Holy Fools Can Heal the World

by Christine Sine

by Ellen Haroutunian

I recently had an interesting conversation on God’s Facebook page. I’m sure that sounds strange but because we believe that God has entered into the dank depths of human existence, it makes sense that God can be found on social media. Anyway, God asked, 

“What’s something that could bring about world peace?” 

I responded:

“Really listening to each other. Humility. Forgiveness. Humility. Empathy. Compassion. Love.”

The responses to me were like these:

“I mean, it’s a great idea, but humans being humans, we’d revert almost instantly.”

“Kumbaya thinking has proven to be an incorrect goal.”

“No-one really does that anymore.” 

There are others who responded similarly to what I wrote. One person suggested “bacon” which is a definite yes, along with suggestions of nachos and ice cream. And Dolly Parton. The post contained lots of earnest hoping that we might actually be able to achieve peace somehow. There were some who suggested that we just need a supernova to explode or a comet to hit us and end it all. But for those who longed for peace, none knew how to actually get us there. 

There is currently a movement across the world towards authoritarian and totalitarian systems. Many of our big institutions, particularly in the political and religious spheres, have been shown to be so mired in their own drivenness towards power and wealth that people have lost faith in them to be able to protect us and to help us flourish. The world feels increasingly scary and out of control. In light of that, it makes sense that a mechanized world—a world marked by order, reason, and utilitarianism controlled by towers of power—feels safer. However, that kind of world reduces each person to a cog in the economic machine and thus each person’s dignity is based upon their ability to produce. Ultimately, it can’t work because humans are not meant to be cogs. So what can we do? In the face of an increasingly dangerous, divided, violent, and cruel world, things like listening, humility, forgiveness, empathy, compassion, and love really look weak and foolish. I believe it’s time for some Holy Foolishness. 

Jesus is said to have been a Holy Fool. The archetype of the Holy Fool can be controversial because it can be associated with being a deceiver or trickster. The description of the Holy Fool I use is a person who defies expectations within the norms of society to offer deeper spiritual insight or wisdom. Holy Fools remind us of a reality that is far more beautiful and life-giving than a mechanized state. Jesus, the Holy Fool, taught some preposterous things. Think of the Sermon on the Mount in which he taught that the poor in spirit are blessed, as are those who seek after meekness instead of power, or who pursue peace instead of revenge. No one wants to be poor in any way or to place themselves in a position of powerlessness. Jesus taught us to love our enemies, which feels impossible as well as foolish in a competitive, violent world. He was offering something new that seems preposterous.

St. Francis of Assisi was a Holy Fool. He would walk around naked, after giving his clothing to a beggar dressed in rags or less. Doing so scandalized others—including his wealthy father—to make a point about the inequity of riches in both the church and society, but more importantly, to express the worth and dignity of the poorest, least powerful people. In Francis’s day, those afflicted with leprosy were required to wear bells to warn others that they were nearby to prevent the spread of the disease. They led a lonely and desperate life. At one point upon meeting a leper, Francis jumped off his horse and kissed the leper on the mouth. Holy Foolishness can compel us to do strange and unbecoming things for the sake of love. 

Fyodor Dostoevsky uses the archetype of the Holy Fool quite frequently in his novels. In Crime and Punishment, the character of Sonya is a young woman is filled with faith and goodness. She sacrifices herself to support her destitute family by becoming a prostitute. Prostitution was one of the few ways a woman could earn a living in a time when there were few opportunities or safety nets for her. How often did the Holy Fool Jesus see faith and goodness amongst the “sinners” of his day? Sonya’s unmerited, genuine love for the character Raskolnikov, a man who is continually descending into deeper depths of hellishness, compels her to descend into the Siberian labor camps with him, even as he continues to scorn her love. Who does that? Eventually, her love manages to pierce through the darkness of Raskolnikov’s heart. Catholic writer Renée D. Roden says, “Sonya’s love is Christic, kenotic, and total self-gift, illogical outside of the economy of agape.” Holy Foolishness is indeed illogical but brings love into the most desolate of places. Theologian Hans Boersma says, “Holy Foolishness is patterned on the Incarnation, the true face of God’s love,” that is, it is not a rescue from this world but it shows up amidst real human lives with real people right here, right now. 

Holy Foolishness bids us to listen to those who we just know are wrong. “Listening with the ear of your heart” is a pillar of Benedictine spirituality. To listen comes from the same root word as to obey. Essentially, we listen with compassion and an openness to be changed by what we hear. We listen with a willingness to align with the dignity of another. That doesn’t mean we compromise what we know is good, but that we find a deeper way to come alongside others, such as recognizing in them the very same fears and hopes we have, and the preciousness of our shared humanity. Listening does not happen when we believe we already know what the other is like. “Be curious, not judgmental,” says fictional soccer coach Ted Lasso, another holy fool. Curiosity and judgment cannot co-exist. 

Humility is another Benedictine pillar. It’s all about the act of self-emptying that makes it possible to lay aside our egos for even a few moments so that we may make space for others to be. Humility, of course, is now seen as weak and and ineffectual. However, humility opens us to learning from all others, refuses to denigrate others, and trains us in the way of what it means to lay aside pride and defensiveness so we may offer hearts of openness and peace. It also leads us into the secret of being content in all circumstances and letting go of envy—a decidedly un-capitalist virtue. 

Forgiveness, in the most basic understanding of it, is the refusal to retaliate for a wrong done to us. The ability to extend pardon and even love to those who have hurt us is what makes us most like Jesus, the Holy Fool. Humility allows us to see that we are in need of forgiveness ourselves. Likewise, empathy and compassion may also appear to be laughable today, but they mimic Christ in his willingness to enter this world and its wounds (empathy—to experience with) and his willingness to suffer with us all (Latin compati). Both are fruits of Love. Love is dismissed because it is viewed as mere sentiment or “kumbaya” as one commenter mentioned. But love is no mere sentiment. It requires everything of us. An orthodox theologian once said, “The church in the West has not yet encountered the Christ.” I think he is correct—it’s much easier to wave around values to be imposed on everyone, or to market “be your best self” versions of spirituality instead of the cruciform path of love. Real love is utterly foolish but it changes us from the inside out, one person at a time. 

Real love compels us to awaken to what the reign of God could look like right here, right now. It is a reign of justice in which all have what they need, and thus all are free to flourish. It is a reign of long tables and abundant feasts, where the only law is love, written directly onto our hearts. Everything in this harsh world teaches us that judgment, punishment, and control are the only way to regain order. And historically, once this form of order is obtained it is always at the expense of some for the benefit of others. It is not this way with Jesus, the Holiest of Fools. We cooperate with the in-breaking of this Kingdom as we choose to be Holy Fools in a world fraught with weapons and terrorists and cruelty. What if we believed that the foolishly cruciform path of the Holy Fool truly is the way to peace and new life? Is that not the Paschal story?

I listen daily to those who have been steadfastly deconstructing their faith from something that has resembled the violence and divisiveness of the world far more than the foolish way of Jesus. They want to find something real, something that makes a difference. They want to believe that love wins. So do I. The “weak” and “illogical” way of the Holy Fool is like a gentle rain, which is seemingly innocuous and ineffectual against big powerful things but eventually loosens the hardened soil around those towers of power, exposing their false foundations and weakening their stranglehold on us all. As G.K. Chesterton has said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” What if for our Easter observance this year, we tried the foolish way of Love?

1 Elizabeth-Anne Stewart, Jesus, the Holy Fool (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 1999), 172.
2 Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. David McDuff (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 655.
Renée D. Roden, “Witness of the Holy Fool,” Church Life Journal (April 6, 2017), https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/witness-of-the-holy-fool
3 Hans Boersma, “Jesus the Holy Fool,” First Things (January 12, 2023), https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2023/01/jesus-the-holy-fool.
4 St. Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict, ed. Timothy Fry (Collegeville, MI: The Liturgical Press), Prologue 1.
5 I highly recommend watching this series to observe the wonderful portrayal of a holy fool in the character of Ted Lasso. Ted Lasso, (Apple TV+, 2020-2023).
6 St. Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict, ed. Timothy Fry (Collegeville, MI: The Liturgical Press), Chapter 7. 

Breath Prayer Cards

We are all born knowing how to breathe, but often need to be taught how to breathe properly. Deep abdominal breathing for five minutes several ties a day where we consciously fill our lungs can reduce stress, calm our minds and help us center on the loving presence of God. Each breath that we take is a breathing in of the life of God.

Uniquely designed with a breath word and prayer, each card will help lead you into a powerful meditation. Set of 12 prayers designed by Hilary Horn, text and photographs by Christine Sine.

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