Fools for Christ


Is this an image of the Church? This moving image shows a person who appears to be a strict-observance Franciscan praying in St Peter’s Square before the white smoke appeared.

The western Church had St Francis of Assisi himself. One of the loveliest things ever said about St Francis was by Oscar Wilde as he languished in Reading Gaol:

There is something so unique about Christ. Of course just as there are false dawns before the dawn itself, and winter days so full of sudden sunlight that they will cheat the wise crocus into squandering its gold before its time, and make some foolish bird call to its mate to build on barren boughs, so there were Christians before Christ. For that we should be grateful. The unfortunate thing is that there have been none since. I make one exception, St. Francis of Assisi. But then God had given him at his birth the soul of a poet, as he himself when quite young had in mystical marriage taken poverty as his bride: and with the soul of a poet and the body of a beggar he found the way to perfection not difficult. He understood Christ, and so he became like him. We do not require the Liber Conformitatum to teach us that the life of St. Francis was the true Imitatio Christi, a poem compared to which the book of that name is merely prose.

Some of those words were in my mind as we saw the back of Benedict XVI and first heard the name Francis. May the new Pope prove worthy of this chosen name and a new period of Romanticism and poetry in our faith:

To me one of the things in history the most to be regretted is that the Christ’s own renaissance, which has produced the Cathedral at Chartres, the Arthurian cycle of legends, the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the art of Giotto, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, was not allowed to develop on its own lines, but was interrupted and spoiled by the dreary classical Renaissance that gave us Petrarch, and Raphael’s frescoes, and Palladian architecture, and formal French tragedy, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Pope’s poetry, and everything that is made from without and by dead rules, and does not spring from within through some spirit informing it. But wherever there is a romantic movement in art there somehow, and under some form, is Christ, or the soul of Christ. He is in Romeo and Juliet, in the Winter’s Tale, in Provencal poetry, in the Ancient Mariner, in La Belle Dame sans merci, and in Chatterton’s Ballad of Charity.

There is something Wilde saw in a way that seemed not to be the spirit of Churches, but from elsewhere, from the genius of a wisdom beyond wisdom. Wilde more than paid for his indiscretions! He died in ignominy with only the comfort brought to him by Parisian friends and a Catholic priest.

Francis lived the life of a fool for Christ, the ultimate asceticism. Not only did he give up his worldly wealth but also his reputation as a human being. We find the same thing with St Benedict Joseph Labre, the despised vagrant but holy man in the streets of eighteenth-century Rome.

The Orthodox have a long tradition of fools for Christ and perhaps a greater compassion for the mentally ill and feeble-minded than we do. There are those who have little between their ears, and there are those who give up everything for Christ. The Russian term for this is юродивый. It describes the fool for Christ, one who is known for his apparent but holy insanity or at least eccentricity.

The notion is found in St Paul (I Corinthians iii.18-19):

Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.

Oscar Wilde was a cultured and brilliant man, and he could hardly be called devout, yet there was something he understood in the depths of his suffering as a common prisoner.

The greatest form of asceticism is the combat against pride, which is the root of all sin. To accomplish this, some not only shed their worldly standing, status and possessions, but also their very human dignity. Wisdom in foolishness exposes the evil of this world by humour, symbol and metaphor.

See Diveyevo’s Holy “Fools” for further information about this unusual type of spirituality.

It is partly this notion that has inspired the theme in this blog of the Goliards, as I expressed in The Goliards then and now and my many reflections under New Goliards. The Goliards themselves were outlawed and marginalised clergy and vagante monks, who often made a nuisance of themselves in medieval society, yet remained believers and religious men.

Perhaps it would take a vast melt-down of Rome’s official institution for this kind of spiritual lyricism to find new inroads. Is this what Pope Francis is about? If so, I’m with him in spirit!

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