Ruler CollectionThe most precious eight feet in the world (to me anyway) can be found in my home on any given day.

No, it’s not the width of the king-sized bed I share with my darling husband, (no matter how much joy and satisfaction I find there).

No, it’s not the length of my lovely Pottery Barn sectional where I get cozy with my kids and watch reruns of Happy Days and The Cosby Show, (even though I love having them next to me like a pile of puppies, each of them vying for a snuggle, or a gentle hand on the back of their neck).

It’s not even the depth of my backyard pool where I go to sink and stay as long as I can on hot, summer afternoons when I don’t want anyone to find me. (That’s where my training as a lifeguard really comes in handy. I can hold my breath for a looong time.)

Rather, the most precious eight feet I know are usually smelly, and frequently in need of washing. I rarely find all eight lined up together and when I do, six of them are usually kicking at each other.The most precious eight feet I know belong to Tim and our three kids, the four humans I love most in this world.

I know this is an odd topic, but I hope you’ll bear with me. I don’t have a foot fetish, but there is one day a year, when I celebrate these eight feet. I plan for this day with great care. I look forward to holding the ticklish flesh and bone in my hands and bestowing a little time, love and attention on each one and by extension, to their owners.

Now if this sounds intimate, and a little creepy, you’re might be right. Even as I write, it sounds a little weird to me too. But I am sure, when Jesus stripped to the waist in front of all his friends, it might have been a little awkward and creepy for them as well. On that Thursday night, their teacher, spiritual leader, and best friend all rolled into one got semi-naked and insisted on washing their feet. They didn’t want to let him do it. It was uncomfortable and unheard of and yet, since he set his mind to it, inevitable. They argued. They pleaded, but eventually, they gave in. Thankfully, my family did too.

On the Thursday before Easter, I settle them into an easy chair one at a time and use my favorite soap (Bliss Lemon & Sage – It’s the only day of the year I share!) to wash each foot from toe to heel. I cascade jugs of warm water down their shins and let it splash over the sides of the bowl. (My friend Patty frowns with displeasure.) While my hands are busy, I remind them why I love them. I recall stories of the good things they’ve done this past year, and the challenges they’ve overcome. I play a song that I’ve picked out just for them, one that speaks to what I see in them, want for them, or wish they knew. I ask them to forgive me for the ways I’ve let them down: for the lost patience, broken promises, and unreasonable expectations.  I dry their feet gently, massage them with lotion (more Bliss!), and kiss them before I send them on their way and invite my next two feet to come over and sit down.

Even though I was raised in a traditional Catholic home, Holy Thursday has never meant as much to me as it has in the last few years since I started washing the feet of my family. I cannot transform bread and wine into anything more than a simple meal. I have not performed miracles and I do not expect to rise from the dead. The closest I may ever get to following in the footsteps of the son of God is washing the feet of the ones I love. It may not be much, but I will take the similarities where I can find them.

I know this ritual is not for everyone and I don’t think it will be for us for all time. I expect my kids will eventually get too old and put their feet down, literally and figuratively. But for as long as they will let me, I will celebrate the only day of the year when those precious eight feet belong to me, at least for a few minutes.

The other night, my little Molly Grace came in at suppertime. She was muddy bedraggled, and limping a bit. This is not unusual. Molly and Finn frequently come in to supper, covered in mud and grass-stains. They are often limping too, but they almost always have silly-looking grins plastered on their faces as well. But something was different this night. Molly’s cheeks were dirty and tear-stained and she couldn’t really talk, without starting to cry all over again. When I asked if she was hurt, she shook her head, so I just hugged her while I ran a hot bath, figuring a little love was the best remedy for what ailed her and I had a pretty good guess what it was.

To say that our cul-de-sac is a little “masculine” would be an understatement. It is athletic, dirty, physical, and loud. If you set foot on our front grass, you are signing up for a full-body, contact version of whatever sport is being played. The six kids who share the front yard (3 of ours & 3 of theirs) have invented more games than I can count, but all of them allow, perhaps even encourage, tripping, tackling, kicking, goal-scoring and shoddy refereeing. Usually, there is another little girl out there to balance the feminine factor, but that night, Molly was trying to hold her own, against the aggressive gamesmanship of at least 4 much bigger boys. She is not one to give up, but she cashed in her chips early that night. Luckily, the only serious injury was to her pride and sense of justice.

She just kept repeating, “Those boys are just so hard.” She didn’t have another word for it and I didn’t think I should label it for her.

Her experience reminded me of a movie I watched last week called The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, starring Brad Pitt. Despite his box-office appeal, I don’t think it did very well and I am not surprised after seeing it. It’s not what you’d expect.

The movie opens with these lines, spoken in a young woman’s, beautiful, lilting voice.

            There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You  have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself, accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked, accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself and others to please it too, likes to lord it over them, to have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is smiling around it and love is shining through all things.  They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.

You don’t know to whom she is speaking or why, but as I listened, I didn’t care and that was the trick to enjoying the movie. You couldn’t care about the details, like plot and resolution. You had to absorb the images and the allegories. This was not a family drama; rather, this was the tension between human nature and grace personified, in a human family, a mother and father and their sons.

The father is not evil. That would make it too simple, too familiar of a story. The father is just human: disappointed in and proud of his sons at the same time. In love with and frustrated by his beautiful, but silent wife. Engaged in and stifled by his job and his dreams in equal measure and as such, he is mercurial and unpredictable. He is laughing and affectionate one moment, but angry and rough the next. The more he pushes his boys to love him, the further they pull away. It sounds like many fathers I know, including my own thirty years ago.

The fear in his sons’ eyes might be his fault, but I sympathized with him, because it is not a level playing field. He is married to grace incarnate. The mother is always loving, affectionate and kind. She is playful, and whimsical. She is seemingly perfect, but not in any way that makes you distrust or despise her, because unlike the ‘perfect’ women we know, it’s not a sham. This woman is not meant to be one of us. She is meant to be grace: for these boys, for this man, to save them from their human nature.

Her grace cannot save the father, but her sons can’t help but be affected by the love that pours over them every day. In one of the few scenes where she speaks at all, she tells them, “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.”

The young boys try; you watch them struggle with the humanity inside them and the grace they’ve been given, which never fails. The eldest son, who has born the brunt of his father’s all-too-human pain, struggles the most to live out his mother’s message of grace. He says to his father in a moment of anger and confusion, “I wrestle with you inside me. I am more like you than I am like her.” And you can tell he is saddened by that reality.

My son is 13, about the same age as the boy in the movie, when he has that conversation with his father. I know that he too struggles within himself to be a gentle man, the kind of man we want him to be: strong and sure of himself on the playing field, or in the classroom and yet ever mindful of the gift of grace he’s been given and which it is his obligation to bestow. When Molly came in crying that night, wounded, my first impulse was to go out and lecture Finn (and his friends) about looking out for the little ones. But remembering the The Tree of Life stopped me. Grace can’t be forced. It can only be given time and time again. It works best in silence when it wants to heal, to inspire, to love.

Those boys were working out their human nature with each other and my little 9-year-old girl got herself caught in the crossfire. It isn’t the first time and I don’t think it will be the last. She’s got her own little humanity to work out, even if her middle name is Grace.