If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool… ( 1 Correnthins )
Few taunts are sharper than those that call into question someone’s sanity. “He’s crazy. He’s a fool. He’s an idiot. He’s a loon…”
Yet there are saints, most notably in the Russian Orthodox Church, whose acts of witness to the Gospel fly in the face of what most of us regard as sanity. The Russian Church has a special word for such saints, iurodivii, meaning fools for the sake of Christ, people in whom Christ wears the disguise of madness.
While there is much variety among them, the iurodivii are in every case ascetic Christians living well outside the borders of conventional social behaviour, including conventional religious behaviour. They are people who in most parts of the developed world would be locked away in insane asylums or simply ignored until the elements silenced them, after which they would be thrown into unmarked graves.
While this type of saint is chiefly associated with Eastern Christianity, the Western Church is not without its holy fools.
St. Francis of Assisi
Perhaps Francis of Assisi is chief among them. Think of him stripping off his clothes and standing naked in the main square of Assisi, or preaching to birds, or taming a murderous wolf, or in the midst of the Crusades walking unarmed across the Egyptian desert into the Sultan’s camp. What at first may seem like charming scenes become, when placed on the rough surface of actual life, mad moments indeed.
Perhaps even Thomas Aquinas, the most rational of saints, would be regarded an insane by many in the modern world because of his 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.
St. Basil the Blessed
The most famous of Russia’s holy fools was a Muscovite, St. Basil the Blessed, after whom the cathedral on Red Square takes its’ name. In an ancient icon housed in that church, Basil is clothed only in his beard and loin cloth. In the background is the Saviour Tower and the churches packed within the Kremlin walls. Basil’s hands are raised in prayer toward a small image of Jesus revealed in an opening in the sky. The holy fool has a meek quality but a single-minded, intelligent face.
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 behaviour.
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 ruthless Russian winters must be reckoned among the miracles 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 not a comfort either to eye or ear. In the eyes of some, he was a trouble-maker. There are tales of him destroying the merchandise of dishonest tradesmen at the market on Red Square. At times he hurled stones at the houses of the wealthy – yet, as if revering icons, he sometimes kissed the stones on the outside of houses in which evil had been committed, as if to say that no matter what happens within these walls, there is still hope of conversion.
Basil was one of the few who dared warn Czar Ivan the Terrible that his violent deeds were dooming him to hell. According to one story, in the midst of Lent, when Russians keep a rigorous vegetarian fast, Basil presented the Czar with a slab of raw beef, telling him that there was no reason in his case not to eat meat. Why abstain from meat when you murder men? 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 and occasionally even sent gifts to the naked prophet of the streets, but Basil kept none of those for himself. Most that he received he gave to beggars, though in one surprising case, a gift of gold from the Czar was passed on to a merchant. ( Others imagined the man was well off, but Basil discerned the man had been ruined and was actually starving but was too proud to beg. ) In another case Basil poured vodka – another royal gift – on the street. He wanted, he said, to put out the fires of sin.
Basil was so revered by Moscovites 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 God, built in honour of Russia’s great victory over the Tartars in 1552.
Another fool of Christ was the heir to Ivan the Terrible’s imperial throne, Czar Theodore. Regarded by Western diplomats of the time as a weakling and idiot, Theodore was adored by the Russian people. Brought up in an environment of brutality, reviled by his father, regarded with scorn by courtiers, he became a man of simplicity, prayer, and quiet devotion to his wife. Much of his time was spent in church. It is said that throughout his fourteen years as Czar he never lost his playfulness or love of beauty.
He sometimes woke the people of Moscow in the hours before dawn by sounding the great bells of the Kremlin, a summons to prayer. “He was small of stature,” according to a contemporary account, “and bore the masks of fasting. He was humble, given to the things of the soul, constant in prayer, liberal in alms. He did not care for the things of this world, only the salvation of the soul.”
“This simpleton,” writes the historian Nicholas Zernov, “Robed in gorgeous vestments, was determined that bloodshed, cruelty and oppression must be stopped, and it was stopped as long as he occupied the throne of his ancestors.”
In June, 1988, I was present for the canonisation of the Holy Trinity – St. Sergious Lavra north of Moscow of someone very like Basil and Theodore: St. Xenia of St. Petersburg.
Early in her long life, Xenia had been married to an army colonel who drank himself to death and who may have been an abusive, violent husband. Soon after his funeral, she began giving away the family fortune to the poor, a simple act of obedience to Christ’s teachings: “If you would be perfect, go sell what you have and give it to the poor… and come follow me.” In order to prevent Xenia from impoverishing herself, relatives sought to have her declared insane. However the doctor who examined her concluded Xenia was the sanest person he had ever met.
Having given away her wealth, for some years Xenia disappeared, becoming one of Russia’s many pilgrims walking from shrine to shrine while reciting the Jesus prayer. ( Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. )
Somewhere along the way during those hidden years, she became a Fool for Christ. When Xenia finally returned to St. Petersburg, she was wearing the ruins of her late husband’s military uniform and would answer only to his name, not her own. One can only guess her motives. In taking upon herself his name and clothing, she may have been attempting to do penance for his sins. Her home became the Smolensk cemetery on the city’s edge where she slept exposed to the elements year-round and where finally she was buried.
Xenia became known for her clairvoyant gift of telling people what to expect and what they should do, though what she said often made sense only in the light of later events. She never begged. Money was given to her but she kept only an occasional kopek for herself; everything else was passed on to others.
When she died, aged seventy-one, at the end of the eighteenth century, her grave became a place of pilgrimage and remained so even through the Soviet period.