Fools for Christ’s Sake
This part of our studies of the saintly lives will focus on a special kind of saint in Eastern Orthodoxy called “fools”. Here is how Milana Vujaklije defines this concept in The Lexicon of Strange Words and Expressions:
“Fool (Russian Юродивый, loony, lunatic) or “fool for Christ’s sake” is a name by which were called the Apostle Paul and other apostles. Russians believe that such fools, madmen from birth, fulfill the will of God, which is why they are called ‘God’s people’ and believe they have the power of prophecy; in the fifth century: those who were exposed to ridicule and mockery were considered morally perfect.”
Before we examine the Biblical answer as to what the Apostle Paul (and other apostles) meant by the phrase “fools for Christ”, let us take a brief look at the lives of these saints and their saintly deeds:
“The Venerable Maximus Kapsokalivitos… In the fourteenth century, Maximus led an ascetical life as a monk on Mt. Athos in his own unique way. That is to say, he pretended to be a little crazy and constantly changed his dwelling place. His place of abode consisted of a hut made from branches. He built these huts one after the other and then burned them, for this he was called Kapsokalivitos, i.e., ‘the hut-burner’. He was considered insane until the arrival of St. Gregory Sinaites to Mt. Athos, who discovered in Maximus a unique ascetic, a wonder-working intercessor and ‘an angel in the flesh.’ He died in the Lord in the year 1320 A.D.” (January 13)
“Blessed Theodore, Fool for Christ from Novgorod… Prior to his death, Theodore ran up and down the streets shouting to everyone: ‘Farewell, I am traveling far away!’ He died in the year 1392 A.D.” (January 19)
“Blessed Nikolai, Fool for Christ from Pskov… Nicholas lived as a ‘fool for Christ’ in the town of Pskov during the reign of Tsar Ivan the Terrible and died on February 28, 1576 A.D… Rare fearlessness was possessed by the fools for Christ’s sake. Blessed Nikolai ran through the streets of Pskov pretending to be insane.” (February 28)
“The Venerable Thomas Fool for Christ… Whenever he was in the city of Antioch on business for the monastery, Thomas always pretended insanity for the sake of Christ.” (April 24)
“The Venerable Isidora Fool for Christ… Isidora lived in the fourth century and was a nun in a convent in Tabennisi. She pretended insanity in order to conceal her virtues and her mortification. Isidora performed the most menial tasks, fed on the leftovers on the dishes, served all and everyone, and was despised by all and everyone. At that time, an angel of God revealed to the great ascetic Pitirim about Isidora’s secret. Pitirim came to the convent and when he saw Isidora he bowed down to the ground before her. And so, she also bowed to him. Then the sisters informed Pitirim that she was insane. ‘All of you are insane,’ replied Pitirim, ‘and this one is greater before the Lord than I and all of you; I only pray that God will render to me that which is intended for her at the Dreadful Judgment!’ Then the sisters became ashamed and begged both Pitirim and Isidora for forgiveness. From then on, everyone began to show respect for Isidora. And she, to escape the honors of men, fled the convent to a place unknown and died about the year 365 A.D.” (May 10)
“The Blessed Isidore Fool for Christ… Isidore was a German by descent. Having come to Rostov, he fell in love with the Orthodox Faith and, not only became a communicant of the Orthodox Church, but assumed the difficult life of asceticism as a ‘Fool for Christ.’ He spent nights in a hut made of branches which he had built in a swamp.” (May 14)
However, the “fools” do not deserve the epithet of saints merely because of the folly they demonstrated. Some of them performed incredible deeds that are not only not unbecoming of saints but also quite improper, even to the extent that the Apostle Paul said such deeds “should not even be mentioned among the saints”. Here are some examples of the immorality of these foolish “saints”, taken from Eastern Orthodox literature, including crucial moments during the “triumph of Orthodoxy” and in times of crisis “committing violations of spiritual harmony”:
“Many fools in Russia walked in the nude, but the hagiographies (‘lives of the saints’), tried to cover their nudity with the blessing of the church. Reading the lives of the Greek fool Simeon, we see that the paradox of ‘foolishness for Christ’s sake’ includes not only the rational but also the moral aspect of personality. Here Christian holiness is covered up not only by the appearance of insanity, but also immorality. The saints perform all kinds of objectionable behavior: fomenting disorder in the church temple, eating sausages on Good Friday, dancing with prostitutes, destroy goods in the market, etc. Russian hagiographers imitate the pattern of the lives of St. Andrew, in which not one element of immorality is present. Only the folk tales of Basil the Blessed give scant hints of the chronicle that reveal even the slightest affectation of immorality among Russian fools. The chronicles of their lives categorically cover up this other side of their mortification with the stereotypical phrase: ‘shameless wrongdoer.’ ‘Fool’ and ‘shameless wrongdoer’ (from the old Russian word ‘unashamed one’) are epithets used in the old Russia to mock the two sides of ‘normal’ human nature: rationality and morality.”
Dositej Obradovic lived in the monastery at Hopovo and read all of The Lives of the Saints several times. He was well informed about the lives of the fools. Obradovic write this commentary concerning these “fools for the sake of Christ”:
“Reading about some of the things done by these fools for Christ’s sake (let everyone notice: a fool for Christ’s sake) brought me into temptation: what sort of fool would it take for someone not to consider them a saint but rather truly a fool? The Turks at this point would be considered Orthodox also, for anyone who is deprived of his sanity is revered as a saint, but how could a true Christian fall into this deception, especially having in his hand the wise and healthy evangelical doctrine? It is impossible to accept such an insane person as a saint. But, apparently, someone tricked them to misinterpret the words of the Apostle Paul: ‘We are fools for Christ’s sake.’ And where do we read that the Apostle did penance and sanctified himself by running through the alley naked, which is the twisted and crazy interpretation that they make of his words? But what stupid and illogical superstition they teach!”
Gifted with great wisdom, Obradovic considered this Eastern Orthodox teaching – that the mentally ill (which today would be sent for treatment in psychiatric hospitals) are to be declared saints – to be stupid and illogical superstition. His position fully agrees with the teachings of Scripture. As evidence for this claim, of course, let us quote the “controversial” words of the Apostle Paul and then derive a detailed explanation of their meaning:
“For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored! To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now… Therefore I urge you, imitate me.”
By studying the lives of the Orthodox saintly fools, especially a person who does not
know the teaching of the Scriptures very well, one could draw some parallels between Paul’s words and the lives of the saints. However, on the other hand, someone well acquainted with the New Testament texts and the lives of the Apostles could never even think that Paul and others were fools (e.g, silly and deluded) like those of later centuries.
According to that which Christ and the apostles clearly taught and recorded in the Bible, as we have repeated on many occasions, it appears that many people reject the gospel message, because of their disbelief in the basic truth of the Christian faith. Indeed, only a minority of people received the apostolic preaching with a positive response. In contrast, the crowds mostly remained on the sidelines and mocked their sermons. Here is one example of such reactions to the Gospel as the Apostles preached:
“And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, ‘We will hear you again on this matter.’”
Exactly because most people who heard the apostles preach the gospel would ridicule it and consider the idea of salvation through faith in a man who was crucified as a criminal to be impossible, Paul said:
“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… but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
All those who became Christians, accepting what is “crazy” in the eyes of the world, were regarded by non-believers and madmen, e.g. fools (for Christ’s sake), especially because they have rejected their traditional ancestral religion in favor of a Jewish sect, as the world viewed it. Without a doubt, of course, it does not mean that the first century Christians behaved like lunatics and the mentally ill as was the case with many Orthodox saints, even though the early Christians were regarded as outcasts by society because of their faith in Jesus.
However, there is a deeper meaning to Paul’s words when he refers to himself and the other apostles as “fools for Christ’s sake.” In fact, some of the believers in Corinth, where Paul addressed this letter, were not exactly the most disciplined. In fact, they lived contrary to Christian moral principles. Some went beyond Christian teaching and adapted their previous way of thinking, as it prevailed in the Greek world, to the church. Transferring these divisions to the church, the Corinthian believers created several factions:
“For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’”
So, while some believers supported Paul’s ministry, others felt that he was not worthy of respect. Other believers valued other teachers more highly, such as Apollos (probably because of his eloquence, see Acts. 18:24-28 and 2 Corinthians 10:10-11, 11:6) and Peter (because he was always the first among the twelve apostles – as opposed to Paul that during Jesus’ earthly ministry was not his disciple). There existed a fourth group which participated in the rift and called themselves the followers of Christ. Although the situation in such a divided young church was difficult, many other problems existed as a result of carnality (lack of spirituality) of the local believers. Some of them were proud of their material wealth and belittled the poor (11:20-22), others refused to contribute toward the ministries of the apostles, i.e., their missionary service (9:1-15), others still visited and out of habit worshiped idols in temples (8:10-12), brothers sued each other and brought their litigation before the secular courts (6:1-9), and so on. Despite all the problems Paul addressed in his church, he decided to be deferential and humble, even though he could have reprimanded such behavior more harshly. Following Christ’s example, Paul renounced himself and his rights (by not responding to the insults and
disrespect of the Corinthians) and patiently endured and taught these immature converts in this Greek city. The Lord said, namely:
“But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.’”
In obeying this commandment of their Lord, Christ’s apostles not only received scorn and rejection from ungodly unbelieving people. They also received similar reactions, such as perceived insults and gossip, from believers around whom they have worked hard and faithfully. This apostolic sacrifice was such that, because of their service to the church (and all believers respectively), the apostles often suffered from hunger, thirst, and a variety of dangers (Acts 20:31-32 Corinthians 11:23-29).
Uttering these words of reproach (this is the text from 1 Corinthians 4:6-16) and
referring to himself and other ministers of the gospel that people belittled, insulted, and persecuted – even though they all suffered despite having no selfish interests or desire for revenge – Paul says that they are “fools for Christ’s sake.” Simply put, Paul uses this phrase to describe the humiliation from both believers and godless people to which the apostles submitted. The fact was that the apostles received no material or visible benefits, nor did they have any form of greed nor did any of them give up his work in spite of having such heavy work from the ministry. On the contrary, these apostles obeyed the Lord and did something that no one else would ever do – they made fools of themselves in the eyes of various scoffers by serving them in humility.
But not one single word of Paul’s writing endorses the “lunacy” that we encounter in the lives of those who allegedly imitated the apostles’ examples in their “foolishness”. Further proof exists in another moment in Paul’s life that he never intended to teach anything resembling the Eastern Orthodox conception of “foolishness” in a literal sense. Let us analyze one moment in Paul’s life when he had a very significant opportunity to act as a true “fool”. During his imprisonment in Palestine under the rule of the Roman governors Felix and Festus, the Apostle had an opportunity to present his defense. Thus, before Festus and King Herod Agrippa, Paul presented the Lord’s words and the content of his heavenly vision upon which Paul’s ministry was based. Paul repeated the commandment given to him by the Lord before them:
“But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.’ ‘Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance. For these reasons the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. Therefore, having obtained help from God, to this day I stand, witnessing both to small and great, saying no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said would come – that the Christ would suffer, that He would be the first to rise from the dead, and would proclaim light to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles.’”
Let us pay attention to the reaction by Festus to Paul’s presentation:
“Now as he thus made his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, ‘Paul, you are beside yourself! Much learning is driving you mad!’”
However, is it possible that Paul was a maniac? According to this conclusion by Festus, which he uttered aloud before all those present, this apostle was an insane person who went out of his mind – and as such amounts to its listeners – rationalists different fantasies of celestial sightings, aliens, fairies and the like. But Paul was far from being crazy! Here is how to read his response:
“But he said, ‘I am not mad, most noble Festus, but speak the words of truth and reason. For the king, before whom I also speak freely, knows these things; for I am convinced that none of these things escapes his attention, since this thing was not done in a corner.’”
As we saw from these Scriptural texts, at times Christ’s apostles met with ridicule and labeled as crazy because they preached the true gospel truth that was incomprehensible to the pagan Greeks and Romans. However, the apostles’ teachings in no way resembled the modern Orthodox practice of “fools for Christ’s sake”. The apostles always taught in words that were true and reasonable. Not one of the apostles or their successors never acted insane before crowds, ate leftovers off the ground, or ran naked through the streets in order to hide his “deep commitment” to God. This madness of “fools” truly has nothing to do with Jesus Christ and His grave and holy doctrine which should be followed by His disciples throughout the centuries.
As we have examined the details of The Lives of the Saints and given them the only evaluation possible from the perspective of Holy Scripture, let us briefly reflect on a few examples from the “eternal Serbian gospel.” May the reader carefully consider them and arrive at a logical conclusion without further commentary. The following examples demonstrate the nonsense of numerous other examples of saints that simply could not fit in this chapter. All these examples can prove very harmful to the minds of young people in Serbia by encouraging them to embark on a lifestyle of self-destruction – without much opportunity to return to a fellowship of people with sound minds.