Images © by various sources.
Text ©1997 Ken Rice.
The Barefoot Path in the
Western Contemplative Tradition
Jesus Washing Peter's Feet (Detail)
(Full Image 77K)
"Is that your minister in immaculate broadcloth and shiny boots, turning the
leaves of his Bible with lily-fingers? Pardon me that I did not recognize
him. You see I have been reading of John the Baptist with his raiment of
camel's hair, of Christ with his single garment, tramping barefoot, unshaven
and unshorn over Judea's blazing hills."
- Brann's Iconoclast
The Barefoot Spirit in Contemplative Life
What would motivate a person
to write about bare feet and the western contemplative
tradition? First, I have been writing a longer manuscript
on the religious uses of plain dress that includes a chapter
on bare feet. Second, to the degree that outward disciplines
can nurture the inward life, I believe there may be a modest
spiritual benefit to be gained by going barefoot as health,
environment, and leadings permit.
If you read on, you will see that the barefoot life has a
distinguished history in the religions of the west, especially
among contemplatives. I caution you that the
treatment is not at all comprehensive, consisting
of a small sample of Jewish and Christian sources, sharply skewed
toward the contemplative and Quaker texts that I know best. It
includes nothing from Greco-Roman, African,
and Eastern traditions.
Moreover, I don't claim to have discovered one of the eight
immutable truths, and I don't offer this material to you as a rule by
which to walk. Instead, I echo Meister Eckhart's caveat.
Going barefoot is an outward exercise that has helped a few
of us. Upon investigation, it appears to have been
a remarkably prevalent practice among the great
Christian contemplatives since the earliest days of the
church. I offer the practice to you a small gift for
your journey. Try it, both alone and in places where
others go shod, and you may learn some useful lessons.
"Many believe that they can achieve
great things in external works such as fasting,
going barefoot and other practices called penances.
But true penance ... consists in
turning entirely away from all that is not God ..."
If you discover a spiritual inclination to go barefoot,
you can find excellent temporal advice on the subject from
The Barefoot Hiker
and The Dirty Sole Society.
Secular and Religious Meanings
are prominent in the Judaeo-Christian
tradition, often appearing in contrast to shod feet as
a mark that distinguishes humility from pride, spirit from flesh,
or sacred from profane. Bare feet in the western religious
tradition never appear, so far as I have seen,
as a symbol of yearning for a simpler time, though this is a
common pastoral motif in secular writings such as Quaker poet
John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Barefoot Boy" or in paintings such
Two Girls (112K)
Bare feet also never appear in the
religious tradition as a token of aesthetic or erotic union with a
benign, Arcadian nature, though this a characteristic romantic
motif in hundreds of works such as Dante Gabriel Rosetti's
The Bower Meadow.
The Bower Meadow (Detail)
(Full Image 57K)
In contrast to the benign, pastoral landscape of The Nut Gatherers
and The Bower Meadow the earth seldom flows with
milk and honey in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
Arcadia, if it exists at all, is 'way beyond Jordan, and the
nearer terrain is, to first appearance, thorny and barren,
spoiled by sin and sorrow. Thus going barefoot in the religious
tradition of the west is serious symbolic business, representing
I will argue that the seventh representation, walking in unity with the
redeemed earth, is the symbolic center of the barefoot path in the
- A sign of proximity to holy ground
- A token of humility, mortification, or penance
- A prophetic "sign to the Nations"
- Obedience to Jesus' advice to ministers
- Unstinting reliance on Providence
- Identification with the poor
- Experiencing the holiness of the redeemed earth.
Bare Feet and Holy Ground
The most ancient barefoot ritual that I have found was
a marriage rite that served as a model
of God's covenant with Abraham. This covenant required
the bride's and groom's fathers to walk barefoot through a pool
of animal blood. In these terms, removing ones
shoes represents recollection or renewal of the covenant.
Is it for this reason that God tells Moshe (Moses) to remove
his shoes at the burning bush (Ex 3:5), saying that the ground
on which he stands is holy?
Moses at the Burning Bush (Detail)
(Full Image 31K)
Remember that Yehoshua (Joshua) was also commanded to remove a shoe when he
bowed down to God's Angel (Joshua 5:l5)
Ramban taught that the burning bush endowed the
mountain with k'dusha,
in which case Moshe would be forbidden
to wear shoes. (K'dusha roughly means "sanctity" or
"holiness", but the word is gravid with deeper meaning.)[*].
The "holy of holies" also manifests k'dusha, and the Kohanim
(priests) are forbidden to wear shoes there.
Thus Aharon (Aaron) and his sons removed their shoes,
washed their hands and feet in the brass laver in the tabernacle
courtyard, and only then entered
the floorless temple (Ex 3:17-21).
Why does the Kohen wear no shoes, and the tabernacle
have no floor? Chagiz explains that shoes serve to separate
us from the earth, which we have corrupted with our sins.
But the ground is sanctified (endowed with k'dusha)
Shoes are unnecessary, harmful, and even forbidden in these
circumstances. (Why cut yourself off from k'dusha which
is, if not the goal, a principal means to it?)
In this tradition, a Jew who goes barefoot
anticipates the coming of Moshiach who will resanctify the
corrupted earth. A little later we will consider what
holy ground means to the Christian contemplative, who presumably
believes that the Messiah (literally or figuratively) has already come.
- in the presence of God (at the burning bush, for example)
- in the tabernacle, and
- everywhere after the birth of Moshiach (the Messiah).
Bare Feet as a Token of Servitude or Humility
In later Hebrew times, bare feet signify
shame and servitude. Then (as now) the respectable
burgher wore shoes. Going barefoot was symbolically
degrading because it recalled the bare feet of slaves and
captives. Wearing shoes
therefore became a powerful social and religious distinctive.
To go without shoes (because one had none)
gave the appearance of servitude and was therefore disgraceful.
Yehuda taught that one ought to sell the beams of the
house to acquire shoes for the feet, and Rashi stressed that public
barefootedness was shameful. Thus, in Hebrew writings,
voluntarily renouncing ones shoes is an act of deep conviction
and humility, often intended to communicate great distress.
A clear example of the principle is found in Deu 25:9.
The law required a widow to loosen
the shoes of and spit on the brother of her deceased husband
if he refuses to take her as a wife (which is her right).
Loosening the shoe of the offender reduces his status to that
of servant or slave. It is a sign of the resignation of
his right to the dead brother's inheritance. John Wesley
says of this passage, "For as the shoe was a sign of one's power and
right, as in Psa 60:8 and 108:9, so parting with the shoe was a token of the
alienation of such right; and as a note of infamy, to signify that by this
disingenuous action he was unworthy to be amongst free-men, and fit to
be reduced to the condition of the meanest servants, who used to go
Another example is found in 2 Sam 15:30.
When David's spirit is brought low by his sins and by
Absalom's shameful rebellion, he signifies his grief and humiliation
by going barefoot. "David went up by the ascent of mount Olivet, and wept
as he went up and had his head covered and he went barefoot." David's
act is not, as I read it, so much penance as mourning.
Here we must understand that if we bare our feet to the redeemed
soil, we may (according to the measure of our needs) find that holy
ground is rough and thorny, scouring and penetrating our distant
and distracted souls.
A Sign to the Nations and Surprising Beauty
In Isa 20:2 we see an early example of bare feet as political and religious
performance art. "At the same time spake the LORD by Isaiah the son of
Amoz, saying, Go and loose the sackcloth from off thy loins, and put off
thy shoe from thy foot. And he did so, walking naked and barefoot."
Presumably on account of this verse,
Isaiah is nearly always represented barefoot in paintings.
Here, for example, is
(Full Image 36K)
Isaiah's barefoot trek was a sign to the Egyptians and Ethiopians
that they would march off barefoot into captivity in a few years.
Isaiah was the first of a long line of preachers who went barefoot
at God's behest as "a sign to the Nations". (Here "Nations" means
those who are not part of Israel.)
George Fox, the first Quaker, writes of early
Friends going barefoot and naked as a testimony against
Sympson was moved of the Lord
to go at several times for three years naked and barefooted before them,
as a sign to them, in markets, courts, towns, cities, to priests' houses,
and to great men's houses, telling them, 'So shall ye be stripped naked
as I am stripped naked!'" You may notice that the three-year period
and the use of "sign" recalls Isaiah's barefoot sojourn.
by trade a shoemaker, went barefoot during a visionary, prophetic
episode: "Then was I commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes. I stood still, for it was
winter; and the Word of the Lord was like a fire in me. So I put off my
shoes, and left them with the shepherds; and the poor shepherds trembled,
and were astonished. Then I walked on about a mile, and as soon as I was
got within the city, the Word of the Lord came to me again, saying, "Cry,
'Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!'".
Were people brought to the faith by the dramatic barefoot performances
of George Fox and William Sympson? There was much debate on this
topic both within and without the Society of Friends. Alas, the practice,
along with much of the fervor of early Friends, has died out.
Thus far it seems that Biblical bare feet signify poverty, distress,
strong conviction, or humility.
We seldom see bare feet portrayed
as objects of beauty. In fact, a more typical case is that
of the Song of Songs, in which the speaker says "How beautiful
are thy feet with shoes, Oh prince's daughter!"
In the day of the Song, bare feet are a sign of trouble, and
they are nothing to celebrate in a love song.
A poetic statement about the beauty of bare feet,
especially of those of who walk in the blazing Sinai,
is therefore an unexpected and dramatic
contradiction when we encounter it in Isa 52:7
and Rom 10:15. "How beautiful are the feet of those that preach
the gospel of Peace."
Beautiful feet are not only a promise, but also an
admonition (Eph 6:15). Our feet are "to be "shod, not with
shoes, but with the preparation of the gospel of peace."
PART II (Next section)