Unlike bui and pokhab, blazennyi continues to
be synonymous to iurodivyi. In modern Russian language iurodivyi has a
meaning of an eccentric, a simpleton, someone who pretends to be a fool
with a purpose to make his point, someone who displays unorthodox
behavior and trespasses against social conventions.
In Russian Orthodoxy foolishness in
Christ has long been a mode of popular religiosity. At the same time it
is a theological category denoting one of the non-orthodox forms of
Christian asceticism. The exploit of foolishness for Christ's sake
belongs to opera superagotoria or is an optional ascetic
exploit. It is regarded as the most difficult and controversial of all
ascetic practices. Russian Church canonized about thirty-six of its holy
fools and many more have been venerated locally. Unlike other ascetics
the fool in Christ does not renounce the profane world. He feigns
madness and instead of going into hermetic or monastic seclusion becomes
a part of secular life.
The figure of a paradigmatic iurodivy
belongs to the fourteenth-sixteenth centuries, the heyday of Russian
foolishness in Christ. Then iurodivy amounts to one of Russia's
most popular spectacles and saints. He is to be encountered on the
street, market place, and church steps where he is invariably surrounded
by the crowd of onlookers. He goes around naked and barefoot even in the
depth of winter. He wears chains and other iron objects. This
extravagant attire and wild look allow the public to identify him as
both an ascetic and a madman. His behavior is offensive and bizarre.
By renouncing all communal norms and by
continuously displaying offensive, controversial behaviors, the iurodivy
makes himself a spectacle. The holy fool would disrupt church services
and conspicuously break Lent. He would confront the highest authorities,
including the Tsar, insult his audience, and continuously trespass
against social regulations and norms of decency. At the same time he
would utter prophecies, perform miracles and feats feasible uniquely for
While he makes his offensive and eccentric
behaviors conspicuous, he keeps his saintly deeds secret from the
public. According to holy foolish hagiographies, whenever someone finds
out about holy fool's saintliness and hidden ascetic feat, the holy fool
makes this person keep his secret.
Only after the holy fool's demise his
saintliness can be revealed to the public. The holy fool's uninterrupted
performance is designed to provoke people's meditation on issues that
ultimately lead to an understanding of the divine. Yet only the
righteous ones see the iurodivy as God's messenger. For the sinners he
is just a madman and therefore a source of amusement and an underdog.
They violently react to the iurodivy's harsh criticism, invariably
beating and chasing him away. The permanency of this public reaction
testifies to the fact that profane minds are not capable of grasping the
The origins of the phenomenon of saintly
madness can be traced back to Jewish prophets and later to the
desert-dwellers of Syria and Egypt. While delivering the divine message
Jewish prophets displayed outrageous and bizarre actions. The prophet's
audience was aware of his status as the God's herald and attempted to
discern the meaning of his message. Yet because of the abundance of
false prophets and madmen, the prophet's message would be repeatedly
neglected and the messenger himself would be chased away.
In the Christian context the phenomenology of
saintly madness received a new span of life as well as new semantics. In
the first century AD Apostle Paul proclaimed that
"the wisdom of this world is
foolishness before God" (1 Corinthians 01:19),
and defined Christ's apostles as fools for
Christ's sake. The Apostle Paul not only coined the term "fool for
Christ's sake", but also identified Jesus Christ as the initiator of the
holy foolish paradigm. As the Pauline texts formed a part of
Apostle, one of the most popular and widely circulated books in Russia,
they exercised a continuous influence on Russian Orthodox believers.
The theme of God's folly and foolishness for
Christ's sake is prominent in the New Testament. Gospels present Passion
as the sum-composite of humiliation, mockery, derision and powerlessness
(Matt. 27:29, 39, Mark 15:29-32, Luke 23:35-39). The holy fool's
behavioral complex testifies to his imitation of Christ as he constantly
seeks and inevitably finds humiliation, scorn, and physical suffering.
The holy fool accepts this situation with unconditional humility.
Furthermore, according to the Christian commandment to love one's
enemies "and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt. 5:44), the holy
fool spends his nights praying for those who abused him during the day.
Because of his non-allegiance to the profane values the holy fool, like
Christ himself, is a carrier of the apocalyptic message. Similarly to
Christ he reconciles in himself the divine and the profane. The holy
fool's saintly status, just like that of Christ, is recognized only
after his death. And, like Christ's, the holy fool's divine wisdom is
always taken for folly.
In the first centuries of Christianity the
notion of foolishness in Christ received close attention of Church
Fathers who championed the importance for a Christian of not polluting
his mind by profane notions and values. The wisdom of the world was
viewed as alienating one from God and therefore was deemed sinful and
erroneous. The real wisdom was regarded only the one coming from God.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Church Fathers constantly referred to
apostles as "idiots and simpletons," they drew a clear
distinction between pathological madness and God-inspired folly. Only
the latter was viewed as exhibiting reason unpolluted by a priori
notions, which alone could be susceptible to the teachings of Christ.
One of the Byzantine theologians who were most influential in Russia,
Simeon the New Theologian maintained that an ideal Christian is a simple
in heart and mind "uneducated man."
If the Jewish prophet exhibits a behavioral
paradigm similar to that of the fool in Christ, holy men of Syria and
Egypt are among his direct predecessors. Inspired by Christian
teachings, these ascetics engaged in exploits that were aiming at
self-effacement and elimination of their own will. They practiced
traditional Christian virtues of chastity, humility, and obedience in an
untraditional way. By often behaving in an ostensibly grotesque and
ludicrous manner they meant to hide their ascetic achievements. Thereby
they attempted to eliminate the possibility of pride.
Early Christian hagiographies, extensively
exploited the theme of subversive sanctity. These stories question the
value of Christian obedience and, by extension, dogma. Moreover, they
endorse such features of early Christian asceticism as secret sanctity,
paradoxes of unconditional devotion, simulation of madness and
sinfulness, challenge to the conventional notions of sin and virtue, and
others. These features of unconventional subversive holiness came to
constitute an integral part of the holy fool's behavioral paradigm.
The first paradigmatic adumbration of saintly
folly found expression in the Life of Simeon of Emesa,
which was written in the seventh century by Leontius of Napolis (d.
668). Simeon becomes a salos after many years of
practicing other forms of asceticism. He relocates from the desert to
the city where he gains for himself a reputation of a madman and a fool.
He runs around naked, relieves himself in public, lives in the streets,
washes in a women's bathhouse, and keeps the company of prostitutes. On
the other hand, he performs miracles, acts as an exorcist, and exhibits
the gift of prophesy and clairvoyance. He continues being an ascetic,
but he does not let people know about his vocation. He prays and weeps
only at night so that no one can see him. People learn about his
saintliness only after his death.
Simeon's Life served as a model to the
hagiographer of St. Andrew of Constantinople, Nikephoros (10th c.). The
Life of St. Andrew the Fool was translated into Old Russian as early as
the twelfth century. It consequently became one of the most popular and
widely emulated hagiographies. It supplied Russian Orthodox tradition
with one of its most popular holidays, Pokrov (Transfiguration) (October
Byzantine hagiographic texts presenting Lives
of holy fools were among the first samples of canonical literature
transplanted to Russian soil. The Lives of such saloi as Isidora the
Fool in Christ (4th c.), Serapion the Sindonite (d. 350), Simeon of
Emesa (6th c.), and Andrew of Constantinople (6th c.) were available in
Slavonic translations as early as thirteenth century. Subsequently these
holy fools were included in Russian pantheon of saints.
Russian holy fools were not long in coming.
Already in the eleventh century Kievan Rus had its first holy fool, St.
Isaac the Recluse (or the Cave-Dweller) of Kiev Cave Monastery (d.
1090). St. Avraamii of Smolensk (d.ca. 1220) was the next. The first
paradigmatic holy foolish Life was devoted to Procopius of Ustiug (d.
1302) It says that he was "of the Western countries, of the Latin
language, of the German land." He arrived to Novgorod as a foreign
merchant but loved Orthodox Christianity so much that he decided not
only to convert but also to embark on the ascetic exploit of saintly
folly, becoming a fool in Christ. Procopius's Life was modeled after
that of St. Andrew from where the Russian hagiographer borrowed not only
paradigmatic elements of holy foolish asceticism but also many scenes
and events. The Life of Procopius is one among many Lives that offer
Russian Christians the example of holy foolish piety by copying their
Byzantine models. There were many more holy fools to come: Theodore of
Novgorod (d. 1392), Nicholai "Kochanov" (Cabbage-Head) of Novgorod (d.
1392), Maxim of Moscow (d. 1433), Michail of Klop Monastery (d. 1453),
Yury of Shenkursk (d. 1465), Isidor "Tverdislov" (Firm-Word) of Rostov
(d. 1474), Ioann of Ustiug (d. 1494), Galaction of Therapont Monastery
(d. 1506), Lawrence of Kaluga (d. 1515), Jacob of Borovichi (d. 1540),
Basil the Blessed of Moscow (d. 1552), Arseny of Novgorod (d. 1572),
Nicholai "Salos" of Pskov (d. 1576), Ioann "Vlasatyi" (The Hairy One) of
Rostov (d. 1581), Simon of Iurevets (d. 1584), Ioann "Bol'shoi Kolpak"
(Big-Cap) of Moscow (d. 1589), Kiprian of Suzdal' (d. 1622), Procopy of
Viatka (d. 1627), Maxim of Tot'ma (d. 1650), Andrew of Tot'ma (d. 1673).
These holy fools received conventional holy foolish Lives that were
included in numerous hagiographic collections and were recited and sung
during the church services. Subsequently these fools in Christ were
canonized by the Russian Church Cathedrals.
The Muscovite period, especially fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries, yielded the biggest number of holy fools. During
the canonization processes of 1547-1549 holy fools were definitely
favored for canonization. By the end of the seventeenth century there
were twenty-three canonized fools for Christ's sake. Yet the canonized
holy fools constitute just an insignificant part of the total number of
Russian fools in Christ. The list of holy fools who were locally revered
without being canonized and of those who were canonized only locally is
The status of fools for Christ's sake within Russian Orthodox
Church has changed throughout history. The sixteenth century amounts to
the Golden Age of iurodstvo. At that time foolishness in Christ was
promoted and sponsored by the Church. The manifest veneration and
support of the holy fool by the Church comes to an end when the
Byzantine structure of the Russian state is displaced in favor of the
European pattern. This historical change started with the Church reforms
of Patriarch Nikon (1605-1681) and was finalized by the reforms of Peter
the Great (1668-1725), who subdued the Church to the State.
The modernization of Russia went parallel with
the severe persecution of fools for Christ's sake, whose paradoxical
figure came to be singled out as subversive, and whose saintliness had
been declared false. Regulations of 1646 and 1731 proscribed holy fools
from entering places of worship. In the seventeenth century holy fools
took the side of the schismatics fiercely opposing Nikon's reforms. Many
of them became martyrs. Peter the Great and his successors initiated
legislation that outlawed holy foolishness and other forms of
non-orthodox piety declaring them a threat to public order. After 1762,
madmen were no longer banished to the monasteries. Starting with 1766
according to Ukaz No. 12754 by Catherine the Great (1729-1796), the
lunatics became the domain of police. In the eighteenth century there
appeared the first lunatic asylums where holy fools could be detained
along with conventional madmen.
Notwithstanding severe repression foolishness
in Christ survived. The eighteenth century produced one of the most
popular miracle workers, Xeniia of St. Petersburg, the Holy Fool in
Christ who was canonized in 1978 by the Russian Church in exile and
later on by the all-Russian Cathedral of 1988. In the nineteenth century
the abundance of holy fools was compared to an epidemic. This time
witnessed appearance of first Russian theological works either
discussing or exclusively devoted to holy foolishness. Many Medieval
holy foolish vitae were rewritten so as to meet the classical Byzantine
pattern; many a vitae were composed anew. Influence of holy fools on the
society was such that they would become real celebrities and seers. For
example, the mental institution to which was committed Ivan Iakovlevich
Koreisha (1780-1861), became the genuine place of pilgrimages. Other
important nineteenth-century fools in Christ are Pelagia Ivanovna
Serebrenikova (1809-1884) and Kievan monastic fool in Christ Feofil
(1788-1853). None of these holy fools were canonized, yet their graves
continue to be places of attraction for the pious.
If compared to the classical Byzantine
paradigm, phenomenology of the nineteenth century iurodivyi exhibits not
only continuity but also numerous modifications. Thus, in the
nineteenth century the holy fool is considered a saint even as he lives,
therefore mocking of his figure comes to be considered a sin. Many of
iurodivye's extrinsic attributes also change considerably. They are no
longer naked. Though they could be half-naked and barefoot, could wear
usual paraphernalia of the type (chains and other metal objects), they
could also be dressed as ordinary people. Not all of them were
aggressive and some were even meek. Nor were the nineteenth century holy
fools necessarily perpetual wanderers. Many of them had homes, some
lived in rooms supplied by their benefactors, some lived in monasteries
or were committed to mental institutions. A major confusion and most of
the ambiguities in the assessment of the nineteenth-century holy foolish
phenomenology result from the fact that the holy fool was venerated
concurrently with genuinely mad. Indeed, veneration of cripples and
lunatics was common. The "poor in spirit," because of being dissociated
from mundane concerns, had in popular understanding a connection with
the sacred realm. Madness was regarded the source of their power. The
twentieth century brought forward many holy fools who perished in the
Gulag and who were persecuted by the Soviet authorities. Their Lives are
documented in numerous hagiographic and historical accounts.
The distinguishing characteristic of Russian
iurodstvo is its global character. When compared to its Byzantine model
Russian iurodstvo is clearly greater in scope. If in Byzantium holy
foolishness is a vocation of the chosen few, in Russia we find an
overwhelming number of holy fools, who, canonized or not, were venerated
not only after their death but even as they lived. Later in history
foolishness in Christ was no longer confined to religious domain but
became thoroughly secularized. If Byzantine holy fools were mostly monks
and ascetics, then Russian holy fools were predominantly lay people and
urban dwellers. As holy foolishness developed and changed it became a
part of Russian religious consciousness, and even influenced behavioral
pattern of both secular and ecclesiastical individuals among whom such
figures as Ivan the Terrible, Archpriest Avvakum, Rozanov and Leo
Tolstoy are just a few. Phenomenology of foolishness in Christ has
continuously provided material for the country's aesthetic
Bibliography: English translations of holy
foolish Lives are several. Byzantine holy foolish hagiography is
represented by two books. Derek Krueger, Symeon the Holy Fool:
Liontius's Life and the Late Antique City (Berkeley-Los Angeles-London,
1996) is a critical study of the holy fool's Life against the backdrop
of Late Antiquity. The book includes English translation of the saint's
Life. Besides being the first expose of holy foolish paradigm this Life
also contains important comments of Simeon's hagiographer. The second
volume of Lennart Ryden (ed.), The Life of St. Andrew the Fool
(Stockholm, 1995) presents the reader with the Life's Greek original and
its English translation. The discussions contained in the first volume
of the book address literary, historical, chronological, cultural,
bibliographic issues related to St. Andrew's Life.
The Life of the first Russian fool in Christ,
Isaac the Cave-dweller is a part of The Paterik of the Kievan Caves
Monastery (Cambridge, MA, 1989). Seraphim's Seraphim: The Life of
Pelagia Ivanovna Serebrenikova, Fool for Christ's Sake of the Seraphim-Diveyevo
Convent (Boston, 1979) and Vladimir Znosko, Hieroschemamonk Feofil, Fool
for Christ's Sake: Ascetic & Visionary of the Kievo-Pecherstaya Lavra
(Jordanville, NY, 1987) are translations of the nineteenth-century
Aleksii Kuznetsov, Iurodstvo i Stolphichestvo,
(Moskva, 1913) discusses Russian holy foolishness as a part of Christian
ascetic tradition. Ivan Kuznetsov, Sivatye Blazhennye Vasilii i Ioann,
Khrista Radi Moskovskiie Chudotvortsy (Moskva, 1910) contains Lives of
and services to these saints. Ioann Kovalevskii, Iurodstvo o Khriste i
Khrista radi iurodivye Vostochnoi i Russkoi Tserkvi, (Moskva, 1895) is
the first Russian theological exploration of holy foolishness. It also
gives overviews of the Lives of Byzantine and Russian fools in Christ up
to the eighteenth century.
The Life of Kseniia Peterburzhskaia can be
found in Pomestnyi sobor Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi (Troitse-Sergieva
A number of twentieth-century holy fools
are described in a collection by Ieromonakh Damaskin (Orlovskii),
Mucheniki, ispovedniki i podvizhniki blagochestiia Rossiiskoi
Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi XX stoletiia (Tver', 1992).
Articles dealing with Russian foolishness in
Christ are Richard W. F. Pope, "Fools and Folly in Old Russia" (Slavic
Review, Vol. 39, no. 3, 1980, 476-481); Michael Petrovich, "The Social
and Political Role of the Muscovite Fools-in-Christ: Reality and Image,"
(Forschungen zur osteuropaeischen Geschichte, Band 25 Berlin, 1978,
283-296); and Natalie Challis and Horace W. Dewey, "Byzantine Models for
Russia's Literature of Divine Folly (Iurodstvo)" (Papers in Slavonic
Philology, 1, Ann Arbor, 1977, 36-48)
Chapters on iurodstvo in Gerge Fedotov, The
Russian Religious Mind (New York, 1960), George Fedotov, Sviatye Drevnei
Rusi (10-17th st.), (New York, 1959), Ioann Kologrivoff, Essai sur la
saintete russe (Bruges, 1953), are good introductions to the subject.
Aleksei Panchenko, Smekh kak zrelishche.
In: Dmitrii Likhachev, Smekh v Drevnei Rusi (Leningrad, 1984) remains
one of the most important studies of culturological aspects of Russian
foolishness in Christ. Sergei Ivanov, Vizantiiskoie Iurodstvo (Moskva,
1994) is the most complete study of historical and culturological
aspects of the Byzantine version of the holy foolish paradigm. It
explores the genesis, evolution, and decline of Byzantine foolishness in
Christ. The book'bibliography is the fullest on the subject.
John Saward, Perfect Fools, Folly for Christ's
Sake in Catholic and Orthodox Spirituality (Oxford, 1980) is an
exploration of Eastern Orthodox and Catholic traditions of foolishness
in Christ. Irina Gorainoff, Les fols en Christ dans la tradition
orthodoxe (Desclee de Brouwer, 1983) discusses lives and exploits of
Russia's most famous fools in Christ.
Harriet Murav, Holy Foolishness: Dostoevsky's
Novels. The Poetics of Cultural Critique (Stanford, 1992) and Michael
Epstein, After the Future (Amherst, 1995) make use of the behavioral
paradigm of foolishness in Christ for an analysis of Russian literature.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Few taunts are sharper than those that call into question someone's
sanity. Yet there are saints whose acts of witness to the Gospel fly in
the face of what most of us regard as sanity. The Russian Church has a
special word for such saints, yurodivi, meaning holy fools or
fools for Christ's sake.
While there is much variety among them, holy fools are in every case
ascetic Christians living outside the borders of conventional social
behavior -- people who in most parts of the developed world would be
locked away in asylums or ignored until the elements silenced them.
Perhaps there is a sense in which each and every saint, even those
who were scholars, would be regarded as insane by many in the modern
world because of their devotion to a way of life that was completely
senseless apart from the Gospel. Every saint is troubling. Every saint
reveals some of our fears and makes us question our fear-driven choices.
In Leo Tolstoy's memoir of childhood, he recalls Grisha, who
sometimes wandered about his parent's estate and even into the mansion
itself. "He gave little icons to those he took a fancy to," Tolstoy
remembered. Among the local gentry, some regarded Grisha as a pure soul
whose presence was a blessing, while others dismissed him as a lazy
peasant. "I will only say one thing," Tolstoy's mother said at table one
night, opposing her husband's view that Grisha should be put in prison.
"It is hard to believe that a man, though he is sixty, goes barefoot
summer and winter and always under his clothes wears chains weighing
seventy pounds, and who has more than once declined a comfortable life .
. . it is hard to believe that such a man does all this merely because
he is lazy."
Grisha represents the rank-and-file of Russia's yurodivi.
Few such men and women will be canonized, but nonetheless they help save
those around them. They are reminders of God's presence.
The most famous of Russia's holy fools was St. Basil the Blessed,
after whom the cathedral on Red Square takes its name. In an ancient
icon housed in that church, Basil is shown clothed only in his beard and
a loin cloth.
It is hard to find the actual man beneath the thicket of tales and
legends that grew up around his memory, but according to tradition Basil
was clairvoyant from an early age. Thus, while a cobbler's apprentice,
he both laughed and wept when a certain merchant ordered a pair of
boots, for Basil saw that the man would be wearing a coffin before his
new boots were ready. We can imagine that the merchant was not amused at
the boy's behavior. Soon after -- perhaps having been fired by the
cobbler -- Basil became a vagrant. Dressing as if for the Garden of
Eden, Basil's survival of many bitter Russian winters must be reckoned
among the miracles associated with his life.
A naked man wandering the streets -- it isn't surprising that he
became famous in the capital city. Especially for the wealthy, he was an
annoyance. In the eyes of some, he was a troublemaker. There are tales
of him destroying the merchandise of dishonest tradesmen at the market
on Red Square.
Basil was one of the few who dared warn Ivan the Terrible that his
violent deeds were dooming him to hell. According to one story, during
the Great Fast, Basil presented the tsar with a slab of beef, telling
him that there was no reason in his case not to eat meat. "Why abstain
from meat when you murder men?" Basil asked. Ivan, whose irritated
glance was a death sentence to others, is said to have lived in dread of
Basil and would allow no harm to be done to him.
Basil was so revered by Muscovites that, when he died, his thin body
was buried, not in a pauper's grave on the city's edge, but next to the
newly erected Cathedral of the Protection of the Mother of God. The
people began to call the church St. Basil's, for to go there meant to
pray at Basil's grave. Not many years passed before Basil was formally
canonized by the Russian Church.
While such saints are chiefly associated with Orthodox Christianity,
the Roman Catholic Church also has its holy fools. Perhaps St. Francis
of Assisi is chief among them. Think of him stripping off his clothes
and standing naked before the bishop in Assisi's main square, or
preaching to birds, or taming a wolf, or -- during the Crusades --
walking unarmed across the Egyptian desert into the Sultan's camp. What
at first may seem like charming scenes, when placed on the rough surface
of actual life, become mad moments indeed.
It is the special vocation of holy fools to live out in a rough,
literal, breath-taking way the "hard sayings" of Jesus. Like the Son of
Man, they have no place to lay their heads, and live without money in
their pockets. While never harming anyone, they raise their voices
against those who lie and cheat and do violence to others, but at the
same time they are always ready to embrace them. For them, no one,
absolutely no one, is unimportant. Their dramatic gestures, however
shocking, always have to do with revealing the person of Christ and his
For most people, clothing serves as a message of how high they have
risen and how secure -- or insecure -- they are. Holy fools wear the
wrong clothes, or rags, or perhaps nothing at all. This is a witness
that they have nothing to lose. There is nothing to cling to and nothing
for anyone to steal. "The Fool for Christ," says Bishop Kallistos of
Diokleia, "has no possessions, no family, no position, and so can speak
with a prophetic boldness. He cannot be exploited, for he has no
ambition; and he fears God alone." The voluntary destitution and
absolute vulnerability of the holy fool challenges us with our locks and
keys and schemes to outwit destitution, suffering and death.
Holy fools may be people of lesser intelligence, or brilliant. In the
latter case such a follower of Christ may have found his or her path to
foolishness as a way of overcoming pride and a need for recognition of
intellectual gifts or spiritual attainments. The scholar of Russian
spirituality, George Fedotov, points out that for all who seek mystical
heights by following the traditional path of rigorous self-denial, there
is always the problem of vainglory, "a great danger for monastic
asceticism." For such people a feigned madness, provoking from many
others contempt or vilification, saves them from something worse, being
Holy fools pose the question: are we keeping heaven at a distance by
clinging to the good regard of others, prudence, and what those around
us regard as "sanity"? The holy fools shout out with their mad words and
deeds that to seek God is not necessarily the same thing as to seek
sanity. We need to think long and hard about sanity, a word most of us
cling to with a steel grip. Does fear of being regarded by others as
insane confine me in a cage of "responsible" behavior that limits my
freedom and cripples my ability to love? And is it in fact such a
wonderful thing to be regarded as sane? Adolph Eichmann, the chief
administrator of the Holocaust, was declared "quite sane" by the
psychiatrists who examined him before his trial.
Holy fools challenge an understanding of Christianity that gives the
intellectually gifted people a head start not only in economic efforts
but spiritual life. But the Gospel and sacramental life aren't just for
smart people. At the Last Judgment we will not be asked how clever we
were but how merciful.