Perfect Fools

This morning I read an article by Rod Dreher and was reminded of a post I wrote back in 2012. I thought I would re-post it today. This is the paragraph from Dreher that triggered the memory:

On the panel discussion, Catholic theologian Bo Bonner made an intriguing suggestion: that we need our Christianity to quit trying to conform to the world, and instead to “be a lot stranger.” His point is that if young people are given the choice between unbelief and a faith that puts a light God gloss on the same consumerism and materialism that everybody else lives with, then who can blame young people for rejecting it? Because that is not historic Christianity. The real thing is wild, and weird; it is not a set of ideas, but a way of life. There will always be some people — young, middle-aged, and old — haunted by the sense that there is something else there, a longing that cannot be anesthetized away. If the church stands true to itself, and doesn’t apologize for itself, then they will come.

This quote also reminded me of the reaction a graduate student at Florida State, who was from China, had when I told him what Catholics believe in regard to transubstantiation. With a guileless grimace he said, “Bizarre.” I think I said, “Yes, and there’s even more stuff like that if you have some time.”

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Last week at Mass, this line grabbed my attention

Let no one deceive himself.
If anyone among you considers himself wise in this age,
let him become a fool, so as to become wise. (1 Cor 3:18-19)

It reminded me of a book I read back in 2001, John Saward’s Perfect FoolsReading that book was one of those epiphanies in life that makes everything around you suddenly look different. It opened to me a way of looking at sanctity that I had previously never considered in a serious way: holiness, when it emerges within the cultures of any day and anywhere, can, and sometimes must, appear hopelessly off-beat, eccentric, wacky. But, Saward argues, the extreme and saintly cultural deviants are not the only ones who are called to bear the burden of oddity. All who have taken firm hold of the Kingdom’s Plow in the soils of their culture must be willing to bear this burden of holy folly and be ready to risk being glared at askance for refusing to genuflect to behavioral norms that deviate from the Gospel.

Saward, the author of this eclectic work, leads the reader by the hand from St. Paul’s talk of the “word of the cross” as sheer mōria (from whence we derive the word moron) all the way to the utterly “mad” tale of the 17th century exorcist Père Jean-Joseph Surin whose journey from demonic possession to radical holiness shatters the image of the plaster-perfect saint. We can also think of the prophet Isaiah 20:2-4,

at that time the Lord had spoken by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your loins and take off your shoes from your feet,” and he had done so, walking naked and barefoot— the Lord said, “As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Ethiopia, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians captives and the Ethiopians exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt.”

St. Simeon, taken from

Or we can recall the 6th century Syrian St. Simeon the Holy Fool,

…who decided to play the fool in order to mock the idiocy of the world and also to conceal his own identity as a saint. His behavior was eccentric and, of course, scandalous. During the church services, he threw nuts at the clergy and blew out the candles. In the circus, he wrapped his arms around the dancing-girls and went skipping and dancing across the arena. In the streets, he tripped people up, developed a theatrical limp, and dragged himself around on his buttocks. In the bath-house, he ran naked into the crowded women’s section. On solemn fasting days he feasted riotously, consuming vast amounts of beans – with predictable and hilarious results. In his lifetime, Simeon was regarded as a madman, as an unholy scandal. In spite of his seemingly strange behavior, Simeon the Holy Fool healed many possessed people by his prayer, fed the hungry, preached the Gospel, and helped needy citizens of the town. Many of Simeon’s saintly deeds were done secretly (from

An Odd Evangel

Saward is very clear in the book that this rare vocation should not be mimicked or conflated with mental illness (though this tradition makes clear mental illness is not irreconcilable with the call to holiness). But what I did find most useful about this book was its clear-sighted message for Christians who wish to evangelize the 21st century: fools remind us all that living the Gospel in any age bears a natural cultural dissonance that places one at risk of being mocked as a fool. Western culture continues to evolve into a post-Christian mindset, and among Millennials Christianity is increasingly not seen so much as an ideological enemy of atheistic and secularized mores, but as simply an odd and somewhat irrelevant relic of the past.

In such times it’s easy for people of faith to either succumb to assimilate, minimizing the differences between a dominant culture and faith, or isolate, over-identifying with those differences and avoiding constructive engagement. Catholics flee extremes and hang in the tense middle, like Christ on the cross, suffering the discomforts that attend the refusal to abandon the faith or abandon culture.

In times like these, Saward contends, we need among the more culturally comfortable holy figures who fit nicely into some of the dominant cultural scripts some ragged, frayed exemplars of holiness who demonstrate, especially to other Christians, the Christ difference. In the tradition of folly for Christ, these holy exemplars must not merely vanish from society into safe seclusion but need to remain in the midst of things. As Joseph Conrad put it:

Their vocation to edify laymen requires promoting their spiritual message in the secular sphere instead of withdrawing from the world…“The holy fool” is always defined by his relationship to a particular community, leaving the ascetic life of the deserts and wilderness to play the fool in the wider community of the cities of the Eastern Empire, “aiming at the mortification of one’s social being” by living in society, yet not of society itself, as the ascetics in the desert were in the world, yet not of it.

However, Saward is equally clear that being off-beat for Christ was not equated in this tradition with simply being an awkward social misfit. Rather, the wild men and women of Byzantium, Russia and Ireland, or the “merry men” troubadours of the Middle Ages like St. Francis, were seen by the faithful as radical citizens of the redeemed City of God. And this City, built on the social and ethical order of the Gospel, starkly contrasts with the order that characterizes the ego-maniacal City of Man. Sainted fools were in those days seen as neon signs pointing upward toward the Age to Come. Such holiness was distinguished from mere madness by the fool’s total embrace of the Gospel, by his or her’s mostly secret life of heroic virtue. Foolish saints, Saward says, were glowing embers flung into the world from the fires surging from God’s Throne (cf Daniel 7:10); a fire Jesus himself longed to cast into the world (Luke 12:49).

All saints are wild at heart, open to the divine Whirlwind, but the fools for Christ are more wild than the rest. Such fools, as Aidan Kavanaugh might have said it, are not well-camouflaged suburban bourgeois, but stand-out urban citizens of the New Jerusalem, that City from whence angels hurl burning incense to earth (Rev. 8:5), martyrs cry out to God from under the altar’s blood-basin (Rev. 6:9), six-winged and many-eyed cherubim sing (Rev. 4:8), and harlots contend with virgins in a war for peace (Rev. 17).

Now we are more comfortable with saints who were social reformers and active servants of humanity. But, Eamon Duffy says, we must also retrieve that crazier category of saints who break open the rules of nature and of our dysfunctional social conventions in order to make room for the in-breaking Kingdom that is coming in power:

In the past, especially the distant past, the saints were venerated as prodigies, miracle-workers, intercessors, protectors. The more they were unlike the rest of us, the better. They brought the majesty and otherness of God down to earth and allowed ordinary men and women to see and touch the divine. Hence the importance of relics. The body of the saint was the locus of supernatural power.

Francis and Paul, fools for Christ

From a 13th century account of the life of St. Francis of Assisi by Thomas of Celano:

“When he was brought before the Bishop, Francis would suffer no delay or hesitation in anything; indeed, he did not wait for any words nor did he speak any, but immediately putting off his clothes and casting them aside, he gave them back to his father. Moreover, not even rationing his trousers, he stripped himself completely naked before all. The bishop, however, sensing his disposition and admiring greatly his fervor and constancy, arose and drew him within his arms and covered him with the mantle he was wearing. He understood clearly that the counsel was of God, and he understood that the actions of the man of God that he had personally witnessed contained a mystery. He immediately, therefore became his helper and cherishing him and encouraging him.”

St. Paul:

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day. — 1 Corinthians 4:9-13

Get Perfect Fools through Inter-Library Loan (it’s very expensive to purchase) and give it a read. I think I will pick it up again.

St. Francis gathering his clothes for his father, from “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”


3 comments on “Perfect Fools

  1. WhoopieCushion says:

    hope for for wacks–I love you Jesus and your band of misfits!

  2. Caroline says:

    Very good and much needed reminder. Thank you!

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