Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Going barefoot!

My wonderful Curate, Revd Dr Sally Nash, was ordained priest a few weeks ago, and presided at her first eucharist in Hodge Hill Church the next morning. It was one of the many very hot days of the last few weeks, and under my obligatory white alb, I was wearing as little as possible - which (in the interests of a little decency!) stretched to T-shirt, shorts and sandals. But even the sandals were feeling a bit hot and sticky, so I slipped them off before the service, and assisted my new priest-colleague, bare-foot.

I hadn't really given it a great deal of thought. But it was noticed by at least a few of those present, and afterwards someone asked me if it was intentional. I explained the sheer practicality of it, but if I'd been just a little quicker at thinking on my feet, I could have said (as Curate's husband suggested) that I was honouring the ground that was just a little more holy having had Sally preside on it! But as this long, hot summer has gone on, and the sandals have gone on (and come off) more and more often, the bare-foot thing has begun to gather some of that significance.

Stephen Cherry's book, Barefoot Disciple: walking the way of passionate humility, springs to mind. He tells of the ancient pilgrimage to Holy Island, Lindisfarne, and of how pilgrims traditionally walk 'the Plodge', the last bit - across the tidal sands from the mainland to the island - barefoot. He reminds us that shoes are never worn in mosques or Hindu temples, and in Christian places of worship too in many countries. "Removing our shoes, and, if we have them, socks, inculcates a different attitude from walking into a sacred space without a pause, or briskly brushing shoes on coconut matting... Following the way of Christ with humility does not involve scraping the mud from our boots. It involves, maybe even requires, that we encounter the earth as barefoot disciples and pilgrims." Stephen Cherry writes of the way of 'passionate humility', "a Christlike attitude that is down-to-earth, full of life, vulnerable and transformative."

Cherry also quotes Barbara Brown Taylor, another human being of deeply 'earthed' spiritual wisdom. "Take off your shoes," she invites us, "and feel the earth under your feet, as if the ground on which you are standing really is holy ground. Let it please you. Let it hurt you a little. Feel how the world really feels when you do not strap little tanks on your feet to shield you from the way things really are." (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World) "Our attention is drawn," says Cherry, "to this point of contact, the connection between ourself and the earth. We experience in a new or deeper way both our vulnerability and our connectedness."

On holiday in Cornwall a couple of weeks ago, we spent a lot of time barefoot on the beach, and we also visited the amazing Eden Project, and did a great little 'barefoot walk' there, set out carefully to give our feet a feel of grass, stones, woodchip, rubber, and thick, oozy mud! Our 5 year-old Rafi and 2 year-old Adia both loved it - with a little bit of encouragement at times!

Back home on our estate, there are rather fewer opportunities to go barefoot. Apart from the hard and often cracked pavements, there is a fair bit of broken glass around, and the occasional dog-poo surprise. Barefoot walking here demands a level of vulnerability that I am not prepared to risk.

But there are still those places, in my own neighbourhood, where I need to take up that invitation to go barefoot - perhaps literally, as well as metaphorically. I have found myself doing it often when I am listening to someone speak of the most vulnerable and fragile things in their life, treasured memories, or heart-breaking experiences, or both. A wise friend and 'learning companion', Cormac Russell, also pointed to the value of going barefoot in more conventional meetings: in those spaces so often structured by the formality of agendas and minutes, where it is all-too-easy to focus our attention on words buried in mountains of paper and words thrown and torn apart in 'discussion', where everything so often can be 'up in the air', Cormac was reminding me of the value of what has been called 'presencing' - intentionally placing our feet on the ground - on this patch of ground here - becoming conscious of ourselves as embodied, 'emplaced' human beings, 'earthed'... and in our 'earthedness' also connected, to those other embodied, 'emplaced', 'earthed' human beings who are in the room, sharing the same place, bringing vulnerabilities and passions not identical to mine, but just as worthy of reverence. I have not done it too often, as yet - it is so easy to forget, to slip back into our ingrained ways of 'meeting' (which is rarely really meeting each other). But when I have remembered, and been a bit more intentional about my 'presencing', I have been aware of the difference it makes - at least in how I am, and speak, and respond to others.

So may the long, hot summer continue - at least so that I can practise going barefoot a bit more often!


  1. When I was a teacher in Leicester I used to be mostly barefoot in the classroom. It gave me energy, somehow, and subverted the suit and tie a bit. The children started to notice but didn't get beyond noticing since adults are generally odd.

    I also used to distract them from work by sitting on my desk (barefoot), cross-legged, playing a penny whistle.

    I don't think they learned much but it was more fun than maths and at least as useful.