Nor Can Foot Feel...
01 March 1988
What was the bridge, I was asking myself, that would aid our understanding?
I was dreaming, I suppose, but I saw a great white shape below me, an outline of Australia as seen in all the best atlases. And then I 'heard' the famous request to Moses, `Take off your shoes, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.' My mind had earlier been revolving around the subject of our relationship as white people with the land - as contrasted with the traditional relationship that Australia's Aboriginal people appear to have had. What was the bridge, I was asking myself, that would aid our understanding?
Fully awake now I was reminded of a favourite poem by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
I was caught by the phrase, `nor can foot feel, being shod'. Does the bridge lie in our ability or inability to feel? When Western man and woman set out to conquer the world we were careful to put our shoes on first, and as we merrily trampled over others' lands and cultures twe felt surprisingly little. And so with our shoes, our technology and our superficiality we have largely lost the gift of feeling-in the sense of compassion, that gift of total identification; and in the sense of intuition, that gift of insight and discernment.
We have become people used to living on the edge rather than at the heart, on the surface rather than at depth. To discover those depths of understanding, of feeling, I must recognize my `shoe'. How, where and why does my protective mechanism operate? The trouble is, if I bare my sole I risk uncovering the heel I fear myself to be.
For it is not just feeling that is needed but seeing myself for what I am and letting others see it too. It is seeing the truth about myself, accepting it, loving it and growing through it. It is seeing and feeling the truth about what really is holy. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes:
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God.
But only he who sees takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pick blackberries.
One of the most emotive images used to portray war is a pair of hob-nailed boots, or ranks of disembodied legs heavily shod and striding out. Contrast that with the words of Isaiah, `How beautiful are the feet of him that brings the gospel of peace'. Why was it that Jesus laid such final importance on the wadhing of one another's feet? Of course there were social implications, the chosen servitude of the act. But there is more. Through my feet I am in contact with my mother earth, with the rest of creation. When I take off my shoes, or the spiritual equivalent of them, I can no longer hurry, I am trusting, I am vulnerable and I can discern holy ground. And I can allow another to help cleanse that part of me that is difficult to reach.
Holy ground exists in the heart of each one of us, the ground of our being which is a relationship with God alone. When we acknowledge this holy ground and remove our shoes we find the compassion and discernment to bridge our
understanding - and thus to bridge the chasm between humankind's longings and performance.