Posts Tagged ‘Holy Fool’

St. Basil the Holy Fool of Moscow

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

The Church occasionally canonizes people known as Holy Fools, people whose lives are so at odds with civil and ecclesiastical society that others, even Christians, find them troubling, but whose lives undeniably manifest the Gospel attributes of humility, obedience, and compassion.

Yet it is the special vocation of Holy Fools to live 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. Also like Jesus, they generally come on the scene when civil society, remade in the image of religion but bereft of its spirit and understanding, requires bracing lessons delivered in counter cultural ways.

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, but at the same time they are always ready to embrace these same greedy and ruthless people. No one, absolutely no one, is unimportant. In fact the only thing always important for them, apart from God and angels, are the people around them, whoever they are, no matter how limited they are. Their dramatic gestures, however shocking, always have to do with revealing the person of Christ and his mercy.

For most people, clothing serves as a message of how high they have risen and how secure—or insecure—they are. Holy Fools wear the wrong clothes, or rags, or even nothing at all. This is a witness that they have nothing to lose. There is nothing to cling to and nothing for anyone to steal. Inevitably, the voluntary destitution and absolute vulnerability of the Holy Fool challenges us with our locks and keys and schemes to outwit destitution, suffering, and death.

The most famous of Russia’s Holy Fools is Saint Basil the Blessed, after whom the colorful cathedral on Red Square takes its name. In an icon housed in that church, Basil is shown clothed only in his beard and a loin cloth. In the background is the Savior Tower and the churches packed within Moscow’s Kremlin walls. Basil’s hands are raised in prayer toward a small image of Jesus revealed in an opening in the sky. The 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 first laughed and then 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 behavior. Soon after, Basil became a vagrant. Dressing as if for the Garden of Eden, Basil’s survival of many bitter Russian winters must be reckoned among the miracles associated with his life.

It isn’t surprising that a naked man wandering the streets of the capital city became famous—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 merchandise of dishonest tradesmen at the market on Red Square. He Even hurled stones at the houses of the wealthy; yet as if reverencing 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 Ivan the Terrible that his violent deeds would doom him to hell. 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.

According to one story, in the midst of Lent, when Orthodox Russians keep a rigorous vegetarian fast, Basil presented the czar with a slab of raw beef, asking him “Why abstain from meat when you murder men?{Anchor:sdendnote143anc}{Anchor:sdendnote143anc}”

Occasionally Ivan even sent gifts to the naked prophet of the streets, but Basil kept none of these 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.

Basil was so revered by Muscovites 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 of God. The people began to call the church Saint Basil’s, for to go there meant to pray at Basil’s grave. Not many years passed before Basil was formally canonized by the Russian Church. A chapel built over his grave became an integral part of the great building, adding a ninth dome to the eight already there{Anchor:sdendnote144anc}.

We again—or still—live in times like Basil’s, where it is easy to confuse religious and civil society, to cross governmental and ecclesial purposes, or equate spiritual with secular values and aims. These often run parallel but are too often conflated.

While it seems that very few of us are called to live out a corrective message in-the-flesh the way that Holy Fools did, all are called to recognize that message. A popular myth says that counterfeit currency agents working for governments study only authentic bills and thereby recognize fakes because they simply do not bear the right image. Not a bad lesson for us as by contemplating the lives of Holy Fools, we become better familiar with authentic prophetic voices and examples within the Church and society.  IC

(Adapted from a chapter in Praying with Icons by Jim Forest)

Front cover image found at http://www.templegallery.com.

❖  Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012