What do you do if you hate your feet and an abbot wants to wash them? CATHERINE PEPINSTER reports
Andy Warhol drew them; Terence Stamp is obsessed with them; a man in Italy is in jail for kissing the ones belonging to a stranger. They are the subject of fetishists' passions, and phobics' darkest fears. Many of us who feel we are otherwise quite well-adjusted blush at the thought of a stranger seeing ours. So perhaps it's not so surprising that when I received a message asking me, would I let a man in a pointy hat wash my feet, my first thought was: no way!

Let a stranger wash my feet, and an abbot in a mitre at that? Which apparently is the reaction of most Brits when they are asked to participate in church ceremonies on Maundy Thursday, commemorating Jesus washing the feet of his apostles before the Last Supper, on the night before his Crucifixion. But why? They're only feet, not private parts as such. Why are we so squeamish and so coy?

Perhaps it's to do with our climate. In the Holy Land people live in sandals. Here, for most of the year, our corns and callouses, bunions and boils are kept well hidden beneath leather. Baring them comes as a shock, and particularly for me. As I get out my Birkenstocks each year, I look down and grimace. I assume that everybody else's feet are gorgeous: slender, elongated, highly arched, and with very shiny nails. Not like mine.

Maybe, like so many of our inhibitions, my blushes stem from childhood trauma. I well recall being taken to a shoe shop and my mother urging me to put my feet inside a machine that would take a sort of X-ray; I stared down through this thing and could see my bones. Then a sales assistant announced to the entire shop: "Just as I thought. Very wide. Very VERY wide. E fitting for you."

Others have their own explanations. For Laura Johnson, the trauma stretches way beyond childhood, back into history. "I can't bear feet - I'm actually disgusted by them - and I think it's because they're almost primeval," she says, wriggling in her shoes. "There's something about them - all the bones and the toes, which seem almost webbed - that remind me of dinosaurs. Yeuch."

Dinosaur claws? You start to understand why putting my feet on display for the benefit of a church ceremony required drastic action, so first call last Thursday was a beauty salon for a pedicure. After a soak in a solution of rosemary, camomile and mint, and a rub down with a pumice, Amanda, my beautician for the morning, was on to massage. Bliss it was, suddenly, to be alive - I started to feel more forgiving of my feet for providing me with this pleasure. Amanda seemed quite taken with them too. As she melted my stress away, she confessed to the meditative qualities of foot stroking. "I could sit here for hours doing this," she said.

She told me that, for all their embarrassing qualities, feet have a history of sensuality. I knew that already - perhaps the most erotic moment in the New Testament was when a woman washed Christ's feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, covered them with kisses and anointed them with the ancient world's version of moisturiser - ointment from an alabaster jar. Today making feet sexy involves a pair of stilettos with six-inch heels. Then their line and curve begins to suggest the phallus, if you subscribe to the notions of Freud.

Which is probably no way to reintroduce the abbot to the story. But there I was, my tootsies pristine, and there he was on his knees washing the feet in turn of a dozen of us, arraigned before the altar, drying them with a fluffy white towel. It was a dramatic moment, with 800 people in the congregation, together with 16 priests, assorted monks and a fine choir singing Durufle. But it was far more than that.

Two thousand years ago, when Jesus got down on his knees to wash the feet of disciples who lived in a hot, sticky desert country, there would have been no fluffy white towels. Those feet would have been filthy, sweaty and stinking. And it brought it home to me. To wash someone else's feet, I thought, as the abbot patted my toes dry, is a gesture of utter humility and great tenderness. My size fives, requiring very wide fittings, thanks to Amanda and the man in the pointy hat, feel all the better for it. You can learn a lot from a simple symbolic gesture.