Essay / Theology

Basil the Holy Fool

Today (August 2) is the day the Russian Orthodox church commemorates Basil of Moscow, the Fool for Christ.

Basil was a poor serf, a shoemaker’s helper, who acted crazy for Jesus. He went around naked; he had no home; he talked funny; he took things from merchants and gave them away to the even poorer. He yelled at Ivan the Terrible for napping in church.

This is not typically the kind of behavior that makes people famous for sanctity. But the most recognizable church in Moscow (the one by the Kremlin, that looks like a polychrome, onion-dome, gingerbread fantasia) is named for him: St. Basil’s Cathedral.

The Russian churches have a sort of unofficial category to put people like Basil into: they call them yurodivy, or Holy Fools. They have recognized dozens of them, from Barankis of Egypt to St. Procopius of Usya to Xenia of St. Petersburg to John the Hairy of Rostov. Ambiguously mad like a Shakespearean clown, Holy Fools could get away with speaking truth to power (“Wake up, Ivan!”).

The most popular Holy Fool in literature is Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

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