I met my husband for the first time on April Fool’s Day twelve years ago. Living several states apart, we were introduced by mutual friends and spent three months corresponding by email and phone.
When it was finally feasible for us to meet face-to-face, I planned and worried for weeks, feeling tense with emotional preparation. So when he called me on the drive to tell me he wouldn’t be able to come after all, I started crying immediately. I couldn’t see his face but there was a sheepishness to his response: “Um. April Fool’s?”
It wasn’t his finest moment or mine. But we’d played our parts well for the day: we both indeed felt like fools.
Feeling the fool isn’t an obvious positive. We spend lots of time and energy trying to avoid looking ridiculous. But research has shown that a good fooling, one that isn’t vindictive or humiliating, can actually be good for us. Instead of bullying or isolating, a “good prank” has the effect of drawing someone into a group. Feeling foolish in this way can actually “stir self-reflection in a way few other experiences can, functioning as a check on arrogance or obliviousness.”
In the spiritual life, this kind of self-reflection is a necessity. So, in the spirit of this fool’s day, let’s talk about a certain archetype that shows us the importance of looking stupid: the holy fool.
A recent Russian novel called Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin illustrates the holy fool in the person of Laurus (his name actually changes throughout the novel) who never sets out to be holy or a fool. Early in the novel young Laurus unwittingly kills both his lover and his child, due to his naivety and selfishness. His seeks repentance as he travels the country, longing to make up for his sins by offering healing to others. It is through this journey of penitence that he encounters other fools and finds himself doing strange things like speaking to angels and throwing rocks at demons. Eventually, he is venerated by the people he heals.
Laurus joins a long history of holy fools in Russian literature. Their literature is so full of this archetype that there are numerous Russian words for them that we don’t have in English. According to Priscilla Hunt, the idea of holy foolishness dates back to before the 15th century in monastic settings in Byzantium and Russia. Though these fools were seen as mentally ill many centuries later, the holy fool of the 15th century was venerated as someone who lived out the spiritual discipline of behaving in a way that could bring ridicule. In this way, the archetype “clothes spiritual teaching in alienation, conflict and ambiguity.”
Another such literary figure is from a story by Nikolai Leskov called “Simplethought.” In it, a police officer named Ryzhov begins to read the Bible and it gives him ideas that are shocking to the local officials, namely that he won’t take bribes. Leskov writes:
In our ancient Russian land every Orthodox knows that whoever has read the Bible all the way through and has “even got to Christ,” can no longer be held strictly responsible for his actions, [for] such people are like the well known fools of God.
In the tradition of holy fools, Frederick Buechner writes of an English man from the 12th century in Godric. Like Laurus, Godric’s arduous journey toward holiness leaves death and shame in his wake. Godric has cheated, killed, and slept his way across land and sea. And eventually, he even falls in love with his own sister. It isn’t until he finally stops resisting the ridiculousness of the mystical life that Godric’s life begins to look like an example for others to follow.
To the reader who knows Godric’s past, his life resists the moniker of “holy.” But no one resists it more than Godric himself. He heaps abuses on the poor young priest who comes to a write down his life story for the benefit of the people who would venerate him.
Neither Laurus, Godric, or Ryzhov imagines himself particularly holy but that is precisely what makes their stories compelling. Their examples comes not in the enormity of their deeds but because they were aware of their frailty when they did them.
But the holy fool is not just a literary archetype. Our saints and mystics of the church act as our holy fools, showing us that an intimate relationship with God is indeed possible for us frail humans. St. Francis of Assisi is sometimes called God’s fool, a man willing to do things that the rest of us would consider bizarre, or foolish, in his life of faith and quest for holiness.
St. Francis did strange things like strip off his clothes before his father and the local church authorities, to deem himself poor and naked before God. Other saints and mystics of the church like Dorothy Day and her own little fool Peter Maurin, offered radical hospitality to anyone with need.
Holy fools do have something in common with those good pranks on April Fool’s Day. Priscilla Hunt says that the Russian archetype of holy fools “make the hypocritical Christian uncomfortable enough with his unexamined faith to be to recognize and honor Christ in the person of the holy fool.” Just as good pranks can turn us inward to our own ridiculousness, so the holy fool reflects the very ridiculousness of the Christian’s attempt to walk in faith without becoming humble before the God of the universe, who, in Christ, became humble even to death.
Unless we are also willing to adopt a life that looks foolish to others, holiness and a mystical relationship with God remains elusive. It might be true then that ridiculousness, in body and spirit, is the bedrock of real intimacy.
This is the case in marriage too. Foolishness (and practical jokes) continues to provide moments of self-reflection in my marriage.
I’d like to think that this is a good sign of things to come.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Christiana Peterson
Christiana N. Peterson is the author of Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God Through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints. Her writing has also appeared in such places as Christianity Today, Art House America, Christian Century, and Bearings Online. She lives in Ohio with her husband and four kids.