We had spent the weekend at what was one of the all-time greatest celebrations of my life. We adorned our bodies with streamers and danced to the flute and accordion just before we processed in to the great foot washing service we were about to celebrate. It was a retreat being animated by Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche which is a organization of small communities all over the world of people with more and less visible disabilities living an intentionally communal life. We gathered in small circles to begin this incredibly physical and intimate rite of love. I’ve participated in this before but I had never entirely understood it like I suddenly did watching the group next to me. And it all hinged on a man who has never walked or spoken.
The idea was simple, after a time of worship and reflection, a group leader would begin the ceremony by washing and drying the feet of a member of the group in a shallow basin. The moment was already Rich in that the bodies we had adorned with streamers were not conventional, some of them shaped quite differently than mine. Not everyone dance on their legs some just kept time with a hand or foot or smile. But in this place, all bodies are celebrated. No exceptions. Now to kneel in front of each other to touch each other and in many ways to ask for forgiveness and to forgive.
As the group leader I went first which kept me very ‘in the moment’ as they say. Given the nature of the participants some people would need instruction and/or assistance to pull this off. I could see beyond our circle the events of the group next to us.
John’s body was much less like mine than anyone there. He could even really sit in a conventional wheel chair. His was something more like a hammock strung between uneven bars like a clever gymnast who found a way to nap at practice. I was touch to see his feet get washed but till that moment I didn’t even think of what it would mean for him to wash someone’s feet, lying on his back, with hands over which he had little or no control.
Then they swooped in: two at his hands, two at the basin and two at the feet to be washed. They lifted the basin up to John, they lifted the feet to the basin, they lifted his hands to the feet. And it was remarkably natural. In this circle, no one, absolutely no one is denied their opportunity to minister and to serve. Washing is as much about being fully human as being washed.
Some us just need a little assistance in serving others. Some of use need instruction, some of us need to be lifted and held in the right position. That’s when I realized I was the one needing help. John and his six friends were teaching me how to be human.