Fools for Christ

“IF FATHER ABBOUD HAS ANYTHING and you need it – you can have it.” The saying, common during the depression about the Melkite pastor in Omaha, Nebraska, was reported in his obituary in the Morning World Herald. The writer continued, “He prepared and cooked most of his meals and did his own housework. Once in a great while he smoked a cheap cigar. Food and raiment were things needed, but not desired.” This may not have been so unique as to be newsworthy in those difficult days, but the writer surely thought it was.

St Paul described his own ministry in similar terms: “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” (1 Corinthians 4:11-12). What little he had, Paul earned by working at his trade rather than relying on the support of believers. Later in the epistle he elaborated: “Do we have no right to eat and drink? Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working?” (1 Corinthians 9:4-6)

At the same time St Paul insisted that there was nothing wrong with receiving one’s support from the Church – that was what the Lord wanted: “Do you not know that those who minister the holy things eat of the things of the temple, and those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar? Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel. But I have used none of these things…” (1 Corinthians 9:13-15) Unlike other apostles and pastors, Paul supported himself by working at his trade. He gave up the possibility of family life and stability to be a traveling apostle throughout the Mediterranean world, bringing the Gospel to whomever would receive it.

Paul’s way of life was different from that of the other apostles, even Peter (Cephas), and the members of the Lord’s own family, like St James. He did what was not required or even expected for the sake of reaching people for Christ. He described his lifestyle in words that would echo through the ages: “We are fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Corinthians 4:10).

Folly in Our Day

Over the centuries the Church has used this term – fool for Christ’s sake – to describe a number of people whose Christian life has embraced the “foolishness” of the Sermon on the Mount. In the West it is often used to describe people who lived the way few of us would in order to serve the destitute and the outcast. Dorothy Day and her mentor Peter Maurin, founders of the Catholic Worker Movement, are regularly described in this way. They have been compared to St Francis of Assisi in proclaiming their beliefs, not simply by words, but by the way of life they embraced. They lived by the simplicity of the Gospel rather than the values of this age.

Other contemporary Western saints like them have struck a cord among believers and unbelievers alike. Saints like Damien of Molokai, Marianne Cope and Teresa of Calcutta lived among and, to a degree, like the lepers and unwanted they served. Their Gospel, like Paul’s, was lived as well as preached.

Folly in the Christian East

In the Eastern Churches the term “Fool for Christ’s Sake” has been given to a different type of witness. Eastern “Fools” are those who have lived on the fringes of, if not outside, the society of respectable Christians. They imitated folly and even pretended in some case to be deranged in order to proclaim the Gospel to those who could no longer comprehend it. Perhaps the most famous was St Basil the Wonder-worker of Moscow, who could rebuke Ivan the Terrible and get away with it because , living on the streets, he had nothing to lose. It is ironic that the most lavish – and eccentric – cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin is named for him.

A near-contemporary Fool for Christ was a bakery worker in an Athens suburb who was popularly known as “Crazy John.” He regularly bought two large bags of bread from his wages and distributed them to the elderly and poor in his neighborhood. He never took credit for his actions, always saying that the bread was “a gift from mister Apostoly the baker, so that you will commemorate him in your prayers.”

Fools for Christ often display a kind of spiritual sight, a particular gift of the Holy Spirit. One day John did not show up for work. He was found cleaning out the storm drains in his neighborhood, claiming that he was looking for two coins he had lost. Later in the day a flash flood inundated the area – except for Crazy John’s neighborhood which sustained no damage because the storm drains had been cleaned!

Over the years Crazy John came to be revered in his neighborhood for the care he showed to those in need, both spiritually and materially. He lived many of the stories told about St. Nicholas in his own way. To the amusement of his neighbors he would often buy large amounts of women’s items from the market. One day someone followed him and found him secretly leaving these items at the doors of poor women who could not otherwise afford them. When he died, his former employer offered this extraordinary eulogy, “God may not have made him a priest, but He surely anointed him a bishop in our neighborhood.”

We Are Called to Folly

When St Paul wrote about the Christian life, he insisted that folly should be part of every believer’s way of living “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise” (1 Corinthians 3:18). He was contrasting the way of the Gospel, the way of Christ, with the practices of those who are “wise in this age,” who know how to operate the system which is our worldly society to their best advantage. They know the right people, the right moves, the way things are done in any given culture – not to benefit others but to secure their own comfort or to enrich themselves. They personify “the wisdom of this age” to the admiration of many.

Every age and social class has its “wisdom.” In the Gilded Age of nineteenth century New York, socialites yearned to be one of “the 400,” invited to Mrs. Astor’s dances. A century later ordinary people long to be seen on TV or meet “celebrities.” For those who heed St. Paul, however, the folly of the Gospel way of life triumphs over the wisdom of this age. To be in Christ is preferable to being “in the club,” of whatever social, business, or religious elite people “of this age” aspire to belong.

St. Basil of Moscow – Fool for Christ (Commemorated August 2)

Your life, O Basil, was true and your chastity undefiled. In fasting, vigilance and exposure to heat and frost you subdued your flesh for the sake of Christ. Therefore your countenance shone with the brilliance of the sun. Today the faithful glorify your holy falling-asleep. Implore Christ to deliver us from all bondage, dissension and war, and to grant great mercy to our souls!