Blessed Anastasia Andreevna, Fool-for-Christ Vladikavkaz
(reposed in the Lord on the December 24, 1932)
Commemorated on March 1
“You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.”
If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God (1 Cor 3:18-19).
For most of us, St. Paul’s words are reminders to focus on God’s love, mercy and glory, and to put submission to His will ahead of the transient things of the world. But some devout followers have taken his advice further, and become what we call “Fools for Christ.”
Some of the Old Testament prophets are seen as forerunners of the Holy Fool: Isaiah walked naked and barefoot for three years, Ezekiel lay before a stone and ate bread baked on cow dung. Hosea married a harlot. They performed these strange and unsavoury acts to highlight Israel’s infidelity to God, warning His people of what was in store for them if they didn’t repent and turn back to Him.
In our faith, Holy Fools often serve the same purpose as their Old Testament counterparts: that is, to warn a city, or a parish or a monastery about their failings and turning away from God. But their behaviour often isn’t just that simple, and to be a Holy Fool is a difficult and dangerous calling. It requires someone to reject the values of the world, and sometimes, even to seem to reject the teachings of the church. They forfeit the acceptance of others, and they act in ways that often convince people they are insane. It’s not unusual for holy fools to spend time locked up in madhouses and asylums, or to find themselves mocked, beaten, and thrown out of churches and monasteries. It’s not a way of life most people can tolerate or understand, either to do it or to be around it.
Some of the fools for Christ are in fact “faking it.” They act the way they do because they want to keep their humility and extreme piety a secret from everyone but their spiritual fathers. St. Isadora, of the Tabenna monastery, is one of the earliest examples of a fool for Christ who was more than likely faking mental illness. For the sake of humility, she wore a dishrag on her head, undertook the dirtiest and least rewarding jobs in the monastery, drank dirty dishwater and endured with meekness, humility, and silence the contempt and disdain of her sisters. Her cover was blown when a monk showed up one day at the monastery, demanding to see her and claiming God had shown her to him in a vision. Once they discovered how truly holy she was, she left the monastery and disappeared from history. St. Alexander of Constantinople is another example—he feigned madness with everyone but his spiritual advisor and disciple, and suffered greatly because of it.
Love for Christ and His Cross, love even unto death, and a willingness to imitate Him, are alive in the heart of every fool-for-Christ. In fools-for-Christ this love is taken to an extreme. The means to achieve it are through denial of this world and its wealth, exercised with the help of grace at a supernatural level. Spiritual wandering and freedom amounting to anarchical individualism develop to full extent in the life of a fool-for-Christ. Contempt for any kind of form or reasonable limits, thirst for the absolute in everything, abhorrence for any generally adopted rules, narrow-mindedness in any form – all these things are fully expressed in foolishness-for-Christ. All these things are flouted and mocked at by fools-for-Christ for the sake of Christ and His Truth. Believing in transformation in the life to come, the fool-for-Christ is sanctified by the Cross and infinite sufferings It brings. This is the synthesis of the innermost aspirations of a Russian and the final clue to the almost superhuman podvig of yurodstvo – foolishness for Christ’s sake.
The essence of this exploit is in a voluntary acceptance of humiliation and insults in order to achieve the height of humility, meekness and goodness of heart and by this to cultivate love even for one’s enemies and persecutors. It is a life-and-death struggle not only with sin, but with the root of sin – pride in all its secret displays. A fool-for-Christ (yurodivy) is determined to follow the crucified Christ and to live keeping completely away from all earthly comforts. But at the same time he is aware that such behaviour threatens to create for him the reputation of a saint among the people and to strengthen his self-love and increase his pride as being one of God’s elect – which is one of the most dangerous rocks in one’s struggle for sanctity. So as not to be taken for a saint, a fool-for-Christ rejects the outer aspect of dignity and composure of mind that inspires respect and prefers to appear a miserable, weak creature, deserving mockery and even violence. Deprivations to which they subject themselves, their heroic, almost superhuman ascetic podvigs – all this must seem to be devoid of any value and to evoke nothing but contempt. In other words it is a complete denial of human dignity and even any spiritual value of one’s own being – humility raised to a heroic degree and at times, as it may seem on the surface, falling into the extreme. But in the heart of a fool-for-Christ lives the memory of the Cross and the One Crucified, the slaps on His face, the spitting and the flagellation, which encourages them at any moment to endure any reviling and oppression for Christ’s sake.
Fr. Stephen Freeman: The holy fools fly in the face of this deepest of human emotions. To a certain extent, their actions mock our fears, and frequently reveal the truth of our lives. Their voluntary foolishness unmasks our own efforts to hide our foolish self. It is interesting that the phenomenon of the holy fool has had such a wide and persistent presence in Orthodoxy. To a certain extent, holy foolishness lies at the heart of the monastic vocation. What kind of a fool would want to give up every intention of family and children and renounce all property? What kind of fool lives in a cave and nearly starves? Of course, over time, monasticism has acquired its own patina of acceptability, even provoking admiration. The holy fool in history frequently mocks such pretense and forces even monastics to come to their senses and face the truth of their naked existence.
For the Vespers Aposticha the Stichera.
In Tone II: O House of Ophrah.
Thy life like the sun shines forth in the hearts of the faithful, * emitting miracles; * wherefore illumine with the never-fading light * us also who honor thine all-honorable memory.
After the Polyeleos, the Sedalion: In Tone IV:
Spec. Mel.: Speedily prevent.
Thou appearest wonderful in thine endurance, * pleasing unto Christ in every way; * thou hast, O most blessed Anastasia, * strengthened thy soul with wise contemplations, * and subjugated the flesh to the spirit; * electing to practice virtue in order to labor wholly for God’s sake, * manfully didst thou say: * The winter may be severe, but paradise is sweet; * painful is the work, but blessed is the spiritual meadow. * Wherefore, O most blessed one, supplicate Christ our God to save our souls.