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9 October 2016

Foot washing? We ended up in A&E

When Dean told me there were evil spirits living in his trainers, I did what any parish priest would do.

By Richard Coles

“There’s always someone worse off than yourself.” Whenever I hear that, I wonder who stands at the end of the chain of misfortune, the person whose life is worst of all. In a parish where I once worked, I met him. He was a young man whom I’ll call Dean, with schizophrenia, a condition so debilitating that he would once have been “put away” in the county asylum; but this had discharged its residents and closed its doors long ago. (I once buried a former resident, who had been admitted as a teenage girl with an embarrassing pregnancy and stayed for fifty years.)

Dean had been left to the care of the community, but unfortunately the community’s performance of its duty was at best uneven.

He lived alone, in a rented room, unable to work, on benefits he could barely manage even when he remembered to take his medication. When he did not, he got confused – which did not go unnoticed by the vulturous types who prey on such individuals. So Dean was broke most of the time, living on Pot Noodles and shreds of tobacco, and spent the days trudging round the town, robbed by junkies, teased by children, and avoided by most, for his personal hygiene and chuntering could be unnerving.

He was often in church, and noticeable for the keenness with which he undertook the responses. “The Lord be with you,” I’d intone and he would reply, “And also with you,” in a camp, sing-song voice which, after a while, I realised was his attempt to sound like me.

One hot summer’s day Dean arrived at my door more than usually distressed and more than usually malodorous. He had not been taking his medication and was suffering the symptoms of psychosis, among them the conviction that evil spirits were living in his trainers. How long had this been going on? “About a month,” he said, “so I haven’t taken my trainers off. My feet are hurting. Can you help me?”

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The inescapable image of Jesus kneeling to wash the feet of the lowest of the low came suddenly into focus, and I felt obliged to do the same; but Dean’s feet, released after a month in unwashed socks and tightly laced trainers, were in such bad shape that it was difficult to see where to begin. I did my best, but realised as I retched that I was probably doing more harm than good, so drove him to A&E and sat with him, guiltily, as he waited to be seen, wondering when was the last time someone presented with trench foot.

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I remember this every Maundy Thursday when I wash the feet of my parishioners, a symbolic recalling of Jesus’s commandment to his disciples to love one another. The danger with symbols is that they become untethered, and float free, and loving one another can become a bit theoretical. Not for me, after Dean. How beautiful are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings. 

This article appears in the 05 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph