This quote, shared by a speaker I was listening to this week, created vulnerable space for reflection: “If you live as a hermit (or alone), whose feet will you wash?” It is reportedly from St. Basil of Caesarea (329-379), or St. Basil the Great, one of the Fathers of the first four centuries of the Christian Church. St. Basil was a Greek Bishop in the area of Cappadocia, now modern Turkey. He was known together with Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa as the Cappadocian Fathers, who were instrumental in helping formulate more deeply the theology of the Trinity.
St. Basil had a life-long commitment to not only studying about, but attempting to live in community with others. Along with many of those in his time, and throughout history, he longed to be alone to more fully experience an intimacy with God and find creative space to think, study and write. But also like many, he found himself continually asked by others, as well as drawn from within, to be involved in serving others. Sound familiar? Anyone reading this ever been torn between wanting to withdraw into isolation for whatever reason, and wanting to be available to “wash someone’s feet”? I know I have. Many times.
We must be a bit careful with this. St. Basil was not outright condemning the life of a solitary, or hermit. He seemed to recognize that there could be a genuine calling to come apart for the purposes of prayer and reflection, but also discerned that it should not be the norm. Living in community, whether in the form of the monastic life he experienced, or in similar or very diverse forms today, presented a way for St. Basil to more fully live out a life of devotion, of service. A way of life that humans are created to live. We are not created for isolation, for withdrawing permanently into our own bubble of a self-absorbed community of one. We are created by a Triune God who knew a true community of love, and reflected that in creating humanity to love and be loved.
Yet we live so often in the painful awareness that so much of the social interaction going on around us is shallow and perpetuates loneliness. Bill Bryson, a writer who thrives on making observations that seem obvious after you read him, wrote “the biggest threat facing middle-aged men is loneliness.” Let’s not leave out women there, or even people of many other age ranges. Bryson was specifically commenting on the need for middle-aged men to find deep connection, or risk an even greater alienation from the key relationships in their lives. (if they have any.)
“Washing the feet of others”, coming of course from the act of service that Jesus did at the night before His crucifixion, the “Last Supper”, can be a metaphor for so many acts of love and generosity that keep us out of a life of self-focused isolation. It is important to note that Jesus also washed the feet of Judas, the disciple who within minutes perhaps would leave the room and start the process of betrayal. Washing the feet of our enemies, of those different to us, who perhaps are even plotting our destruction, is an act of supreme love and sacrifice.
Perhaps in our world today, filled with the suffering of attacks perpetrated or the fear and hatred generated by them, we need to rephrase St. Basil’s words to be: “If you live in the isolation of entertainment, hatred or fear, how will you be able to wash the feet of your friend, not to mention your enemy?”