Holy Foolishness (3-29-2020)

Holy Foolishness-HUP

March 31, 2019
Well, you’ll be watching out for yourself this Wednesday, right? You’ll be trying to get through the day without someone playing a trick on you (if only online) and calling out “April Fool!” (In Scotland, by the way, you’d be an April gowk, a silly sort of a bird, and in France you would be a poisson d’Avril, an April fish.)
This sort of thing around the first of April is an ancient practice. There is no commonly accepted theory of just why and how it got started on this date, but we’ve been doing it for centuries. Pranks meant to bamboozle are the order of the day. Made-up news items have been known to appear in the media. In construction work, the young and innocent may be sent for non-existent tools. They tried to pull this one on me, back in the day. “We can’t make a corner with this, it’s too short. Go tell Carl you need that concrete block stretcher out of the van.” (Glad to say I didn’t fall for it.)
It’s an occasion for such broad humor. “Oh boy, did I get you! I can’t believe you fell for that!” The April Fool is considered to be dim, or at least, gullible, and that’s the end of it for the day. However, across cultures and time, there is actually a far deeper meaning to this. There are at least three dimensions to fools and foolery: the trickster, the wise fool, and the holy fool.
Manifestations of the trickster are many. They are often seen as animals, such as Coyote among some American Indians and Anansi the spider in West Africa. American southern folk culture tells stories of crafty B’rer Rabbit who fools other, more powerful animals. Human figures are also personifications; for example, Appalachian folk culture tells stories of clever Jack, the same Jack who planted a magic beanstalk and tricked a giant out of the goose who laid the golden eggs. In modern secular culture, our trickster supreme is, of course, Bugs Bunny. Antic, uncontrollable, anarchic, causing trouble for Elmer Fudd or Daffy Duck for no other reason than that he can and has a great time doing so. We live in a world that highly values dignity, stability and control; into such a world, tricksters bring unpredictability, mockery and chaos. They upset plans, destroy control and turn even tyranny inside out.
Then there is the wise fool: Often dressed in ridiculous garb, using buffoonery, jokes, riddles, insults and mockery; saying things or doing things in an outwardly foolish way, court jesters could speak truth to power and get away with it. By their antics, their appearance, their silliness, wise fools puncture pomposity and call attention to larger and sometimes unwelcome truth.
You’ll remember the great American philosopher, Groucho Marx. In the wonderful Marx Brothers’ film, Animal Crackers, Groucho plays the famous African explorer, Captain Spaulding. At the beginning of the film, a party is being thrown in his honor and when he is introduced, his very first words are this song: “Hello, I must going. I cannot stay, I came to say, I must be going. I’m glad I came but just the same I must be going. I’ll stay a week or two, I’ll stay the summer through, but I am telling you, I must be going.”
Now how foolish is that; at your very first appearance: Hello, I must be going? How can we make sense of that? Well, if you know the Marx Brothers at all, you know their entire body of work was to play the wise fool. The premise of every joke was to start with a normal, conventional situation and then, by taking it one or two steps farther, to mock the pomposity of the wealthy and the powerful, to show that they could be weak and vulnerable like everyone else–and they did it brilliantly!
Amusing and laughable, of course; however, this is not just fun and games; in fact, in our world the Trickster and the Fool are absolutely necessary. Their mythic character personifies for us the metaphysical qualities of incompleteness, unpredictability, chaos and change, and the indispensable roles they play in the universe. The universe is dynamic and evolving, it must change in order to exist at all. Now by themselves these concepts are abstract but if we can see them in a more compelling way, such as gods or wise fools, it helps us to more easily understand how change works in the world, even if, at times, we don’t want it to change.
Fools and tricksters try our patience; they trouble us, annoy us, stir us up, because they make us confront things we’d rather not; they make us contemplate change, maybe even move us to change. Instead of calculating the main chance, instead of accommodating to the wealthy and powerful, the tricksters and wise fools will speak the truth. Instead of being motivated by greed, power, or self-interest, they are motivated by a commitment to the truth, even if it’s truth we’d rather not see.
Even more so, the holy fool. Holy fools were—and are– known in many religious traditions: Sufi Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and others. These are individuals, usually ascetics, who in service to their religious vision flout society’s conventions by giving up worldly ways and possessions, as did Francis, going about naked or in rags, acting eccentrically. They do so to offer the world a vision of spiritual truth that does not depend upon conventional learning, intellectual gifts, wealth or position.
Earlier, Rob helped us think about this kind of fool:
“Day after day
Alone on a hill
The man with the foolish grin
Is keeping perfectly still
But nobody wants to know him
They can see that he’s just a fool
And he never gives an answer
But the fool on the hill
Sees the sun going down
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning round.
Well on the way
Head in a cloud
The man of a thousand voices
Talking perfectly loud.
But nobody ever hears him
Or the sound he appears to make
And he never seems to notice
But the fool on the hill
Sees the sun going down
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning ’round.”
You see, even more so than tricksters, who can make us laugh even as they annoy us; even more so than wise fools, who can make us think even as they irritate us; the world has no use for holy fools.
And nobody seems to like him
They can tell what he wants to do
And he never shows his feelings
But the fool on the hill
Sees the sun going down
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning round.”
Holy fools see a transcendent, spiritual truth that the world would rather just ignore because such truth is uncomfortable, it threatens the existing order in which most of us have some investment. Even if we’re not in control of the world, we basically understand it, it’s predictable. If it starts to change profoundly, then what? What might be gained and by who? What might be lost and by who? Holy fools, with their vision that is not of this world, can make us very uncomfortable and so the world will always do its best to dismiss them.
The world will try to do this in two ways: At first, holy fools will be labeled, contrarian or eccentric, maybe mentally ill. They might be arrested or institutionalized, and they will certainly be treated with contempt and disrespect. Then, secondly, if they persist long enough, gather followers who are moved by their holy inspiration and begin to make some real change, the world will go along with them for a while but only so far. The holy fool, though, has a larger vision; the holy fool cannot be persuaded to stop, cannot be bought off and will never make compromises. They will continue to “make trouble” until they die and at last the world is safe from their agitation. Then, to honor their memory while avoiding any more work of real change, the world will make them into saints, which is the second way to dismiss them. We turn them into remote, holy figures who hold out a vision of perfection to which no one can attain, instead of the troublemakers they are who will keep insisting that we take one more step, one more step, which is what they were doing all along. But once they’re saints, we’re safe. We can pay them lip service, venerate them as holy, even pray to them, but we will always want to keep them up there on the altar or in the stained glass window because if we really let them engage our lives, we fear they would change our lives and through us, the world. And that makes us nervous.
The first of the Beatitude windows in our sanctuary, the first in line on the north side aisle closest to the pulpit, represents St. Francis. Our Good Shepherd window reminds of another who was so foolish as to extend the love of God to everyone and paid for it by being crucified. I think of Mother Theresa, Dorothy Day, Mahatma Ghandi, the Buddha. You may think of others.
It’s only human to want to stay in our comfort zone, only human to need stability–and that’s not necessarily bad. A world of constant turmoil and chaos could not exist for long. The dynamic of change must also exist along with the stasis of not change; as usual, it is a question of balance. Stability without change becomes stagnancy; dignity without humility becomes pomposity, power without compassion becomes arrogance. The tricksters and the wise fools call us back to balance because through humor and anarchy they bring change, humility and compassion, whether we are ready for it or not. The holy fools bring change by bringing us God’s truth, whether we are ready or not.
Of course, the reason why we are meeting online today is that, at the moment, the evolutionary imperative of change in the universe has become powerfully manifested in the coronavirus—and it’s not funny. Nobody is laughing, this is not the court jester of the wise fool, this is the chaos of the trickster god. We cannot control it, we can only cope with it, by properly reasserting stability and power, which we in this country are finally beginning to do.
The challenge, as always, is discernment. There are many fools around today; in my opinion though, not one of them is a holy fool. I’m not sure we have one just now. What we need, though is to find and cultivate the wise fools, the ones who will speak truth to power even at the risk of their jobs, of their position and authority. Those are the ones we need, and we should be listening to them. May they speak and may we listen.