“Moses Before the Burning Bush,” by Domenico Feti, 1613
When he slipped his feet into the tub of warm, herb-infused water, he did so almost apologetically.
“Thank you,” he said, tentatively, an edge of either shyness or embarrassment in his tone as she summoned a foot to her lap.
Derek, 46, was a drifter. He had been drifting most of his life like a minor character in Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. As she massaged his feet with apricot scrub, he seemed to be telling her in between the lines that he still hadn’t found a main role…
The inability to turn down any drug on offer, from cigarettes to cocaine to everything in between — and try as he might, his incapacity to change his circle of drug-using peers. That, he said, had depressed him.
The occasional fights on the street, despite his “peace-loving” ways.
The run-ins with the law—and with a brown recluse spider that sent him to the hospital. He gestured to the two dark red indentations on his lower leg.
He was a surfer. Surfing was his love. He always ended up back near the ocean and his first home, the beach. But the birth of his now one-year-old granddaughter and the old childhood stomping grounds of his mother had lured him here, to Atlanta, Georgia.
“I don’t know why I’m still here — in Atlanta,” he said, as she explored the callouses and ridges on his feet, gently pressing them with her index finger or filing them away with a cheese grater. Those callouses were not as hard and impenetrable as others she had seen at the foot clinic — and if our feet can be metaphors for our souls, there was indeed something still refreshingly uncalloused, almost childlike, in this man’s way. The hard, unmerciful reality of living on the streets all these years and for most of his adult life had left a soft inner layer intact. You could press it gently and it would give way to something like fear or wonder.
“I think I’m still here because Atlanta is really more of a spiritual place with all its old churches,” he was saying now. “I’ll walk by them and read about them and about how some of them even survived the Civil War.”
Could it be that underneath those callouses there was a certain reverence — a reverence inherent in one restless soul’s awareness of that which it lacked? A certain inward falling on one’s knees before the transcendent Ground of one’s being, maybe only felt or intuited in the very wandering itself, wandering thus transfigured as gift?
He had been to court that day, too, after being cited for drinking whiskey in a public park after midnight—as if our great American judicial system had no greater injustice to prosecute than a poor, homeless man with little more than the clothes on his back drinking in a park with his chums. But he had gone to court to hear how he would be sentenced. And they had told him to come back another day.
So here he was, homeless as always, but this time in Atlanta; and unsure why he was here when the ocean was calling him back to it. His words were spilling out over the bucket in front of him like that ocean spray: the carefree, absent-minded giveaway of a deep, mysterious movement underneath, which upon its pent-up release seemed undirected at the surface, hitting her face with its cold, salty darts.
Some would call it misdirected. Run-off bearing witness to little more than a life that had not lived up to its full potential. An existence wasted by aimlessness.
But was it really any more aimless than the choice of a comfortable suburban life, with two kids, a nice-sized house, two cars in the garage, a generous-sized savings account and the pursuit of so fleeting a thing as financial security or the safety of mere convention? She wondered this as she clipped his toenails. No was the answer that came back.
None of us can purport to know the real contours of another human being’s soul. “Sacred inwardness,” is the term that the author Marilynne Robinson has used to describe this grace: “If the fate of souls is at the center of the cosmic drama, is it difficult to imagine that it will unfold, so to speak, in a place set apart, a holy of holies — that is, a human consciousness?,” she writes. “Where better might an encounter with God take place? If God is attentive to us individually, as Jesus’ saying about the fall of a sparrow certainly implies, then would his history with us be the same in every case, articulable and verifiable, manifest in behaviors that square with expectations?”
Would God’s history with us require that we be able to authenticate the state of another human being’s soul via some recognizable set of fingerprints or a qualifying spiritual DNA test of sorts? Would it enable us to proclaim — according to the following of a particular script or lifestyle choice or even outward religious affiliation — a soul’s eternal fate?
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” Paul writes in Romans.
Such calls are barely audible beyond the inner vibrations of one sacred soul turning and returning to its Creator and Redeemer. They are not to be measured by the human eye. They are the stuff of fear and trembling and wonder and reverence underneath the calloused feet of wandering souls that feebly give pause to the Ground of their being.
Hadn’t the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning meant something similar when she put it more beautifully:
“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 pluck blackberries, And daub their natural faces unaware.”
Robinson writes: “Perhaps the real lack of faith in modern society comes down to a lack of reverence for humankind, for those around us, about whom we might consider it providential that we can know nothing — in these great matters that sometimes involve feigning or concealment, that are beyond ordinary thought and conventional experience, and that can in any case be minutely incremental, since God really does have all the time in the world.”
“Thank you,” he said again with the same self-effacing tone, as he unrolled the fresh pair of socks at his side, a gift from the clinic, and slid them gingerly over the balls of his ankles, appearing grateful for revived feet.
“You’re welcome. It was my pleasure,” and the latex gloves had prevented her from shaking his hand.
It really was my pleasure.
She had given one restless soul clean, manicured feet.
He had given hers renewed reverence.