From St. Francis and the Foolishness of God
Biblical Foundations for the Fool of God
A long tradition of fools exists within the Bible. In the Hebrew scriptures we see Jeremiah parading naked in the streets of Jerusalem to drive home a prophetic point. In the New Testament we first catch sight of John the Baptist wearing a camel skin; eating grasshoppers and honey; and hanging out in a desert inhabited only by wild beasts, demons, madmen, and an occasional saint. John is a hard one to follow in this mad-cap comedy, but the apostles manage to bring the house down. In the ecstatic moment of Pentecost, they reel like drunks in the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus himself is the head clown of this tradition, the divine fool who, “despised and rejected,” calls us to a different way of being and living in the world, a way fundamentally at odds with the accepted norms of behavior. Jesus is the ultimate fool of God, who fulfills a long prophetic tradition and unleashes a message and a new way of life that the world continues to call foolish, irrational, impractical, and dangerously naïve.
The apostle Paul heard this invitation and so began to proclaim this message:
For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the learning of the learned I will set aside. Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish? For since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith. For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:17-25)
Paul called himself and other messengers of the gospel, “fools for Christ.” And these fools pursued a path of discipleship in the world that led to rejection and ridicule, imprisonment, and, for some like Paul and Peter, even torture and execution by imperial power. Paul called the message of the gospel a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles. But it was not only the message itself, but also the community that gathered around the message that appeared foolish in Paul’s world.
Consider you own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)
Not many are wise, not many are powerful, but God chose what is foolish and weak to shame the wise and strong; God has chosen what is foolish in the world to bring down the wise. The foolishness of God is God’s way of working in the world, using the most marginalized and disreputable as companions in this journey toward liberation. God chose the most unlikely instruments for radical change. It is this community of marginalized people taking on the world with hope, power, and vision that is the most outlandish thing of all.
The Fool in Francis
The tradition of the fool continues throughout the history of the church, springing up in different times and places. We see it in individuals like Saint Basil of Russia, who wept with sinners and denounced the czar, who stole the merchandise of dishonest merchants, and threw rocks at the houses of the respectable. But nowhere do we see this tradition more clearly than we do in Francis of Assisi.
The worldview of young Francis and his companions was shaped by a romantic vision of the medieval royal court. The courtly ideal for Francis was to become a knight, dedicated first to the service of the king and to a “lady” of the court whose praises he would sing, whose safety and honor he would vouchsafe. It is one of those divine ironies that Francis’s sense of vocation shifted from this image of the knight in the royal court to that of the court jester. The fool in the royal court of the Middle Ages was often derided, the source of amusement, the object of mockery. But fools served the court in invaluable ways by mocking the courtly pretensions of power and ambition. Almost everything about the court, even the king, was fair game for the jester because of the tacit agreement that the role of the jester was to remind the court of the limits of its power.
And so Francis became the “fool for Christ,” exposing the limitations of the “Earthly” court in the light of Christ. We can reflect on the “foolishness” of Francis in stories of his kissing the leper, giving away money, stripping himself naked, always singing, preaching to animals and birds, accepting ridicule and humiliation joyfully, and seeking the suffering of the cross. We can see Francis walk unarmed into the enemy’s camp, take on the monumental task of rebuilding the church, and risk being transformed himself through deep relationships with the other. We have reflected upon his willingness to walk to the edge of security, to lose everything in order to be faithful, and to challenge strongly held cultural, economic, and political norms.
Raoul Manselli, a noted biographer of Francis, has pointed out that it was as fools for Christ that Francis and his community were able to evangelize large crowds, not only in Assisi or in Italy, but throughout Europe and beyond. Because the original Franciscan community was limited by the official church to what was called the exhortation for penance, they were not allowed access to the pulpit to preach sermons. Their church was in the street, square, marketplaces, and fields. Their congregation was comprised of ordinary people engaged in everyday life; their medium was a combination of exhortation and theater that struck the popular imagination in a way that learned sermons on Sunday failed to do. As fools for Christ, the friars were prepared to accept the fickleness of those they sought to evangelize. As marginalized themselves, the message of the Franciscan community was “totally outside the bonds and limitations of common logic and yet still capable of containing deep, painful, and decisive truths.”
The most basic inspiration of the Christian tradition of the fool is identification with Christ crucified, active participation in the poverty, nakedness, homelessness, and humiliation of the Lord. The fool is willing to accept the humiliations, risks, ostracism, rejection, and even violence evoked by faithfulness to the gospel and resistance to evil. We have seen how Francis embodied this identification to the point of bearing in his own body the wounds of Christ on the cross. We have seen how Francis lived this identification with the crucified Christ by living in solidarity with the crucified of the world, the marginalized poor. This is the tradition of the fool expressed as the via negativa, the negative way.
But Francis embodied the via positiva as well, the positive way in the tradition of the fool, by his unbounded capacity for joy, his sense of ecstatic union with all things, his sensual delight in the created world, his singing of the Lord’s song to all creatures; by his sense of the comic and the absurd, his willingness to be the occasion for laughter and amusement, and his gratitude for all things. Francis, as the fool for Christ, united in himself the gospel as both tragedy and comedy.
Foolishness of God at Work and Play in the World
The Franciscan (and divine) “option for the poor” appears utterly foolish in the context of Western civilization today, fundamentally subversive of the thinking, practice, and power upon which the “social order” is rested. Franciscan foolishness turns on its head all that is called wise by the powerful. Franciscan “weakness” transforms the power itself.
Creative appropriation of this foolish way of being in our world requires that we embrace the discipleship journey with abandon. We will experience the subversive joy known by Francis only if we risk embracing the lepers of our day and relinquishing the privilege and wealth that preclude such an embrace. We, too, are invited into dialogue with the ones we know as enemy, with the other, with creation itself, and with our own pain and suffering.
For Jesus and Francis and for ourselves, this foolishness is essentially embodied in the life of the community of believers:
- to relinquish the security of possessions in the society unable to take risks only makes sense if our ultimate security rests in God;
- to walk away from the familiar and comfortable in order to follow an unknown path of love and service requires the support of cobelievers;
- to believe that we can and must participate in the transformation of the world is best balanced by a loving community that reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously;
- to ask “Why?” and to free ourselves from the ideological captivity of a consumer society is only possible when the road is shared.
The fool in our times honors the Creator in all persons and all things, finds profound joy in the possibility of reconciliation across cultural and racial difference, seeks harmony with the rest of the created order, and is a nonviolent promoter of life.
The fool is in the world but not of the world. The fool finds identity not in that which our society acclaims – appearance, accomplishment, affluence, power, consumption – but rather in the discipleship journey toward God.
The fool knows that we and all created things are sacraments of God. The fool believes in and knows by experience the world of the Spirit.
The fool lives in paradise, ridiculing the powers and principalities, because, with Jesus and Francis, the fool in our times remembers the end of the story, the Reign of God.