What would you call someone who threw stones at people’s houses, stole from merchants and threw over food stands?
A vandal? A thief? A criminal?
What if that person often walked around naked, mostly naked, or at least went barefoot, even in winter, and shouted out loud in crowds or in church?
Would you think him a lunatic, or at least seriously troubled?
In Russia Orthodox Church tradition, some of these are called Holy Fools. Yurodivy is the Russian word used for “holy fools.” One of the most famous is St. Basil the Blessed (Vasily Blazhenny), who is buried in the multi-domed church-turned-museum that is now named for him in the Kremlin’s Red Square. His feast day is Aug. 2.
Basil lived in Moscow from 1468 to 1552. He started as a cobbler’s apprentice, but legends say he was able to foresee the future even then. Driven by concern for the poor and the salvation of souls, Basil began roaming Moscow’s streets, wearing little or no clothing at all seasons of the year, carrying heavy chains. (Those chains are on exhibit in the cathedral today.) Basil would overturn carts, go into taverns and stare at people, and even lecture the czar, Ivan the Terrible. Ivan, who killed many people without a second thought, permitted no one to harm Basil. When Basil died, Ivan himself served as a pallbearer and had a chapel built over the holy man’s grave so that it became part of the great cathedral Ivan had earlier ordered built.
Basil is only the most famous of a long line of holy fools. Svitlana Kobets, a classical literature instructor at the University of St. Thomas in Toronto, argues that while holy fools are a phenomenon unique to Eastern Orthodoxy, they trace back to the Jewish prophets.
“By his feigned madness,” she explains, “the holy fool opts to say that the lowliest of the lowliest can be not the poor wretch that he appears to be, but a holy man and God’s prophet. He shares his power and authority with all the weak, mocked and despised. … The holy fool’s uninterrupted performance is designed to provoke people’s meditation on issues that ultimately lead to an understanding of the divine.”
So, while the holy fool appears foolish or even insane, he is not.
While Basil may be the most famous holy fool, the sixth century St. Simeon of Emress is considered the patron of holy fools. He first started out to be a hermit in Syria, but later returned to town exhibiting bizarre behavior. He would wash in women’s bathhouses, walk around scantily clad and with a dead dog tied to his waist and throw nuts at priests. In the meantime, he was practicing all sorts of acts of charity to the poor in secret.
Today, 36 holy fools are in the lists of saints in the Russian Orthodox Church, and many more are honored regionally.
The life of a holy fool is thought to be lived in imitation of the advice of St. Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians: “If anyone among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool so as to become wise. For the wisdom of this world, is foolishness in the eyes of God” (3:18-19).
Archpriest Seraphim Slobodskoy, who wrote a Russian Orthodox catechism for teenagers in the 1960s, explained in it that holy fools actually battle “the root of all sin, pride.”
The holy fool “took on an unusual style of life, appearing as someone bereft of his mental faculties, thus bringing upon himself the ridicule of others,” the priest wrote. “In addition, he exposed the evil in the world through metaphorical and symbolic words and actions. He took this ascetic endeavor upon himself in order to humble himself and to also more effectively influence others, since most people respond to the usual ordinary sermon with indifference.”
Jim Forest, secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, notes that the Orthodox churches consider holy fools as living out “in a rough, literal, breathtaking way the ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus. Like the Son of Man, they have no place to lay their heads, and like him, they live without money in their pockets. … Clearly holy fools challenge an understanding of Christianity that gives people with certain intellectual and vocational gifts a head start in economic, social and spiritual arenas. While never harming anyone, holy fools often raise their voices against those who lie and cheat and do violence to others …”
While no one would encourage us to walk around naked, throw stones at priests or shoplift, the example of holy fools can remind us that Christ’s message is not meant to “comfort the comfortable” but to shake up our world a bit in order to prepare us for the next world of the Kingdom of God. We might not strip off all our clothes, but we might tear away some of those things the world says are important — but that Christ would call foolish.
Sources: The Orthodox Church in America at oca.org; intercommunion.org; “Holy Foolishness in Russia: New Perspectives” at slavdom.com; “More about the ‘Holy Fool’” at The National Catholic Reporter (2/10/11); “Praying with Icons” and “The Law of God” by Seraphim Slobodskoy at fralexander.org.