Holy Fools by Rev. Linda Hoddy

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"Holy Fools"
March 25, 2001, Rev. Linda Hoddy

Who are the Holy Fools? Are you among them? Next week is April 1st, April Fool’s Day. All of us are susceptible to being fooled, and some of us may even be perpetrators of foolery. It is a good time to ask what we might learn from some of the world’s great fools. In history, the Fool has a very special and exalted position, even in church. In fact, some religions intentionally construct a role for their holy fools. They honor them and invite them in, especially on feast days. Others, usually those with much to lose, have fools foisted upon them. Alas they have to learn their lessons the hard way.

One of the traditions where fools are suffered gladly is in Native American cultures. In his mystery novel, The Sacred Clowns, Tony Hillerman describes a modern day performance of the koshare – the sacred clowns of Southwestern Indian culture. One character explains:

I used to know a Hopi man who was a koshare at Moenkopi. He would say to me: "Compared to what our Creator wanted us to be, all men are clowns. And that’s what we koshare do. We act funny to remind the people. To make the people laugh at themselves. We are the sacred clowns." (104)

The Koshare team come to a "ceremonial" and "put on little skits. [to] Sort of call attention to things that are wrong in the pueblo. Make fun of it." (11) The Koshares disrupt the festivities with their antics. In the one described by Hillerman, a sacred clowns runs to the line of Kachina dancers, pulls the Kachina out of line and shouts. "This one is mine. This one is mine." The next Koshare "is riding a stick horse." The next is "wearing a black homburg hat, and pedaling a toy car so small that his bobbing knees were as high as his hunched shoulders. White dollar signs were painted on the red toy and it dragged a flat black object also decorated with dollar signs. Behind the car came a third man, strawhatted and dressed in a blue three-piece business suit. He was pulling a toy wagon loaded with assorted objects and with sign boards attached to its sides." Their point? To make fun of "how humans try to possess everything."(10)

Some version of the fool appears in virtually all cultures, as it is an archetypes, one of the universal patterns that arises out of our collective unconscious. Wes Nisker has written a book about the crazy wisdom which comes to us through our holy fools. He says that the fool is the "most potent of the archetypes" (30), and also "the capable teacher of crazy wisdom." There are actually two kinds of fools: "the foolish fool and the great fool." The foolish fools are inept and silly. They are the ones we see "every day when we look into the mirror or walk down the street."

Great fools, on the other hand, are very rare. They are "wise beyond ordinary understanding."

Closely related to the Fool are his cousins: the clowns, jesters and the tricksters. All challenge convention, turning cherished beliefs and rules on their heads. Their motive is to cause us to doubt the truths we are so sure of. Says Nisker,

"They spread doubt about our beliefs, our abilities, our motives, our institutions, our sanity, our loves, our laws our leaders, even our alliteration. Clowns and jesters have grave doubts about our attitudes. ‘Is this seriousness really appropriate?’ [they ask] Others, such as the spiritual crazy wisdom masters—the holy fools – call into question our entire understanding of ourselves and the world." (Nisker, 19)

Islam has given us the holy fool, Mullah Nasrudin. As Mullah, Nasrudin is supposed to be the revered teacher and leader. But usually, he turns out to be the village idiot or eccentric sage. There are many stories about Nasrudin. Here is one about him as preacher:

When Nasrudin was asked to speak to the congregation at the mosque, he went up to the front and asked, "Oh people, do you know what I have come to tell you?"

The crowd answered, "No."

Nasrudin then said, "If you don’t know what I have come to tell you, then you are too ignorant to understand what I was going to say."

And he left the mosque

But the people knew he had great wisdom, so they invited him back the next week.

This time when Nasrudin asked the congregation if they knew what he was going to tell them, the crowd answered, "Yes."

"Fine," said Nasrudin, "then I don’t need to waste your time."

And once again he left the mosque.

But once again the people invited him back, thinking the next time they could convince him to talk.

When he arrived on the following week, Nasrudin again asked the congregation if they knew what he was going to tell them.

This time, Half of the people answered back, "Yes," and half of them answered back "no".

"Fine," said Nasrudin, "then those who know should tell those who don’t know, and I will be on my way."

- (Nisker, 32-33)

Judaism has a whole town of fools. The town of Chelm has spawned almost a literary genre- the stories of Chelm. One particularly charming version of how Chelm came to be is called The Angel’s Mistake, by Francine Prose:

Long ago, on a lovely day, two angels flew through the sky. Since no angel is ever asked to do two things at once, each angel carried one bag. One of the bags was full of intelligent souls. The other angel carried a bag of souls that were . . . not so clever.

The angel’s mission was to sprinkle the towns and cities with souls, making sure that each place got an equal mixture of smart people and fools.

But the angels were so busy enjoying their flight on that lovely day that the angel in charge of the foolish souls swooped too low over a rocky mountain top . . .

The bag of souls snagged on the jagged peak – and broke!

All the stupid souls spilled out, rolled down the side of the mountain and landed in one little town. The Town of Chelm.

Of course, the people of Chelm were too stupid to know that they were stupid. They called themselves the wise men and women of Chelm, the smartest town in the world. They had an answer for everything.

When the man who woke them for morning prayers got too old to go from house to house, they took their doors off the hinges and brought them to him so he could knock on their doors without leaving his yard. They went barefoot in the snow so their shoes wouldn’t get wet. When it rained, they wore their hats upside down to keep them dry. They made jam from the pits of peaches and plums and threw the rest of the fruit away.

Once when the rabbi bought a fish in the market, he took it home in his pocket. When the fish’s tail slapped the rabbi’s face, the people decided to punish the fish by drowning it in the lake. The wise men and women of Chelm had many meetings in order to put their brilliant minds together and solve their problems. They debated what to do with the earth from the hole they had dug for the foundation for a new synagogue. They decided to dig another hole and put the earth in that. But then what should they do with the earth from the second hole?

And when they finally constructed the synagogue, they built it without a roof so their prayers could rise directly to heaven.

Well, eventually, the citizens of Chelm are so un-clever that they burn down their town when they start a fire in the school house in order to light the night. The fire company arrives with a truck of logs, attempts to smother the fire with logs,

But of course the wood made the fire burn harder. By morning the town of Chelm was a heap of smoking ashes.

"What now?" wailed the citizens of Chelm as they looked at their ruined town.

They tried and tried to rebuild it – but their plans never came out right.

So the Grand Rabbi of Chelm decided they all should leave the town.

Some went this way, some went that way, some to this city, some to that, a few here, a few there. They scattered everywhere – which was just what the angels had intended on that lovely day when they flew over the little town of Chelm.

Perhaps the most famous holy fool of Judaism is the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. Like his holy fool colleagues, he advocated a life of simplicity – in terms of both thought and possessions. He taught people to live in the moment, with great energy and joy. "If I love God," he asked, "what need have I of a coming world?" (Nisker, 67)

A fool you might have recently encountered is the Fool from the Tarot cards. He , appears in our modern playing cards as The Joker. Nisker describes the fool as the first of the tarot deck, the "only unnumbered card." He "represents the nothingness from which the universe emerged. As the zero, the Fool himself has no value; he is outside the boundaries of number or sequence, outside all categories, beyond good and evil. With the Fool, anything can happen, and all things, even death, are equally worthy of his perpetual smile." (32).

Nisker describes how holy fools of the east and holy fools of the west take a different approach. In the East, the Taoists and Zen masters "learn to ride the currents and surrender to the flow. They become friends with insecurity, making doubt their guide and each moment their god." In the West, "visionaries like Christ or the Sufi poet Rumi pass through doubt into the certainty of their own uncommon visions and lose themselves in love of God or the oceanic Oneness, living thereafter in an altered state." (37)

Both streams teach us to "see through the veils of illusion to the unity of all existence," although they use different language to convey similar ideas. Jesus claims to be the Son of God, and says that we are all children of God, all "emanating from the same divine source." The Zen sages tell us everything is one, and that our separate "selves" are simply a "painful illusion".

Often holy fools live in voluntary poverty, because acquiring wealth is thought to build up the self and thereby block the "path to unity." Living in poverty, the fools often identify with the poor. Almost inevitably, they are forced into the role of rebel, and lead populist movements to "shake up the existing political and spiritual orders." As Nisker says, "the greatest of holy fools have been out of favor with the priesthood and often in trouble with the law."

St. Paul encouraged being a "fool for Christ." St. Francis of Assisi became enlightened, then stripped himself naked and renounced his inheritance. He made friends with all creatures, and called his Order of Little Brothers, "jesters of the Lord." We admire the Franciscans today for their "joyous and playful ways", their kindness to animals and their gentle manner.

Well, I could go on. Fools are legion, even holy fools. But what does it have to do with us? Just this, we are all called at some point in our lives to be holy fools. I was a holy fool when I undertook commuting 183 miles weekly to divinity school with a four-year-old, an eight-year-old, and a husband who couldn’t "get" why I would do such a thing. I was joined in holy foolery by the seven of us who started this congregation. People in churches around us objected that we would steal their members, contending that this church was unnecessary. They said, "Let them drive to Albany or Schenectady or Glens Falls. It isn’t that far." Holy or not, we fools persisted, and it’s so nice to see you here today.

If you were called to be a holy fool, what would you be called to do? To sell all you have and give to the poor? To blow the whistle on the pollution of your company? To call them to account for racial or age discrimination? To abandon a boring career and leap into insecure creativity? What are the unspoken truths you need to speak to power?

A Unitarian Universalist who plays with a Holy Fool is my colleague Webster Kitchell. For many years, Kitchell served our church in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Borrowing from the Native Americans’ trickster, Coyote, Kitchell has written several books of "encounters" with Coyote. He calls them "Conversations with God’s Dog." Like the jesters and holy fools of old, Kitchell and Coyote poke fun at UU’s, pointing out some of the ideas and places to which we are, as the Buddhists say, "over- attached," our taboos, places we go in great discomfort. Here is an excerpt from "Coyote Wants to Know What’s All this God-Talk?"

I hadn’t seen Coyote around, what with the cold weather, I guess. So I was surprised to see him lounging in the passenger seat when I came out of the church.

"Good heater," he commented. "Okay stereo."

"You want better transportation," I said, "hang out at better churches."

"The elite with better transportation see coyotes only as road hazards," he said. "They don’t see the magic."

"Where you been?" I asked.

Arizona. Chasing roadrunners, dodging Cadillacs," he replied.

How come you’re back?"

"Prayers," he said.

"Prayers?" I didn’t figure it.

"Prayers", he said emphatically. "Prayers from members of this very congregation!"

"I didn’t know there was any praying going on in this congregation," I said. "I’ll have to investigate. See what can be done. Can’t have people disturbing our minor deity on vacation."

"You’re the cause of it!" he said reproachfully and accusingly.

"Me? What did I do?"

"Talking about God. First it was the Republicans, then it was the three sermons on God, then Christmas. More than some of your people can stand."

"And they got in touch with you? Through prayer?"

"Something had to be done, so they appealed to a higher power."

"Coyote," I said, "this doesn’t make sense. Some of the people who apparently don’t like to hear the word ‘God’ in a Unitarian Universalist church are appealing through prayer to a minor deity such as yourself to help them in their time of need?"

"Why doesn’t it make sense?" he asked all innocence.

I thought to myself that maybe I’ve been in this business too long. I’m missing the subtleties.

"Well", I said, "I may be simpleminded, but I would think people who didn’t want God mentioned in the church wouldn’t appeal to a god, even a minor one."

"Ah!" he said. "I see your point. Perhaps it is the contrarian in them that liked the irony."

"And what is your position on this?" I asked, really quite puzzled. "I mean, I thought the gods liked being mentioned in church."

"It’s got to stop, Reverend, it’s got to stop."

I started the truck. "I think we need some nourishment and stimulation for this conversation, "I said.

"Right!" he said, cheerful now. "Theology goes better on a sugar high!"

"It’s a manic pastime," I agreed.

We wheeled into the donut shop and, after a little sniffing with the other coyotes to catch up with what had been happening, we settled down with some sugar bombs and caffeine, the church person’s drug of choice.

"Explicate this conundrum, please," I said.

"Thou shalt have no other gods before me," he said sternly.

"Oh, Coyote, come on! Be serious! That’s Yahweh’s line. Next thing, you’ll be handing me two tablets of stone."

"A few guidelines might not be amiss."

"Where was this place in Arizona?" I asked.

"Top secret!" he smirked.

"But still accessible to humanist prayers?" I muttered under my breath.

"The gods have conferred," he said pompously, "and they forbid you to teach from that book A History of God."

"The gods are forbidding me to use a book on theology?" I was incredulous.

"It makes the concept of God too comfortable," he said, "which makes the gods uncomfortable."

"You mean it makes you human creations! Is that it? Is that what’s getting to your egos?"

"Of course," he said smugly, "You Unitarian Universalist humanist heretics don’t like being called children of god and we gods don’t like being called the creations of humans."

"And how do the humanists fit into this? Why did you respond to the non-God faction in this church? What have they ever done for you?"

He looked down his snout as though I was quite naïve. "Atheists take their gods seriously!" he said vehemently. "They do not condescend to make gods into human creations, into human ideas." He spat out the last world. "They deny that gods exist, which means they take the existence of gods seriously. Actually the gods love atheists. Atheists deny the existence of gods, but the gods don’t deny the existence of atheists. Which is why atheists exist. Everything exists at the pleasure of the gods. You see the irony of it don’t you?"

He smirked, held out a donut, examined it smilingly, and popped it into non-existence. I could see him doing the same to an atheist who had at last bored him. Perhaps we are all sugar-coated donuts waiting in a box for the pleasure of a god. Not a pleasant thought while in conversation with one.

"I see what you mean," I said. "You think my recent god-talks do not take the gods seriously enough as existing quite apart from human imagining."

"Or not existing," he said. "Your free choice."

"But you don’t like us to call you human creations, is that it? Is that where the guidelines are necessary?"

"Exactly!" he said. "Now if you will pay the waitress and excuse me, I’ll be getting back to the Superstition Mountains of Arizona."

"Not so fast, fur face!" I said.

He looked aghast.

I had his attention.

I put my finger in front of his schnoz and wagged it. "Let me tell you something, fur face," I said. "You gods have been playing hide-and-seek with humans for hundreds of centuries. You have been playing with our minds, driving people crazy with your now-you-see-us, now-you-don’t. You’ve been creating wars. You have been deceiving beautiful young maidens, . . You hide in the storm and refuse to let the electron microscopes or the telescopes see you. Yet you tantalize the creationists. You endorse the supposed divine right of kings and the burning of books and maybe even the burning of a few Unitarians and Universalists who were trying to appeal to your better nature and hide your demonic side. You have a lot of gall to demand any sort of respect from humans or belief in you. We could have done a lot better without you."

Well, Coyote and the Unitarian Universalist Minister continue their conversation, ranging from the Garden of Eden to modern science. We don’t have time for the whole tour today. But here is how the conversation ends. Coyote shakes his head, wondering what it will take to "get enlightenment into this child of God:"

"I will spell it out for you," he said. "You are right. We gods have copped out. We gave you freedom. Now the question is whether you cop out because you are now the gods in charge of your own creation. You are life discovering what life is and, whether you like it or not, creating what life will become. Think self-conscious, self-creating, flowing paisley, inventing ever-changing patterns and richness. The gift the gods gave you is to participate in that."

And with that he vanished, leaving me with a littered table and the bill. Well, haven’t you ever been left by a god with the cleanup and the bill? All you can do is smile, pay up, and leave a clean table for the next customer. (Coyote Says, 73-79)

Tricksters and holy fools always have uncomfortable truths for us. They want to tell us "what’s wrong in the pueblo." Coyote puts in our faces the truth that we are uncomfortable talking about god and prayer.

Mark Edmundsen wrote a "Bookend" piece on Fools in the New York Times Book Review. He noted that in Shakespeare,

to have a fool attending on you is generally a mark of distinction. It means that you've retained some flexibility, can learn things, might change. It means that you’re not quite past hope, even if the path of instruction will be singularly arduous. To be assigned a fool in Shakespeare is often a sign that one is, potentially, wise.

As April Fool’s Day comes upon us and may we be honored to be attended by fools. May we retain flexibility, be open to new learning and willing to change.

For as William Blake says so aptly, "If the fool would persist in their [his] folly, they [he] would become wise."