One literature professor talked about (Protestant) evangelism in Russia, and presenting Christ’s claim to be the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, and asked a couple of young women if he was, in C.S. Lewis’s terms, a liar, lunatic, or the Lord. And they talked a bit and got very excited, and said he was crazy, and the professor talked, without the greatest clarity, about there being a tradition of some kind crazy foolishness in Russia that was nonetheless sacred. The professor commented that C.S. Lewis’s trilemma to exclude speaking of Christ as “just a teacher” crumbled, and the students saw a way of seeing Christ as a holy person who need not not be the Second Person of the Trinity.
Spending a bit of time in Orthodoxy may bring some amount of clarity and placing things that are in sharper relief. It is, of course, unfortunate that these two Russian young woman did not know enough about Orthodoxy to know the Christ who is reflected in the holy fool. None the less, Orthodoxy has a tradition of saints called holy fools, and it’s enough of a tradition that holy fools are known as a distinct and recognized category within the canonized saints alongside e.g. healers and hermits. To those not acquainted with the category, one example of a life story of a holy fool is found in Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg.
I have not heard Catholics speak of a general category of holy fools, although there is a Western category of saints bearing Christ’s stigmata, but G.K. Chesterton’s life of the Pope’s namesake, Francis of Assisi, explains him as being quite importantly a holy fool, and to my recollection Chesterton never explains or situates Francis of Assisi in relation to a Western tradition of holy fools the same way Chesterton very briefly defends the possibility of miracles. Chesterton needs to defend the class of miracle-working saints, but he doesn’t spend much breath specifically insisting that, if there is a legitimate category of miracle-working saints, Francis of Assisi is included. However, as a holy fool Francis of Assisi is presented as a singularity.
Perhaps a singular identifier to holy fools is that they do strange things that afterwards turn out right. Hence one holy fool upset tables in the market where food and drink was being sold, until it became evident that the food and drink were not prepared appropriately and would have been dangerous to consume. Under the hood, the Orthodox Church considers human honor to be a troublesome burden, and it is a burden that holy fools dodge by their unusual actions. When people see past the disguise, holy fools plead and beg for their holiness not to be told.
And on that point, Pope Francis is not living up to Francis of Assisi’s precedent. Francis of Assisi lived the garish colors of a holy fool, and if he were in communion with the Orthodox Church, he would be remembered as a member of that holy company. Pope Francis is impulsive on a scale rivalling Francis of Assisi, but his actions do not turn out to be vindicated. And making big, impulsive actions is not an especially great feat; making big, impulsive actions that turn out to be right is the real trick. Also, a track record of almost uninterrupted ambiguity in communication that makes statements so both the more and less orthodox can claim victory is utterly inappropriate to one presenting himself as following in the footsteps of a holy fool. Holy fools are known to speak the truth to power. Holy fools do not serve waffles.
Orthodoxy has a grand tradition of recognized holy foolishness, and after you’ve seen enough lives of holy fools, there is something that looks very counterfeit, if it is meant to be holy foolishness, about merely being impulsive on a grand scale. And in this regard, Pope Francis is less faithful to his namesake than someone who simply avoids big and impulsive actions.