Entering an Orthodox Church is quite an overwhelming experience, especially if it is your first time. There are a number of things that one will notice aside from the iconography, incense, chanting and the sense that time stands still in this place. One of the more curious things one might notice in Oriental Orthodox Churches is that those going up to partake of the Eucharist take off their shoes. Many young people simply learn this through passive observation, and we continue to do as told. For one who walks into this, it might surprise them. There was a time in Western etiquette where it was commonplace to take off one’s shoes upon entering another’s home, as you left the space of the rest of your life and entered into your host’s private, personal space. Whatever one had accumulated and carried with them was to be taken off upon entering into the life and home of their neighbour. God invites Moses to do the same in the text that is commonly cited as to why we take off our shoes at communion,
“Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn.’ So when the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, “Here I am.”
Then He said, ‘Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.’ Moreover He said, ‘I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God.” Exodus 3.1-6
God invites Moses to leave the previous space he had inhabited and enter into the Divine Presence in the Burning bush. Recall that the feet are that carry us from place to place in the circumstances of our life. Whether from the land of sin – Egypt – or Holy Ground, we venture there on our feet. The fathers of the Church elaborate for us what exactly is ‘happening’ in God’s request to have Moses take off his sandals. We might be surprised to see that more is happening in this text than we initially realize. St. Gregory of Nyssa pulls us deeper into the mystery by pointing out what these shoes really are and what they represent.
“That light teaches us what we must do to stand within the rays of the true light: Sandaled feet cannot ascend that height where the light of truth is seen, but the dead and earthly covering of skins, which was placed around our nature at the beginning when we were found naked because of disobedience to the divine will, must be removed from the feet of the soul. When we do this, the knowledge of the truth will result and manifest itself. The full knowledge of being comes about by purifying our opinion concerning nonbeing.
In my view the definition of truth is this: not to have a mistaken apprehension of Being. Falsehood is a kind of impression which arises in the understanding about nonbeing: as though what does not exist does, in fact, exist. But truth is the sure apprehension of real Being. So, whoever applies himself in quietness to higher philosophical matters over a long period of time will barely apprehend what true Being is, that is, what possesses existence in its own nature, and what nonbeing is, that is, what is existence only in appearance, with no self-subsisting nature.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, Book 2, Chapter 22, 23
For St. Gregory of Nyssa, this encounter of Moses beckons us to consider the garments of skin we initially see in Genesis (Cf. Genesis: Book of Life and Death). The dead and earthly coverings are a feature we don’t initially think about today but would have been obvious to the fathers and to readers of the Scripture before the modern age. Shoes, traditionally speaking, were formed of the hide of a dead animal. It is self-evident to St. Gregory of Nyssa that the removal of the sandals are the taking off of the earthly coverings and with it, the ‘earthly’ perceptions which result in death and corruptibility. And as we continue on with the text, we learn from St. Gregory that these earthly perceptions are then a misapprehension of ‘Being’; that is, we are unable to apprehend The Being, God, when anchored by, and fixated on, our earthly perceptions. Our misapprehension of Being itself is the source of human sin. It is because we cannot gauge what is truly good over what feels good that we fail to grasp reality as it is: that reality being God Himself. In another text, directed to catechumens, St. Gregory of Nyssa will say,
“But, because of the pains and sufferings of the body which are the necessary consequences of its unstable nature, to call God on that account the Maker of evil, or to think that He is not the Creator of man at all, in hopes thereby to prevent the supposition of His being the Author of what gives us pain,—all this is an instance of that extreme narrow-mindedness which is the mark of those who judge of moral good and moral evil by mere sensation. Such persons do not understand that that only is intrinsically good which sensation does not reach, and that the only evil is estrangement from the good. But to make pains and pleasures the criterion of what is morally good and the contrary, is a characteristic of the unreasoning nature of creatures in whom, from their want of mind and understanding, the apprehension of real goodness has no place.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism, Chapter 8.
These misapprehensions of Reality consequent on our fixation with ourselves and the physical experience of the world which is shrouded in death is what must be put off in order to approach God. If we only discern that which is pleasurable or painful and make this our compass to reality then this can only end in deadness and misstep, we will never have approached True Being, God- who St. Gregory the Theologian describes saying,
“He actually contains in Himself all being, that which had no being and will have no end, what I would call an ocean of being without limit and without end, beyond any notions of duration and nature that our intellect could form for itself.” St. Gregory the Theologian Oration 45 (for Easter), chapter 3.
Where Adam and Eve approach a tree with a mistaken apprehension of reality (we read that the fruit was pleasant to the eyes), Moses is brought to another tree and told to divest himself of the baggage of experience he had brought with him to come near the truth. Christ then will preach from a mountain (in the famous beatitudes passage) that he is the Tree of Life (cf. Genesis: The Book of The Promise). Moses takes off the animal dead coverings, and approaches Reality Himself with no coverings, no external influences, no wisdom of the Egyptians, The I am.
It is not evident yet that this has anything to do with the Eucharist, perhaps and why Orthodox churches have believers take their shoes off prior to communing. One place to start is with the episode of Christ washing the feet of the disciples at the last supper prior to instituting the mystery of the Eucharist. In this way we can begin to see the Lord tie these two events together and we see Christ’s words to Peter’s request to wash all of him, “Jesus said to him, “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean” (John 13.10). Is there any relationship between the taking off of the shoes and washing of feet with the partaking of the Eucharist? St. Cyril of Alexandria explains also by turning to the burning bush episode,
“The bush, therefore, was in the desert, and the ground that contained it was holy and sacred to God. And Moses, drawing near is being cut off [prohibited], and is being ordered to untie the sandal of his foot. This thing is a symbol of death and corruption, since every sandal is the remnant of an animal already dead and completely corrupted. Christ, therefore, is unapproachable for the people of the law and by the pedagogical worship [i.e. the worship of the Jews]. It is, therefore, necessary to wash the pollution first and rub clean the dirt of sin. And the blood of bulls is unable to take away sin. Because no one is justified in the law. And since sin has not been abolished, it is necessary that corruption prevail, and that death have absolute power over the polluted once. It is necessary, therefore, for those who wish to see the mystery of Christ to put aside the worship in symbols and shadows, which worship is better neither than corruption nor sin. For then he will understand and enter the holy land, that is the Church. Or the fact that those who do not move away from the worship according to the law are being held under the power of corruption, Christ himself will make clear. ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, except you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.’ And this was the mystery, not from those under the law from some place or other, but from those who have accepted the faith and have been justified in Christ and have accepted the education which is better than the one under the law, and I mean the evangelic [Gospel] one. Those, therefore, who did not become free of the burden through faith, are under the power of corruption, and as in the law, which is the mother of death, and I mean, indeed, the sin, and they are away from Christ. But if they would wish to untie the sandal that is the corruption which does not have the power to justify them, and if they would wish to approach the grace which truly produces life, then they will approach the one who justifies the impious one, Christ, that is, through whom and with Whom the glory belongs to the Father together with the Holy Spirit to the ages of ages. Amen.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Glaphyra on Exodus, Book 1. (which can now be purchased here Glaphyra on the Pentateuch, Volume 2: Exodus through Deuteronomy
Along with the accumulations from without, the shoes symbolize, for St. Cyril, that mortal and corruptible flesh we are in. Interestingly St. Cyril speaks about this being our state prior to the revelation of Christ, that the law could not save because it could not defeat death and corruption which held sway over us. Hence for St. Cyril the Eucharist and the taking off of the mortal and corruptible outer coverings are tied, they are one and the same action. The law had no power over death and could not save, nor can these outer coverings which we are now draped with (if we think back to St. Gregory of Nyssa’s idea of the garments of skin and the sandals). St. Gregory points out that our misapprehension of reality is what must also come off when we remove the sandals of our soul. We must see reality as it really is – that is, we must see God – by killing all false notions we have formed of reality. In doing so, we take off the outer covering of death and decay and come to newness of life in Christ. This life which is supplied to us by what St. Ignatius calls,
“The medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live forever in Jesus Christ.” St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 20
To do this we must heed St. Gregory of Nyssa’s earlier warning not to simply use pleasure as the measure of what is good. St. Gregory helps us saying,
“It is our aim not that we should be persuaded to desire the things that are good; (for to incline towards the good is one of the inherent characteristics of human nature) but that we should not be mistaken (hamartoimen) in our judgement as to what is good. It is here that our life is most subject to error, that we cannot clearly distinguish what is good by nature and what is imagined to be such because of deception.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, 5th Homily on The Beatitudes
We know this intuitively as we do not simply let our young toddlers eat as much chocolate as feels good. And yet we do this with ourselves. Human beings do not pursue anything because of how evil they believe it to be, God has not made us this way. We can, however, be deceived as to where the good lies. Divesting ourselves of these mistaken apprehensions of reality and coming to a knowledge of God, we too can lose the scales from our eyes as St. Paul did. This itself is done by living baptismally, by allowing each moment to be a moment of birth to God and a death to death. Christ tells Peter that he will need to wash his feet and this is divesting ourselves of the chains of sin when we come to participate in the body and the blood of Christ – i.e. the Life of Christ (cf. The Life-Giving Blessing: Genesis and The Eucharist). We, who are dead, are made alive again in the baptismal font by our participation in the Holy Spirit Who comes and abides in us (to use the traditional language of the Church). The whole of our lives then becomes about the choice between life and death which we are free to make. This very moment, I can choose to mire myself in my sins and pursue death as the Wisdom of Solomon puts it (Cf. Wisdom 2) or I can choose to die to sin and live to God. Again St. Gregory of Nyssa puts it beautifully,
“And once death had been mingled with human nature, deadness, in step with the successions of offspring to parents, made its way everywhere. Hence a dead form of existence enfolded us, since life itself was, in a certain sense, dying; for as soon as our life is deprived of immortality, it is a dead thing. For this reason, the One who is made known “in the midst between the two forms of life” (Hab 3:2) stands in between these two kinds of life, in order that by removal of the worse he may award the spoils of victory to the one that is undefiled. So just as by dying to the true life humanity fell instead into this dead form of existence, so too when it dies to this dead and animal life, it is redirected toward life eternal-and this stands as a certainty, that one cannot live the blessed life without having become dead to sin.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homily XII on Song of Songs.
Thus, this simple act of removing our shoes can be seen to reflect a depth of the Christian life we may not have previously perceived. We are called to enter into the Divine abode with none of the death and decay we may have come with. We are to remove the dead coverings which we have used to comfort ourselves and pursued to please ourselves so that we might come to The Reality Himself. Coming to a true knowledge of Reality, we are to die to the dead mode we have inhabited and thus remove the sandals from our feet so we might participate in Life, Christ offered to us in the Eucharist. The ascetic pursuit then is a life of removing the coverings we have accumulated so that we can see things as they really are. May this understanding inspire a moment of reflection the next time we remove our shoes and approach the Life-giving Eucharist offered to us in Church. May God grant us this repentance that by dying to sin we may be found alive in Christ through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit bringing about our adoption as sons.