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The fable of Benedict's red shoes


Benedict's red shoesIn 1948 the British masters Powell and Pressburger made a film called The Red Shoes. Moira Shearer played a ballerina whose dream is to perform on stage. She gets her wish, playing in a new production wearing special shoes. They take her places she has never been and always wanted to go.

But she cannot take them off, and is trapped in an unending cycle of dance. Her one hope of escape from this growing nightmare is to take off the red shoes, but can she?

It is a modern fable, based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen. In the original a vain, spoilt girl tricks her adoptive mother into buying a pair of red shoes. She shows them off in church and other places, only to find that the shoes take over. They dance her everywhere. She is cursed by an angel and forced to wear them forever.

Even when her feet are amputated the shoes keep showing up and dancing before her eyes. Only after repeated efforts to seek forgiveness, to be humbled, is the girl finally forgiven.

The Red Shoes would, for obvious reasons, come to my mind during the last pontificate. It's hard to trace the rumour that Benedict XVI's shoes were designed by Prada. Perhaps it was just a mischievous allusion to The Devil Wears Prada, but nothing so vulgar! The Pope's shoes were actually made by a local Vatican shoemaker out the back of Borgo Pio and one thing you had to say about them, they were not the shoes of a fisherman.

Whatever Benedict had in mind when he donned his gay apparel will go with him to the grave, but one reason seems to be a message that popes are unique. Because John Paul II wore brown Polish loafers, and no one paid much mind to his predecessors' footwear, Benedict's stepping out caused a sensation. Sydney went seismic.

Popes in previous centuries wore red shoes, hence Benedict's harking back to an age of papal prestige. He would know that in Byzantium only three people were allowed to wear red shoes: the Emperor, the Empress, and the Pope. They are symbols of imperial power, in keeping with the opulent dress sense exhibited by monarchs. Even on a normal day, Queen Elizabeth II is still the best-dressed person in the room. Power treads the boards.

Benedict is a wily fox, which is why we can be sure his red shoes were there to invite symbolic interpretations. Only thing is, red shoes have a life of their own. They take the wearer where he would not go. He has always wanted total control, but it's the red shoes that control him.

The only way this giddy madness can stop is by taking them off, which Benedict did on 11 February when he announced his resignation. The cardinals stared at one another in disbelief. They were living in a fable.

Benedict's close theological friend Rowan Williams teaches a theology of letting go of control. 'For the Spirit to be free in us, our expectations of possession and understanding and control need to go,' he says. 'Our expectations of being in charge have to go, and any experience whether grievous or joyful that begins to break our hold of control, any such experience is the beginning of an opening to the Holy Spirit.'

Letting go of control lets the Spirit in, and something new happens. This is what seems to be happening now that Benedict has taken off the red shoes. Almost anything could happen, and it won't be easy for anyone.

Williams wears sensible black shoes. When Archbishop of Canterbury he rarely wore a purple shirt, but plain black, itself a break with tradition. To wear black was an example to others about not showing off. It was about sharing the humility of a servant and was of a piece with his reintroduction after 400 years of the practice of the Archbishop himself washing the feet of 12 others at Maundy Thursday services in Canterbury Cathedral.

At foot washing, participants remove socks, whether designer, off-the-rack, or holey, and shoes, black, red, whatever. The iridescent vanities of their life no longer dance before their eyes in perpetual torment; they have been put aside. Each person is on the same level as everybody else. They have let go of control. What now?

Philip Harvey headshotPhilip Harvey is the poetry editor of Eureka Street. He maintains a word study site, a poetry readings site and a workplace blogspot.

Topic tags: Philip Harvey, Pope Benedict, red shoes, conclave



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Existing comments

I have way too many pairs of shoes, including some red ones. And there's a red pair, teamed with a blue dress, that I sometimes wear to church. Like a lot of people, when I arrive home I fling off my shoes first thing after closing the front door. So maybe the control thing is for places I feel insecure - like church?

Pam | 05 March 2013  

I am reminded that my older aunts and grandmothers used to say 'you know what they say about girls with red shoes!' whenever I longingly pointed to some in a shop window. None them ever told me exactly what 'they' say, and it was only as an adult that a friend with a similar experience told me that red shoes were worn by selfish or naughty girls. I wonder if my older relatives were referring to the film 'The Red Shoes'? In any case, I really enjoyed this article and reflecting on the purpose of clothes. Thank you.

Moira Byrne | 06 March 2013  

Red Shoes can take you to Kansas if the heels are clicked. Maybe he just didn't want to go there and took them off in time!

Rose Drake | 06 March 2013  

Imelda Marcos was so confused about power she needed thousands of pairs of shoes

john bartlett | 06 March 2013  

Thank you Philip for this beautiful article. It reminds us that poetry is such a powerful language and and how servanthood is at the essence of leadership and authority.

Maureen Cleary | 06 March 2013  

Thanks, Philip. A lovely piece to start the day with. The shoes - aren't they beautiful objects! are just another of the things that make me wary of this man. To me his career has been full of ugly contradictions, the inescapable one being the ferocious and unchristian way he hunted theologians Woytijla found threatening and then, as Pope, his twisted smile that beamed in benediction. The smile was always a giveaway for me, a disturbing twist on Shakespeare's words about Cordelia: "Those happy smilets that played on her ripe lip/Seemed not to know what guests were in her eyes/ Which parted thence as pearls from diamonds dropped." Except that there everything is loveliness and sensitivity - Benedict's mouth could smile all it liked but I could never be unconscious of the cruel eyes above it.

Joe Castley | 06 March 2013  

I too enjoyed your article Philip. Didn't Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz wear red shoes? do you think maybe Benny was a friend of Dorothy's?

Ignatius | 06 March 2013  

I've been told that if I have a favourite pair of red shoes in my wardrobe, it's a sign I'm getting old. I have . . . and I am!

glen avard | 06 March 2013  

Was the use of the term "gay" meaningful? These shoes are certainly "camp", as indeed is much of the style and liturgical dress-sense of male-dominated Catholic neo-conservatism in the 21st century. Such psycho-social dimensions of the Catholic church will one day need unpackaging, and not only where it it turns overtly pathological and scandalous.

Eugene | 06 March 2013  

Elvis Costello wrote about red shoes in 1977. The lyrics seem apt, perhaps Benedict has made a bargain with the angels: "Oh I used to be disgusted and now I try to be amused. But since their wings have got rusted, you know, the angels wanna wear my red shoes. But when they told me 'bout their side of the bargain, that's when I knew that I could not refuse. And I won't get any older, now the angels wanna wear my red shoes."

chris g | 06 March 2013  

Nice article, Philip. It's quite reasonable to ask why Benedict was apparently so focused on clothing. Was it merely a Bavarian baroque sensibility, or something more? However, I think it's also reasonable to ask why the traditional red shoes got such sensational and apparently never-ending media coverage. Paul VI and John Paul I wore red shoes and they went unremarked. John XXIII wore even more flamboyant embroidered slippers without much comment. Only John Paul II wore brown. Why did Benedict's footwear attract such extraordinary attention when there are surely more important things to talk about? Endless comment on the red shoes seems even weirder to me than wearing them. What does it all mean?

Michael | 06 March 2013  

The song "Didn't leave nobody but the baby" (as in "O Brother where art thou") tells of an absent mother who is "long gone/with her red shoes on". What might we make of this 'red shoes' association?

CHRIS WATSON | 06 March 2013  

I thought Philip Harvey was quite clear about the significance of the shoes when he stated: "Popes in previous centuries wore red shoes, hence Benedict's harking back to an age of papal prestige. He would know that in Byzantium only three people were allowed to wear red shoes: the Emperor, the Empress, and the Pope. They are symbols of imperial power, in keeping with the opulent dress sense exhibited by monarchs." As I said in commenting on Andrew Hamilton's article called "Anatomy of a papal scandal" here: http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=35203 "A culture of public service; a desire to serve is what Jesus preached, but instead we see “dignitaries” who demonstrate through pomp, ceremony, clothing and accoutrements their desire to be an elite; to rule and control, e.g., by the imposition of the new liturgical translation." At the moment, given the shocking history of abuse being disclosed within the church, it would be more appropriate for the pope emeritus, and all the cardinals and bishops to wear sackcloth and ashes.

Frank S | 07 March 2013  

Thank you for your service, Holy Father, and for steering the Church in a better direction- and all in those snazzy kicks.

Dave | 08 March 2013  

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