During this time of year the liturgical calendar contains some of my favorite saints (and angels) celebrated at Mass and in our prayer. Of course, the Church honors a diverse array of saints throughout the year, not only because of their holiness, but because they serve as inspiration to the faithful. The saints offer hope because their lives reveal that holiness arises in many ways, and they prove that everyone has the potential to become holy no matter who they are or how they express it. Generally, the saints we find most fascinating are usually the ones that draw us to Christ: therefore, the liturgical calendar invites us to know the saints who were martyrs, ascetics, itinerant preachers, cloistered religious, those who taught the rich, served the poor, and every variety of folk who lived the gospel as an expression of their love for God. There were even those referred to as holy fools, men and women who defied convention and societal norms, drawing attention to God by living the gospel radically. Each had a unique calling, responding uniquely in kind. Thus, we can approach each and every saint to prayerfully intercede or to act as inspiration in discerning our own pathway to attain holiness.
The holy fool is perhaps the most challenging to understand since they embrace lifestyles that may seem absolutely crazy. Holy fools literally choose to become the subject of derision, though to those who grasp their lived message they are as wisdom figures, despite incomprehensible behaviors that most people would never choose personally. These people might adopt ‘strange’ habits while usually living very simply. Often they give whatever they receive as alms to those they deem poorer than themselves. Sometimes the life of a holy fool seems a bit ‘off-putting’ due to its strangeness, and there are many who would consider them insane, but if we see with eyes attuned to the gospel, their selfless generosity, mercy, and love will become apparent. The choice of lifestyle of the holy fool can wordlessly challenge our own comfortability, obliviousness toward the poor in our midst, or even our vanity, which could be why we find them so distasteful and incomprehensible. Holy fools, however, are willing to be misunderstood, in response to Jesus who was also considered a fool and a threat during His life.
Challenging as they are, it is interesting that one of the most popular male saints in church history was a holy fool and few seem to hesitate embracing him: St. Francis of Assisi (feast day, October 4). Francis traveled throughout the Italian countryside, and on occasion beyond, working with lepers and the poor, while embracing Lady Poverty, a term he used for living with complete freedom from ownership. Francis was far more than the saint who loved nature; he was a renowned preacher who sometimes stood up to authority, always with love, determination, and humility. However, some of his behaviors led to rumors, even among the Franciscans, that he had lost his mind. Francis was aware that not everyone was called to live as he did, nor did he expect it of them, which is why near the end of his life he left the community he had founded, choosing instead to live in a cave. There he received the stigmata, dying blind and frail only a few years later (at the age of 45) having lived a life of joy even in his suffering, borne of his love for Christ.
If we consider the saints carefully we will see that living a life of holiness is a choice to live counter-culturally; any time we choose to live our faith, which is (unfortunately) outside of ‘cultural norms,’ we are choosing against the values of the world and for that which is deemed foolish. Thus, we have saints who chose varying states of ‘foolishness’ such as Thérèse of Lisieux who embraced a life of obscurity, and yet even in dying young had a tremendous impact; St. Peter Claver chose to spend his life working with slaves on the ships in which they were imprisoned, ultimately dying from disease he contracted as he worked to ease their suffering; St. Andrew Kim and his companions chose martyrdom rather than to renounce Christ; St. Jerome spent his life translating the Bible and penning volumes of letters and treatises; St. Wenceslas, a king, chose to give his wealth in aid to the poor (indeed that was seen as foolish!); St. Padre Pio chose to accept the stigmata so that his suffering would alleviate that of others; and St. Faustina was ridiculed by members of her own community during her short life, working in the convent arduously while simultaneously receiving Jesus in visions, and still managing to write it all down in a rather large volume, (her Diary).
To choose to grow in holiness, a reality to which we are all called, * is what embracing our faith is about. We should never fear being considered a bit of a fool for following Jesus. As St. Paul said, “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom….” (1 Corinthians 1:25) Living the gospel will render us as fools in the eyes of the world, but if we are serious about our faith, then we should work at making God’s foolishness our own, while also inviting others into our foolishness. The saints are those who made that choice, serving humbly through works of mercy and love. They invite us to grow as they did; through their example they can guide us to live our distinct call, which in turn can inspire our brothers and sisters to go and do likewise.
May we look to the saints for inspiration, guidance, and intercession in living the call we have received! May we embrace the foolishness of God in order to gain wisdom! And may we grow in holiness as we seek to love Christ more by loving those to whom we are sent! Let us meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
© Michele L.Catanese
* One of the documents of Vatican II is called Lumen Gentium. The fifth section of Lumen Gentium is called The Universal Call to Holiness, and as the title suggests, it goes into depth as to how the call to holiness is not exceptional, but is something everyone should work toward because it is available for all the faithful. https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html
1. Dome fresco, Paradise, ca. 1378, by Giusto de’ Menabuoi (Italian, ca. 1320–1391), Padua Baptistery, Italy.
2. Icon, St. Vasily The Holy Fool, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. If you want to purchase a copy, you can find this at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-vasily-the-holy-fool-246-william-hart-mcnichols.html
3. Painting, St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, by Giotto. This is found in the Louvre in Paris.
4. My photo, climbers on Jugspitz in the Alps, Germany. This seems to be foolishness, but is it?
5. My photo, climbers on Jugspitz at their destination. Perhaps it is God's foolishness.
6. My photo, Tiffany stained glass in chapel on St. Simons Island, Georgia. Is the Nativity not God's greatest 'foolishness' of all?! Glory to God in the Highest!
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