Kallistos Ware, Metropolitan of Diokleia
“The door opened and there stood a figure totally unknown to me. Into the room walked a man of about fifty with a long pale pock-marked face, long gray hair and a scanty reddish beard… He wore a tattered garment, something between a peasant tunic and a cassock; in his hand he carried a huge staff. As he entered the room he used the staff to strike the floor with all his might and then wrinkling his brow and opening his mouth extremely wide, he burst into a terrible and unnatural laugh. He was blind in one eye, and the white iris of that eye darted about incessantly and imparted to his face, already ill-favored, a still more repellent expression… His voice was rough and hoarse, his movements hasty and jerky, his speech devoid of sense and incoherent… He was the saintly fool and pilgrim Grisha.
“Where had he come from? Who were his parents? What had induced him to adopt the wandering life he led? No one knew. All I know is that from the age of fifteen he had been one of ‘God’s fools,’ who went barefoot in winter and summer, visited monasteries, gave little icons to those he took a fancy to, and uttered enigmatic sayings….”
All over Russia, at various times, there were numerous such figures. Significantly enough these figures did not always elicit a positive response and a real discernment was necessary. Ware:
“Tolstoy speaks of the sharply conflicting opinions that others held about Grisha: ‘Some said he was the unfortunate son of wealthy parents, a pure soul, while others held that he was simply a lazy peasant.’ The fool is equivocal, enigmatic, always a disturbing question mark. When dealing with the vocation of folly for Christ’s sake, it is an exceptionally delicate task to distinguish genuine from counterfeit, the holy innocent from the unholy fraud, the man of God from the drop-out…. How are we to ‘test the spirits’? The frontier between breakdown and breakthrough is not clearly marked.”
The holy fools were called to intense foolishness so they would be rejected by the society, because it was only through that rejection that they could truly minister to the truly needy. The rule of life of the holy fool was, “no healing without solidarity, no salvation without participation.”
The Inner Kingdom, Kallistos Ware, Kallistos (Metropolitan of Diokleia), St Vladimir’s Press, 2000, p. 175
We all felt a little uneasy in the thick darkness, so we pressed close to one another and said nothing. Before long Grisha arrived with his soft tread, carrying in one hand his staff and in the other a tallow candle set in a brass candlestick. We scarcely ventured to breathe.
“Our Lord Jesus Christ! Holy Mother of God! Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!” he kept repeating, with the different intonations and abbreviations which gradually become peculiar to persons who are accustomed to pronounce the words with great frequency.
Still praying, he placed his staff in a corner and looked at the bed; after which he began to undress. Unfastening his old black girdle, he slowly divested himself of his torn nankeen kaftan, and deposited it carefully on the back of a chair. His face had now lost its usual disquietude and idiocy. On the contrary, it had in it something restful, thoughtful, and even grand, while all his movements were deliberate and intelligent.
Next, he lay down quietly in his shirt on the bed, made the sign of the cross towards every side of him, and adjusted his chains beneath his shirt–an operation which, as we could see from his face, occasioned him considerable pain. Then he sat up again, looked gravely at his ragged shirt, and rising and taking the candle, lifted the latter towards the shrine where the images of the saints stood. That done, he made the sign of the cross again, and turned the candle upside down, when it went out with a hissing noise.
Through the window (which overlooked the wood) the moon (nearly full) was shining in such a way that one side of the tall white figure of the idiot stood out in the pale, silvery moonlight, while the other side was lost in the dark shadow which covered the floor, walls, and ceiling. In the courtyard the watchman was tapping at intervals upon his brass alarm plate. For a while Grisha stood silently before the images and, with his large hands pressed to his breast and his head bent forward, gave occasional sighs. Then with difficulty he knelt down and began to pray.
At first he repeated some well-known prayers, and only accented a word here and there. Next, he repeated thee same prayers, but louder and with increased accentuation. Lastly he repeated them again and with even greater emphasis, as well as with an evident effort to pronounce them in the old Slavonic Church dialect. Though disconnected, his prayers were very touching. He prayed for all his benefactors (so he called every one who had received him hospitably), with, among them, Mamma and ourselves. Next he prayed for himself, and besought God to forgive him his sins, at the same time repeating, “God forgive also my enemies!” Then, moaning with the effort, he rose from his knees–only to fall to the floor again and repeat his phrases afresh. At last he regained his feet, despite the weight of the chains, which rattled loudly whenever they struck the floor.
Woloda pinched me rudely in the leg, but I took no notice of that (except that I involuntarily touched the place with my hand), as I observed with a feeling of childish astonishment, pity, and respect the words and gestures of Grisha. Instead of the laughter and amusement which I had expected on entering the store-room, I felt my heart beating and overcome.
Grisha continued for some time in this state of religious ecstasy as he improvised prayers and repeated again and yet again, “Lord, have mercy upon me!” Each time that he said, “Pardon me, Lord, and teach me to do what Thou wouldst have done,” he pronounced the words with added earnestness and emphasis, as though he expected an immediate answer to his petition, and then fell to sobbing and moaning once more. Finally, he went down on his knees again, folded his arms upon his breast, and remained silent. I ventured to put my head round the door (holding my breath as I did so), but Grisha still made no movement except for the heavy sighs which heaved his breast. In the moonlight I could see a tear glistening on the white patch of his blind eye.
“Yes, Thy will be done!” he exclaimed suddenly, with an expression which I cannot describe, as, prostrating himself with his forehead on the floor, he fell to sobbing like a child.
Much sand has run out since then, many recollections of the past have faded from my memory or become blurred in indistinct visions, and poor Grisha himself has long since reached the end of his pilgrimage; but the impression which he produced upon me, and the feelings which he aroused in my breast, will never leave my mind. O truly Christian Grisha, your faith was so strong that you could feel the actual presence of God; your love so great that the words fell of themselves from your lips. You had no reason to prove them, for you did so with your earnest praises of His majesty as you fell to the ground speechless and in tears!
Nevertheless the sense of awe with which I had listened to Grisha could not last for ever. I had now satisfied my curiosity, and, being cramped with sitting in one position so long, desired to join in the tittering and fun which I could hear going on in the dark store-room behind me. Some one took my hand and whispered,
“Whose hand is this?” Despite the darkness, I knew by the touch and the low voice in my ear that it was Katenka. I took her by the arm, but she withdrew it, and, in doing so, pushed a cane chair which was standing near. Grisha lifted his head looked quietly about him, and, muttering a prayer, rose and made the sign of the cross towards each of the four corners of the room.
Childhood by Leo Tolstoy: XII. Grisha
Tolstoy’s autobiographical trilogy: Childhood (1852), Boyhood (1854), and Youth (1856). Translated by C. J. Hogarth