Monks are fools. To be sure, some are more foolish than others. The most foolish are the most interesting. Simeon the Holy Fool disturbed the people of sixth-century Emesa, Syria, by acting the fool. His biography tells us:
[Simeon] played all sorts of roles foolish and indecent…. Sometimes he pretended to have a limp, sometimes he jumped around, sometimes he dragged himself along on his buttocks, sometimes he stuck out his foot for someone running and gripped him. Other times when there was a new moon, he looked at the sky and fell down and thrashed about. Sometimes also he pretended to babble, for he said that of all the semblances, this is the most fitting and most useful to those who simulate folly.
Simeon’s foolishness was extreme, but he was hardly the only monk living the life of a madman. The holy fools tradition is most easily traced among Eastern saints, but Western monks, too, flirted with insanity.
Aelred of Rievaulx is known especially for his writing on friendship. The twelfth-century monk extended this friendship to the weak and infirm—including the mentally unstable. John Saward, in his book Perfect Fools, tells us: “The child, the idiot, the pauper, the weak man—these were for the Cistercians the models, the paradigms which … depend for their truth on dogma and spirituality rather than on ethics and psychology.”
Aelred made his own the words of Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:10: “We are fools for Christ’s sake.” Aelred did more than reach out to the unstable; he identified with them. “Such is the Communion of Saints,” writes Saward, “that the monk may truly be said to become one of the weak; there is a ‘family resemblance’ between the ‘weak’ and the ‘foolish’ who came to the monastery to be helped and the ‘weak’ and ‘foolish’ brethren who welcome them as icons of Christ.” Aelred and his fellow monks became weak to the weak that they might win the weak. They became all things to all men, that they might by all means save some.
Aelred’s foolishness was Jesus’s foolishness. Mark’s Gospel is the Gospel of Jesus the Fool. Mark’s Gospel confronts us with Jesus’s folly in at least two ways: the folly of retreat and the folly of humility.
First, look at the folly of retreat. Jesus does things out in the open. When in Capernaum, he makes demons cringe and sicknesses fade; his fame spreads everywhere (pantachou). The whole (holē) city gathers at the door. Jesus travels through the whole (holēn) of Galilee, preaching and casting out demons. People come to him from every quarter (pantothen).
Celebrity preachers tend not to hide. Jesus’s folly, however, is to try to do exactly that. When everyone (pantes) in Capernaum is looking for him, Jesus attempts to avoid the crowd. “Let us go on to the next towns,” he suggests to his disciples (Mark 1:39). “Say nothing to any one,” Jesus says to the leper he has just healed (1:44). It is a refrain he keeps repeating (5:43; 7:36; 8:26). Not only does he tell others to be quiet about their healing—he himself keeps turning to the desert and to other hiding places, both after healing the leper and elsewhere in the Gospel (6:31–32; 7:24).
Jesus wants to be an eremitic monk, but he sure has a strange way of trying to be one. Only a fool would preach, cast out demons, and heal the sick, while at the same time insisting on secrecy and hiding from the crowds. Jesus acts like a fool.
Second, note the folly of humility. Jesus is the Son of God—“the Holy One of God,” as the demons rightly call him (1:24). “True God from true God,” we confess in the Nicene Creed. Mark is hardly less emphatic about Jesus’s identity than is the creed. Jesus forgives sins. He commands the wind and the sea. “It is I” (egō eimi), says Jesus to the frightened disciples in the boat, making an unmistakably divine, burning-bush-framed claim.
So why would he bother, in Aelred-like fashion, to mess with children, idiots, paupers, and the weak? Think about it: The Holy One of God—eternal sermon of the Father, impervious to evil, uncontaminated by corruption—he keeps preaching to ordinary folk, mingling with the demon-possessed, and touching the sick and unclean.
It is a crazy thing to do—crazy by virtue of being impossible. The Son of God is the eternal sermon of the Father because he is beyond our human words. He is impervious to evil because, instead of consorting with demons, he is enthroned upon the praises of cherubim and seraphim. He is immortal because sickness and death are incapable of reaching the height of his glorious throne. In short, God is God precisely because he is not man. Jesus, by taking the stage of human drama, makes himself out to be that than which nothing more foolish can be thought.
When monastic fools for Christ deliberately acted as if they had lost their minds, they did so for three reasons, according to French patristic scholar Jean-Claude Larchet: retreat, humility, and charity. Each drew upon the folly of Christ.
First, retreat. The holy fools would at times fail to hide their saintly character from others, and then felt forced to flee into isolation. The result was an awkward oscillation of weird, offensive behavior in front of others and withdrawal into the solitude of deserts and caves.
Next, humility. “The goal of the ‘fool,” writes Archimandrite Sophrony, “is to be everyone’s laughing-stock. Many are they who cannot understand this path and consider it a perversion. Yet, in its essence, it is the most sure means of getting rid of vainglory and thus winning a true victory over the world.” Holy fools take the path of humiliation—becoming everyone’s laughingstock.
Finally, charity. Aelred’s love for the demon-possessed mirrors the love of our Savior. Note the charity of the God-man as he cleanses the leper: “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him” (Mark 1:41). Why is it that the unclean leper participates in the cleanness of Christ, and the clean Christ is not contaminated with uncleanness through physical touch? The reason is charity. Love is stronger than death. The love of Aelred and his fellow Cistercians is victorious over the demons and their insanity.
Moved with pity, we stretch out our hand. Holy foolishness is patterned on the Incarnation, the true face of God’s love.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
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