time.” I thanked the daughters and the mother for the gift of being with them and said good night. M. remained, explaining what would be occurring as their mother approached her last hours.

            The next day, M. called to tell me the mother had died later that night in the living room.  She felt what we had done was already helping the daughters heal past hurts and come together.

            Two days later I realized this had happened on a day known in the Christian tradition as “Maundy Thursday,” when many communities re-enact Jesus washing his disciples’ feet the night before he died.

            The experience left a profound impact on me. This was partly due to the privilege I felt participating in such a sacred moment with this family.  But, for the first time, I realized how extraordinary it is for us to have what we call “feet” that are truly with us throughout all our days, enabling us to do so many things through every stage of life.  Maybe we notice them when we accidently drop something on them, or any time they are a source of discomfort.  But most of the time we take them for granted.  Hour by hour, day by day, year by year, they are our silent servants.

            Feet are the point of contact between our living presence and the solid earth.

            Thich Nhat Hanh, who died two months ago at age 95, famously taught, “People say walking on water is a miracle, but to me walking peacefully on earth is the real miracle. The earth is a miracle, each step is a miracle.”

            May we all be aware of the blessing our humble feet are for us, now, when we have breath to do so.

Art work: Feet, Vincent Van Gogh, 1885, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Postscript: Preparing a body for burial is a common practice in many traditions (e.g., chesed shel emet in Judaism) and has been reemerging in contemporary times, including in secular health care settings.  One study at our local hospital found it not only gave families a significant sense of closure, but also helped with morale and burn-out among nursing staffs.  Blessing the body when the person is close to death, as described in this story, can also be a powerful and positive experience.  There are many ways of doing it that can be customized to fit a family’s values.

Celebrating the Light, Wherever It Appears

            In 2006, I went on a personal pilgrimage to Amsterdam and Paris.  Art had increasingly become a source of inspiration and revelation for me, and I wanted to know more.  I was not disappointed.

            In the Van Gogh Museum bookstore in Amsterdam, a book caught my attention: Van Gogh and Gaugin: The Search for Sacred Art, by Deborah Silverman.  I ordered a copy when I got home and found it fascinating. Silverman explores how both artists sought new ways to experience and portray the presence of the sacred. They came from different backgrounds –Van Gogh from a pious Dutch Reformed tradition, Gaugin schooled in Catholic mysticism – and both created their own style. But they shared a common purpose.

            Van Gogh’s The Church at Auvers is one of his many fascinating works when viewed from this perspective.

            Here’s a common interpretation: “The foreground of The Church at Auvers is brightly lit by the sun, but the church itself sits in its own shadow, and ‘neither reflects nor emanates any light of its own…’”  Van Gogh had become disillusioned by the “empty and unenlightened preaching” he had heard too often. Painting became a way to seek and share spiritual truth and energy found beyond the walls of any religious building — in the light and colors all around us.[i]

            This painting, then, suggests the sacred is best found outside the church and its buildings – in the glory of the blue sky, in the light that illuminates ordinary paths and landscapes, and perhaps even within the private thoughts of the anonymous villager passing by.

            I get the point.  In modern times, religious institutions can often seem irrelevant. Fewer and fewer people participate in worshipping communities.  I’ve attended my share of worship services that left me feeling more discouraged than inspired.  I appreciate seeing what Van Gogh sees, and not being limited in any way in my search for the sacred.

            But as I thought about The Church at Auvers this week, I realized my perspective on it has shifted.  Not everything that occurs behind such walls takes place in dull shadows. 

            I’ve heard some terrific, life-changing sermons in my day. Many times, hymns and songs moved me in ways that words cannot.  Within such walls, I’ve met many ordinary people who carry light within them, who gratefully gather with each other and form strong, vibrant communities.

            And I’m not just talking about experiences in my own tradition.

            I’ve attended Torah studies at my local synagogue where everyone fearlessly wrestles with ancient stories and timeless questions, uncovering fresh insights into contemporary life.

            I’ve listened to and meditated with Buddhist teachers who have helped me see life in new ways. 

            I’ve sat in mosques in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Goleta where I felt a strong, quiet sense of reverence. 

            These experiences happened “inside” institutional walls, but there was nothing dull about them.

            In essence, I don’t feel we have to choose being inside or outside these walls to find spiritual light.

            I remember years ago attending a mass in Yakima, Washington where the priest said, “We don’t come to church to experience God. We can experience God every day of the week. We come to church to celebrate what we’ve found.”

            I’m grateful for all the experiences I’ve had — inside and outside spiritual buildings — that have instructed, inspired, challenged, delighted, and nurtured me.

            May we each find the light we need in this new year, wherever it may be.