Every day do something that won’t compute: A sermon on Holy Fools

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Texts: 1 Corinthians 3:18-20; 4:10-13; preached at East Barnard Church, East Barnard, VT, on July 5, 2015

In college for a brief while, between Biology and Philosophy, I was a Psychology major, and in my sophomore year I took a class called Psychopathology, or Diseases of the Mind. We learned not only about addictions and mental illness, but also about the attitudes many people—including clinicians who work with the mentally ill—have about people with brain disorders. In one famous experiment, Dr. David Rosenhan, along with seven associates, went undercover in mental hospitals. They started by faking auditory hallucinations, the most common type of hallucination, and one that you can experience simply by not getting enough sleep. Once they were in the hospitals, though, they acted perfectly normally, told doctors they felt fine, and proceeded to take notes on their treatment and the doctors’ behavior.

Despite the fact that none of the volunteers had any form of mental illness, all but one were given a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and they had to agree to that diagnosis and to being medicated to be released from hospital. The doctors’ case notes also showed that the biographical details given by the volunteers had been twisted, with certain elements highlighted and others suppressed, in order to show the possible origins of their mental illness. One volunteer, taking notes for Dr. Rosenhan, was characterized as showing “pathological writing behavior.” But most disturbing was the dehumanization of the volunteers, and, one can only assume by extension, the other patients, who were truly suffering from mental illness. They had no privacy, being watched sometimes even while going to the bathroom, and their belongings were randomly searched. Though the staff of the various hospitals were for the most part well-intentioned, they tended to treat their patients as objects without experiences and voices of their own, even talking about them while the patients were right there! And then there was the length of the volunteers’ stays in hospital: seven to fifty-two days, with an average of nineteen. Dr. Rosenhan himself said, “I told friends, I told my family: ‘I can get out when I can get out. That’s all. I’ll be there for a couple of days and I’ll get out.’ Nobody knew I’d be there for two months!”

After reading about this experiment, my professor had us all undertake a simpler version: we were to choose a “deviant” behavior, go out in public, try it out, and note people’s reactions. We had to take at least two friends with us, just in case of conflict or police involvement. I took some friends to a local mall, and acted out a variety of odd behaviors, including sitting on the floor and rocking back and forth (something I will do at home or with close friends, when I am tired or stressed), trying to pay for food with my school ID card, and trying to run up the down escalator, giggling.

For a dramatically-inclined and energetic 19-year-old, it was an interesting and exciting project, and I had great fun writing up my experiences for my professor. But I look back on it and I’m struck by what I learned about being “deviant,” which is people’s lack of patience with you, their suspicion, the way they follow you around the store, the way they can’t wait for you to leave.

I was thinking about this experiment because I wanted to talk today about Holy Fools. Our reading from 1 Corinthians this morning, which the tradition of the Holy Fool is rooted in, is set in a peculiar context: the church at Corinth, lately founded by Paul and still “infants in the faith,” is acting all high and mighty. They believe they’ve got the whole following God thing down, that there is nothing left to learn, that they have attained the heights of spiritual life . . . and then Paul comes along to say that they are not even spiritual people. They have become elitist and factional, adding to the teaching they received so as to seem more holy. Ultimately, they have embraced an arrogant stance that has fragmented the church into little groups, each believing themselves better than anyone in any of the other groups.

It’s into this context that Paul writes, rather pointedly, that all their apparent learning and righteousness is completely beside the point. Comparing himself to them, he contrasts his own “foolishness” with their so-called wisdom, showing that it is ultimately worthless. “We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.” Basically, his message is: everything you are doing to gain higher status, to look worthy and powerful in the eyes of the world, is less than nothing compared to the power and wisdom of God. The moment you think you’re doing pretty well, you’re lost. When you’re following the ultimate force of Truth and Love, you have to be willing to look foolish. Paul explains by describing his and his fellow apostles’ own behavior: “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly.” In other words, we repay good for evil, never being provoked into self-righteousness. But of course, such holy behavior is looked at by the world as foolish, even as madness.

Yet self-righteousness and arrogance continue to plague us; hence the tradition of the Holy Fool. The Holy Fool takes his or her inspiration from this passage in 1 Corinthians, refusing to react the way the world expects him or her to react, instead accepting the dominant culture’s judgment that they are rubbish, to use Paul’s word, or worthless and simple, to use the words of St. Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis is the most famous Holy Fool in the tradition of the western church, though that label is rarely applied to him. But Francis, like other fools before and after him, continued to hold onto the fact that God is with the lowly: the poor, the uneducated, the sick, even the animals, and he made his ministry a sign of that belief, choosing, for example, to embrace lepers and give away all his money and possessions. Francis was born into a well-to-do family of fabric merchants, and after his conversion, he stole his father’s fine cloth, sold it, and gave the money to the poor. When his father demanded Francis repay him for the cloth, Francis took all his clothes off in the town square, as a rejection of his father’s priorities and privileges, to symbolize the utter need and powerlessness of the poor, and to show on whose side he wanted to stand.

In Francis and other Holy Fools, we see a commitment to Christianity as a religion of the oppressed. The 2nd-century pagan Celsus characterized Christianity as “a religion of women, children and slaves,” because it accepted and valued such people. In an era of religions that valued gnosis, or knowing, early Christianity affirmed that people didn’t need special education to come to God. It affirmed God’s love and care for the humble and disadvantaged.

Another goal of holy fools was to point out the hypocrisy of the elite. My favorite holy fool, St. Symeon of Syria, would fast in secret all throughout Lent, then show up on Good Friday in the church dooryard with a string of sausages around his neck and a pot of mustard in one hand, dipping sausages in the pot and eating them. Now, eating meat on Good Friday was utterly taboo, so this was a shocking way of calling out the well-to-do, who ate and drank lavishly throughout Lent, not caring a whit for the poor, then showed up at church on Good Friday to parade their piety before everyone else. In secret he helped the needy and performed healings and preached the gospel. He danced in public with prostitutes and in secret brought them food and wine when they were hungry. Though he had great personal holiness and great reverence for the Eucharist, he would go to church, extinguish the altar candles, and throw nuts at the priests.

In a way, the Holy Fool goes undercover into the world the way Dr. Rosenhan went into mental hospitals: pretending to be crazy. They act crazy for several reasons: first, in the way they imitate Jesus, to show that truly following Jesus looks insane to the culture of success and propriety. Second, to show solidarity with and create a safe haven for the marginalized, whether they’re homeless or sex workers, the poor and starving, or those suffering from mental illness. Holy Fools show not only that people with mental illness are holy, but that they have a dignity and voice of their own, and a valuable perspective on the world. And third, they point out the ways our larger culture is really the crazy one. It is crazy to esteem someone because you see them in church every Sunday, even if they steal from the poor to line their own purse during the rest of the week. It is crazy that our ideas about personal property mean that some people starve to death, in a world where there is enough to go around. It is crazy that we should espouse the belief that everyone is equal, and yet treat them so unequally. It is crazy that we say we love God and our neighbor, when we couldn’t care less about what happens to some of those neighbors.

My loose topic for this summer’s sermons has been hidden treasure: the ancient, lesser-known practices and people in the Jewish and Christian traditions that have something to teach us today, that show us some form of liberation despite vast cultural differences between their time and ours. And I think, when it comes to Holy Fools, that what they have to teach us is this: that we are most sane when we don’t care whether others think us crazy, and that when we truly claim God and God’s message of love, we will appear improper, inappropriate, or even offensive to friends, family, and acquaintances, not to mention to the rest of the world. They remind us that those filled with God’s love—Jesus, St. Francis, Rumi, live extravagantly, not caring about others’ regard.

The Eastern Orthodox theologian Jim Forest writes, “Holy fools pose the question: Are we keeping heaven at a distance by clinging to the good regard of others, prudence, and what those around us regard as ‘sanity’? The holy fools shout out with their mad words and deeds that to seek God is not necessarily the same thing as to seek sanity. . . . Does fear of being regarded by others as insane confine me in a cage of ‘responsible’ behavior that limits my freedom and cripples my ability to love?”

I am reminded of Wendell Berry’s poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” In it, Berry contrasts the “sane” culture’s emphasis on quick profits and the security state with a crazy-seeming, slower, ecological lifestyle. In the sane culture, you are at the beck and call of the powers that be: “When they want you to buy something / they will call you. When they want you / to die for profit they will let you know.” Berry’s advice is as follows:

“So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands. . . .

“Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. . . .

“Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.”

Amen.

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