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What Is A Holy Fool?

Russian Orthodox priests with an icon of St. Xenia the Holy Fool (St. Petersburg Theological Academy/Flickr)

Evgeny Vodolazkin, the medievalist whose sensational novel, Lauruswhich I reviewed here — is set in the world of Middle Ages Russia, explains what a “holy fool” is, and the role such characters play in the Russian religious imagination. Excerpts:

The fool for Christ, or Holy Fool, is similar to a biblical prophet, prescient, but more importantly able to reveal truths. As one church hymn has it, the yurodivy (holy fool in Russian) strives “with imaginary insanity to reveal the insanity of the world.” He not only fights the insanity of everyday sins but the crimes of the mighty as well.

After devastating Novgorod during his reign in the 16th century, Ivan the Terrible moved on toward Pskov. The only person to stand up to him was the yurodivy Nikola Salos. As legend has it, he offered the Tsar a piece of raw meat out of hospitality. Ivan objected that he did not eat meat during the fast; Nikola retorted that the Tsar did a far worse thing in devouring the flesh of Christians. Startled by the encounter, Ivan the Terrible did not touch Pskov, left the people in peace, and instead returned to Moscow.

The fool for Christ, who can still be discovered in contemporary literature and films (such as Pavel Lungin’s “Island”), is someone who has broken away from society. To withdraw into such religious folly is effectively dropping out of mainstream life. It truly is a departure, because a person who chose this path usually left his home region for places where no one knew him.


The fool for Christ is not merely an eccentric. In its highest manifestation, yurodstvo [holy-fool-ness] is a kind of sanctity, but one that shuns any recognition and to this end dons a grotesque mask. It may indeed comprise eccentricity, but this is superficial. It was said of one such man who “by day he laughed at the world, but wept for it by night.”

People occasionally ask me as a historian of medieval culture if contemporary art performances are also expressions of yurodstvo. In my opinion the answer is no, as they are generally devoid of such spiritual meaning, without which there can be no yurodstvo. The fool for Christ charges around yet avoids recognition, while Bohemian artists do not flee from recognition, but rather seek it actively.

Read the whole thing. 

The protagonist of Laurus spends a portion of his life as a holy fool. As I’ve mentioned, I’m re-reading Laurus now, and am going to pay more attention to the holy fool section of the novel, reading it in light of this 2009 review essay by Ralph Wood, of two books about Dostovesky. Excerpts:

Ivan [Karamazov] is the Dostoevskian character who most fully embodies the soul-rending doubts that have become endemic to modern life. Citing the work of Isaiah Berlin, Cicovacki shows that Ivan is wracked by the three most devastating Enlightenment “humiliations” of Christian tradition: (1) the denial that man is the purpose and center of creation; (2) the insistence that man is but a creature of nature like all other animals; and (3) the discovery that reason is not autonomous and objective but subject to overt passions and covert illusions that radically distort its judgments.

Overly simply stated, Cicovacki’s argument is that Dostoevsky does not give typically Western answers to these questions. On the contrary, Dostoevsky is an anti-rationalist who insists, with Alyosha, that it is not only unnecessary but actually impossible to know the meaning of life as a condition for affirming it. In this rather existentialist reading of Dostoevsky, the great Russian is seen as providing a helpfully Eastern vision of life over against a more Western outlook.

The Eastern Church, in Cicovacki’s reading of Dostoevsky, provides the novelist a more intuitive and cyclical view of things than does the rationalist and linear West. Dostoevsky’s Russian Orthodoxy is devoted to a mystical sense of the earth as more our mother than our sister; it is committed to the God who is more immanent than transcendent. Dostoevsky regarded life as too contradictory, Cicovacki argues, to be comprehended and lived on strictly rational grounds. As Dostoevsky himself confessed, “there is nothing more fantastic than reality itself.”


Ivan Karamazov ends in cruelty and madness because he will not embrace such a harsh and contradictory world. He demands tounderstandwhy the universe is full of purposeless suffering before he willembraceit.

Dmitri, by contrast, finds newness of life because he gradually discerns, with Alyosha’s help, that God creates a partially indeterminate cosmos in order to leave room for human freedom. Authentic faith is the willingness to affirm the complementarity of good and evil—indeed, to embrace the God “who lacks any discernible essence and who is the God of existence, the God of the mysterious flow of life,” writes Cicovacki.

Dmitri does not search for the meaning of life but the experience of being alive. He does not ask what the meaning of life is but senses that it is he who is being asked. Dmitri understands that he is being questioned by life and that he must answer with his own life. His answer consists in reverence and awe for life—he serves this life without any demands for rights, or pretensions of greatness. Dmitri is the incarnation of the affirmation of life, even in the face of evil. If there is a hero inThe Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri is it.


Wood continues to reflect on Truth and Reason in Dostoevsky, as discerned by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury:

Williams’s basic thesis is that, for Dostoevsky, love is always a difficult and often deceptive thing, never something obvious and uncomplicated. On the contrary, it’s the demonic that would make life horribly easy.

Ivan Karamazov’s famous claim that, “if God is dead, then all things are permitted” is much more satanic than the traditional reading indicates. He is not simply stating the rather obvious notion that, if there were no afterlife to guarantee justice for the good and punishment for the evil, then everyone would eagerly serve his own will, all restraint being lifted, all crime becoming legitimate. What he really and terribly means is this: If God is dead, then the ego must occupy his vacant place. In the absence of God, there is no transcendent order for determining the difference between atrocity and beauty, between love and hatred of neighbor, between virtue and vice—except as the solitary self decides. No wonder that Nietzsche, the apostle of autonomous will, declared God to be dead at virtually the same time Ivan was making his own pronouncement.

One more passage:

It follows that Dostoevsky’s Devil is not, like Goethe’s Mephistopheles, a friendly “spirit who negates,” a naughty “imp of the perverse,” who keeps life from becoming an endless Sunday-school picnic of tedious yea-saying. He is, instead, the deceptive specter who leaves us in suspense concerning his own reality or unreality: “We do not know,” Williams declares, “what it is that emerges from our own intelligence [as hallucination] and what is given to us and required of us from beyond ourselves—both the vision of God and the vision of total meaninglessness.”

Yet there is hope for Satan’s final defeat and thus our own undeception. The arch dissembler cannot dwell forever, Williams writes, because “he is locked out from the self-commitment of bodily and temporal life and thus from the self-risking of love.” Though Ivan Karamazov ends in demonic insanity, he at least retains the miserable integrity of his unbelief. Dostoevsky might have enabled him (if he had lived to write his sequel to The Brothers Karamazov) to become a holy fool in the Orthodox tradition—a man who, like St. Basil of Moscow, so totally abandons himself to God that he doesn’t bother to wear clothes.

Please do read the whole essay. And check out this piece telling the story of St. Xenia of St. Petersburg, who is one of the most famous and beloved of all holy fools. It’s astonishing. The only figure in Western Christianity that seems parallel is St. Francis of Assisi, when he stripped naked in the town square to rebuke his father and to declare himself God’s alone.

Laurus, like The Brothers Karamazov, is the kind of book that reveals sanctity and mystery so intensely that it is hard to remain unchanged by it. It’s not a novel that you “figure out”; as you read it, it is also reading you. Here’s a link to ordering it online.
Here’s a link to my interview with author Evgeny Vodolazkin. New York readers of this blog will see at the end of that interview details about the two NYC appearances Vodolazkin is making next week, on Monday and Tuesday, when he’s in town from his home in St. Petersburg.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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