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Fools for Christ and plain old fools: The wisdom found in unconventionality


Vasily Surikov | Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 03/27/22

April Fools' Day gives us the chance to consider the wisdom of the "holy fools" among us.

Every April 1 we collectively celebrate the concept of being a fool. My children enjoy sneak attacking me as they spring from hiding places under beds and behind doors. They try to convince me that a pink-and-purple polka-dotted elephant has escaped the zoo and is eating the daffodils in our yard. As soon as I look out the window to see this wondrous creature, they dissolve into giggles. They have fooled their father!

As a society, it seems to me that we have a conflicted relationship with the idea of being a fool. No one, of course, wants to be labeled a fool. And yet, there are certain times when we use the word approvingly, maybe even enviously.

I’m thinking, in particular, of the idea of a Holy Fool. A Holy Fool is usually a hermit, a particularly odd saint, or maybe even that unique, wonderfully idealistic parishioner in your church who marches to the beat of a different angelic choir. This type of foolishness–that of a person who is supremely detached from the cares of this world–is even celebrated in the Bible in St. Paul’s description of himself as having become a fool for Christ.

The story of a Holy Fool

There’s a novel I love called Laurus, written by Eugene Vodolazkin. It tells the story of a Holy Fool named Arseny who, all his life, finds himself at odds with society. He lives as a hermit in the woods, occasionally going to town to beg for bread if he must. The townspeople are partly afraid of him, partly amused, and partly awed.

I suspect their fear arises from the fact that he seeks a radically different way of life and they worry that his presence indicts their own, more materialistic, compromised existence.

This is why they laugh at him. It helps them ignore how uncomfortable he makes them feel. In their most honest moments, though, they sneak away to visit him in his cave in the woods for advice, prayer, and his gift as a healer. The Holy Fool, it seems, possesses great wisdom.

There’s a particular incident in the book that stuck with me long after reading it. At one point, Arseny is assaulted by a gang of young boys;

“They knock him down, onto the boards of the roadway. Several pairs of hands press him into the boards, though he does not resist. The boy whose hands remain free nails the edges of Arseny’s shirt to the boards. Arseny watches the boys laugh and then he laughs, too.”

What rattles me is what happens next.

“It gets quiet when (the boys) run away. Only one boy remains, and he approaches Arseny and embraces him. And weeps. Arseny’s heart sinks because he knows this boy pities him but is embarrassed to show it in front of the others … He kisses the boy on the forehead and runs away because his heart is ready to burst. Arseny chokes on his sobs. He runs and the sobbing shakes him and tears fly from his cheeks in all directions, sprouting all sorts of humble plants on the roadside.”

Judging foolishness

How many times have I judged another person to be a fool because they didn’t quite fit into my expectations? What wisdom did I miss because of my pride? Why do I allow the opinion of others to shape my viewpoints so strongly that I might even miss a miracle in front of my very eyes? In answering these questions, I have to admit I’m more foolish than I like to think and others are far more wise.

In their other-worldliness, Holy Fools direct our attention to Heaven. In doing so, they display great depths of wisdom. They’ve discovered what is truly important and have set themselves free to pursue it.

When Arseny dies, his body lies beside his little hermitage, giving off the scent of pine like incense. A rope is tied to his feet and his body is dragged to the cemetery. As the procession goes, screams are heard from the crowd of 183,000 who have come to witness the burial. The many bishops who’ve arrived to pay their respects, beards floating in the wind, take the rope and help to pull Arseny through a field of wheat, his lifeless arms fall open into a blessing and begin to finger the grass, just as you or I would finger a rosary bead. It’s a haunting image, a riddle. A strange funeral for a man who lived a strange life.

No one wants to be labeled a fool. No one wants to be fooled. But I cannot help but think that we don’t know enough to accurately decide who is foolish and who isn’t. It would be a good idea to slow down, to wait, to walk more slowly so we have time and space to ponder such a mystery in our hearts.

All I really know is that it’s a question worth pondering. Wisdom isn’t going along with the crowd. It isn’t cynical practicality. It isn’t the avoidance of reaching, idealistic questions about our selves, our place in this world, and our journey out of it.

Wisdom takes risks. It asks big, courageous questions and isn’t afraid of being misunderstood.

Which is why when my toddler directs my attention outside the window on April 1, I make sure to always look.

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