Shoes and Spiritual Life
Updated: Feb 24, 2018
Ever since I started reading, receiving and practicing spiritual direction I was attracted to the idea of how spiritual direction helps us to pay attention to God’s invitations in our lives. So once when I was ready to start my own spiritual direction practice and needed to choose how to call it, the Finnish word for ‘an invitation’ and ‘a call’ felt appropriate. Our lives of faith start when we first respond to Jesus’ call to follow him, and soon we find that it makes up the theme for our lives with him: listening, noticing and daring to trust enough to follow God’s daily personal invitations and call to become more like him.
But just in case, before launching ‘Kutsu’ I did a quick research to check that the word doesn’t have a crazy meaning in some other language. Especially, I had a hunch that it might mean something in Japanese (somehow it also sounded Japanese to me). And sure enough I found out that ‘kutsu’ (靴) means a shoe in Japanese. I was thrilled! Here are three reasons why I think ‘a shoe’ is a great second meaning for a spiritual direction practice and what shoes can teach us about Christian spiritual formation.
1. One Shoe Gets Us Nowhere
‘Self-care’ has become a new trend word, even in spiritual formation. It has also been misunderstood by many and often confused, ultimately, with ‘selfishness’. For this reason (and rightly so!) some resist any form of mindfulness and contemplative spirituality, in their fear that its goal is merely self-actualization, personal happiness, navel gazing and ultimately is nothing more than an excuse to be selfish. This is not Christian contemplative spirituality. Cultivating ‘a loving attention to God’ is at the heart of contemplative tradition, (rather than primarily attention to self). (Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water). The goal of Christian spiritual formation is to become more like Jesus: to grow in love. Hence stillness, solitude and silence (contemplative practices), and any other spiritual disciplines are only truly formative when they result in a greater love for the other.
One shoe gets us nowhere, we need a pair of shoes: the one half of the pair of spiritual formation is solitude, cultivating self-awareness and personal secret life with God, and the other half of the pair is active engagement with the needs of the world, community and giving ourselves for the service of the other. Just like nobody buys one shoe on its own, we shouldn’t consider spiritual life without these two parts together; they are inseparable and God works equally in and through both of them.
To illustrate this necessary union between private and communal faith Robert Mulholland wrote in his book ‘Invitation to a Journey’ the following:
‘It is the image of One who gave himself totally, completely, absolutely, unconditionally for others. This is the direction in which the Spirit of God moves us toward wholeness. If we forget this, if we short-circuit our definition (as many definitions do at this point), we don’t have Christian spiritual formation, we don’t have holistic spiritual formation. What we have is some kind of pathological formation that is privatized and individualized, a spiritualized form of self-actualization. Although such forms of spirituality may be very appealing to look at on the outside, quite comfortable in their easy conformity to the values and dynamics of our culture, they are like a whitewashed tomb that has deadness on the inside if they are not life-giving, healing and redemptive for others.’
This is not an easy thing to embrace, but the only way for growth. I have met Jesus in the face of a child whose uncle was shot to death in front of her eyes last week. But had I had the courage and strength to keep listening and offering hope to her if I hadn’t met Jesus in the comfort of solitude in my kitchen earlier that morning?
2. In the Shoes of Others
Learning to be compassionate and put ourselves in the shoes of others, as the saying goes, is a life-long lesson in becoming more human. It is impossible to listen well, without judgement and list of advice giving, if we are not constantly working on our capacity for empathy. Many of us have met people who have been very ill, made big mistakes, who have lost and suffered a lot, and whose hearts are incredibly soft, eyes gentle and words few. Solitude and suffering teach us compassion. I notice that the more I am aware of my own brokenness, weakness and need for love and grace, the better I can offer a safe, listening presence and spiritual companionship.
‘If you would ask the Desert Fathers why solitude gives birth to compassion, they would say, “Because it makes us die to our neighbor.” … To die to our neighbor means to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus to become free to be compassionate. Compassion can never coexist with judgement because judgement creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other.’ (Henry Nouwen, The Way of the Heart).
3. Spiritual Life Is a Movement Finally, shoes symbolize movement (at least, if you are like me, I only put shoes on when I leave the house). Whether it’s about a movement outward, in actual action (1) or in attitude of compassion (2) or movement inward, to examine our motivations, desires, compulsions etc. or movement up toward God in trust, surrender and love, there is movement involved in spiritual formation. In spiritual direction we often explore these, sometimes invisible, movements that are easy to miss in a normal busy life. We examine what draws us closer to God, what pulls us away from him, what gives us life, or a sense of consolation, and on contrary when we feel lifeless and sense desolation. Or perhaps what keeps us feeling stuck. Our actions, feelings, bodily tensions and thoughts all tell us about the movement of God in our lives. The invitation is to learn to notice and discern those gentle movements of God in and around us.
Traditional Japanese shoes called 'geta'.