I’m plowing through my mail from last week…

…and so only got to this today.

Leah Libresco, my favorite atheist, writes:

I ended up doing a bit for my blog that was more about how to have a productive discussion/ask questions when something looks like sexist practice, but we don’t know for sure yet. You were my good example.

I noticed a number of your commenters seemed to think the main reason people liked communal washing of the feet was because it was so nice, where nice is pronounced bland or anodyne. I thought you might be interested in linking to my post about attending Maundy Thursday services last year , I didn’t find it soft, I found it terrifying. It made me confront how little I like accepting help from others, even in a ritual where everyone was receiving the same kind of service.

This reminds me of something I sometimes want to say to cradle Catholics, particularly of the traditionalist stripe: namely, many such folks don’t seem to have a very good gauge of how powerful the faith is. Chesterton once remarked that “Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world.” I can totally appreciate Leah’s experience of feeling terrified. Those who are used to Christian things can forget how strange and powerful they are. I have lively memories of how much I felt like a fish out of water, surrounded by people and things I did not understand and how I felt quite intimidated by (as Leah notes) a Thing that required of me a vulnerability I liked about as well as I like a doctor’s request to strip naked.

Leah, you’ve got moxie and intellectual curiosity. Well done!

  • HBanan

    Leah’s right about how Holy Thursday footwashing feels, but the commenters are also right about the “nice” thing. The people getting washed feel uncomfortable, but the ones who aren’t getting washed — and who may never have been — think it’s lovely. We all know it’s humbling and kind of weird. That’s why most of us don’t fall over ourselves begging the priest for it.

    The uncomfortable nature of this ceremony means volunteers are few. Priests always seem a bit desperate leading up to Holy Week in their quest for disciple stand-ins. They need to find 12 people do fill in at Mass for a public spectacle of being weirded out just like the disciples were, except now they are on stage instead of in a private room.

    This is why they usually assign a group, like “The Rosary Cenacle,” or “All the RCIA candidates and sponsors” or whatever. These groups are co-ed, and with the group getting dragged in, it’s harder for anyone to back out.

    It’s also why you sometimes see that the people on the altar are ALL women; women are more willing to go through this awkwardness.

    But, as little as people enjoy having their feet washed, it’s a powerful ceremony that most parishioners think is moving and important. They don’t want to be in the hot seat, though! The remembrance of that humbling and uncomfortable ceremony goes right out the window when someone says “Women can’t!” When I heard “Women can’t!” I thought, “Haha, men! Sux 2 B U! Now I have the perfect excuse when Father asks me.” I swear, if a new priest said women were no longer allowed to scrub down the urinals in the men’s room, he’d have a stampede of angry volunteers, especially if he used words like “immodest” and “Biblical precedent.”

  • Noah D

    Very interesting observation from Mrs. Libresco. As a convert (3 years as of Easter!), it is powerful. I’m not one to turn down help from others (working on that humility thing), but…having a priest I respect a great deal, who asks us to stand when the elders enter the room, wash my feet? It’s a slow-mo punch in the gut.

    Aside: I can’t seem to get concerned about women having their feet washed; we do half and half at my parish. I’m even less concerned about the priest and ELMs giving blessings to those who aren’t receiving Communion.

  • Ted Seeber

    A year later I found Leah’s blog linked to Mark Shea’s blog, and I posted this in both.

    And I have to ask the question, because I have Asperger’s and don’t really have a good sense of social boundaries to begin with.

    Do you think possibly a part of your atheism stems from your reluctance towards the social aspects of being in a community- that is, the anonymous give-and-take that is a part of caring for others and being cared for in return?

    Most of my experience of God, I have to admit, has come through other people. To an Autistic, this has been a bit of a surprise, because in general I don’t like other people. I find neurotypical humans to be strange and mystifying, if not downright evil at times. So I can certainly understand reluctance towards being in a community- and as an extension of that, cutting yourself off emotionally from the main way believers experience God in their lives. Without that subjective data, the natural and rational conclusion would be God does not exist; when the objective conclusion would be God does not exist *for you because you won’t let your shields down*.

    • Maiki

      This reminds me of a passage from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s (now Pope Benedict) book, “Introduction to Christianity”. He described having faith in God sort of like being musically inclined. Some people have a good enough ear to play and perform it well, some have a good enough ear to recognize good music, and some have none of these things. And humans are the same with faith. That is why Christianity needs a Church and a community of believers, not just a “personal relationship with Christ”. Many people need those others that a “religious experience inclined” in order to experience God. And it is the duty for those to whom religious experience comes easily to *also* be part of the community to give faith to others.

      He said it much more eloquently than I, but as someone who is not musically inclined (or even good a picking good music), it makes sense to be a Church instead of just individual faith. If I had to rely on myself for all the music I listen to, my world would be silent or full of noise. Maybe that is why so many of my friends I pick are *really* into music.

      But I think, in our very individualistic culture, it is easier to have atheists, because those who are not “faith tone-deaf” have a much harder time getting religious experiences from the community.

    • leahlibresco

      That’s certainly struck me as a possibility. I mentioned in this stat-nerdery post that I think it’s plausible that Christianity could be true and that I would never wise up because of personal hangups and epistemological inertia. The solution isn’t obvious (it never is when you’ve got a calibration problem and a lot of uncertainty).

      My general approach right now is that, even leaving the question of Christianity aside, I’m probably too resistant to being in other peoples debt (the fact that I phrase it that way instead of “resistant to depending on others” is a clue). So I’m trying to move in that direction, and I’ll worry about overshooting or reevaluating my beliefs once I’ve actually managed to shift a bit.

      • Ted Seeber

        I’m beginning to really like your blog- you’re what I call a rational atheist (as opposed to a Biblical Atheist or an outright anti-theist), and so I’ll answer there with a solution that worked for me during my common-to-all-cradle-catholics agnostic wandering in my 20s.

  • http://jordanhenderson.blogspot.com Jordan Henderson

    This discussion throws more light on Peter’s apparent discomfort from having his feet washed.

    On the one hand, (I gather) 1st century Israel was a culture where mutual feet washing wasn’t that unusual, while it’s very rare now.

    But, think of having it be done by someone you believe to be the Messiah, the King of all Israel and the Holy one of God? I gather feet washing was typically done by someone who was very much beneath you in social stature.

    Isn’t this the context under which John the Baptist meant when he said he wasn’t fit to loosen the straps of the sandals of the one to come? That he wasn’t even fit to wash Christ’s feet?

    • godescalc

      I’d never noticed that parallel before… and some of the Apostles were John’s former disciples too, they would have remembered that.

    • Timbot2000

      “On the one hand, (I gather) 1st century Israel was a culture where mutual feet washing wasn’t that unusual, while it’s very rare now.”

      So wrong its not even close! Even today in Middle Eastern cultures, washing of feet is considered the most filthy and menial of tasks, historically performed by slaves. That Christ, the anointed of God, would “gird himself as a slave” and wash the feet of his disciples was a shocking act of self-abasement in the context of the day.

      • Check Reality

        You’re right. Mutual foot washing was unknown. It was performed by slaves, which I captured elsewhere in my comment.

        • Suburbanbanshee

          Yes, but the High Priest always washed the feet of the other priests when they were getting ready to do sacrifices, just as he always washed the whole body of a man of the priestly class who was first taking on his duties as a priest.

          I’ve been thinking about it, and I think the whole bit about washing the feet of laymen comes not from priestly and abbotly practice (bishops washing priests’ or seminarians’ feet, abbots washing monks’ feet, and priests washing the feet of deacons, acolytes, et al). It comes from medieval kings imitating them by washing the feet of twelve poor men on Maundy Thursday, and giving them “maundy money” in a gift purse afterward. (Of course, this does lead to troubling implications of kings declaring themselves priests, which would later bear bad fruit with Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. But somehow hundreds of years of kings were able to resist that, before he came along.)

          So logically, if laypeople want to do lay footwashing of laypeople, they should be heading down to the homeless shelter with nailclippers and cash.


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