There he is, washing the feet of eleven of the Disciples in the ikon, mine from St. Isaac of Syria Skete of Boscobel, Wisconsin. The faces of the men are obedient, respectful, attentive, and also puzzled, in a tender way, as if caught in the act of learning something. And there he is, towel in hands, such that you don't see them, holding one of the men's right foot there above the basin. The look on his face is one of calm and focus, no distracting him, doing what he does, leaning slightly forward to do his work, almost in the way one leads forward to shake a finger at someone, no no, naughty naughty, this is rather the way, I knew you had it in you. There, good boy.
It's an act that seems to go without saying. Oh, yes, yup, Jesus did that. Come to quick terms with it. 'Humility. Good example, of how to be in the world.'
But it is an ikon of a man doing his work, so much so that it is a quintessential moment, and the rest of his sayings are almost like a commentary one provides along with the essential. Such that we still are required to step back and ask, but what is he doing... The simple act. Mysterious. Not here raising the dead and curing lepers and the blind, no, not here lecturing from the top of a hill, not here walking on water or calming the waters, but the central track on the album, by which we would not get if we didn't listen to the particular one.
It really is one of the great mysteries, like the legend of Jonah and the Leviathan, the mystery of his plea of guilt, of his taking, of his survival and return, quite a thing to happen to a guy walking down the street, could you duplicate it for an interested television audience? ('Well, it would probably take a while; you need a certain amount of preparation...' the spiritually informed might say.)
One way to do it is to, as they say, put on another's shoes and be him for a day or two or three; what's it like. It's an act, a mindset, we have to, in our own way, inhabit from within. We have to go and pick it up in our own hands and in our own habits, to fall into it, to walk in its paths, to mull it over, to phase in and out of it, to leave and return on a daily basis. Not literal feet washing, a kind of attending.
Along with observation. What is happening here? Who now is what? What does this say about a key figure in humanity who truly represents all of us, who is being completely unselfish in an unselfish way, as if to double down, as if to show us. And the silent statement rings monumentally, of course: this is who we are.
And so are the Disciples kind of wide eyed. Some you can see know that they are presently learning from the master, and there's a kind of 'oh, I get it now, what I had not before, as I did not have as much faith as I should have, but on the good side of it, here I am, getting it now.' And Jesus is, the only one, wearing his halo aura thing, the cross of his powers vertical and horizontal in red lines on the gold circle around his head as Jesus angles forward, his sandaled feet firmly on the ground, wearing a deep red robe.
How to inhabit the mystery, the Disciples are now asking themselves. There's a look of starting out, as two look at each other in the bottom corner as they unlace their sandals, preparing their feet as if to look down on them and truly see.
(Twain slyly captures some of this with Huck's white washing the fence, perhaps. How are we to do that cool fun thing which really is cool?)
Like all his lessons, it's one given freely. He's doing it because he's being a man and it's the right thing to do. It has a great purpose, a great power, a transforming power. It's a radical statement, one with scientific certainty.
How would you do it? How would you pick up the essential element of the task? It would be disguised, behind a daily task, perhaps behind a job done steadily, even the one by which you earned your own living. It might be not clearly seen, obscured behind certain clouds, a mystery cloaked within, below the everyday. The atom of truth within a daily perhaps slightly frivolous human need. Each of us a disciple, however we participate, server or served, but perhaps closer when we ourselves are serving.
One might venture: this is how we see him, in the garden, risen, returned, in the shimmering white of a teaching that we will come to personally and intimately understand; we get the teaching; and then, yes, he, like us, can be at peace. "Oh, I get it now! I wasn't so far off after all, with my vague wish to serve humanity that needed not find any particular professional form."
It is within the nature of any story that we are allowed, and even given, to amplify, to let the full import come out of the simplicity of it. That is within the roots of any words, a deeper understanding willing to rise up toward us out of its blue. An effort worth making, perhaps the truest kind of work we ever do...
What is time itself, viewed through such an act...
There I am, tending bar. "What are you working on these days? Are you writing another novel?" I look at them, their friendly gesture. "Oh, I don't know..."
Perhaps he was someone who was simply smart enough and wise enough to not let anything interfere with his inner humanity. That's how he can say 'no to Satan' on every level. Threading the needle, not one way to either side, persevering. He knew who he was. Patient. Not becoming anything in particular, anything that wasn't who he truly and simply was and is.
Strangely enough it is precisely that people want to become something, that they want to go and solve particular problems that causes such a worldly mess. If they were not intent on any particular profession they would drift into being a natural person reverent of nature, with good spiritual senses. But people are ambitious, and want to make something tangible out of their talents, and so they take up professions, thinking that by being, say, private equity fund managers, taking care of their duties in their own small corner of the world, even as important and as practical as that might seem, they are helping solve the world's problems when in fact they are making things worse, letting the whole system, unawakened, march to its catastrophes and taking the rest of humanity and the planet with them. It seemed like a good investment at the time, and indeed, people made money out of it and I got my percentage of it, and so did the lawyer, and then they went to pray in church and it was all good, so it seemed. The great fallacy of becoming...
The problem with becoming a lawyer is that you become a lawyer. One has seen it a million times. The problem with watching television is that you become a consumer of thought rather than having any on your own. The problem with shopping is that you become a shopper.
It's as much the person who changes a mindset, who expands the thought patterns of another, who saves the Arctic regions icecaps as the scientist. Indirect links, Beatles songs...
The professions jump out of the pages of the Gospel. The fishermen seem the most innocuous, excellent fodder. Then there are the more ambitious ones, the tax collector, the scribes, the Pharisees, on up. If you were so bold enough to believe in just keeping things simple and faithful, then you wouldn't have the urge to go make a profitable career out of yourself becoming a thing of man's society. Then you would stand a better chance of walking the path.
And it occurs to the mind, that the more universal a circumstance from life is taken to be, almost as if it removing from current contexts and putting it into something more eternal, the better the circumstance is understood. A small town from which one comes from is any small town. The college on the hill of brick and mortar is any beautiful and spiritual a place of learning, truly a temple. Any road somewhere can potentially vibrate atomically as the road to Emmaus. Any good friend and companion can in some way be, very subtly perhaps, be a disciple or a teacher. All the relationships of life can be boiled down, as it were, or be taken to fit in to a significant sort of a picture. The problem, or the task, is to let the meaning happen as it does, to not meddle, to not divert from the path.
Imagine, the unseen nature of his hands, covered, both of them, by the towel as he polishes a newly cleaned foot. His hands are obscure.
Tired and sore, particularly from the last night of the week, I got home, had a glass of wine, cleared the sink of dirty dishes. Sleep was sore and fitful, a nap was in order in the afternoon after breakfast of a beef patty and rice reheated in a toaster over, and then a bath in epsom salts in the tub, and still feeling weak and bleary. The soreness had been washed away, the skin felt better, but the tired dullness remained.
A Barman's Guide to the Gospels.
To Jesus, watching television would have been indecipherable. And distracting.