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The monastic movement embraced footwashing as a symbol of the fellowship of the religious with each other and with the poor. It was an important part of early Egyptian monasticism and was urged by three leading monastic figures in the West: Benedict, Caesarius, and Cassian.

St. Benedict’s Rule calls for washing the feet of all guests. Cassian reported that the monks of Palestine, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, and “all the East” counted it an honor to be able to wash each other’s feet. The task which had once been considered too degrading to inflict on a slave who shared one’s faith was now regarded as a privilege.

Caesarius wrote that it was particularly important to honor the poor in this manner. In monasteries both East and West, poor travelers had their feet washed as a sign of welcome to a community that gave them food, lodging, and sometimes money. At Cluny, the Abbot washed the feet of poor wayfarers every Sunday and gave them alms. On Maundy Thursday, every monk washed the feet of a poor person and gave him his own shoes.

These customs continued for centuries among Benedictines, Cistercians, Jesuits, and other orders, and were often emulated by kings and emperors. It is said that King Robert II of France, who lived from 971 to 1031, took in 300 poor guests in a single day, fed them, washed their feet himself, and gave two pieces of silver to each.

The history of footwashing in the monasteries bears witness to another Christian transformation of roles. Women, who had been compelled to wash feet as a consequence of their lowly status, were able to assume greater leadership in monasteries than anywhere else in the Church or society of the late Patristic era. Monks who had been freeborn men, on the other hand, would not have been expected to wash feet, yet in the monasteries they did so voluntarily.

Part of the significance of footwashing lies in its basic gesture: touching the feet of another, as Jesus touched the feet of His Apostles. St. John says that Jesus “had always loved His own in this world” (Jn. 13:1), and in the act of washing their feet He gave His love dramatic form. Even our feet, looked down upon as the humblest part of our anatomy, are encompassed in Jesus’ love, and He tells us, “You also must do as I have done for you.”

In his commentary on John’s Gospel, St. Augustine, the great bishop of North Africa, urges Christians to practice mutual forgiveness as they meet at the basin.

“We know that of this also we were admonished,” Augustine wrote, “…that we should confess our faults to one another, and pray for one another.” The desire for reconciliation is so strong that Christians seem instinctively to seek out those from whom they have been estranged, wanting to wash their feet and demonstrate their acceptance.

One of Bernini’s panels in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome captures the essence of the loving touch: it depicts Jesus tenderly kissing the foot of Peter, who had initially refused to let the Master wash his feet.

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Tags: Unity Catholic Eastern Christianity Orthodox Church Monasticism