We are all familiar with the expression, ‘walk in another’s shoes’. It is frequently used in training programmes to explain and develop empathy. In the past year, I had been hearing of retreats where participants wash another person’s feet.

The practice itself has its roots in the hospitality customs of ancient civilizations, particularly in the East. Perhaps the most well known account is found in the Gospel of John (13: 1-15), where Jesus washes the feet of the apostles at the Last Supper. This narrative is frequently referred to when describing servant leadership, a term coined by the late Robert Greenleaf in an essay “The Servant as Leader” written in 1970. Several others have since written and commented on this leadership style.

So, while I was familiar with the biblical event I had never actually experienced it for myself until recently – at the close of a one-day retreat for women. We, the participants, were told that the retreat leaders would wash our feet. I experienced a confusion of thoughts and feelings which I will try to describe here.

I was not at all comfortable with the idea of someone else touching my feet. I was then distracted by the mundane – “Will the water be changed?” (For the hygiene minded – the water was changed, soap used to rinse out the basins, and fresh towels used to dry feet.). The lady who washed my feet was senior in years and position. So, I felt even more uncomfortable. I felt unworthy. I then realised this was conceit. Everyday I depend on others for my basic needs to be met. Hence, to resist being served was pride – a less than honest need for self-sufficiency.

Later I asked one of the ‘foot washers’ if I could wash her feet, and she agreed. As I knelt down to wash her feet, I felt exposed, vulnerable, and uncertain. We then discovered that the basin was too small! This was funny and embarrassing for both of us. I also realised that washing another’s feet can tell us a lot about that person. The calluses on her feet told me this was a person who walked a lot – to serve others.

P.S. Take time to reflect both before and after the activity.