National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 18, 2003

When all the Earth is holy ground


Like the rest of her family, Wazma, who is 18, is a recent refugee from Afghanistan and a Muslim. Since she hadn’t yet had the opportunity to visit many American homes, I offered to give her the “grand tour” of mine, unassuming rental that it is.

The first stop was the living room, then on to the kitchen.

Next, the bedrooms. I’m single, so having a house with three bedrooms is a luxury. One of the two spares is a study where my computer lives and behaves when it’s so inclined. The other is my tiny prayer room -- the one (and often only) room in my house that’s always neat. A chair, two icons and a crucifix, an oil lamp, some books and two thriving plants are about all that grace my “chapel.”

As we walked into the prayer room, I said simply, “And this is where I pray.”

At that, Wazma practically leapt back across the threshold and whipped off her shoes, exclaiming as she did, “Oh! I should take my shoes off!”

There was no hint of embarrassment, of having committed some social faux pas, like “Oh, I used the wrong fork.” It was just a simple declaration and recognition: Where a person prays is a holy place, and so I remove my shoes.

For Wazma as a Muslim, wherever one prays becomes an instant mosque, a masjid -- literally, “the place of prostration” before God. It was deeply moving to experience this young woman’s devotion and sense of the divine.

That incident in my home has replayed itself in my mind over and over again in the past 31 days since U.S. and coalition forces launched their “campaign” in Iraq.

What does war in Iraq have to do with going shoeless in a room in Kansas?

For me, it is the sense of the sacred.

Anyone who has been to the Holy Land, or almost anywhere in the Middle East for that matter, is familiar with the sight of shoes outside homes, sometimes in disorganized piles, other times placed neatly in pairs. One of my favorite photos from a visit to the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City captures a colorful gaggle of footwear of all types outside a weathered green door. I later learned the building served as a small neighborhood mosque. The shoes spoke of different levels of status -- brand new Nikes were piled with worn sandals, cheap beach-style flip-flops entwined with stylish high heels and polished leather Oxfords. But though the shoes’ wearers represented both genders and various occupations and economic stations in life, they shared a common humanity and faith. In that suspended moment of prayer time, all were equal.

This week, both Jews and Christians around the world celebrate our respective faiths’ holiest days, Passover and Easter. Both root our traditions in the Bible’s powerful story of the Exodus, read at seder meals in Jewish homes at Passover, and proclaimed in darkened Catholic churches during the readings of Easter Vigil. But before the actual Exodus story, God’s miraculous leading of the people of Israel to freedom, the Book of Exodus recalls Moses’ earlier life-changing encounter with the One Who Is.

As Moses, climbing the mountain, approached the strange, burning bush to explore it more closely, he heard God calling him by name. “God said, ‘… Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I am God!’…”

Holy ground. That message has been passed down through every culture, every faith and civilization. Wherever one encounters the Divine, the place is Holy. Before such Mystery, the only fitting posture humans can adopt is one of humility, but also vulnerability: removing one’s shoes and standing barefoot before the Creator.

If we really believe that the place where we stand -- whether that place is in Kansas City or Kabul, Belfast or Baghdad -- is indeed holy ground, dare we kill other human beings there? Dare we drop bombs, dumb or “smart,” on that ground that is holy and home to God’s people? As armies and instruments of war “advance” on “the enemy” over sand or swamp, by highway or aircraft carrier deck, do the war planners on either side stop to think that the places where we are sending our young men and women to fight and kill is holy ground, because the One God has created all the Earth as holy?

Take off your shoes, for the place where you are standing is holy ground, said God.

It’s hard to fight when you’re barefoot. It’s hard to bomb the Earth and its peoples when you see them as sacred. It’s hard to kill another when you’re both standing on holy ground.

How different our world might be if we considered every place on it holy ground. And if we took off our shoes.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2003

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