There is a generous mixing of love and service and ritual in John 13. Many Mormons believe it indicates that the act of washing feet is, foremost, an act of love, which is not a stretch, considering both the scriptural context and common sense. It’s also a formal ritual in that church, which apparently is meant to show love.
is something I’ve considered often. I especially find the concept of love interesting when considered in light of Christianity’s “second great commandment” to love your neighbor as yourself. It’s interesting because of this: you cannot love your neighbor under the spirit of this principle unless you first love yourself.
About a year ago now
two of my favorite humans convicted a serial child trafficker at trial, and he was sentenced to 284 years in prison. I was struck, during the sentencing hearing, by a conversation I overheard in the gallery. The defendant had invited the judge to consider his sad upbringing and abuse as a child before sentencing him:
“I can’t imagine what it would have been like to grow up like that,” said one onlooker.
“That’s exactly why he should have known better. He destroyed these girls’ lives in the exact same way his life was destroyed,” came the response from the next seat over.
I immediately questioned this conclusion. I knew this statement came from an upper-class, privileged, white female. I admittedly did not know much about her struggles, familial, economic, or otherwise, but I presumed (for purposes of my thought experiment) that they were few. And if they were few, and if her life was anything like mine (also a mid- or upper-class, white female) then she had missed a great point: you do not know what you do not know. Or, to put it another way, it’s hard to feel for a loss of something you never had.
This defendant, as much as I hated him for what he had done, did not seem to know the depth to which he deprived his victims, because he had never had the goodness in his own life to be deprived of. He maybe sympathized with the sorrow (maybe), yes, but likely not with the joy — without the joy, how do you compare the two and truly recognize the level of harm? How do you know the depth of your damage, if there is no joyous starting place from which to measure it? That is, it is hard to understand bitter until you have tasted sweet. And so how would you know that the fruit you shared was bitter?
Did this person really ever truly love himself? Did he feel love in his life? Did he even know what that was? And if not, did that make him more or less accountable? I didn’t know. I believe he could have attempted to know love, he could have tried to understand it. We are all capable of asking ourselves “what would it be like to be….” We are all capable of looking up and taking insight from the world around us.
What I left with, for practical application, was a desire for two things: to sympathize with the unloved and the sorrowful (to taste the bitter, even by imagination if necessary) but to feel love and joy as much as possible (to taste the sweet), so that there would be a fully-realized reason and a hope for my sympathy. If I want to love others the way I love myself, it helps to love myself and my life.
So today, I went outside to my beautiful front porch. I brought with me my two beautiful, healthy, rambunctious kids. I looked at my beautiful flowerbed filled to brimming with my expensive flowers: Salvia, Dianthus, Hostas, Marigolds, Petunias, and Snapdragons. And then I breathed for a minute, taking it all in. I began to weed and prune and clip while my babies fluttered around me like (very noisy) butterflies.
When I was done, my feet were caked in dirt, my hair was frizzy from the rain, I had worm guts on my hands, and my kids were covered in mud-encrusted yogurt. A small price to pay for a calming gardening experience.
I washed their faces, I washed their hands, I changed their clothes and put them to bed.
And then I washed my feet.
I let the water flow (hot enough to counteract the cold of the rain on my back) into my oversized bathtub as I considered the luxury of running water and tubs as fixtures. I let my feet soak as I considered how both of my children were put to bed (actually put to bed, not just left to find their own way there) knowing that they were clean and cared for and loved. I scrubbed as I thought about the good job I had done and the gorgeous result which was my front porch and happy children and the place I now had to go to where I could sit and be calm. And I just loved myself for it, and was grateful.
It was a ritual of real, practical meditation-inspired self love. It was growth in sympathy for the hard times and growth in love for the good times. It was the lengthening of a ruler by which to measure love for my neighbor by raising the level of love for myself and my situation.
It was a ritual of reverent reflection and relished reality.
I guess I’ll never truly leave the ritual of religion behind. But then, there’s really no reason to. Just like with this trafficking defendant, there are lessons to be learned in everything. There are good things to take away from any experience, religion included. It’s just a matter of stepping into it, weeding, clipping, and pruning, and then stepping away to clean off the dirt and consider the result.
And so I think I will continue this meditative ritual of being grateful and loving myself and trying to apply that love to others as I wash my own feet from a job well done. I will continue to realize that the master will know the servant when he gets down on his level, and the servant will know the master when he is elevated to that degree. And both would better understand love by so doing.