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Two saints, a river, and a cabbage: A holy fools’ story

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Daniel Esparza - published on 05/14/23

One might think Nicholas of Novgorod is depicted as holding a cabbage in his hand because that’s all he would eat. But that's not the case.

Fools of God are a special category of saints that are peculiar to Orthodox Christianity. Usually dressed as a begger, behaving in unconventional ways, challenging or ridiculing the status quo, Fools of God are at the same time despised and revered. In Anastasija Ropa’s words, a Fool of God “is a buffoon and a seer rolled into one.” Ropa explains:

“Their behavior […] had underlying logic inaccessible to the unenlightened: to use but one example, spitting on the walls of churches bears on blasphemy, while kissing the walls of brothels appears to be repulsive. But the reason for this apparently illogical behavior is simple: when people pray, the demons depart from them and stay outside the church walls, but when people drink in brothels, their angels stand outside and weep. Fools of God are those who see something others do not and by their seemingly illogical behavior point to the spiritual, moral or social shortcomings.”

Blessed Nicholas “Konchanov” (i.e., “cabbage-head”) of Novgorod was one of these Fools. Born at Novgorod into a rich and illustrious family in the 14th century, Nicholas loved piety from his very early years, fasting and praying. As he grew in virtue, the people of Novgorod began to look up to him. Disdaining men’s praise, Nicholas began the difficult exploit of folly for the Lord’s sake. Hagiographers explain how he roamed the city dressed in rags (both in the bitter cold of winter and the relentless heat of summer) enduring beatings, insults, and mockery from his neighbors.

One might think Nicholas of Novgorod is depicted as holding a cabbage in his hand because that’s all he would eat. Being an ascetic, it makes sense that would be the case. But the actual reason is quite different.

Nicholas was not the only Fool of God in Novgorod. The Righteous Theodore of Novgorod was also one of these. Mimicking the enmity and strife between the people of the Torgov quarter of Novgorod and those of the Sophia quarter, Nicholas and Theodore pretended to be irreconcilable foes. By so doing, they intended to show to the people of Novgorod the stupidity of their petty internecine strife.

When Theodore tried to cross over the Volkhov River bridge to the Sophia side, Nicholas would push him back over to the Torgov side. Theodore would do the same thing when Nicholas chanced upon crossing to the Torgov side. Thus, while spiritually in agreement with each other, by their unusual behavior they reminded the people of Novgorod of the folly of their own enmity.

In one incident, having overcome Theodore, Nicholas walked on the waters of the river as if on dry land, and threw a head of cabbage at Theodore. This is how he earned the nickname “Konchanov,” “cabbage-head,” for himself.

When he died in 1392, Blessed Nicholas was buried at the end of the cemetery near the cathedral in Yakovlev. His relics now rest under a crypt in the church of the Great MartyrPanteleimon that was built over his grave.

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