1 Timothy 1:15-17; Luke 18:35-43
Many of us give far too much attention to what other people think about us. We want the approval of others and fall into resentment when their praise and appreciation are not forthcoming. When that happens, the problem is not with how others view us, but that we have become captive to the passions of pride and vainglory, which can easily corrupt even the best qualities that anyone possesses. The more praise that people receive, the more likely they are to have an exalted view of themselves. It should not be surprising, then, that those who humbly hide their virtues from others open themselves to great spiritual strength.
God has raised up “Fools for Christ” in the Church who embraced humility as they spoke and acted in ways that made them look crazy in the eyes of most people. Though perfectly sane, they took on the ministry of mocking the pretensions of the world as they endured the abuse, rejection, and hardship that are typically the lot of those on the margins of society. Their lives display the complete opposite of pride and vainglory.
Today we commemorate Saint Xenia of St. Petersburg, Fool for Christ, who in the early 18th century in Russia became a widow when her husband, a military officer, died suddenly. A young widow with no children, she gave away all her possessions to the poor and vanished for several years, devoting herself to spiritual struggle in monastic settings. When she returned to St. Petersburg, she became a homeless wanderer, wearing her late husband’s military uniform and answering only to his name, Andrew. She prayed alone at night in open fields, endured extreme cold with inadequate clothing, lived among beggars, and suffered abuse from many for appearing insane. She secretly carried heavy stones at night to help with the building of a church and gave the alms she received to the poor. During her lifetime, some recognized her holiness and sought out her blessing and guidance. By embracing her struggles with patience, she found spiritual healing as she prayed for the soul of her departed husband. In Xenia’s humility, God gave her great gifts of prayer and prophecy, and she foretold future events such as the death of a Russian empress.
Across the centuries, the Lord has raised up such unusual saints in order to shock us out of our complacency about the alleged harmony between the narrow way leading to the Kingdom and what passes for a conventionally respectable life in any time or place. St. John the Baptist anticipated the fools for Christ, living in the desert on a diet of locusts and honey and speaking so boldly to the powers that be that he was beheaded. Our Lord’s disciples and apostles followed a path to martyrdom in sharp contrast to what was considered a good life both then and now. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, true apostles were certainly “fools for Christ’s sake…” ( 1 Cor. 4:10) He also taught that the cross of Christ is foolishness according to conventional human ways of thinking. (1 Cor. 1:18) Especially when people fail to see the great tension between serving Christ and serving themselves by worldly standards, He gives us the witness of holy fools who mock the pride and presumption of the world and embody in their own lives a humility that brings to their knees those who have the spiritual clarity to receive the message conveyed by their shocking example.
The holy fools are like the blind beggar in today’s gospel reading. His social station was very low and his life must have been terribly difficult. When told that the Savior was passing by, he refused to stop calling out loudly for His help when others criticized him: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” The blind man did not care what anyone thought or said about him. He was not going to miss the chance to regain his sight. This fellow was not crazy, but he was determined to do what was necessary to receive the Lord’s healing. And after gaining his sight, then the man followed Christ and gave thanks to God.
We must become like this humble blind beggar by tuning out our own thoughts and the criticism of others which suggest that there is anything more urgent than gaining the spiritual vision to behold the Lord, to know Him from the depths of our souls as we share more fully in His life. Obviously, we have all kinds of concerns and preoccupations that direct our focus elsewhere and easily make us blind to Who God is, who we are, and how we must serve Him in the world as we know it. Most of us will live fairly conventional lives in society, but we are still able to “lay aside all earthly cares” as we focus on the one thing needful of mindfully opening ourselves to receive His mercy. If we are obsessed with what other people think about us or how we measure up according to some cultural standard, our focus will be elsewhere. We must cultivate the humility to know that we are not those in need of praise, popularity, or the world’s approval, but instead those who need mercy, healing, and light that we cannot give ourselves. Before the infinite brilliance of God, we are all merely blind beggars.
St. Paul saw himself in precisely this way as the chief of sinners. He had been a highly respected Pharisee and persecutor of Christians before the Risen Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Surely, everyone who knew Paul at that point in his life thought that he was a complete fool for becoming a follower of Christ. He wrote that he “received mercy for this reason that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display His perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in Him for eternal life.” (1 Tim. 1:15-16) He acquired the humility to proclaim that, if the Lord’s mercy extended even to someone like him, then there is hope for us all.
There is no way for us to follow his blessed example and that of St. Xenia other than taking difficult steps of faithfulness which no one else should see. No one but God knows if we are mindful in daily prayer, if we reject tempting thoughts, and if we shut our eyes and our ears to whatever inflames our passions. We must pray, fast, and give of our time and resources to those in need in secret as much as humanly possible, refusing to use them to gain the praise of others. We must also ignore the criticism of other people and our own doubting minds when we refuse to treat our neighbors as anything less than living icons of Christ, regardless of their politics, race, religion, or harsh words against us. We must accept that reserving sexual intimacy for marriage between husband and wife and shutting our eyes to pornography and other forms of lewdness will put us well outside the cultural mainstream. When we refuse to make money, possessions, social standing, and physical appearance our false gods, we may look like failures. When we place loyalty to the Kingdom of God before service to the petty kingdoms of this world, some will call us traitors or fools.
By God’s grace, may we all become so focused on faithfulness to Jesus Christ that we appear as foolish by worldly standards as a blind beggar causing a disturbance, a former Pharisee becoming the apostle to the Gentiles, and a holy widow feigning insanity as she blessed the poor, endured abuse, and provided a prophetic sign that our Lord’s Kingdom remains not of this world. Let us follow their blessed examples as we turn away from seeking the praise of others and instead ground ourselves completely on the mercy of the Savior. To Him, and not to ourselves, let us all give thanks and offer our lives.