Images © by various sources.
Text ©1997 Ken Rice.

The Barefoot Path in the
Western Contemplative Tradition
Part I

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.
"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 ..."
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.
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
Bare feet 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 as Bouguereau's Two Girls.

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 by turns:

  1. A sign of proximity to holy ground
  2. A token of humility, mortification, or penance
  3. A prophetic "sign to the Nations"
  4. Obedience to Jesus' advice to ministers
  5. Unstinting reliance on Providence
  6. Identification with the poor
  7. Experiencing the holiness of the redeemed earth.
I will argue that the seventh representation, walking in unity with the redeemed earth, is the symbolic center of the barefoot path in the contemplative tradition.

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)
  1. in the presence of God (at the burning bush, for example)
  2. in the tabernacle, and
  3. everywhere after the birth of Moshiach (the Messiah).
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.

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 barefoot[*].
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 Raphael's Isaiah.

(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 empty professions. "William 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.
Fox, 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)