by Lawrence Barriner II
Center for Story-based Strategy
You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet,
you ought to wash one another’s feet. ~John 13:13-14
In the last two weeks of the global coronavirus pandemic, I have been obsessed with practices. Sujin Lee (a mentor of my good friend and colleague, Bernice Shaw) wrote this the other day, inspired by her work with Norma Wong:
“[T]his moment is revealing people’s practices & those will determine
how ready we are to survive this moment.”
Today, I’m reflecting on practices, spiritual and not. (What isn’t spiritual?!)
One of my favorite spiritual practices has always been Ignatian contemplation. And now that I think about it, it might have been the basis of most of my Sunday school experiences. How much easier is it to get a group of young people to pay attention for an hour when you engage them with imagination and story? Ah, I just got an idea for how to support my upstairs neighbor who is now solo homeschooling her child … But I digress!
When I imagine myself as a participant in John 13:1-15, two details jump out to me. The first and most commonly noted (including by Jesus himself) is how stunning it is that Jesus, the teacher, the one seen in the highest regard in the room, is the one doing the task. And, from what I remember in a previous moment of studying this text, washing feet is a task for the lowest servants.
The second detail, the reason the lowest servants get this task, is that I have to believe that the feet of those guys were filthy! From what I know of those days, the ground was dusty and people got around almost entirely by foot. Of course, there is the occasional animal trip, but from what I remember of the Gospels, Jesus and crew walked. A lot. Likely in sandals. To get down and wash the feet of those wanderers had to be … intense.
As I reflect on just these two details (two of any number of details you might focus on if you practice Ignatian contemplation with the text yourself — which I strongly suggest!), the insight that shines through is this: the person in the highest position of power took on the dirtiest, lowest task.
What more just worlds become possible if we made some of our practices during this pandemic Lenten season the taking-on of the lowest tasks? How might we acknowledge where we have hierarchical or relational power and then put our attention and energy towards the tasks typically reserved for others?
In our homes, now that many people are home trying to work through this crisis, could we shift who is doing the dirtiest tasks? In our organizations, as people adjust to the psychic load of being in pandemic, could we pay attention to the dirtiest, most menial tasks and shift who does them (and if we can’t, can we make sure those folks are well or at least well-taken care of)? In our communities, what could we do to care for those who aren’t able to stay home? In our cities, now that many service-workers have lost their income, can we take off our fancy clothes and send some attention and resources to those who are struggling? And on a global scale, what would it look like to recognize that healthcare systems in most industrialized nations, in spite of their limitations, are better resourced than others and act as the Spirit moves us?
As we continue to live through apocalyptic* times, what are we practicing?
* My interpretation of apocalypse is “uncovering of the truth”; not “the end of the world” … well, unless one means “the end of the illusion of worlds that were fabricated and hiding the truth.”
Lawrence Barriner II is a mystic, storyteller, facilitator, and liberation worker who deeply values love/justice, community, and transformation. He works at the Center for Story-based Strategy and lives on occupied Massachusett and Mashpee Wampanoag territory, often referred to as “Boston”.