You can tell a lot about a person by their shoes. Different shoes exist for different purposes, and many times they reveal not only the interests of a person, but also their social status.
The same could be said about a person’s feet. The feet of a person are what carry them throughout the tasks of any given day, accumulating dirt, water, sand and whatever else they might step through.
In Christianity, the washing of a person’s feet plays a special significance, as we observe Jesus doing to his disciples at the Last Supper, and as the priest does during the Lenten season on Holy Thursday each year. The simple act of washing feet communicates a profound truth about their purpose: namely, that our feet cannot fulfill their purpose without taking on the filth of the world around us to some degree.
Mother Teresa, whose fifth anniversary of being declared a saint is tomorrow and whose feast we celebrate on Sunday, exemplified this ideal. Indeed, her sandals and feet reflected a woman who took on the filth of the world to carry out Jesus’ command to love the poor in a radical way. The above image was taken during her visit to Denver in 1989, and was shared earlier this year with the Mother Teresa Center in Rome to add to their robust archive documenting Mother Teresa’s life.
Mother Teresa’s sandals can be found today in Zagreb, Croatia, where they sit on display in the oldest church dedicated to St. Dismas, who is better known as the penitent thief. Mother Teresa likely went through many pairs of shoes in her life, and it’s virtually certain that all of them became as tattered and torn as the sandals that reside at that church in Zagreb. Still, this particular pair tells a story; one of holy fatigue, as the countless hours spent on their soles were likely exhausting for Mother Teresa, but the work she did while wearing them was sanctifying.
Mother Teresa and her sisters in the Missionaries of Charity relied entirely on donations to carry out their work in Kolkata. People would donate old shoes to them, many times just enough to supply all of the sisters with a pair. As one story goes, Mother would always dig through the pile of donated shoes to find the worst pair, which was often too small even for her tiny feet. Over time, Mother Teresa’s feet became deformed due to squeezing into shoes that were too small for her. She willingly endured this tiny bit of suffering while serving those who suffered far more, and her body became physically altered as a result.
The lesson from the way Mother Teresa lived her life is not to wear smaller shoes, but rather to not be afraid to take on the filth of the world in the restless pursuit of loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Five years ago, as he declared Mother Teresa a saint of Christ’s Church, Pope Francis said of the Saint of Kolkata, “She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity; she made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime — the crimes! — of poverty they created. For Mother Teresa, mercy was the “salt” which gave flavor to her work, it was the “light” which shone in the darkness of the many who no longer had tears to shed for their poverty and suffering.”
Jesus calls his Church to live as Mother Teresa did; perhaps not in the exact same manner (though for some it will be similar), but always with the same spirit. Sometimes, that takes the form of ministering to the poor and dying in the slums of Kolkata; but Mother Teresa also embodied a more universal approach to our neighbors that’s much more attainable — for as she used to say, “Perhaps I don’t speak their language, but I can smile.”
Featured photo by James Baca