Tuesday, November 28, 2006


For Christ’s sake we are fools.

Given modern tastes in stories of the saints, the person not seriously acquainted with hagiography might be excused for thinking that saints are all alike -- all swooning sentimentality and pious preachiness. Some are definitely that. But saints are very diverse -- as diverse as human beings can be -- and the study of the classification of saints turns up some very peculiar beasts at times. Extraordinary Mortifiers are a case in point; Stylites another case in point. But perhaps the most peculiar of all are the Holy Fools. I've been thinking about them a bit, since they were mentioned in a recent post at First Things.

Fool-saints are quite rare (in part because they walk a very fine line), and are quite diverse among themselves. If we set aside Francis of Assisi, who is only a borderline candidate in any case, the two most famous fool-saints are Basil Fool for Christ (after whom St. Basil's in Moscow is named) and Simeon of Emesis (whose exact historical status is uncertain). Simeon, it is said, would go about disrupting church services, blowing out votive candles, and making loud noises; he danced with prostitutes and once, finding a dead dog thrown out on a garbage heap, tied it to his belt and dragged it back into the middle of town. Basil, or Vasily, went about naked except for chains (in Russian winter!), upset merchants' carts whenever they sold inferior wares, scolded people in taverns, and once rebuked Ivan the Terrible for not paying atttention in Church. In both cases the mark of sanctity was extraordinary kindness and a wonder-working faith. And so it goes. Pelagia Ivanovna once slapped a bishop who insisted that she should take a gift.

The fool-saint is poor -- vagrant, in fact -- having no status, no family, no position, no money, no power, and no shame. That is part of the appeal, I think: there's a sort of incorruptibility attached to the person who has gone so far in giving up the proprieties of the world that he cannot be exploited or bribed. Some of them are brilliant, making a deliberate point about the absurdly pompous solemnities of the world; some of them are simpletons with gracious hearts; some of them are eminently sane; some of them are clearly a little disturbed. All of them are the sort of people we would lock up in jail or an asylum, or be tempted to despise if we met them on the street or (perhaps even worse, in a case like Simeon's!) church. Their sanctity is a secret sanctity, their saintly exploit is heroic virtue hidden from the world behind things the world considers indecent; they hide their virtue from others. They are the aggressive destroyers of the sanctimonious. They have been beaten and mistreated and locked up and killed. And the question that always arises is: would we do the same? And it is so very difficult to find any sign that we would not. They are on the edge of the tolerable. But that's part of the point, I suppose; they are a rebuke of our tendency to accept vice that is easy to tolerate and dismiss virtue whenever it is annoying or disruptive.

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