On a bright January morning in Kolkata, I stood in the corridor of one of Mother Teresa’s homes for those with serious physical and mental illnesses. It’s become a tourist-trail itinerary slot and as part of my tour of India, I’d come to volunteer for the day. The nuns barely ask for your name when you sign up and no one tells you what to do. In front of me were a row of old women with shaved heads, reaching their arms out. They pointed to a bottle of moisturising cream sat on the side. I looked at their bare arms and legs; dry, scabby, skin stuck to the bone. I checked around to see if there were any surgical-looking gloves going spare. Nothing. My skin was going to have to touch their skin.
In all honesty my first reaction was one of slight horror. Leprosy’s not contagious anymore right? What about other things – what can you pick up from women like this who’ve been dragged in from off the street? My nausea and embarrassment didn’t get much better as I knelt on the hard floor and began to soothe these women’s frail legs with the cheapest of moisturising lotions.
I really don’t write this to big myself up. You should have seen me; red-faced, out of my depth and floundering. It wasn’t pretty, ennobling or my finest nurse’s hat hour. I tell you this because I’ve never felt so incredibly pathetic, white and middle class. The wealth of my education, upbringing and life experience came crashing down around me as I realised how different my life had probably been to these women. It was an acutely intimate act. I’ve never felt so humble.
Touch is a wonderful and barrier-breaking thing. We’re not always that good at it in Britain. Shall we hug? Er, how many kisses on the cheek do we do here? Two? One? No, oh … ok, you’re going for two. Wow that was awkward. Once our undefined goodbye routine is over, we’re all quite relieved. Yet there is something powerful and releasing in letting someone else hold, soothe or even bathe you. There is something almost of earth and heaven at the same time about doing it for someone else.
Pope Francis begins his papal ministry with a bold statement of servitude. For the first time, instead of performing the traditional foot washing service in one of the Vatican’s basilicas, Pope Francis has washed and kissed the feet of 12 young offenders detained in a penal institute on the outskirts of Rome. It’s a symbolic act; a physical departure from the grandeur of the basilicas to a place where those labeled ‘rejected’ live apart from the rest of society; and more than that, it’s not being used as an opportunity to pontificate; rather to actively remind those minors they are not forgotten, but treasured. Could this first remarkable public act of submission become a prophetic symbol of what the Church is called to do for the world?
Do you know what it’s like to get dirty? I mean hot, sweaty, smelly – when the bit under your nails is black, your feet are coated in layers of grime, when you’ve been walking all day in a city you don’t know, with traffic speeding past, the day’s dust choking your throat and no shower in sight.
Maybe those prisoners don’t feel that clean.
Do you know what it’s like to feel entrenched in dirt even when you’re seemingly spotless on the outside? So dirty that it chokes you, and you can’t even look at yourself in the mirror, let alone catch anyone else’s gaze because you realise that you’ve screwed up again, so terribly badly, so very, very badly.
Into this comes the carpenter whose face is marked by living on the road, soles hard from walking for days with a smile that instantly shatters embarrassment and shame. Here comes one with a bowl of water, kneeling before you. He’s not afraid of the dirt. It doesn’t even touch him. Here comes one with water that cleans the inside and out. He’ll chuck the whole bowl over your head. Yeah, that’s his style.
It can be as humbling to let someone wash your feet as it is to do it for another person. Both can be awkward and uncomfortable; both have the power to renew and transform.
It’s Maundy Thursday, Holy Thursday. And if there’s any day to get down on the ground, to swallow up that hard-worn sense of self and pride, to give up the chase, the hunt, the bravado, the status updates, the trends, the trials, the will-he-won’t-he, the striving, the successes, disappointment, – to remember, receive and give, then O God, it’s today.