Letters to Peregrinus #57 - The Needle’s Eye

Ford Madox Brown (b. Calais, France, 16 April 1821; d. London, 6 October 1893)[1], Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852-1856), at the Tate Gallery of British Art in the City of Westminster in London
John 136 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Master, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.”[2]

Ursula LeGuin, Tehanu (1990) - [Tenar speaking to Ged one night] “But what I want to know is this. Is there something besides what you [Ged] call power - that comes before it, maybe? Or something that power is just one way of using? Like this. Ogion said of you once that before you’d had any learning or training as a wizard at all, you were a mage.[3] ‘Mage-born,’ he said. So I imagined that, to have power, one must first have room for the power. An emptiness to fill. And the greater the emptiness the more power can fill it. But if the power never was got, or was taken away, or was given away - still that [the emptiness] would be there.” [Le Guin, Ursula K.. Tehanu, (Book Four of The Earthsea Cycle Series 4) (p. 231). Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Kindle Edition.]
Dear Peregrinus (from Spy Wednesday[4] to Holy Thursday afternoon):

Blessings to you during this Holy Week.

I continue to pray, not only for myself but for everyone, that we may comprehend how we, in our stubborn desire[5] to return to normal, continue to reject the profound disruption[6] of our “normal” way of being with one another as Americans, and as human beings[7]. I recall how the newly called People of God, set free from their enslavement in Egypt, soon wanted to go back  to Egypt and slavery rather than to learn how, in the Wilderness with God, to be free, “to become a people all His own.”

But is it not the case (perhaps much more often the case these days), that God’s greatest gifts to us are given when God disrupts what we have established? – “No. Not this.”

The Beloved [i.e. God] sometimes wants
To do us a great favor:
Hold us upside down
And shake all the nonsense out.[8]
I pray that there is no returning, lest we will have wasted a good suffering[9] – the fourteen months through which we have lived in this worldwide Age of COVID. I pray also that we make our way forward - more alert, awake, wiser – into a previously unknown “normal” that we build together on solid, not shifting, ground. God has given us an opportunity to reconstruct together a “normal” that is more satisfying and wiser, because it is more sufficient to what we have learned through what we have suffered together.
And that time she [Millicent] returned,
but slowly, her dress fluttering along pressing
back branches, her feet stirring up the dark smell
of moss, and her face floating forward, a stranger's
face now, with a new depth in it, into the light.[10]

How are you, old friend? You have not been in touch recently. This is not a complaint but only your friend saying that he misses you.

Because it is Holy Week, I wanted to share with you a painting (above) by Ford Madox Brown of the 19th century. Lance,[11] about whom you have heard me speak – his care for words, his love of poetry, his faithful friendship – sent it to me a couple of days ago. It so captured my attention that it changed completely that about which originally I had intended to write to you.

I have three observations about the painting, which I share with you if you promise to let me know what you see in it. I so love how we help each other see, to see better than ever we could see alone.

Come, look with me.

Peter, the Sandals, and Jesus

The left-foot sandal sits on the floor, sole down, while the right-foot sandal is sits upside down, sole up, on Peter’s lovely, green cape. His care not to soil his cape contrasts, poignantly, with the “soiling” of his soul that he will cause when he betrays Jesus a few hours later.
But, looking deeper, the sandals taken off (for the obviously practical necessity of foot-washing) remind us of Moses at the burning bush, when he removed his sandals as he approached God, when God was about to effect a great Work in Egypt, with Moses’ co-operation[12] (see Exodus 3-20).

Exodus 34 When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called out to him from the bush: Moses! Moses! He answered, “Here I am.” God said: Do not come near! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.b[13]

So, here, Jesus is about to effect an even greater Work which, after His death, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost, the Trinity will begin to accomplish with Peter’s co-operation (not his alone of course).

John 2118 *Amen, amen, I say to you,j when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”k [14]

But isn’t it the case in this painting that Peter’s sandals are more interesting to us than his feet? Those sandals removed indicate Peter’s willingness to let his Lord do what He desires to do,[15] even though this unsettles, puzzles him (Peter). Notice how that disciple (center top in the painting) assumes that he does understand what Jesus means and, whispering, offers his instruction to the disciple to his right.
Jesus is not just acting symbolically. He is intent actually to wash Peter’s feet and to dry them thoroughly (look at His bulging muscles, head down, eyes focused, both hands active). Doing a simple deed for another, done with love and with a completeness of focus,[16] makes our deeds become like those of Jesus – doing them “on earth / as they are done in Heaven”.

Jesus is kneeling before this human being, before one of His closest friends (who will betray him – “I do not know the man”, he insisted). This reminds us of the Archangel Gabriel coming that day to Nazareth, thirty-four years earlier, to kneel before Mary, so that he might ask her for her co-operation. We see in the Archangel’s courtesy the courtesy of Heaven, which Jesus, kneeling at Peter’s feet, practices also.

There is a courtesy in Heaven seen in the demeanor of the great Archangel, which same courtesy we observe in Jesus.

Julian of Norwich, Showings, the Long Text, Chapter 8 – “Everything that I say19 about me I mean to apply to all my fellow Christians, for I am taught that this is what our Lord intends in this spiritual revelation. And therefore I pray you all for God’s sake, and I counsel you for your own profit, that you disregard the wretch to whom it was shown, and that mightily, wisely and meekly you contemplate upon God, who out of his courteous love and his endless goodness was willing to show it generally, to the comfort of us all. For it is God’s will that you accept it with great joy and delight, as20 Jesus has21 shown it to you.[17]

The Ten Faces (from left to Right)[18]

Second, look at all of those faces, their distinct expressions. How interesting it is that people, looking at exactly the same action, are able to react to what they see in such different ways.

Yet, each of these reactions is included in what we mean by “the word of God”.[19] and so each reaction teaches us if we take time to notice, and to wonder about each of them.[20]

I would love to hear from you how you “read” each face. I read them in the following way.
Disciple 1 – This disciple wants from Jesus what Peter is receiving unasked. Notice how anxious he is to untie his sandals. Sometimes a person decides to seek something from God, because he or she notices how another does not know how to receive it from God. There is something competitive going on in that man’s devotion.

Disciple 2 – This is Judas, I believe, whose expression has malice in it – John 13: The devil had already induced* Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over.[21] Perhaps the prominently displayed white purse on the table is that which holds the thirty pieces of silver – the blood money[22] given Judas. Notice how Judas has pushed it in front of Disciple 1, revealing how uncomfortable Judas is feeling about having evidence of his betrayal sitting too near him.
Disciple 3 – The most robustly expressive face of them all! “Oh my God! What is happening here?”, we imagine him thinking. Or perhaps, Judas has told him what he intends to do – to have Jesus arrested that very night. And because he thinks about Jesus a little as Judas does, he feels conflicted watching Jesus act so tenderly, His vulnerability so strongly open to them to see that evening. Disciple 3 is torn apart inside, unable to decide whether to rat out Judas.
Disciple 4 – This disciple looks out from his hiding place. Many a disciple of the Lord, even into our own day, prefers, as Zacchaeus preferred (Luke 19:1-10), to watch Jesus from a distance, not wanting to be noticed by Him or called on by Him to come closer, to follow Him. Many a church-goer watches, from a distance.

Disciple 5 – This disciple has had too much to drink. He looks anesthetized and is non-responsive. It is comforting that at such a table of divine privilege, to be so close to Jesus, there sits a representative of all of those who struggle with addictions.
Disciple 6 – This disciple has a capacity for close friendship – notice the tenderness of his friend’s hand and arm pulling him close. Yet, as with our own close friendships, he does not allow any friendship to keep him from keeping his eyes on Jesus, learning from Him. Friendship with Christ never competes with our own friendships. This disciple listens to his friend, but he watches Jesus.
Disciple 7 – This disciple believes that he understands what is happening. Yet, like an extrovert, he does not fully know what he means until he talks about it with someone else. In talking, and then talking some more, he eventually will get to what he means.

Disciple 8 – This disciple has no face, or no face that he is willing to let us see. He knows that his reactions this night will speak more loudly than any words he might share about what kind of person he is, and how he is in relation to Jesus. His reactions unsettle him, and so he hides, does not let us see him. This disciple is a stand-in for that first Adam, who also hid – Genesis 3: 9 The Lord God then called to the man and asked him: Where are you? 10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid.”[23]

Disciple 9 – This disciple has to be John, the Beloved Disciple. Peter’s bulk blocks his (John’s) ability to see Jesus’ face, and so we see him craning his neck to see the Face that is like no other face. The red of his clothes makes him stand out, and that color establishes a visual connection between him and Jesus – his red shirt and the red cloak upon which the Lord is kneeling. Perhaps John had given Jesus his cloak to kneel upon.

Disciple 10 – Peter looks as though he could be the father of any of the disciples, and of Jesus. And given the privileged role accorded an elder in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day, Peter might be feeling uncomfortable that one so much younger than he – Jesus – is both submitting to him (kneeling, washing) but also completely controlling what religiously is happening in that room. Peter is trying to understand this from God’s perspective – see his prayerfully folded hands – but he can’t quite get there.

Peregrinus, if you are able to be amidst some of your grandchildren on Easter, then I wonder what each of them might say about each of these disciples, what they would conclude, if you were to ask them, about what each disciple is thinking. I’d love to hear from you what they say about what they see.

But more than this, I have wondered what my face would reveal about me if I had been among those disciples who sat with Jesus on that night before He died.

The Tilt of Jesus’ Head

Third, my final observation has to do with the strong tilt of Jesus’ head. At first, I thought it was the painter’s way of emphasizing Jesus’ complete concentration on this action.

But then I thought the bowed heads of both Jesus and Peter, bowing towards each other, were meant to express the mutual submission, one disciple of Christ to another, taught by Jesus in this action –

John 13: 14 If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.i 16 Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger* greater than the one who sent him.j 17 If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it.[24]

But finally what I saw was how the tilt of Jesus’ head is exactly the same tilt one sees in paintings of Jesus on the Cross, after He “handed over His spirit” and then died – “It is accomplished.” I felt the powerful impact of this image: the connection it establishes between a cleansing act (foot washing, but especially how Jesus did it and why He did it) and His life completely given “for us and for our salvation” on the Cross. John in particular notes the presence of water at John 19: 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, 34 *s but one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out.[25].

Well, dear Peregrinus, closest friend of mine (and of many) for so many years, I must leave off this time with you today. I have a habit each year of spending a great deal of time inside the Passion narrative of one Gospel (I have not yet chosen which one it will be this year). I usually end up inside of just one particular scene in the narrative – such as the Foot Washing. When I explore as deeply as I can into that, I find through that “needle’s eye” the whole meaning.

Inside the needle’s eye
a turning night of stars.
This moment --
This LOVE.[26]
God bless and keep you during what becomes at sundown tonight – Holy Thursday - the conclusion of the season of Lent and the beginning of the Holy Triduum[27] – the sacred “three days” counted from sundown to sundown. Write next week to tell me how you are doing, OK?


[1] The Grove Art Online (Oxford Art Online) – “The son of a retired ship’s purser who had settled at Calais, Brown received an academic training under Albert Gregorius (1774–1853) at Bruges, under Pieter van Hanselaere (1786–1862) at Ghent and under Baron Gustaf Wappers at the Academie in Antwerp (1837–9). He moved to Paris in 1840, married the following year and studied independently of the ateliers, concentrating on works by Rembrandt and the Spanish masters in the Orléans Collection, then in the Louvre…. His primary concern for dramatic gesture and facial expressiveness characterized all later changes of style and received most criticism…. Brown’s exhibited works attracted Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who became his pupil in 1848, and their influence is apparent in Rossetti’s first oil painting, the Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848–9; London, Tate). Through Rossetti, Brown met William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, whose radical reconsideration of the direction of English art resulted in the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood that autumn.”

[2] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 13:6–7.

[3] The Oxford English Dictionary at “mage” – “A magician. More generally: a person of exceptional wisdom and learning.”
[4] Spy Wednesday. “The Wednesday before Good Friday, so named as the day on which Judas Iscariot arranged to betray Christ (Mt. 26:14–16).” [F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1545.]

[5] “stubborn desire” – What I mean here is what the theological tradition calls “concupiscence” – an ungoverned desire that desires against God’s desires for us. The Oxford English Dictionary at “concupiscence” – “Eager or vehement desire; in theological use (transl. ἐπιθυμία in the New Testament) the coveting of ‘carnal things’, desire for the ‘things of the world’.”
[6] The Oxford English Dictionary at “disruption” – “The action of rending or bursting asunder; violent dissolution of continuity; forcible severance.” I am referring here to something so tiny from the natural world – a virus – that disrupted across all national boundaries the patterns of behavior we all recognized as “normal”. God blesses just as much, and sometimes profoundly more, when God says “No” to our plans and schemes rather than “Yes.”
[7] That is, how our “normal” has been so significantly wrecked in this Age of COVID, and then all of the social chaos surrounding its ongoing presence.
[8] Written by Shams-ud-din-Muhammad (c. 1320-1389), or most commonly by the nickname “Hafiz.” These lines are taken from his marvelous poem “Tired of Speaking Sweetly”, translated/interpreted by Daniel Ladinsky.

[9] “a good suffering” – It seems perverse to put “good” with “suffering.” I have two comments. First, our negative reaction to the idea of “a good suffering” reveals our failure to distinguish between “pain” and “suffering” – two very different things. So, for example, it is very commonly the case that we bring suffering into our lives because we don’t like pain, doing whatever is necessary to avoid pain. Second, I remember St. Catherine of Siena writing, daringly but also wisely, that we should pay close attention to our vices (our favorite bad habits, if you will) to see how much “suffering” we are willing to accept in our life in order to enjoy the “fruits” of our vices. Her point, obviously, is that humans rarely complain about how hard they work or what they sacrifice, in order to be bad. Instead, humans regularly will complain about how hard it is to be good!
[10] The last lines of the poem “The Day Millicent Found the World” by William Stafford.
[11] That is, Fr. Steve Lantry, SJ, a priest presently at work at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Missoula, MT. I have known him, Lance, since September 1973, one of my oldest friends.
[12] “co-operate” – Such an important spiritual word. We often prefer to use the language of “helping” God, feeling that we are being so generous with Him when we offer Him help. But what God asks of us is different than He “helping” us and we “helping” God. God invites us to co-operate with the divine Trinity. The Oxford English Dictionary at “co-operate” - intransitive. To work together, act in conjunction (with another person or thing, to an end or purpose, or in a work).” A “helping” relationship is something very different from a “co-operating” one.
Jos 5:15.

[13] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Ex 3:4–5.

* Originally probably a proverb about old age, now used as a figurative reference to the crucifixion of Peter.

Acts 21:11, 14; 2 Pt 1:14.


[14] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 21:18–19.

[15] One of the greatest counsels that I ever had from my oldest sibling, Carol, she gave me a couple of years ago, saying, “Rick, you need to get out of the way and let God do His good work on your behalf.” I will never forget this line and its continued importance in my life. Peter, as was the case with me, had to learn how to get out of the way and to let God do His good work.

[16] “with a completeness of focus” - There is an expression used in Jesuit educational contexts, a Latin tag: age quod agis. It means literally “Do what you are doing.” What does this mean? The verb “age” is in the singular (a command directed at a particular person), present, Imperative form. The present Imperative mood indicates a kind of action: continuous action. So, “age” means “do continuously, unceasingly”! The “agis” is in the second person, singular form of the same verb. Unlike the Imperative mood, this Indicative mood form indicates the time of action, and so “agis” means “ what you are doing it right now, in present Time”. My expression is “with completeness of focus”. But one could also say, “ do wholeheartedly this particular thing”.
*19 This reverts to chapter vi; see p. 133.

*20 S2 agrees with the short text: ‘as if’.

*21 SS agree with the short text: ‘had’.

[17] Julian of Norwich, Julian of Norwich: Showings, ed. Richard J. Payne, trans. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 191.

[18] I count them from the upper left corner of the painting, starting there and then on to each one from left to right, finishing with Peter’s face. It is likely to do with the size of the canvas upon which Ford Madox Brown has painted that he has only ten, not twelve, disciples present at the foot washing.
Yet, why do we assume that all twelve of the Apostles were present that evening? Those of the Twelve who lived in or nearby Jerusalem might well have had essential duties in their own families, when relatives came to be with them during the holy days of Passover. It might have been a very difficult argument to win with their wives for each of these men to choose to be with Jesus rather than with their families. Men, in Jewish families, had central leadership to exercise.
[19] “the word of God” – This expression means that God’s communication is always relational, a conversational word. The expression includes not only what God says or does, but how it is received by us. The “word” establishes a relationship – in this case, God establishes and sustains a relationship with us through His words and actions. The “word of God” was never, if you will, a communication spoken in a sound booth with people in general in mind – words organized in specific ways and delivered with no attention to whom the words were directed, and how they would receive them. God is not like many a teacher or professor I experienced who lectured to us non-relationally. It would not have mattered even slightly to such teachers – what they taught and how they taught it - if they had “delivered” their lectures while standing alone inside a box set out in the middle of desert! Consider the famous expression from the Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 4, verses 12-13 (J.B. Phillips) – “For the Word that God speaks is alive and active; it cuts more keenly than any two-edged sword: it strikes through to the place where soul and spirit meet, to the innermost intimacies of a man’s being: it exposes the very thoughts and motives of a man’s heart. No creature has any cover from the sight of God; everything lies naked and exposed before the eyes of him with whom we have to do.”

[20] Dante, surely, learned as much traveling through Hell and Purgatory as he did while traveling in Paradise – each of the three locations being defined by the kinds of reactions people had to God’s words and actions.

* Induced: literally, “The devil put into the heart that Judas should hand him over.”

[21] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 13:2.

[22] The Oxford English Dictionary at “blood money” – “A financial reward for causing harm to someone; esp. a payment made for killing a person, or for providing (false) evidence leading to a person's conviction and execution.”

[23] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Ge 3:9–10.

Lk 22:27; 1 Pt 2:21.

* Messenger: the Greek has apostolos, the only occurrence of the term in John. It is not used in the technical sense here.

15:20; Mt 10:24; Lk 6:40.

[24] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 13:14–17.

* John probably emphasizes these verses to show the reality of Jesus’ death, against the docetic heretics. In the blood and water there may also be a symbolic reference to the Eucharist and baptism.

s Nm 20:11; 1 Jn 5:6.

[25] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 19:33–34.

[26] Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, “This Moment”, translated from the Persian by Coleman Barks.

[27] “Holy Triduum” - See Joseph Quinn: “The three-day period which commemorates the final three days of Christ’s life on earth. It begins with the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, culminates in the Easter Vigil, and concludes with the evening prayers (or Vespers) on Easter Sunday. During the triduum, the faithful are called to bear in mind solemnly Christ’s passion and death, and to celebrate joyfully his resurrection on Easter Sunday.” [Michael Glazier and Monika K. Hellwig, The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004), 844.’

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