Once a provincial judge heard of Abba Moses and went to Scete to see him. They told the old man that he was on his way, and he rose up to flee into the marsh. The judge and his train met him, and asked: “Tell me, old man, where is the cell of Abba Moses?” And the old man said: “Why do you want to see him? He is a fool and a heretic.”

The judge came to the church, and said to the clergy: “I heard of Abba Moses and came to see him. But an old man on his way to Egypt met me, and I asked him where was the cell of Abba Moses. And he said: ‘Why are you looking for him? He is a fool and a heretic.'” And the clergy were distressed and said: “What sort of person was your old man who told you this about the holy man?” And they said: “He was an old man, tall and dark, wearing the oldest possible clothes.” And the clergy said: “That was Abba Moses. And he told you this about himself because he did not want you to see him.” And the judge went away much edified.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 8.10

In the Orthodox Church (as well as in the Western tradition), there is an ascetic tradition of the “holy fool” or “fool for Christ’s sake.” The basic concept is that, as a matter of ascetic calling, one may accept an extreme discipline: pretending madness in order to incite scorn and so avoid the praises of others. The goal is the most pure humility, but the practice can look sort of odd. Abba Moses was not, strictly speaking, a holy fool, but he does at times (as in this story) display a little of what that looks like. Indeed, he shows that sometimes what is foolish to the world may actually be a manifestation of true wisdom.

There are, at least, two biblical passages that serve as inspiration for this discipline, both from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians:

Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. (3:18-19)

We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored! To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now. (4:10-13)

In St. Paul’s case, it did not take much to incite such treatment from others—many at that time were hostile to the new religious group, and his public preaching made him an easy target for scorn and persecution, both within and without.

Yet if we look at Abba Moses, we still see some similarities: “poorly clothed”; “homeless”; “working with our own hands” (this can be gathered from other stories about him); “reviled”; “defamed”—all of these describe the life he lived in some ways, though in his case sometimes he was the one who “reviled” and “defamed” himself! Somebody’s has got to do it, I suppose….

Ah yes, there’s the catch. There is the foolish shell that hides a kernel of wisdom. Somebody does have to do it. If no one else, then perhaps, like Abba Moses and many fools for Christ, we must slander ourselves.

Perhaps the following images will serve to illustrate the effect of this discipline:

Have you ever seen perfectly smooth, round stone? Gift shops around beaches tend to have them. How did it get so smooth? Where did its beauty come from? It got that why, most likely, by being tumbled in a barrel, scraping against other stones of the same density as well as an abrasive grit. (There is more to the process, but that is an essential part.)

Again, how did people guarantee the purity of gold? They could weigh it on scales to determine if it was impure and fraudulent, but how did they purify it? The answer is a common image: the refiner’s fire. The dross had been burnt away at extremely high heat.

Make no mistake: these are violent images—scraping, burning. Yet what is the result? Beauty, purity, truth, and value.

Perhaps this idea gets at the sense of one of the more cryptic sayings of Christ: “from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). I cannot speak authoritatively about this passage, but I can say that whatever the case, the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit and those who are persecuted for righteousness, and the meek shall inherit the earth (see Matthew 5:3,5,10).

What a great treasure hidden in a simple, clay jar! Insult is blessing. Being torn down builds the soul.

For those of us who contribute to websites that have the comment boxes turned on, I think this is an invaluable insight. I know that I can’t hear it enough at least. Did you write or say something that was misinterpreted? Did someone scorn your carefully fashioned argument? Has your orthodoxy (not only in faith—though that is most important—but also to whatever else you hold dear) been questioned? Have you been called a heretic?

Rejoice! If you can accept these things as grace, yours is the kingdom of heaven.

Lord have mercy! How often do I scorn such great grace? What a shame to push away the finest wine just because it is offered in the humblest vessel. Even worse, what a shame to drink poison from goblets of gold! Ah, that is the praise of men to the weak in soul like myself. That is the bitter fruit of seeking the esteem of men rather than God.

Next time I hear those words: “Fool!” “Heretic!” directed at myself, I pray that I would not shrink back from the very flame that makes me pure. Better yet—perhaps, like Abba Moses, I could be the first to kindle the fire. It’s a goal at least … and a discipline. One insult at a time, however, I may just embrace wisdom by being a fool, Orthodoxy by being a heretic.