The Fathers of the Church frequently remind us that seemingly insignificant and curious details in biblical stories and texts are never insignificant but literally every word bears important truth and instruction for those willing to pray over the sacred texts. One of these seemingly insignificant details can be found in our first reading where Moses is instructed to remove the sandals from [his] feet because the place where [he] stands is holy ground. Given the holiness of God and the sinfulness of humanity—even someone as special as Moses—one would almost expect God to have Moses retain his sandals so that his sinful humanity would not desecrate the holy ground.
Accordingly, we might ask what this tells us about God in his relation to our still sinful state. For, although God commands Moses to come no nearer this would seem to be only until he has removed his sandals. In other words, this was not a command intended to keep Moses at a distance, but rather an invitation to deeper intimacy. And thus the removal of the sandals can perhaps be understood to signify the removal of obstacles to this deeper intimacy thus enabling Moses to encounter God without intermediary and with the very substance of his soul.
This face-to-face encounter with God with the very substance of the soul is the culmination of what is (for most of us) a long and arduous journey. All of us begin our spiritual journey weighed and slowed down by the burden of our sinful condition and our alienation from God. The struggle towards virtue and goodness thus becomes part of removing our sandals and ridding ourselves of all that prevents our union with God and receiving the fullness of his love and salvation. The recurrence of this Lenten season reminds us that this removing of our sandals is anything but simple and is, typically, the work of a lifetime. For, just as sandals protect the tender foot from injury and shield it from the hot desert sands, so some of our sins and sinful habits are often failed and futile attempts to protect ourselves from the harshness the journey.
And so it is that removing our sandals becomes an act of faith whereby we gradually surrender these futile attempts to dull the pain of life and still the restlessness of our hearts and place our bare and unprotected feet on the burning desert sand. This burning sand is one way of describing the ascetic effort and renunciation it requires to break with sin and selfishness and open our hearts to that liberating inflow of God’s love and healing. Gradually, the burning sand and the thorns that pierce the tender foot no longer do so as the heart is slowly healed and opens to grace and healing.
However, even when sin, vice, and all the unhealthy and self-destructive attempts at easing the pain of our alienation from God have been removed, there are still what we might call “holy sandals” that have to be discarded. This is to enter the realm of the contemplative life where the “sandals” of our very limited and inadequate images, ideas, and conceptions of God have to be surrendered to the God who reveals his true face in the darkness of faith—that essential prerequisite for divine intimacy and ultimate union with God. For, it is only through this removal of these holy sandals that the final barriers to full union are removed and we pass, as it were, into God, and become by grace what God is by nature, namely, Love. Then it is, that we will no longer need to shield our face—as did Moses—or fear treading on holy ground, for having been made holy like God we will behold him face to face, and that holy ground will have become our eternal home.