On Holy Fools: An Excerpt from the Dream-Journal of One Among Our Ranks

I was visited by a peculiar dream last night. I dreamt I was at the Vatican for the performance of a hitherto unknown ritual, the Consecration of Holy Fools. Reader, do not blame me for this fanciful invention – this is precisely as it appeared in my dream. My memory is dim, as dim as the candlelit cathedral, but some moments of this strange ceremony remain illuminated in my mind. I saw a group of commedia dell’arte stock characters solemnly processing into the cathedral, as if they’d traded the traditional sackcloth and ashes of a penitent for their giubbe and chalky face-paint. In this ceremonial setting, all things are harmonized under the Cross of Christ. Together Pierrot and Harlequin – ever-battling clowns – bore banners with the images of saints who made themselves Fools for Christ. Before them was Colombina, wife of Pierrot and mistress of Harlequin – but these wordly discords had been forgotten by all. Chastely, demurely she walked, purified of all theatrical coquettishness, playing her characteristic tambourine along to the hymns they sang.  

The performers took places around the cathedral and arranged themselves into tableaux vivants of scenes from the Flowers of Saint Francis, images which emulated both the renouncement and the humor characteristic of the Holy Fool. I was mesmerized – I’d read accounts of such tableaux of devotional scenes being arranged during church services in late antiquity, but nothing could prepare me for how moving it was to have the lives of the Franciscan saints captured before my very eyes. In the north transept, the troupe illustrated the tale of Brother Juniper idly playing on a see-saw as the Romans impatiently awaited his entry into their city. Down the nave, St. Anthony of Padua delivered his sermon to the fishes (the vibrant, scale-like costume of Harlequin, decorated with colorful diamonds, was fitting for him to play the role of a sea-creature). In the south transept, St. Francis, wrapped only in a cloak, symbolically wed his beloved Lady Poverty, represented by Colombina in a tattered dress. As quickly and deftly as they assembled, the scenes scattered. The candles were blown out, and when they were lit again, the troupe was gathered together before the altar. 

Then, the play began. I felt that these performers were very much in the tradition of Hrosvitha. From her abbey in Lower Saxony, that 10th century nun baptized the works of Terence, recasting the Roman comedian’s profane plays to tell Christian stories. Through the light of Christ, inverter of all, the plays no longer told the tales of morally corrupt women, but painted women who glistened with Christian virtue. Yes, the classic commedia dell’arte play animates the raunchy behavior of scoundrels, but their performance for this occasion, though formatted just like one of their comedies, brought to life the unusual tales of a near-forgotten 6th century saint: Simeon the Holy Fool. 

Saint Simeon lived for 29 years as an ascetic in the desert, waging spiritual warfare against the demons that beset him. The troupe rendered these years of Simeon’s life by showing the saint, played by Harlequin, fighting with the devil like Punch and Judy battered each other in the puppet-shows of old. Finally, Simeon prevailed, and resolved to leave the desert for the city he renounced so long ago. Simeon’s companion, Deacon John, played by the melancholic Pierrot, was horrified. He devoted his life to reaching the lofty state of apatheia, and now he intends to throw it all away and return to the den of sin that is the city of Emesa? 

Simeon reassured his beloved friend: what good did he do, staying in exile from his brothers, hiding his light under a bushel? I won’t stay, he said, I will go in the power of Christ, and I will mock the world. Indeed, in becoming a fool for Christ’s sake, Simeon took radically Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians: If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise (1 Cor 3:18).  

The clowns acted out Simeon’s entry into Emesa in all its grotesqueness. Pierrot tied a papier-mache dog to his leg, just as Simeon tied a canine corpse to himself and dragged it through the city gates, unbothered by the children who taunted him, shouting “Hey, a crazy abba!” The congregation laughed heartily – not the polite laughter we share with our pastors when they crack jokes in their sermons – at the troupe’s reenactment of Simeon, acting as if he were a lunatic and not a sage, ascending the pulpit of a church and pelting nuts at the ladies. They animated another tale from the saint’s Vita – Simeon once wore links of sausages like a deacon’s stole, on which he gorged himself throughout the day (after dipping them in a pot of mustard he carried, of course). The performers adopted these edible vestments. Joyfully, playfully, just as Simeon had done to those who came to joke with him, they smeared mustard on each other. 

What can this mean? How could a saint engage in such scandalous behavior? When the troupe had finished displaying Simeon’s many antics, Colombina stepped forward and delivered these naive couplets interpreting the meaning behind Simeon’s strange acts:

–”Wherefore do you jest so?” said Deacon John

To the erstwhile hermit called Simeon.

–”Together we toiled for wisdom,” said he,  

“But the wise, it is written, fools shall be. 

This radical doctrine, I took to heart, 

Once I studied, now, in the market I fart. [1]

The motivation for this was twofold:

My actions, the people will always scold,

But by night, in shadows, away from eyes,

I serve the needy as if in disguise. 

My humility cannot be assailed,

If with rancor alone I am regaled.

And secondly, I acted these scandals 

To catch the attention of the vandals.

To stolid pastors, so few take heed,

But from the lunatic, they’ll hear the Creed.

Our Lord ever turns the world upside down,

For Him I resolved to act as a clown.” 

– “Dear brother, you speak with such eloquence,

Go, play the fool from this moment hence.”

Following their play, the performers were anointed. The commedia dell’arte troupe, thus converted and consecrated, vowed to continue traveling as they once did from circus to circus, but now they will journey from church to church as mendicants bound by the Spirit. In parishes far and wide they will perform plays which breathe the spirit of the Gospel and the lives of the saints into the hearts of the congregation. What an important role this is! Think of how we weep when we see the Passion of Our Lord on Good Friday. The medieval Church, with all its mystery plays, was replete with such liturgical dramas. These spectacles and pantomimes were like spices that made the Church piquant. The monasteries once abounded with such plays; in fits of devotion and creativity monks would raid the vestment-closets to dress themselves as angels and Biblical heroes and perform these scenes for their brothers, enchanted not by the Muse but by the Holy Spirit. Outside of the monasteries, as clergy had been banned from acting in plays by Pope Innocent III, craft guilds took it upon themselves to bring scripture most vividly to life. What better manifestation of Christ’s words, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” than neighbors gathering before neighbors to reenact together the works of God. This dream showed me just how beautiful, charming, thrilling, moving, and yes, vital our services can be if we shed our fear of creativity in worship and relearn the art of liturgical drama.

[1] Reader, if you wish to accuse me of being vulgar, you should first levy that criticism on the saint: like Diogenes before him, he was said to defecate publicly.

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