One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to “fix” it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery.

This reflection and meditation have been inspired by Parker Palmer’s book Let Your Life Speak and an interview he did with Krista Tippet on her OnBeing podcast – Here and Here.

We all get visited by Dark Nights of the Soul during our time here on earth, it’s part of being human. These times of darkness or of winter can feel lonely, difficult and long but they are nearly always a time when a great deal is happening within the very soil of our lives, unseen and as yet unknown by us.

In his book Parker talks about his journey through his dark night of depression. He talks about those friends and family that visited him during this dark night and all the ways they tried to help him. Some encouraged him to get outside into the sunshine, others reminded him of all the people he’d helped over the years, some gave advice, some said they knew exactly how he felt. Although these offerings were well-meaning they were also unhelpful. I’m sure we’ve all experienced similar offerings from people that left us feeling discouraged rather than encouraged. Maybe you like me have known what’s it like to be fixed, to be given the right answers rather than to simply be accompanied in our struggle. Parker says…

One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to “fix” it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery.

Blessedly, there were several people, family and friends, who had the courage to stand with me in a simple and healing way. One of them was a friend named Bill who, having asked my permission to do so, stopped by my home every afternoon, sat me down in a chair, knelt in front of me, removed my shoes and socks, and for half an hour simply massaged my feet. He found the one place in my body where I could still experience feeling – and feel somewhat reconnected with the human race.

I remember when I first read those words that I was in awe of Bill and his readiness to simply spend time at the feet of his friend every afternoon. I wanted that same Bill-ness to become my offering. Parker writes…

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke says, “love… consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.” This is the kind of love my friend Bill offered. He never tried to invade my awful inwardness with false comfort or advice; he simply stood on its boundaries, modelling the respect for me and my journey – and the courage to let if be – that I myself needed if I were to endure.

He goes on…

Rilke describes a kind of love that neither avoids nor invades the souls suffering. It is a love in which we represent God’s love to a suffering person, a God who does not “fix” us but gives us strength by suffering with us. By standing respectfully and faithfully at the borders of another’s solitude, we may mediate the love of God to a person who needs something deeper than any human being can give.

During his interview with Krista Tippett, she and Parker were talking about what massaging another’s feet can look like for us in our everyday lives. Parker talked of a friend of his who reminds himself regularly of this question  – “what or who is three feet in front of me?”

The essence of this thought is not literal but that we don’t need to change the world or go very far to offer love, acceptance and kindness. We may not be able to, nor are we being asked to change the world but we can make a difference to those in front of us, to those who are within three feet of us. I loved the three feet idea and how it invites us to notice and to be ready to offer love to those within our line of vision. It’s a relief to be able to put down the world and to be free to simply love those we interact with in our day to day lives. Opportunities to do so come often when we’re open to them. Some will require intention and time, some happen spontaneously in the moment. Either way, what a great gift it is to notice and then offer kindness and love in response to the need three feet in front of us.

As a way to end this reflection, I want to offer a short meditation on how we may either be in need of our own foot massage or how we’re being invited to massage another’s feet.

I invite you to come to stillness through breath, through bringing attention from the head to the body and down towards the feet. As you come to stillness invite grace to enable you to be present in this moment. Be attentive to God’s love and tender care towards you.

In the stillness, as you settle, without digging, be aware of anything that surfaces within.

You may notice emotion, a recurring thought, a body sensation, an image. Simply be attentive to what comes.

Give some time to your own needs at this time and how you may need your feet washing.

Where are you suffering at this time?

You may want to name your need and offer it to God in prayer.

You may realise that you need to ask for help from another.

You may realise that you need to allow space and time to soak your own feet as a way of showing yourself care and compassion.

Now turn your attention outside of yourself to those you know, to those within your line of vision. They may be known to you or strangers.

Spend some time connecting in your heart with those that come to mind.

In the stillness as you hold them in your heart allow God to lead you to how you can reach out in love to one or two.

What are you being invited to give?

How are you being invited to demonstrate love?

What does it look like for you to suffer with someone without fixing anything?

Do you need to surrender the need to fix others?

Are you being invited to let go of saving the world in exchange for simply seeing those in front of you?

We will spend a few more moments in quiet before ending.

As your Spiritual Director, I will be a companion on your spiritual journey, creating a safe place to help you discover the truth about yourself, about God and about your relationships with others.