Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Kenotic Foolishness

Today the Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of St Xenia of Petersburg, the Fool for Christ. Although a relatively recent saint, and one about whom few concrete historical facts are known, she is widely venerated not only in the Russian Church, but throughout the larger Orthodox world as well. Here follows a relatively brief life of the Blessed Xenia, compiled by Jane M. DeVyver:
Blessed St. Xenia was a "fool-for-Christ," who, for 45 years, wandered around the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia. For the first 26 years of her life, Xenia had lived quite comfortably. However, after her husband suddenly died, the Holy Spirit led her to give away all her possessions to the poor. She put on her dead husband’s clothes and called herself by his name, saying that Xenia had died. Homeless, she lived in the streets all year round for 45 years, owning only the ragged clothes on her back. The Holy Spirit also led her to give away her mind and her heart to God. By giving everything away, she became rich in humility, simplicity, self-denial, kindness, and deep and profound love for all. By pretending to be insane, she showed how insane the world and its values are. By denying herself the comforts of a home, a bed, decent clothes, food, and the appearance of being "normal," she helps us to examine what really is important in life, and what really is "normal." By her self-denial, Blessed St. Xenia daily died to her old self and daily lived only for God. She trusted totally that God would provide for her, as He provides for the birds.

During the day she wandered the streets, dressed in rags, enduring heat and cold, snow and rain, mocked by people. At night she went out into the fields and prayed all night, and at other times she spent the night at the Smolensk Cemetery. It was at this cemetery that she helped the workmen build the Church of the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God, by secretly carrying bricks up the scaffold during the night. One night the workmen hid to find out who was helping them, and discovered that it was "crazy Xenia." Whenever someone gave her alms, she immediately gave it to the poor. As the years passed, the Holy Spirit filled Xenia with greater riches, and she became increasingly blessed. After a while, some people started to notice that "crazy Xenia" wasn’t so crazy after all, but was an instrument of divine grace, to whom had been given deep spiritual powers: she could see into people’s hearts and into the past and future, and appeared to people in visions. Anyone whom she touched was blessed. Because she gave up living for herself, she was able to live for others, helping those in need. She especially helped families, children and marriages, as she continues to do today.

After she fell asleep in the Lord, around 1803, she continued to help those who asked for her assistance. Throughout the 19th century, tens of thousands of people came every year to her grave, and countless miracles occurred. In 1902 a chapel was built over her grave in the Smolensk Cemetery, located on the western end of Vasiliev Island in St. Petersburg. This chapel has now been reconstructed, again welcoming the pilgrims who come there every day, and the miracles continue to occur. For 200 years people have turning to the Blessed one, and she has been helping them. Her great spiritual power and her deep love for people transcend the grave and are manifested daily. One of the most popular of God’s "chosen ones," her canonization in 1988 was official recognition of what the faithful had long witnessed and experienced.
It should be mentioned that the canonization (or, better, glorification) mentioned in this life is that performed by the Moscow Patriarchate. The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which was then still separated from the Church in Russia, glorified St Xenia ten years earlier, in 1978. In fact, one can watch a few brief but deeply moving video clip of the glorification service led by Metropolitan Philaret of blessed memory at the Synod Cathedral in New York City here.

The Scriptural foundation for the podvig (ascetic labor) of foolishness for Christ's sake comes from St Paul's words to the Corinthians: "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" (I Cor 3:18-19). Compare that with these words about St Xenia: "By pretending to be insane, she showed how insane the world and its values are." In this way we could even call her a witness to the foolishness of the world, a martyr who suffered from the counterfeit wisdom of this world.

There is a widespread romantic idea of holy fools as raving lunatics able to speak prophetically, almost a sort of insane oracle. Yet the true fools for Christ's sake, those commemorated as saints, were not for the most part mentally ill in any way. Their foolishness was above all to give them an opportunity to root out their pride through being humbled and humiliated, mocked and laughed at. And since they had literally nothing to loose, they were able to speak without fear, even to kings.

They "self-emptied" themselves in imitation of Christ Who descended from His place at the right hand of the Father, took on the very flesh and blood of the very human race He had created, preached the Gospel to both the lowly and the powerful, and died mocked and scourged. For this reason G. P. Fedotov spoke of this ascetic labor (as well as of some others) as being a human kenosis or self-emptying, in imitation of Christ's own kenosis. (See Philippians 2:7.)

For a bit more on the remarkable phenomenon of the "fool for Christ," along with a list of saints venerated as "holy fools" by the Orthodox Church go here. The best and most theologically grounded treatment is in Jean-Claude Larchet's invaluable volume, Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing: Teachings From the Early Christian East.

A practical word of caution: foolishness for Christ's sake is at the very least an attempt to hide one's virtue and sanctity by acting foolish. Those of us without virtue or sanctity had better leave this to others.


the student said...

The Fool-for-Christ is a very intriguing and perhaps a vexing individual in that it seems hard to make sense of this individual. My first encounter with this type of phenomenon, though in a very different manner, is with Friedrich Nietzsche. An author, Elliot Freidman I believe, was demonstrating how Nietzsche never did have a mental breakdown and instead his “insanity” was a choice he made, a “philosophical” move perhaps. I then found it much more interesting, upon becoming Orthodox, of how there are these individuals and Saints that are considered Fools-for-Christ. With the little knowledge I have about them, I understand them to be seeking the highest wisdom through kenosis. Unfortunately, I haven't encountered Mr. Larchet's book yet.

Felix Culpa said...

I'd sooner say that Nietzsche was a Fool-for-Antichrist! But I get your point.

But there is certainly an ironic stance within the philosophical tradition, going back at least to Socrates, who played the fool. Or think of the Cynics and their provocative animal-like public behavior.

There is, however, a significant difference between the philosopher-fool and the holy-fool. You characterize the latter as "seeking the highest wisdom through kenosis." I wouldn't put it that way. True saints don't look for rewards, be it praise, or wisdom, or even holiness. They act above all out of love. It's also a bit paradoxical to include the words "highest widom" and "kenosis" in one sentence. Kenosis is self-emptying, lowering oneself, poverty -- things that people would normally be shamed of. If anything, such a life is chosen to lead them to the depths of humility.