By Jim Forest
Few taunts are sharper than those that call into question someone’s sanity. Yet there are saints whose acts of witness to the Gospel fly in the face of what most of us regard as sanity. TheRussian Church has a special word for such saints, yurodivi, meaning holy fools or fools for Christ’s sake.
While there is much variety among them, holy fools are in every case ascetic Christians living outside the border of conventional social behavior – people who in most parts of the developed world would be locked away in asylums or ignored until the elements silenced them.
Perhaps there is a sense in which each and every saint, even those who were scholars, would be regarded as insane by many in the modern world because of their devotion to a way of life that was completely senseless apart from the Gospel. Every saint is troubling. Every saint reveals some of our fears and makes us question our fear-driven choices.
In Leo Tolstoy’s memoir of childhood, he recalls Grisha, 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 represents the rank-and-file of Russia’s yurodivi. Few such men and women will be canonized, but nonetheless they help save those around them. They are reminders of God’s presence.
Basil, the vagabond
The most famous of Russia’s holy fools was St. Basil the Blessed, after whom the Cathedral on Red Square takes its name. In an ancient icon housed in that church, Basil is shown clothed only in his beard and a loin cloth.
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 miracle 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 an annoyance. In the eyes of some, he was a troublemaker. There are tales of him destroying the merchandise of dishonest tradesmen at the market on Red Square.
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 during the Great Fast, Basil presented the tsar with a slab of beef, telling him that there was a 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.
Soon a saint
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 St. Basil’s, for to got there meant to pray at Basil’s grave. Not many years passed before Basil was formally canonized by the Russian Church.
St. Francis of Assisi
While such saints are chiefly associated with Orthodox Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church also has its holy fools. Perhaps St. 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 first may seem like charming scenes, when placed on the rough surface of actual life, become mad moments indeed.
In His Image
It is the special vocation of holy fools to live out in a rough, literal breathtaking way the “hard teachings” of Jesus. Like the Son of Man, they have no place to lay their heads, and live without money in their pockets. While never harming anyone, they 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 them. For them, no one, absolutely no one, is unimportant. 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 Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia,” has no possessions, no family, no position, and so to speak with a prophetic boldness. He cannot be exploited, for he has no ambition; and he fears God alone.” 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 lesser intelligence, or brilliance. 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. The 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.
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 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? 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 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 but how merciful.