At the Royal Palace in Paris, Eugene describes the Holy Thursday service where a prince washed the feet of a group of children during the liturgy

I have just returned from accompanying my uncle to the Last Supper at the Tuileries… we saw, with astonishment beyond description, human grandeur lower itself, in imitation of the Word who humbled himself, at the feet of the poor and of the indigent. It was beautiful, impressive; one can utter on this subject fine phrases and moralize to the skies but what shall I say, my dear Courtès?
… Here, led into the palace of an earthly king, I saw a vast gallery defiled everywhere by obscene statues, by pictures representing the unseemly divinities of paganism, surrounded by all the vanities of the age, by all the pomp of the world…

This spectacle left him cold as he compared it with the way in which the same ceremony was celebrated with impressive devotion in Aix.

This remarkable spectacle was in no way comparable to our touching ceremony. Nothing brought it to mind, save the routine action of the washing of feet, and there again with quite a difference. Nothing reminded us of the imposing lesson which the Savior of men gave to the world. Neither the place or the persons or the spectators or even those who were the immediate object of the ceremony, nor the manner of doing it, nothing in a word spoke to the heart; mine at least felt not the least emotion: I only felt the regret that this spectacle naturally caused to spring in my soul by making me remember what we do…
Indulgence and curiosity were depicted in all faces. It was in such a setting that the prince approached a group of children ranged on a platform high enough so that he could pour water on their feet without stooping. These children, very well dressed and as little in keeping with the mystery as the undevout spectators, ill represented, it seemed to me, the apostles of the living God; they were not even members of the suffering God.
So, I repeat, my heart remained unmoved; my indifferent mind presented to me no image, recalled no remembrance; it had to go elsewhere to dwell on the mysteries of the day and it is to Aix that it went to join your gathering; would that I had been able to be there entirely!

Letter to Hippolyte Courtès, 27 March 1823, EO VI n 98


“Outward acts of piety which do not flow from the God-given affections of the heart, which delight to depend on God and seek his glory are only legalism and have no value in honoring God.”   John Piper

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  1. Eleanor Rabnett, Oblate Associate says:

    I must remember that Eugene was a product of his time. His upbringing and how he was taught to view things was not the same as it is today. But even I can see what is happening with the fine young prince. He shall wash the feet of children on Holy Thursday, but the children must be placed at such a level so as to ensure the prince does not have to get down on his knees to perform this service, and they were not the street urchins, but most likely children of wealthy.

    I think of Holy Thursday at my church, where we too wash the feet of each other, those of us who have gathered as community. It is symbolic we are told. I stop now and wonder though what would be my reaction if one or some of the people who come to our door to be fed were to join us. For some of these people have very very little to call their own, they may live in a shelter, or at the mission. What would be my reaction if one of them were to line up and present themselves to have their feet washed, feet that could be very dirty, perhaps with sores, likely that smelled unpleasant. What would be my reaction? Would I find myself filled with revulsion or compassion, or perhaps a litttle of both?

    It is so easy for us to fall into performing an action, a ritual for which we might have lost the full meaning, which can become almost a parody if we are not careful and thoughtful. The true meaning of what we do. I have to thank God for Eugene, who like St Paul, reminds of why and how we do what we do. Whose way of loving and giving his all inspires and teaches. For it is his writings, his reactions and responses that call me to look a little more truthfully and deeply at how I live.

    Whose feet am I willing to wash? Who do I serve? Do I somehow wash the feet of those I love, just once or twice a year, or do I find ways to serve, to love, every day? Does it become symbolic only, an outwardly pious act that others will notice or is it born from love and compassion, a desire to love the other?

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