Orthodox Commentary on Theology, Ethics, and Culture
Sunday, January 24, 2016
How to Become a Holy Fool: Homily on St. Xenia of St. Petersburg, Fool for Christ
It is easy to forget that our ways are not God’s ways, that there is usually a stark difference between what is popular and what is holy. He has given us some pretty unusual people to make that point clear through the example of their own lives. They are known in the Orthodox Church as “Fools for Christ” who, though perfectly sane, acted and spoke in ways that made them appear crazy in the eyes of many and went against the grain of their societies. Through their unique witness, they called their neighbors to the life of a Kingdom not of this world.
If that seems strange, remember how St. Paul said that the cross of Christ is foolishness according to conventional human ways of thinking. (1 Cor. 1:18) Recall how absurd it seemed to the Jews and the Gentiles to claim that the Son of God was born of a Virgin Mother, died on a cross, rose from the tomb, and ascended into heaven. We often forget that even the most basic teachings of our faith seemed at first like nonsense to most people.
Today we commemorate Saint Xenia of St. Petersburg, Fool for Christ, who in the early 18thcentury in Russia became a widow when her husband, a military officer, died suddenly. A young widow with no children, she gave away all her possessions to the poor and vanished from society for several years, devoting herself to spiritual struggle in monastic settings. When she returned to St. Petersburg, she took up the life of a homeless wanderer, wearing her late husband’s military uniform and answering only to his name Andrew. She prayed alone at night in open fields, endured the extreme cold with inadequate clothing, lived among beggars, and suffered abuse from many for appearing insane. She secretly carried heavy stones at night to help with the building of a church and gave the alms she received to the poor. But she embraced her struggles with patience, abandoning pride in all its forms and praying for the soul of her departed husband. In Xenia’s humility, God gave her great gifts of prayer and prophecy, and she foretold future events such as the death of a Russian empress.
During her lifetime, some recognized her holiness and sought out her blessing and guidance. After Xenia’s own death at age 71, her grave became a source of miracles with many people taking dirt, and even pieces of a stone slab, from it as a blessing. (If it seems odd that a grave could be a source of blessing, recall how the bones of prophet Elisha brought a dead man back to life in 2 Kings 13:21.) St. Xenia is a well-known and much-loved saint whose prayers are sought especially for employment, housing, or finding a spouse.
Across the centuries, the Lord has raised up such unusual saints in order to shock us out of our complacency, in order to remind us that there is far more to becoming a partaker of the divine nature (2. Peter 1:14) than leading a conventionally respectable life. St. John the Baptist and Forerunner anticipated the fools for Christ, for he lived in strict asceticism in the desert on a diet of locusts and honey, spoke judgment upon the established religious leaders of the Jews, and dared even to tell the royal family to repent of their sins, which ultimately cost him his head. Our Lord’s disciples and apostles were no less bold and unconventional as they followed a path to martyrdom in sharp contrast to what Jews and Gentiles thought of as a good life in that time and place. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that the apostles were truly “fools for Christ’s sake…” ( 1 Cor. 4:10)
When Christianity became legal and popular in the early 4th century, monks and nuns headed to the desert to bear witness by their life of prayer and self-denial to a Kingdom that stands in judgment of even the best human culture or society. And especially when people are tempted to water down what it means to take up their crosses and follow Christ, He gives us the witness of holy fools who mock the pride and presumption of the world and embody in their own lives a humility that brings to their knees all who have the eyes to behold the spiritual meaning of their shocking example.
St. Paul called himself the chief of sinners in his first letter to St. Timothy. After all, he had been a highly respected Pharisee and persecutor of Christians before the Risen Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus. We can be sure that everyone who knew Paul at that point in his life thought that he had totally lost his mind and was a complete fool for becoming a follower of Christ. He wrote that he “received mercy for this reason that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display His perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in Him for eternal life.” (1 Tim. 1:15-16) If the Lord’s mercy extended even to such an enthusiastic persecutor of Christians, then there is hope for us all.
Unfortunately, it is all too easy for us to be blind to our need for the Savior’s mercy. We may pat ourselves on the back for having the wisdom to become Orthodox Christians. We may take credit for not committing obvious crimes that we see other people doing. We may rejoice that we think we have all the solutions to the problems of our nation and world, if only our opponents and enemies would start to think like we do. The only relevant question as we stand before God, however, is very different, for it concerns whether we have the eyes to see clearly who we are, Who He is, and then to live accordingly. In other words, we must know in the depths of our souls that we are in constant need of divine grace, mercy, and blessing which we do not deserve and cannot produce ourselves. Our life in the world must become an icon of the heavenly Kingdom, not an end in itself. That is why Christ sent, and still sends, His holy fools to wake us up, to shake us out of our complacency in assuming that all is well and that it is only others who need to change their ways. No, repentance always begins with us and easily makes us appear somewhat foolish in the eyes of the world.
Unfortunately, faithful Christians today do not have to try very hard in order to look like fools. When we forgive those who have offended us, refuse to hold grudges, and do good to our enemies, some will not know what to make of us. When we give sacrificially to help those in need, whether members of our own parish, victims of war and persecution in the Middle East, or pregnant women in our own city looking for an alternative to the horror of abortion, many will think we are wasting our money. When we see and serve Christ in our neighbors, regardless of their race, nationality, wealth, social standing, or any other human characteristic, some will think that we are naïve and dangerous. When we reserve sexual intimacy only for the uniquely blessed union of husband and wife and turn away from entertainment that inflames our passions and fills our souls with temptation, we may be laughed at or insulted. When we make prayer, fasting, and attendance at church services more important in our lives than laziness, self-indulgence, or our obsessive routines and preoccupations, we will be out of the mainstream. And when we live out our ultimate loyalty to Christ and His Kingdom in contrast to the usual politics and social expectations of this world, we should expect to be called fools.
If we live this way, we will put ourselves in the place of the blind beggar in today’s gospel reading who called out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” even when others told him to be quiet. When they did so, that blessed man cried out all the more for the Lord’s mercy. Like the blind beggar, we will receive our sight when we persist in falling before Him in humility with every ounce of our being, no matter what anyone else may think or what they may say. That is what all the Fools for Christ have done by their actions and their words. They gained the spiritual clarity to see that the nonsense around which we usually order our lives is a terrible distortion of the truth that so easily becomes a false god.
Christ surely does not call us all to the rare ministry of a Fool for Christ like St. Xenia, but we may all learn from her example that the humility of embracing our constant need for mercy is at the heart of faithfulness to a Lord Whose Kingdom is not of this world. There must be something of the holy fool in us all, if our eyes are to be opened to a truth that the world does not yet see. So let us not be afraid to live accordingly and to be out of step with the conventional wisdom, for that is how we will follow Him through the folly of the cross to the glory of the empty tomb. For Christ’s foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of the world, and He is its salvation.