If you walk into any church with ties to ancient Christian history, you may be struck by the beauty of the icons that line the walls and the saints depicted gazing outward invitingly. The interesting thing about saints is that we often think of them as having always occupied this place of honor in our houses of worship. Once they’ve been canonized, saints are commemorated for their holy life and their stories serve to encourage and remind us to continue to struggle in pursuit of holiness. But for the majority of these venerable ones, their time on earth was not spent saturated with laudation. Quite the contrary, in fact. Many were fiercely hated, even by their own churches. It is only in retrospect that we call them holy and admire their faith.
Perhaps the saints that illustrate this fact most profoundly are those that fall into the category of “holy fools.” In the ancient Christian tradition, holy fools are those individuals that feigned insanity to combat vanity, both personal and societal. These saints are some of my favorites, not because they encourage me, but because they terrify me. The lives of the holy fools are filled with acts that defy social norms, often bringing the need for repentance into sharp focus. Much like the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, who performed such acts as cooking his food over dung to call attention to the sin of Israel, the holy fools lived in such a way as to prick the conscience of a society. The most emblematic of the holy fools was the seventh century saint, Simeon of Edessa. This man masked his piety with acts of absurdity, upsetting conventional definitions of holiness. It is said that he often disrupted church services by throwing nuts at attendees and blew out candles, provoking the wrath of the seemingly pious. He would at times eat meat on fast days and walked around the city gate with a dead dog tied to his belt. He was known to preach against excess and neglecting the poor. He challenged those that would define holiness according to mere institutional conformity rather than acts of truth religion – the care of widows and orphans, as the book of James says.
What terrifies me about St. Simeon is the fact that he could very well have been someone that I have met on the streets of Kansas City. His behavior certainly corresponds to that of someone I might normally consider “mentally disturbed,” a “menace to society,” or simply anyone that makes me feel awkward or uncomfortable. I would have hated being around St. Simeon, and I know this because I don’t like being around anyone that upsets my normal schedule or asks me to give of my time or energy. Figures like St. Simeon, and to some degree, the stereotypical vagrant, make me uncomfortable because they remind me that something is wrong—in my heart and in my society. St. Simeon called attention to the failure of dead religion to care for the poor, and the raving beggar on the street calls to attention the failure of our society to care for those that are abandoned and marginalized. Holy fools disturb the peace – the false peace of indifference and spiritual stagnation.
I often find myself romanticising figures like the holy fool or the prophetic voice because I like the idea of someone who goes against the grain of society. Before I aspire to holy foolishness, however, I remember that these types are often hated because they disturb the “peace” – they also disturb my “peace.” That false peace is often my own complacency, my dead religious piety and refusal to give of myself. When I ignore the voice of those that prick my conscience, I find myself often ignoring the voice of God. It is, after all, the foolishness of God that these holy fools are emulating. The prophecy of Isaiah says of the Messiah that “He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.” God often shows up anonymously and speaks through the most unlikely of characters. If I listen to the cries of the holy fools, I become sensitive to the presence of God in those people and situations that disturb my “peace.” Those that upset my life may not be simple inconveniences, they may be the way that God seizes my attention and makes me aware of his heart for the poor. In doing so, He invites me into veneration, to recognizing everyone around me as the presence of God.
I’m no holy fool (just a regular one) and I don’t know how to live prophetically; but I am trying to treat everyone I meet as a potential saint. To do this, I ask for God’s grace to listen and to be attentive to hear His cries for justice in the mouths of fools.
Article by Jonathan Reavis