Saints and fools: A reflection for All Saints Day

Iurodstvo is the Russian word for the idea of “holy foolishness.” It’s a form of asceticism that has been practiced within the Russian Orthodox church for centuries.

Its practitioners feign madness, Marx brothers-like behavior, in order to provide the public with spiritual guidance. The aim too is to avoid praise and acclaim for perceived holiness. It’s a radical form of humility as well.

According to Russian Orthodox scholar Svetlana Kobets: “The holy fool’s exploit is that of secret sanctity, which above all promotes the non-ontological understanding that all of God’s created world is a sacred place.

“By feigned madness the holy fool opts to say that the lowliest of the low can be not the poor wretch he appears to be, but a holy one and God’s prophet. He shares his power and authority with all the weak, mocked and despised, thus symbolically destroying clear-cut distinctions between the profane and the sacred.”

In the Russian church it is regarded as the most difficult and controversial of all ascetic practices. Thirty-six iurodivyi (holy fools) have been canonized by the Orthodox church. Many are venerated locally.

”Unlike other ascetics, the fool in Christ does not renounce the profane world. … Instead of going into hermetic or monastic seclusion he becomes a part of secular life,” Kobets writes.

This tradition has its origins in the early history of the Christian church. Indeed, the patron saint of holy fools is St. Simeon Salos of Emresa. He retreated to the Syrian desert in the 6th century to devote his life to prayer, living on nothing but lentils.

A few decades later, Simeon returned to town a completely different man. He tied a dead dog to his waist and entered town dragging the carcass. Simeon would throw nuts at the priests during the worship service and publicly ate sausage on Good Friday.

The seemingly nutty monk also helped people in the town, though never when someone else might notice and never taking credit. Simeon’s saintly deeds were done away from the spotlight. No one could dispute that Simeon was a holy person, even the priests he pelted with nuts on Sunday. Simeon poked fun at every attempt people made to feel themselves “holier than thou.”

In Russian history the greatest of the “holy fools” was Basil the Blessed, a man so revered that the famous onion-domed cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square next to the Kremlin was named in his honor. In the 16th century, St. Basil walked through Moscow wearing nothing more than a long beard. He threw rocks at wealthy people’s houses and stole from dishonest traders in Red Square.

It’s reported that Tsar Ivan the Terrible feared no one but Basil. Once the saint went to Ivan’s palace and forced the tsar to eat raw meat during the Lenten fast saying, “Why abstain from eating meat when you murder men?” Countless Russians died horribly for much less, but Ivan was afraid to let any harm come to the saintly Basil.

In the year 1555 Tsar Ivan commissioned two Italian architects to build the famous cathedral that has become the icon of Russia. After its completion, the story goes, he asked the architects if they could build an edifice more beautiful and dazzling than the one they had just completed. When they replied affirmatively, he had them blinded. He was that kind of guy. Only Basil stood up to him.

The idea of holiness in Orthodox spirituality is varied. There is no one prescribed way. The vocation of the “holy fool” meant renouncing the world, even its respectability and intelligence. It was a way some chose to become close to God, echoing St. Paul’s famous words about God choosing the foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise.

Jim Forest, author and secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, writes: “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,” Mr. Forest continues. “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? Adolph Eichmann, the chief administrator of the Holocaust, was declared ‘quite sane’ by the psychiatrists who examined him before his trial.

“Holy fools challenge an understanding of Christianity that gives intellectually gifted people a head start not only in economic efforts but spiritual life,” Mr. Forest writes. “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 but how merciful.”

(Rich Heffern is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is rheffern@ncronline.org.)


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