June: Weirdos welcome
Saints with Funny Names
The feast of All Saints is exactly the same in the East as it is in the West; it’s just on the other side of the year. It always falls on the Sunday following Pentecost, which this year is June 16. On this day, the Eastern Church commemorates all the blessed souls in heaven, especially the ones who are unknown. These include confessors, martyrs, teachers, monastics, indeed all of the righteous, whether lay or professed.
Right now if you are picturing a host of reputable characters lined up in their one size fits all halos and their spotless gowns, you’re forgetting someone. Hey, who’s the skinny weirdo in the corner with the bent halo? That’s the holy fool.
St. Paul talked about how faithful Christians must be “fools on Christ’s account” (1 Corinthians 4:10).
To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clad and roughly treated, we wander about homeless and we toil, working with our own hands. When ridiculed, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we respond gently. We have become like the world’s rubbish, the scum of all, to this very moment. (1 Corinthians 4:11-13)
Basically, St. Paul is saying that the better you live the Gospel, the more people will think you’re nuts.
Church history in East and West is full of saints like that. Perhaps the most famous of these in the West is St. Francis of Assisi, who took off all his clothes in the public square and then went about dressed as a leper for the rest of his days.
Ever wonder why the Franciscan habit has a cowl and long flowing sleeves? It’s because lepers used all that extra fabric to hide their marred faces and gnarled hands. These days when you can get a statue of St. Francis at your local garden center, you forget that everyone back in the 12th century thought Francis was nuts.
Holy fools go beyond even that. They are not saints who simply put up with being considered nuts by the world, they aspire to it. They want you to think they’re nuts.
The East has loads of them. This brand of acesticism is certainly not limited to the East but, is it me or is there something about the Eastern soul (vodka?) that produces a higher than average number of saints who deliberately covered up their holiness by acting like raving lunatics?
Take St. Simeon who lived in the sixth century in Edessa (Turkey). After spending a couple of decades as a perfectly respectable desert monk, Our Lord called him to move to the city of Emessa and do works of mercy. Simeon agreed but asked only that no one know about his holy acts. Thus he entered the city dragging a dead dog behind him.
Just in case the prop failed, he put out all the lights and pelted some ladies with well, nuts. He was often seen thrashing his arms wildly during a full moon. In broad daylight he got around town alternating between limping and dragging himself around on his butt.
Stop right there, I can hear you saying: What’s edifying about that? But before you decide that this can’t be saintly behavior, consider that he is on the Western calendar as well (July 1; East is the 21st). And his nuttiness paid off.
People mocked him and beat him and he cured the blind and the possessed and converted sinners from the error of their ways. It was only after he died and was buried in a grave marked for the homeless that the truth came out, leaked from heaven by the sound of angelic choirs singing. Crazy.
Then there’s St. Isadora. Living during the fourth century in Egypt, she is one of the earliest recorded fools for Christ. She was a nun who even the other nuns could not stand. She worked in the kitchen away from the others and lived on whatever scraps were left on their plates, plus the dishwater.
One day the holy hermit Piteroum received a visit from an angel who challenged him: Huh, (I paraphrase) you think you’re so holy just because you live in the desert? Let me show you someone who has got it over you. And he led him to the convent where the hapless St. Isadora lived. She’s the one wearing the crown, the angel said. St. Piteroum met each of the nuns in turn. No crown.
Finally, somebody called Isadora, who didn’t come but was then dragged forcibly from the kitchen. She wore a dishrag on her head and a mystical crown hovering delicately just above it. This vision prompted the other nuns to shamefacedly confess their sins against her: dumping dishwater over her head, punching her, rubbing her face in plaster, all while – come to think of it – she had never complained.
Thus the mad Isadora, through her long suffering and forgiveness, converted her whole convent. How the angels must have rejoiced about that!
On this feast of All Saints it’s fine to imagine that great cloud of witnesses in their shining robes and glowing halos, with their hands gently folded, their countenances perfectly serene. Just know that some of them acted very differently while on this earth. Since this feast is especially for unknown saints, there must be a special hurrah for those who to this day never revealed the true cause of their looniness.
It was the master, who emptied himself and took the form of a slave; it was he whom the whole world could not contain, who enclosed himself in the womb of the Blessed Virgin; it was he who had power over life and death, who accepted a gruesome death for our salvation.
And it paid off.
Fun fact: The famous Russian St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square is not named for the perfectly reputable Eastern doctor of the Church, but for the 16th century Basil, Fool for Christ (of the Orthodox Church) who went about naked and in chains, to rebuke Ivan the Terrible for his terribleness. Ivan built the structure to commemorate his own glory in battle but since Basil died during its construction, he was buried there and the place eventually adopted his name.