The Way of the Holy Fools

St Basil the Blessed, Holy Fool of Moscow

[a talk given at the Center for Spiritual Development in Orange, California, 18 October 2008]

by Jim Forest

In the Beatitudes, Jesus blessed the pure of heart, but — let’s be frank — this is now out of date. But what can one expect of so old a book? Jesus didn’t even use e-mail. What Jesus should have said is, “Blessed are the clever of mind. Blessed are the smart.” This would suit us much better. The heart has gone down in the world while the brain has ascended.

The result of this shift is that few taunts are sharper than those which call into question someone’s intelligence and still more his 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 some bulbs missing in the marquee. There are bats in his belfry.”

Yet there are saints whose 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, as it’s sometimes put, Fools for Christ’s sake. These are wild souls whose odd behavior many people would regard as madness.

In Leo Tolstoy’s memoir of his childhood, he fondly recalls Grisha, a holy fool who sometimes wandered about his parent’s estate and even came into the mansion itself without knocking on the door. “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. Others, including Tolstoy’s father, dismissed Grisha 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.”

We meet two other holy fools in Dostoevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment.

First there is Lizaveta, one of the women murdered by Raskolnikov. Lizaveta is a simple-minded young woman who has an absolutely pure soul. She regards no one with enmity and is loved by many.

What a contrast she is to Raskolnikov, who kills Lizaveta simply because she has the misfortune to witness his murder of a money-lender. Raskolnikov is a bitter young scholar who has lost his Christian faith. The name Dostoevsky assigned to his anti-hero is based on the Russian verb meaning “to cut off” or “slice,” as in cutting a slice from a loaf of bread. Raskolnikov’s name suggests that he is a person cut off from the whole, a man who has broken communion with others. He has convinced himself that certain people — the clever, the brilliant, the born leaders — are not subject to the same pedestrian moral code imposed on ordinary people. For such people, for someone like himself, good can be achieved through evil means.

Dostoevsky’s other holy fool is Sonya, ultimately Raskolnikov’s rescuer, who has been pressed into prostitution for the sake of her impoverished family. Sonya is the novel’s heroine.

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

Dostoevsky comments: “How strange these bookish words sounded to [Raskolnikov]; and here was another new thing: [Sonya’s] mysterious get-togethers with Lizaveta — two holy fools.”

“One might well become a holy fool oneself here,” exclaims Raskolnikov. “It’s catching!” [The translation is from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation.]

Grisha, Lizaveta and Sonya represent the rank-and-file of Russia’s yurodivi. Few such men and women are canonized, just as few of the saints we happen to meet in life are canonized, but nonetheless they inspire and even give new direction to many of those around them. In their unconventional ways of life, they are surprising reminders of God’s presence.

While there is great variety among them, holy fools in every case are ascetic Christians living well outside the borders of ordinary social behavior, including conventional religious behavior. They are people who in many countries 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 an impressive supply of holy fools, even if it rarely applies to them a label suggesting foolishness.

St Francis of Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi is chief among the holy fools of the west. 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 where he had every reason to expect his own death. What at first may seem like charming scenes, when placed on the rough surface of actual life, become mad moments indeed.

The most famous of Russia’s holy fools was a Muscovite, St. Basil the Blessed, after whom the colorful cathedral on Red Square takes its name. In an ancient icon housed in that church, Basil is shown clothed only in a lengthy beard. In the background is the Kremlin’s Savior Tower. Basil’s hands are raised in prayer toward a small image of Jesus revealed in an opening in the sky. Basil the holy fool has a meek quality but also 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 both laughed and 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 — perhaps having been fired by the cobbler — 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 man either naked, or nearly naked, wandering the streets — it isn’t surprising that he became famous in the capital city. Especially for the wealthy, Basil 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 street market that used to fill 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 repentance and conversion.

Basil, a contemporary of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, was one of the few who dared warn the tsar that his violent deeds were dooming him to hell. According to one story, in the midst of Lent, when Russians keep a rigorous vegetarian fast, Basil presented the tsar with a slab of raw beef, telling him that there was no reason in his case not to eat meat. “Why abstain from meat,” asked Basil, “when you murder men?”

Ivan, whose irritated glance was a death sentence to others, is said to have lived in dread of Basil. He 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 instance a gift of gold from the tsar was passed on to a merchant, a man others imagined was well off, but whom Basil knew had been ruined and was actually starving while maintaining a facade of wealth. 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. From that time people began calling the church St. Basil’s, for to go there meant one would pause 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 one more onion dome to the eight already there.

Another Fool for Christ was the heir to Ivan the Terrible’s imperial throne, Tsar 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 tsar 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 robed in gorgeous vestments,” Nicholas Zernov observed in The Russians and their Church, “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 the summer of 1988, I was present at a Council of the Church in Russia for the canonization at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra north of Moscow of someone very like Basil and Theodore: Xenia of St. 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 St. Petersburg, she was wearing the threadbare remnants of her late husband’s military uniform — often shown in 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. She might say to a certain person 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.

She 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, age seventy-one, at the end of the 18th century, her grave became a place of pilgrimage and remained so even through the Soviet period, though for several decades the political authorities closed the chapel over her grave site. The official canonization of this Fool for Christ and the re-opening of the chapel 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 completely at odds with civil society but who often barely 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.

Perhaps there is a sense in which each and every saint, even those who were scholars and whom we might regard as paragons of sanity, would be regarded as foolish, if not insane, by many in the modern world because of their devotion to a way of life that is completely senseless if viewed apart from the Gospel. Most saints embrace poverty. None are careerists. Every saint is troubling. Every saint reveals some of our fears and makes us question our fear-driven choices.

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 often have no place to lay their heads, and, again like him, they live with empty pockets (thus Jesus, in responding to a question about paying taxes, had no coin of his own with which to display Caesar’s image; he had to borrow a coin from the man asking the question).

While never harming anyone, many holy fools 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. In their eyes, absolutely no one is unimportant. In fact, the only thing always important for them, apart from God, are the people around them, whoever they are, no matter how limited or damaged they may be. 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 perhaps 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 Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, “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 sometimes undressed) holy fool resembles Issa, the wandering Japanese poet who lived 200 years ago. Issa enjoyed possessing only what could not be taken away. In one tiny poem. He declares:

The thief left it behind
The moon in the window.

You can strip a house bare, right down to the wallpaper, even burn it to the ground, but the cosmos remains.

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.

While some holy fools may be people of lesser intelligence, this is the exception rather than the rule. Some were regarded as quite brilliant in their earlier life, but were led to wear the disguise of foolishness as a way of overcoming pride and a need for recognition of intellectual gifts or spiritual attainments.

A noted scholar of Russian spirituality, George Fedotov, pointed 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 famous comment: “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” Nothing made her more uncomfortable than recognition.

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 smart people. At the Last Judgment we will not be asked how clever we were, or how highly regarded and successful, but how merciful. Our academic ability won’t save us.

It is revealing to note that, in Western Christianity, the idea gradually took hold that participation in eucharistic life presupposed having reached “the age of reason” and the communicant had the ability to understand and explain his or her faith. I would guess this practice goes back at least to the Reformation. Thus in the West children below “the age of reason” — seven or eight years old — have long been barred from receiving communion. It is quite the opposite in the Orthodox Church, where, following baptism, the younger the child, the closer he or she is to the front of the communion line. (From an Orthodox Christian point of view, it is far from certain that anyone, even the most brilliant, ever reaches the age when the primary mysteries of existence can be understood or explained. In the Orthodox Church, the sacraments are referred to as the Mysteries.)

In their outlandish behavior, holy fools pose a question each of us needs to consider: Are we keeping heaven at a distance by clinging to the good regard of others and what those around us regard as “sanity”?

What is generally regarded as sanity may have little or nothing to do with holiness. The psychiatrists who examined Adolph Eichmann, the chief administrator of Hitler’s extermination camps, was found to be “perfectly sane.” This led Thomas Merton to write an essay in which he made this comment:

The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous. It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared…. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command.” [Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966), pp 45-53.]

Surely the same psychiatrists who interviewed Eichmann would have found St. Basil the Blessed, St. Xenia of Petersburg and St. Francis all insane. And what would they conclude about that most revered of all mad men, Jesus of Nazareth, who foolishly went to Jerusalem well aware that, as surely as apples fall to the ground, he would be led to the cross and die one of Rome’s most painful and humiliating deaths?

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 more critically about sanity, a word most of us cling to with a steel grip. I am not recommending any of us should embrace madness, but I do ask the question whether fear of being regarded by others as less than sensible confines me in a cage of “responsible” behavior that limits my freedom and cripples my ability to love?

Henry David Thoreau was by no means the most conventional man of his time. There must have been those who questioned his sanity. He lost a teaching job because of his refusal to whip disobedient children. One of his gestures, an act of protest against the Mexican-American War, was to spend a night in jail for refusing to pay a tax. For two years he lived alone in a tiny cabin next to Walden Pond. How astonished Thoreau would be to discover that his face eventually landed on a U.S. postage stamp! He lamented on his death bed, “What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?”

Thoreau would have felt a bond with holy fools, those men and women who remind us of a deeper sanity that is sometimes hidden beneath apparent lunacy: the treasure of a God-centered life.

Holy fools like St. Basil, St. Xenia and St. Francis 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.

Still there is the question: 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 brightly through their lives.

For most Russian people, as the scholar Fedotov pointed out, “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.”

As Paul wrote to the newly-founded church in Corinth: “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 Cor 1:27)

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This text is an expanded version of a chapter in Jim Forest’s book, Praying with Icons (Orbis).

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands
e-mail: jhforest /at/
Jim & Nancy Forest web site:
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The “Other” as Icon

lecture by Jim Forest for the June 2002 conference of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship at St. Tikhon’s Monastery, South Canaan, Pennsylvania

a beggar prays for help

You’re walking down a street and see a man in stained clothing sitting on the pavement, a paper coffee cup in front of him. As you pass by, he asks if you could contribute something toward his next meal. Though unshaven and in need of a shower, he’s young and muscular, apparently healthy and capable of working. You’ve just walked past a dozen help wanted signs. What thoughts pass through your mind? How do you respond?

As the sun is setting you notice several teen-agers down the street, speaking abusively in voices that can be heard 50 yards away. They seem to be looking for trouble. What do you think and feel as you look at them? Do you continue on the same path or find an alternate route? How do you respond?

You turn on the news and hear a report concerning the murder of a young woman. There’s a photo of her taken from her high school year book — a beautiful face and bright smile, a face full of life and promise. She is like one of your own children. Based on information from witnesses, a drawing of a man seen running from the crime scene is shown along with a telephone number you should call if you have seen anyone resembling the suspect. You are warned not to approach him as he is regarded as armed and dangerous. The drawing lingers in your mind — an ominous, large-jawed face with narrow, staring eyes. What are your thoughts about the man being sought? How do you respond?

That evening you happen to see a TV news report about a man on death row who is less than twelve hours away from his execution. Years ago, it is explained, he murdered an elderly couple after breaking into their home. There is live reportage of a prayer vigil outside the prison — people carrying candles and signs with such messages as “Thou shalt not kill” and “Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?” Nearby are another group, among them some of the relatives of the murder victims who approve of the execution and speak of it as bringing about a long-sought “closure.” “The man’s got what’s coming to him,” says one of them. There’s an interview taped earlier in the day with the man himself — frightened, bewildered, sorry for what he did, though he has only a hazy memory of the event itself. He blames the murders on his former drug addiction. A nun is interviewed who has visited the condemned man him from time to time. We hear her appeal to the governor not to allow the execution, which she describes as “ritual murder.” Finally there’s an interview with the governor. He says he cannot put himself above the jury that found the man guilty or the board that reviewed the case and affirmed its conclusion. His heart goes out not to the killer but to all the poeople forever wounded by these terrible murders. He says the execution will occur on schedule.

Listening to all these voices, what are your thoughts? With whose views do you identify? For whom, if anyone, are you praying? How do you respond?

Now think of September 11 — what happened that day in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania and what we have since learned regarding the people who carried out those actions, the people who planned them, and those who died as a result — policemen, firemen, office workers, pilots, stewardesses, airplane passengers, Pentagon staff, government workers — thousands of lives snuffed out, children orphaned, men and women suddenly without their spouses: mass murder done by people who see themselves as agents of God’s wrath.

What do we think of those who carried out these actions? Those who planned them? What do you think should be done about such people? Does this pose a challenge of any kind to you personally? Does it have anything to do with your spiritual life? With your parish? How do you respond?

I mention all these situations and raise these questions to try to make more real — and more troubling — the word “other,” though in fact the word is much larger than what is suggested by my short litany of grim situations and dangerous people. Far from being a stranger, the “other” is often a spouse, a parent, one’s own child (whether born or unborn), one’s neighbors, co-workers, colleagues. It can be the angry driver in car just behind yours, the salesman who sold you shoddy goods, or the man in the Oval Office.

The “other” is anyone, whether for occasional seconds or uninterrupted decades, whom I feel as being remote from myself — a human being, yes, but not someone with whom I seek communion.

Let’s think for a moment about two of my favorite people, Adam and Eve, the first human beings, the common ancestors of each and every person we will ever meet. As the story is related in Genesis, they began as a single being. It is only when Adam — the original anthropos — feels lonely and envies the two-ness of all other creatures that God puts him in a state of deep sleep and then pulls the body of Eve out of Adam’s body. At this moment Adam becomes male, Eve female — two words that have no meaning except in the context of the other. The scene of the dividing of anthropos into male and female is shown in countless iconographic images that decorate ancient churches, a visual exploration of the mystery of being human: one becomes two, and each longs for the other; each is incomplete without the other. Two strive to become one. And from acts of healing their otherness, children are born: new others.

But first the Fall intervenes — that rupturing of the womb-like effortless communion that existed in the first days of human existence. Adam and Eve’s communion with the other is damaged. They became aware of being naked and find themselves ashamed of their condition. After failing in their attempt to hide from God, they then seek to shift the blame for eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. “It is the because of the wife whom you gave me,” says Adam, both blaming Eve and blaming God for making the mistake of creating her. Eve, for her part, blames not herself but the fast-talking serpent. It’s the start of human estrangement and all consequent patterns of blaming: not my fault, but yours! The other is to blame.

“The essence of sin is fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God,” comments Metropolitan John Zizoulas. “Once the affirmation of the ‘self’ is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam chose in his freedom to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary pre-condition for reconciliation with any ‘other’.”

We can imagine that Adam and Eve did not at first fully realize the consequences of their act of rejection — rejection of God’s command, then rejection of each other in their blaming the other rather than taking responsibility and repenting for their own sin.

Next comes the calamity of murder among their own children. Cain and Abel are divided by enmity. Brother becomes “other.” Love turns to envy, envy to hatred, hatred to violence, until Abel lies dead on the ground, a casualty of the first war.

And yet we are not condemned to enmity. Adam and Eve did not abandon each other after the Fall but lived in partnership and probably also in shared in repentance. They become the fountainhead of the human race.

Despite the sin they committed and all its consequences down through the centuries, the Church does not regard them as damned. It is Adam and Eve we see in the most impressive of Paschal icons, Christ harrowing hell. In my favorite version, from the Chora church in Constantinople, we see Christ simultaneously lifting both Adam and Eve from their tombs in the kingdom of death. They are equally objects of his mercy, and together recover their original oneness in Christ who made them and whose image they bear.

Here, in the opening chapter of Genesis, where we meet Adam and Eve, we come upon the first use in the Bible of the word “image” — ikon, in Greek.

Genesis was a text of special importance to Christian theologians of the early centuries and thus the subject of numerous Patristic commentaries. In Genesis the Fathers discovered the opening chords of central themes of the New Testament. In the creation narrative we see the work of the Logos, he who is himself the Alpha: the Word who is the beginning. We begin to meet the Creator in his creation, the Word in what comes into being by being spoken. Adam both resembles and prefigures Christ, the second Adam; Mary is prefigured in Eve, a new Eve in whom the ever-existing Divine Logos becomes incarnate; we see the Holy and Lifegiving Cross prefigured in the Tree of Life. The very sentence that declares humankind is made God’s image is also the first revelation of the Holy Trinity: “Let us make man according to our image and likeness…” (Genesis 1:26, translation from the Septuagint) Later in Genesis, there are the mysterious angelic figures, both one and three, who visit Abraham and Sarah under the oak of Mamre.

Think about the passage: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man [anthropos] according to our image and likeness and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created man in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

There is much to ponder in these two verses, several major themes, but today our concentration will be on the topic of image and likeness, going on from there to the problem and challenge of otherness.

This pair of verses, writes Andrew Louth, professor of Patristic and Byzantine studies and editor of a collection of patristic commentaries on the first eleven chapters of Genesis, “are perhaps the verses of the Old Testament most commented upon by the Fathers. The doctrine of man’s creation in the image of God is the foundation of patristic anthropology. The mention of his likeness to God points to the destiny of his sanctification and glorification.” [Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Genesis 1-12, Andrew Louth, ed; InterVaristy Press, 2001]

We know from the opening words of John’s Gospel that Christ is the Logos, the Word, and we know from Paul that Christ is also icon: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Col. 1:15) These key words — logos and ikon — illuminate each other.

Late in the second century, Clement of Alexandria commented: “For ‘the image of God’ is his Word … and an image of the Word is the true man, that is, the mind in Man, who on this account is said to be created ‘in the image’ of God and ‘in his likeness,’ because through his understanding heart he is made like the divine Word or Reason [Logos], and so rational [logikos].” (ACCS, Genesis, p 29) Another of the Fathers, Marcus Victorinus, remarks that in fact only Christ is the image of God, but mankind is made according to his image: we are the image of the image.

The patristic authors make a distinction between image and likeness. Even after the Fall, the image remains in each of us, albeit concealed to various degrees like a buried coin, but the likeness is lost and can only be recovered by ascetic effort and the grace of God. This is why, in Slavonic, the Church speaks of monastic saints as prebodobni, the root meaning of which is “a person who has recovered the divine likeness.”

Diadochus of Photice wrote: “All men are made in God’s image, but to be in his likeness is granted only to those who through great love have brought their own freedom into subjection to God. For only when we do not belong to ourselves do we become like him who, through great love, has reconciled us to himself.” (“On Spiritual Perfection; ACCS, p 30)

He says not love but “great love.” What is meant by that? I think of a Dutch friend of mine who as a young man fell in love with a woman living in Denmark. Penniless student that he was in those postwar years, he had no money to travel to Denmark by train to visit her so instead, during study breaks, would go by bicycle, peddling all the way across the Netherlands, along the coast of northern Germany, then finally up most of the length of Denmark. It took days of biking, sometimes in rain. Was it hard, I asked him. No, he said. “Even when there was a strong wind against me, there was a stronger wind inside me.” It was the wind of great love.

Gregory of Nyssa also comments on the words image and likeness. “We possess the one by creation.” he writes. “The other we acquire by free will.” God has given us the power to achieve the likeness, he stresses. “If the Creator had given you everything, how would the kingdom of heaven have been opened for you? But it is proper that one part is given you, while the other has been left incomplete. This is so that you might complete it yourself and might be worthy of the reward which comes from God.” (“On the Origin of Man”; ACCS, p 33)

In the same essay, Gregory remarks that being made in the image of God, the universal King, means that we participate “from the beginning [in God’s] royal nature,” but in place of the purple robes worn by earthly kings, the human being is intended to be clothed with virtue. His scepter in his endowment with blessed immortality. He wears not a crown of gems but of justice. Becoming the kings and queens God intended is our task in life. As Gregory says, “One who is made in the image of God has the task of becoming who he is.” (ACCS, p 35)

Speaking about Adam and Eve and their descendants at a conference last month in Oxford, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom said that “as man — in the sense of anthropos — matures, he becomes more and more what he is called to be.”

At least this possibility exists. We see it clearly in those people we recognize as saints — not limiting it to people on the Church calendar, though certainly such heroes of faith play a strengthening role in our lives, but also those hardly-known people who are canonized only in our own memories and who help day after day ignite sparks of courage in us. When I was interviewing Russians who had become believers at a time when life in the Church offered troubles rather than rewards, time and again I was told stories about a grandparent, most often a grandmother. She was the one who arranged baptisms, told Bible stories to the children she cared for, taught prayers, and crossed herself at any significant moment. These were the stubborn old ladies who never surrendered to Lenin, Stalin or Brezhnev. I began to think there ought to be an icon called “Saint Grandmother.”

But saints of any kind are rare. If we happen to know even one personally, we are blessed. What happens far more often is that we meet people in whom the image of God has become increasingly hidden while the likeness of God is incomprehensibly remote. The image of God that was so easy to glimpse in the child has been all but obliterated in the adult. One can say even of the person in whom the image and likeness of God is most concealed that he remains an icon, but, as Metropolitan Anthony Bloom puts it, an icon that is very badly damaged.

It often happens that we become aware of how damaged the human icon is when we regard the other. While we may have a hard time finding anything in our own lives that requires confession and repentance, we can easily draft confessions for others, and not just the cheat, the wife beater, the thief, the rapist or the murderer, but rank-and-file friends, even those whom we love or used to love. We see the faults of the other with amazing clarity. Somehow our own faults, regarded from the inside, turn out not to be so problematic.

Our struggle — nothing less than the struggle to remain whole and in communion — is to seek to discover in the other the image of God and thus to respond to that person in a way that bears witness to this deeper reality — or, if we are unable to find any trace of the divine image, to respond to the other with faith that the image is there. We believe this even when it seems obvious that the person is better connected to hell than to heaven.

“Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God,” said St. John of Kronstadt, “with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”

This is not at all a naive or romantic way of thinking. It’s profoundly realistic. We are not looking at ourselves or anyone with rose-colored glasses. It is like Dostoevsky’s view of Ivan Karamazov, who bears part of the blame for his father’s murder and sees himself as damned. “It was not you who killed father,” Alyosha insists. “You’ve accused yourself and confessed to yourself that you and you alone are the murderer. But it was not you who killed him, you are mistaken, the murderer was not you, do you hear, it was not you! God has sent me to tell you that.”

Alyosha does not mean that Ivan is innocent. Rather Alyosha wants Ivan to understand that what he has done was the result of a demonic spirit at work within him rather an action of his essential self, a self that bears the indestructible divine image. Should Ivan confuse the evil he has done with his deepest self, he will have condemned himself to hell and may never find his way out of the despair that results. Alyosha’s message is a desperate effort to save Ivan’s sanity and soul and to protect him from suicidal temptations. His message to Ivan is that no matter what sins you have committed, no matter how badly you have disfigured yourself, it is impossible to step beyond God’s mercy, if only we seek it — and if only we help the other seek it when we see him on the edge of the abyss.

It is when we perceive the other is a threat or when that person has in fact done something terrible — that it becomes most difficult to be aware of the other as icon.

These are the kinds of situations sketched out at the beginning, each of them all too familiar, none the stuff of fantasy, and how hard pressed we are by them: all those situations where the other is either an irritation or a menace or an adversary or a full-blown an enemy who threatens our lives or the lives of people whom we do our best to protect.

What do we do about the other when he is a potential or actual hazard? There are no simple solutions for what the Christian can do in the face of danger, no tidy ideologies we can turn to, but there are basic attitudes we can strive for, most of all a conversion of heart. This is a conversion in which we try to respond to the threatening or dangerous other with the consciousness that in reality we are related, that we both descend from Adam and Eve, that we both bear the divine image, and that not only has he done of good job of hiding that image, but so have I.

Conversion is what we seek — my own conversion, first of all, which in turn might help the process of conversion go further in others. It’s a lifelong process. We never are fully converted. Personally, I expect to be hard at work on my conversion as I take my last breath.

At the heart of conversion is prayer. Similarly, at the heart of my relationship with the other is prayer. Christ does not simply say that we must love our enemies but that we must pray for them. In fact it is only prayer that makes love of enemies possible. If I refuse to pray for someone, it is absurd to speak of loving him. But the moment I start praying for another human being, praying against the grain of my own enmity, the relationship between us changes.

A simple example. We live in a society in which, for many people, the unborn child has become an enemy, an enemy in the sense of being regarded as a threat. The unplanned other derails my ideas about the future and thus becomes the enemy of all that I was planning. That enmity is now socially endorsed. It’s now perfectly acceptable to kill the child so long he or she hasn’t yet been born. But if I as a mother, even though in a state of dread about what the birth of this child might mean in my life, the plans I might have to delay or abandon, start to pray for this unborn stranger, this other who is within my own body, our relationship instantly changes. The more I pray for this intimate other, the less likely it is that I can even think about arranging its death. It is finally prayer that saves the child’s life. Prayer is a bonding with the other. Prayer brings about conversion. Prayer often prevents killing.

Consider a group of people standing near an abortion clinic whose presence is first of all a prayer and whose actions and verbal expressions communicate their prayer and compare this with a group of people standing near an abortion clinic who radiating anger, hatred, self-righteousness and contempt. There is an entirely different energy in prayer, something analogous to sunlight.

Prayer alone is often not enough, but I cannot think of a situation of fear, division or conflict in which prayer is of no value or a waste of time. Prayer can change the climate of what we do in an intangible but decisive, life-changing way.

Think back to September 11 and consider all the prayer that occurred on doomed flight 93. Thanks to passenger resistance, a plane that might have destroyed the White House or some other public building instead made a crater near Shanksville in rural Pennsylvania. Lives were lost but many lives were also saved. It was all done in a burst of courage sustained by prayer. Hardly a person who had any contact with that flight — as we know from the various conversations by mobile phone — has not mentioned the intense prayer going both on board the plane and among people on the ground following its progress and aware it had been hijacked.

In all the situations I described at the beginning of this talk, there is not one in which prayer would not help us respond in unanticipated ways, with greater wisdom and with less fear.

Think about the beggar I described. When you meet him, as surely you will, pray that such an able-bodied young man might want to work and succeed in finding a job, overcoming whatever problems there are in his life which have made him into a beggar. You might even find yourself talking to him. Who knows what might come from a few caring words that have their roots in prayer?

In the United States, we are also going to be faced again and again with the issue of people condemned to death after having been found guilt of murder. Sometimes their convictions will be a tragic error but in others cases they are guilty as charged. The one action we can engage in which will help everyone involved is to pray for them. Pray for those on death row. Pray for those harmed by them. Pray for those whose lives have been scarred by their violence. Pray for those who guard them. Pray for those who defend them in court and also for those who prosecute them. Pray for those seeking to prevent their execution. Pray for those who want the execution to go forward. Pray for those possessed by a spirit of vengeance. Pray for the governor who has to decide what to do when he alone can block an execution. Involve your parish in your prayers. Out of such prayers it’s likely that ideas for certain actions may emerge — actions more likely to achieve some good if they are rooted in prayer. A different kind of communication and activity happens if it has a foundation of prayer.

The very fact of seeing the other as icon draws us to prayer. The fact of linking ourselves to another person through prayer makes it more and more possible to perceive the divine image in him and, at the same time, for the divine image to become less hidden in his life.

Never forget that our salvation is linked to the other. There is no path to heaven except through others. This is the mystery of marriage. This is also what Christ tells us so clearly when he speaks of the Last Judgment: what we do the least person, we do to him; what we fail to do to the least person, we fail to do to him. In the icon of the angelic figures who represent the Holy Trinity, each figure contemplates the other. It is an icon of perfect listening, an icon of seamless communion. The Holy Trinity is communion that both safeguards and transcends otherness. To regain likeness to God is to regain communion with the other.

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