Praying With Icons: Holy Fools

(In a slightly different form, this essay was published in Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books in 1997, revised 2008; illustrations and endnotes have been removed.)

But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound those who are mighty.
—1 Corinthians 1:27

Few taunts are sharper than those that call into question someone’s sanity — he’s crazy, he’s a fool, he’s an idiot, he’s out of touch, he’s missing a few nuts and bolts, he isn’t playing with a full deck, there are bats in his belfry. Yet there are saints whose way of life and acts of witness to the Gospel fly in the face of what most of us regard as sanity. The Russian Church has a special word for such saints, yurodivi, meaning Holy Fools or Fools for Christ’s sake. These are people in whom Christ wears the disguise of madness.

While there is much variety among them, Holy Fools are in every case ascetic Christians living well outside the borders of conventional social behavior, including in many cases conventional religious behavior. They are people who in most parts of the developed world would be locked away in asylums or simply ignored until the elements silenced them, after which they would be thrown into unmarked graves.

While this type of saint is chiefly associated with eastern Christianity, the western Church also has its Holy Fools. Perhaps Francis of Assisi is chief among them. Think of him stripping off his clothes and standing naked before the bishop in Assisi’s main square, or preaching to birds, or taming a wolf, or — during the Crusades — walking unarmed across the Egyptian desert into the Sultan’s camp. What at a distance may seem like charming scenes, when placed on the rough surface of actual life, become mad moments indeed.

Perhaps there is a sense in which each and every saint, even those who were towering intellectuals, would be regarded as insane by many in the modern world because of their devotion to a way of life that, apart from the Gospel, was completely senseless. Every saint is troubling. Every saint reveals some of our fears and makes us question our fear-driven choices.

The holy fool is not confined to the calendar of saints. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, we find a holy fool in Lizaveta, one of the two women murdered by Raskolnikov. She is simple minded but a pure soul, while her killer is a scholar clever enough to devise a philosophical justification for murder. (The name Dostoevsky assigns to his anti-hero, Raskolnikov, means someone cut off from the whole, a man out of communion.)

“Were you friends with Lizaveta?” Raskolnikov asks the prostitute Sonya. “Yes,” Sonya responds. “She and I used to read and talk. She will see God.”

Dostoevsky continues: “How strange these bookish words sounded to him; and here was another new thing: some sort of mysterious get-togethers with Lizaveta — two holy fools.”

“One might well become a holy fool oneself here,” exclaims Raskolnikov. “It’s catching!”

In Leo Tolstoy’s memoir of his childhood, he recalls Grisha, a holy fool who sometimes wandered about his parent’s estate and even into the mansion itself. “He gave little icons to those he took a fancy to,” Tolstoy remembered. Among the local gentry, some regarded Grisha as a pure soul whose presence was a blessing, while others dismissed him as a lazy peasant. “I will only say one thing,” Tolstoy’s mother said at table one night, opposing her husband’s view that Grisha should be put in prison. “It is hard to believe that a man, though he is sixty, goes barefoot summer and winter and always under his clothes wears chains weighing seventy pounds, and who has more than once declined a comfortable life …. it is hard to believe that such a man does all this merely because he is lazy.”

Grisha, Lizaveta and Sonya represent the rank-and-file of Russia’s yurodivi, and one still finds them in Russia today. Few such men and women will be canonized, but nonetheless they help save those around them. They are reminders of God’s presence.

St Basil the Blessed, Holy Fool of Moscow
The most famous of Russia’s Holy Fools is Saint Basil the Blessed, after whom the colorful cathedral on Red Square takes its name. In an icon housed in that church, Basil is shown clothed only in his beard and a loin cloth. In the background is the Savior Tower and the churches packed within Moscow’s Kremlin walls. Basil’s hands are raised in prayer toward a small image of Jesus revealed in an opening in the sky. The fool has a meek quality, but a single-minded, intelligent face.

It is hard to find the actual man beneath the thicket of tales and legends that grew up around his memory, but according to tradition Basil was clairvoyant from an early age. Thus, while a cobbler’s apprentice, he first laughed and then wept when a certain merchant ordered a pair of boots, for Basil saw that the man would be wearing a coffin before his new boots were ready. We can imagine that the merchant was not amused at the boy’s behavior. Soon after, Basil became a vagrant. Dressing as if for the Garden of Eden, Basil’s survival of many bitter Russian winters must be reckoned among the miracles associated with his life.

A naked man wandering the streets — it isn’t surprising that he became famous in the capital city. Especially for the wealthy, he was not a comfort either to eye or ear. In the eyes of some, he was a trouble-maker. There are tales of him destroying the merchandise of dishonest tradesmen at the market on Red Square. At times he hurled stones at the houses of the wealthy — yet, as if reverencing icons, he sometimes kissed the stones on the outside of houses in which evil had been committed, as if to say that no matter what happens within these walls, there is still hope of conversion.

Basil was one of the few who dared warn Ivan the Terrible that his violent deeds were dooming him to hell.

According to one story, in the midst of Lent, when Orthodox Russians keep a rigorous vegetarian fast, Basil presented the czar with a slab of raw beef, telling him that there was no reason in his case not to eat meat. “Why abstain from meat when you murder men?” Basil asked. Ivan, whose irritated glance was a death sentence to others, is said to have lived in dread of Basil and would allow no harm to be done to him and occasionally even sent gifts to the naked prophet of the streets, but Basil kept none of these for himself. Most that he received he gave to beggars, though in one surprising case a gift of gold from the czar was passed on to a merchant. Others imagined the man was well off, but Basil discerned the man had been ruined and was actually starving, but was too proud to beg.

Once Basil poured vodka on the street, another royal gift; he wanted, he said, to put out the fires of sin.

Basil was so revered by Muscovites that, when he died, his thin body was buried, not in a pauper’s grave on the city’s edge, but next to the newly erected Cathedral of the Protection of the Mother of God. The people began to call the church Saint Basil’s, for to go there meant to pray at Basil’s grave. Not many years passed before Basil was formally canonized by the Russian Church. A chapel built over his grave became an integral part of the great building, adding a ninth dome to the eight already there.

Another Fool for Christ was the heir to Ivan the Terrible’s imperial throne, Czar Theodore. Regarded by western diplomats of the time as a weakling and idiot, Theodore was adored by the Russian people. Brought up in an environment of brutality, reviled by his father, regarded with scorn by courtiers, he became a man of simplicity, prayer, and quiet devotion to his wife. Much of his time was spent in church. It is said that throughout his fourteen years as czar he never lost his playfulness or love of beauty. He sometimes woke the people of Moscow in the hours before dawn by sounding the great bells of the Kremlin, a summons to prayer. “He was small of stature,” according to a contemporary account, “and bore the marks of fasting. He was humble, given to the things of the soul, constant in prayer, liberal in alms. He did not care for the things of this world, only for the salvation of the soul.”

“This simpleton,” writes Nicholas Zernov, “robed in gorgeous vestments, was determined that bloodshed, cruelty and oppression must be stopped, and it was stopped as long as he occupied the throne of his ancestors.”

St Xenia of Petersburg, Holy Fool for Christ
In June 1988, I was present at a Church Council for the canonization at the Holy Trinity-Saint Sergius Lavra north of Moscow of someone very like Basil and Theodore: Saint Xenia of Saint Petersburg.

Early in her long life Xenia had been married to an army colonel who drank himself to death and who may have been an abusive, violent husband. Soon after his funeral, she began giving away the family fortune to the poor, a simple act of obedience to Christ’s teaching: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor . . . and come, follow me.” In order to prevent Xenia from impoverishing herself, relatives sought to have her declared insane. However the doctor who examined her concluded Xenia was the sanest person he had ever met.

Having given away her wealth, for some years Xenia disappeared, becoming one of Russia’s many pilgrims walking from shrine to shrine while reciting the Jesus Prayer. Somewhere along the way during those hidden years, she became a Fool for Christ. When Xenia finally returned to Saint Petersburg, she was wearing the threadbare remnants of her late husband’s military uniform — these are usually shown in the icons of her — and would answer only to his name, not her own. One can only guess her motives. In taking upon herself his name and clothing, she may have been attempting to do penance for his sins. Her home became the Smolensk cemetery on the city’s edge where she slept rough year-round and where finally she was buried.

Xenia became known for her clairvoyant gift of telling people what to expect and what they should do, though what she said often made sense only in the light of later events. She might say to certain persons she singled out, “Go home and make blini [Russian pancakes].” As blini are served after funerals, the person she addressed would understand that a member of the family would soon die.

Xenia never begged. Money was given to her but she kept only an occasional kopek for herself; everything else was passed on to others.

When she died at the end of the 18th century, age 71, her grave became a place of prayer and pilgrimage and remained so even through the Soviet period, though for several decades the political authorities closed the chapel at her grave site. The official canonization of this Fool for Christ and the re-opening of the chapel over her grave were vivid gestures in the Gorbachev years that the war against religion was truly over in Russia.

Why does the Church occasionally canonize people whose lives are not only at odds with civil society but who often hardly fit ecclesiastical society either? The answer must be that Holy Fools dramatize something about God that most Christians find embarrassing but which we vaguely recognize is crucial information.

It is the special vocation of Holy Fools to live out in a rough, literal, breath-taking way the “hard sayings” of Jesus. Like the Son of Man, they have no place to lay their heads, and, again like him, they live without money in their pockets — thus Jesus, in responding to a question about paying taxes, had no coin of his own with which to display Caesar’s image.

While never harming anyone, Holy Fools often raise their voices against those who lie and cheat and do violence to others, but at the same time they are always ready to embrace these same greedy and ruthless people.

They take everyone seriously. No one, absolutely no one, is unimportant. In fact the only thing always important for them, apart from God and angels, are the people around them, whoever they are, no matter how limited they are. Their dramatic gestures, however shocking, always have to do with revealing the person of Christ and his mercy.

For most people, clothing serves as a message of how high they have risen and how secure — or insecure — they are. Holy Fools wear the wrong clothes, or rags, or even nothing at all. This is a witness that they have nothing to lose. There is nothing to cling to and nothing for anyone to steal.

The Fool for Christ, says Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, “has no possessions, no family, no position, and so can speak with a prophetic boldness. He cannot be exploited, for he has no ambition; and he fears God alone.”

The rag-dressed (or undressed) Holy Fool is like Issa, the wandering Japanese poet, who enjoyed possessing only what could not be taken away: “The thief left it behind! The moon in the window.” Inevitably, the voluntary destitution and absolute vulnerability of the Holy Fool challenges us with our locks and keys and schemes to outwit destitution, suffering and death.

Holy Fools may be people of ordinary intelligence, or quite brilliant. In the latter case such a follower of Christ may have found his or her path to foolishness as a way of overcoming pride and a need for recognition of intellectual gifts or spiritual attainments. A great scholar of Russian spirituality, George Fedotov, points out that for all who seek mystical heights by following the traditional path of rigorous self-denial, there is always the problem of vainglory, “a great danger for monastic asceticism.” For such people a feigned madness, provoking from many others contempt or vilification, saves them from something worse, being honored. (One thinks of Dorothy Day’s barbed comment: “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”)

Clearly Holy Fools challenge an understanding of Christianity, more typical in western than eastern Christianity, that gives the intellectually gifted people a head start not only in economic efforts but spiritual life. But the Gospel and sacramental life aren’t just for the clever. At the Last Judgment we will not be asked how shrewd we were but how merciful. Our academic achievements won’t save us. (In the western Church, beginning in the late Middle Ages, the idea took hold that sacramental life presupposed the life of reason and the ability to explain one’s faith. Thus in the west children below “the age of reason,” along with the deaf, the mute and mentally retarded, were barred from communion, while in the Orthodox Church, infants and children are at the front of the line to receive communion.)

In their outlandish behavior, Holy Fools pose the question: are we keeping heaven at a distance by clinging to the good regard of others, prudence, and what those around us regard as “sanity”? The Holy Fools shout out with their mad words and deeds that to seek God is not necessarily the same thing as to seek sanity.

We need to think long and hard about sanity, a word most of us cling to with a steel grip. Does fear of being regarded by others as insane confine me in a cage of “responsible” behavior that limits my freedom and cripples my ability to love? And is it in fact such a wonderful thing to be regarded as sane? After all, the chief administrator of the Holocaust, Adolph Eichmann, was declared “quite sane” by the psychiatrists who examined him before his trial in Jerusalem. Surely the same psychiatrists would have found Saint Basil, Saint Theodore and Saint Xenia all insane — and Saint Francis, and that most revered of all mad men, the Son of Man, the Savior, Jesus of Nazareth.

Henry David Thoreau, by no means the most conventional man of his time, lamented on his death bed, “What demon possessed me that I behaved so well.” He would have taken comfort in Holy Fools. They remind us of a deeper sanity that is sometimes hidden beneath apparent lunacy: the treasure of a God-centered life.

Holy Fools like Saint Xenia are God-obsessed people who throw into the bonfire anything that gets in the way or leads them down blind alleys. But where does their path actually lead them? It is easier to say where they are not headed and what they are not taking with them than to describe where they are going. One can use a phrase like “the kingdom of God” but this reveals no more about what it is to live in the Holy Spirit than a dictionary entry on oranges reveals about the taste of an orange.

But were at least some of the Holy Fools, after all, not crazy? The answer must be: maybe so. While the Fools for Christ who have been canonized are regarded by the Church as having worn madness as a mask, in fact no one knows how much a mask it really was, only that Christ shone through their lives. As Fedotov says, for most Russian people, “the difficulty [confronting many others] does not exist. Sincere [lunacy] or feigned, a madman with religious charisma … is always a saint, perhaps the most beloved saint in Russia.”

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