Fools & Fools

A topic I have neglected for decades, but one which I was very fond of back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when I was in formal monastic life.  More specifically, I was intensely attracted to this phenomenon known as the “fool for Christ.”  This person is much better known in Eastern Christianity and understandable perhaps only within the cultural and religious matrix of that world than anywhere  or anytime in the West.  However, these days you could easily say that he/she is merely a “storybook presence” anywhere, if even that.  Given all that, there is something profound within that reality that challenges our common knowledge and ordinary vision of things.  So….lets reflect a bit on this fool….

The ”fool for Christ” is a specifically Christian version of a more universal type.  The “fool” as such makes his/her appearance in all places and in all times.  You usually don’t think of the Asian traditions as being any kind of bearers of this reality, but truly they are.  I won’t be examining the Asian version of the “fool” at this time, but here’s a few examples:  Zhuangzi  , one of the key figures of original Taoism, Han shan, poet and hermit of the late Tang….these are reasonably known….but there’s a couple of Zen masters  much less so.   There is Baisao in the 17th century, a Japanese Zen monk who left his monastery and the priesthood and peddled tea in the streets of Kyoto.  And then there is Daito Kokushi, an incredible Zen master who lived under a bridge in Kyoto for two decades….eventually even the Emperor became his apprentice and disciple.  And many more.  The Sufis in Islam also have a great tradition in this regard, but that  too deserves its own treatment.

What do we really mean when we say this person is a “fool” in the sense we intend?  The word is very ambiguous, and possibly naming very disparate phenomena and so having confusingly different meanings.  Trying to define our “fool” is not the way to go.  Instead we should approach this reality phenomenologically….just look at this kind of life as a lived experience and not  freeze labels on it.

Sticking to the West, lets begin in ancient Greece:  Diogenes the Cynic (a word with a different meaning in ancient Greek than in modern English…..Cynicism was a school of philosophy.)  Briefly, from Wikipedia:

“Diogenes made a virtue of poverty. He begged for a living and often slept in a large ceramic jar in the marketplace. He used his simple lifestyle and behavior to criticize the social values and institutions of what he saw as a corrupt, confused society. He had a reputation for sleeping and eating wherever he chose in a highly non-traditional fashion and took to toughening himself against nature. He declared himself a cosmopolitan and a citizen of the world rather than claiming allegiance to just one place.

… believing that virtue was better revealed in action than in theory….he became notorious for his philosophical stunts, such as carrying a lamp during the day, claiming to be looking for a human being (often rendered in English as “looking for an honest man”). He criticized Plato, disputed his interpretation of Socrates, and sabotaged his lectures, sometimes distracting listeners by bringing food and eating during the discussions. Diogenes was also noted for having mocked Alexader the Great, both in public and to his face when he visited Corinth in 336 BC. 

….while Diogenes was relaxing in the morning sunlight, Alexander, thrilled to meet the famous philosopher, asked if there was any favor he might do for him. Diogenes replied, ‘Yes, stand out of my sunlight.’ Alexander then declared, ‘If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.’ To which Diogenes replied, ‘If I were not Diogenes, I would still wish to be Diogenes.’ In another account of the conversation, Alexander found the philosopher looking attentively at a pile of human bones. Diogenes explained, ‘I am searching for the bones of your father but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave.’”

Among other things this points to one very critical characteristic of the “fool” in our sense of the term: a clarity and boldness in truth-telling.  Now we need to face a certain conundrum.  Our “fool” may be mentally ill or simply pretending to be so.  In either case the truth-telling dynamic is present and is  key. Obviously not every mentally ill person has this gift; some simply suffer from this illness and find themselves  in a labyrinth  of darkness.  But our “fool” is so gifted and has a boldness and clarity within a certain range of experience.  However, it is often hard or impossible to tell which phenomenon we are witnessing!

The second example I want to bring forward is from literature:  the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear.  A truly remarkable figure!  He can easily be brushed aside as a certain type that was not uncommon in the courts of medieval Europe, a jester, a court entertainer, a comedian, a clown, etc.  But this Fool is all that and so, so much more.  Here I want to quote from a letter by Simone Weil.  This was written to her parents just a few weeks before her death at age 34.  This amazing woman, a true genius if there ever was one, a genuine mystic, had just seen Shakespeare’s play once more, and she was profoundly affected by this Fool.  Weil:

  “When I saw Lear here, I asked myself how it was possible that the unbearably tragic character of these fools had not been obvious long ago to everyone, including myself.  The tragedy is not the sentimental one it is sometimes thought to be; it is this:

There is a class of people in this world who have fallen into the lowest degree of humiliation, far below beggary, and who are deprived not only of all social consideration but also, in everybody’s opinion, of the specific human dignity, reason itself—and these are the only people who, in fact, are able to tell the truth. All the others lie.

In Lear it is striking. Even Kent and Cordelia attenuate, mitigate, soften, and veil the truth; and unless they are forced to choose between telling it and telling a downright lie, they maneuver  to evade it. What makes the tragedy extreme is the fact that because the fools possess no academic titles or episcopal dignities and because no one is aware that their sayings deserve the slightest attention—everybody being convinced a priori of the contrary, since they are fools—their expression of truth is not even listened to. Everybody, including Shakespeare’s readers and audiences … is unaware that what they say is true. And not satirically or humorously true, but simply the truth. Pure unadulterated truth—luminous, profound and essential.“

In the beginning of the play we see the valuing of justice, the social order, and the reality of kingship (which symbolizes and embodies the unity of the whole realm).  We also see the valuing of loyalty, filial devotion, and respect for old age.  But Lear is socially blind and totally lacking in self-knowledge.  Disaster begins with his choices and chaos unfolds as soon as Lear misreads the words and gestures of his three daughters, two of which have evil intentions seeking to dispossess their father and get rid of  him.  As the play unfolds Lear ends up seeing that justice, order, and kingship are just smooth terms that conceal  raw, brutal power; and as madness threatens his mind, paradoxically his self-knowledge grows, but all to no avail now.  All along the Fool has been at his side, whispering, singing, riddling the truth to him but also to no avail.  In one of the last scenes Lear is wandering alone on the heath (wilderness area of Old England…and a kind of anti-Garden of Eden), in a storm and in the darkness of night…..and only the Fool is his companion, never abandoning him.

(Here we might remember a more diluted version of this phenomenon in that fairy tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”  It is The Child, and only the child, who openly names the reality that is in front of everyone but not acknowledged for one reason or another:  “The Emperor has no clothes on….”)

And here we are getting close to our very special fool: the fool for Christ.  To get to the special Christian character of this fool, we  need to turn to the New Testament, specifically to Pauline language:

“We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are honorable, but we are despised.”

“Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.”

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 26Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,….”

You cannot overstate how shocking and radical this language really is.  However, the basic Christian/Catholic in the pew (and this includes the monk in  his comfortable monastery) cannot really hear the original power of this language in our lives.  It has all been eroded away.  First, by the natural process of continual repetition that goes on and on in “proclamation” without first the words passing through the heart and disclosing a reality there for which we  have no words.  Secondly, and more importantly, the “message” has been softened and softened and softened….until there are only the words….and there is no life anymore in those words….in all our religious language in the midst of all the linguistic noise of our environment.  In the second half of the 20th century thoughtful people began to speak of the “Silence of God.”  

But lets get back to the historical, existential “fools,” both in western Christianity and in Eastern Orthodoxy.  We begin to find examples of this “foolishness” among the Desert Fathers, and the phenomenon appears through the centuries, though with remarkable variety.  Some exhibit eccentric, off-beat behavior; some feebleness of mind, either real or pretended; some take up radical poverty and homelessness; some hang out with thieves and prostitutes, etc.  If you go on the internet and consult Wikipedia on “foolishness for Christ,” you will find a host of examples.  What may be surprising is to see Francis of Assisi among the examples….he has been coopted and made to seem very “establishment” in modern times.  But if you think about it, he fits right in.  Certainly some of the other members of that primitive Franciscan movement truly belong.  However, what’s most interesting is what happens in Russia.  From medieval times to the 19th century there manifested a whole subculture of “fools for Christ,” the yurodivy.  The Russian Orthodox Church recognized this “foolishness” as a special and blessed way of life.  Even the autocratic Tsar recognized and respected “the fool.” And this figure appears in Russian art and literature.  There are at least 36 canonized “fools” in the Russian Church; among the most famous is a woman, St. Xenia of Petersburg.  

At this point it is important to remember two critical characteristics of this “foolishness for Christ.”  First, you can throw out the window all modern notions of vocation when considering this reality.  No one takes this life up at the end of a process of discernment; there is no “formation,” no novitiate, no identity problems (“what is our group’s charism?! What is our special place in the church?).  No, you are more likely hurled into this life; it is not a matter of choice.  Or one day you just wake up into this reality.  It was certainly not something you planned!  Or, most  likely, you don’t even recognize this reality as it unfolds in your life.  The “real thing” does not stand there, looking at itself in the mirror, saying, “Ok, now I am a Fool.”

Secondly, and more importantly, all the eccentricities of the Fool are merely, to borrow a Zen phrase, “a finger pointing at the moon” (the moon is a symbol of full enlightenment in Zen poetry).  The Fool is there in the service of an amazing inner reality, one which cannot be measured, cannot be controlled, cannot be encompassed, cannot even be conceived within the categories of our usual organized social and religious life.  Think again of that Pauline language.  It speaks of God’s wisdom as unspeakable foolishness of sorts.  Now there are two distinct traditions of reflection on Divine Wisdom.  There is the theological, contemplative “Hagia Sophia,” Holy Wisdom, the feminine side of the Divine Presence.   And a beautiful example of this can be found in Merton’s profound meditation with that precise title: “Hagia Sophia.”  Russian theology and literature have been deeply influenced by this tradition.  Then there is the other tradition of Divine Wisdom, the Pauline Divine Foolishness.  Lest we tame this term into a pious platitude, the historical Fool is there like a slap in  the face of our conventional, respectable religiosity.  

Now lets return to that universal, spiritual question: who am I?  Back to that mirror…you stand there and look at yourself… see yourself in a manner of speaking….you are somebody….there are all these credentials….some you were born into, some you acquired, some you saw as blessings, others as something else!  But remember this, you are  an expression of Divine Wisdom, and absolutely none of those credentials can indicate that.  And that Divine Wisdom is both Hagia Sophia and that Divine Foolishness which ultimately smashes that mirror you are constantly looking at.  It is then that the real spiritual life begins, and you find that you are never, never far from the “fool for Christ.”  In that “place” suffering and joy are intertwined, gain and loss have no meaning, and solitude and communion are simply the two  sides of the same Reality.