You Want Me to Wash Their Feet?

You Want Me to Wash Their Feet? March 28, 2024

You Want Me to Wash Their Feet?

“It’s no big deal. You’ll just take off your shoes and socks, and then someone will come along and wash your feet. Simple.”


Courtesy of Ben Bongers
Sitting in the chair and waiting to have someone wash your feet is a truly humbling experience.

That was the instruction I got when I was in a truly humbling ceremony at Lourdes in 2021 as a Malade, or “one with illness.” I went on a pilgrimage of thanksgiving after a bout with cancer. You see, I was not only a Malade, but I am a Knight in the Order of Malta. We are tasked with the solemn and joyous duty of taking “Our Lords, the poor and the sick” to Lourdes on pilgrimage every year. The sick and poor are our true representation of Christ—those who cannot do or fend for themselves, living Jesus’s words “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do unto me.” And washing of the feet is the most intimate, serving, and humbling action a person can give. I had seen the ceremony through the eyes of a companion and as a Knight, but never from the perspective of one of the “blessed sick” before.

Courtesy of Ben Bongers
The Chruch of Saint Bernadette at Lourdes, France is a special place where Maldes (The sick ones) have their feet washed before they start their journey of pilgrimage.

In the Church of Saint Bernadette, before me was a row of five chairs, each with a basin, a pitcher, and several towels for the ablution. I sat in a chair with rolled-up cuffs on my pants as a beautiful soul in a Dame of Malta’s uniform knelt at my feet and assisted in taking off my socks. She gently and carefully slipped my feet into a large copper bowl and poured warm water over them—making sure to not drip or splash on the rest of me or over the edge of the basin. The feeling of having such a gentle soul administering to you, someone who is used to serving, is… well… beyond humbling. I could feel the tears beginning to well up. As she removed my feet from the basin, she first dried each and carefully set them on a warm towel to the side. But before she moved them there, she kissed each instep. I had seen this from a distance, but now I was the one receiving this sacred moment. The care, the gentleness, the sincere devotion… It was more than my system could take. Tears flowed freely from my eyes. I quickly looked to my left and saw my roommate, a good and holy priest, who had pancreatic cancer and was truly suffering. He, too, sat and openly wept.

After composing myself a bit, I stood to the side and watched as a fellow Malade and her mother approached the chair. I had gotten to know them on the flight over to Lourdes a day or two before. The daughter was diagnosed with MS a decade before, and the disease had progressively become debilitating, to the point of becoming life-threatening. They were scared for the future but full of hope in following whatever path God had for them. We waited for the designated Knight or Dame to begin the sacred tradition. When no one came, they looked over at me, both smiles on their face, and waved me to them. As I approached, the daughter, now in the chair, looked up at me and asked, “Would you do me the honor?”

Courtesy of Ben Bongers
To be of service to those in need is humbling, yet empowering. You are fulfilling Jesus’s mandate of “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do unto Me.”

Without pause, I assumed the position that I had seen so many others before me take. I carefully, lovingly removed her socks and gently washed her now twitching and gnarled feet. Then, as I removed each, I too, put my lips to each instep. It’s a moment that is very hard to describe. You fully give over to be a true servant to those who cannot do or fend for themselves. You no longer see the person, the disease, the baggage in front of you. No. All you see is a soul in need. The purity of the water in the pitcher and the gray water of dust, and dirt, and lint left behind in the basin. As the Knight washing, I felt a certain freedom. Freedom from judging or judgment. Freedom from past and future. Freedom from status. There is only you and the soul in front of you. I looked up, and the girl and her mother were both smiling through tears. And I, too, was weeping, only this time, it was because I was of service to a pair of souls in need.

In John 13, when Jesus told His Disciples that he would wash their feet, it began in loud protest from Simon Peter, “Master, are you going to wash my feet? You will never wash my feet.” Jesus replied, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.” He goes on to explain, “You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”

This simple act of washing another’s feet is humbling, lowly, and demeaning. But it is also empowering, grace-filled, and sacred. It is allowing yourself to be truly vulnerable to another’s needs and to represent pure service to another.

Courtesy of Ben Bongers
The aftermath of washing people clean is rarely seen or thought of, but very telling.

Soon after I came back home, I heard from my roommate at Lourdes, the good and holy priest. He said, “I found my miracle at Lourdes. During the washing of the feet, I saw that my time of service was almost at an end and felt peace in that. During that time, a very gentle Knight washed and kissed my feet before drying them, just as Our Lord did. Just as I’ve done so many Maundy Thursdays as being a priest. It was then I knew, it was my time to return home to Our Lord.” I found out two weeks later he passed away from his cancer.

We are here to serve, to be of service, to wash each other’s feet daily. During this last week of Lent, the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday is the perfect reminder of what we are each to do.

About Ben Bongers KM
Ben Bongers was an international operatic tenor and practicing sommelier for 30 years based in San Francisco, CA, and Europe. He has written monthly articles for trade magazines in wine and singing over a long and lustrous career. After becoming a semi-full-time caretaker for his parents, he earned an MA in Gerontology (the study of aging and care) and was asked to publish in an eldercare textbook in 2020. He has written several books, all published by EnRoute Books and Media. His first novel, THE SAINT NICHOLAS SOCIETY, has won many awards, and his other two, TRUE LOVE—12 Christmas Stories My True Love Gave to Me, and THE FARMER, THE MINER, THE ARTISAN (a children’s book) are both up for writing awards. Ben is a Knight in the Order of Malta and helped start an overnight homeless shelter at his San Francisco, CA parish. Today, he is a Permanent Diaconate Candidate in Kansas City, MO. You can read more about the author here.

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