The Wise Fool

The Wise Fool

Kevin Michael Tortorelli, O.F.M.

In Corinth, Paul meets head on that church’s dissension and factionalism by appealing to the foolish wisdom of the cross of Christ that has made foolish the wisdom of the world (1Cor 1:18-25). The wisdom of God’s foolishness exposes these factions as sharing a unity of arrogance and pride in contrast to the apostolic unity of men who are fools for Christ (1Cor 4:10). This foolishness can be found in literature, for example, in the chivalry of Percival and the Holy Grail and in Don Quixote. In Church History as well, the Byzantine and Russian Orthodox traditions speak at length of St Symeon the Fool and St Andrew the Fool who share this epithet with the earlier desert hermits. One thinks of St Francis as well who strips himself naked quite publicly, informs robbers that he is the herald of the Great King, dances and plays his fiddle made of two sticks one on top of the other. The Lord told Francis he was to be a fool in this world as the path of God’s wisdom. For this reason I speak of Francis as a Wise Fool very much in the tradition of the Holy Fool or God’s Fool.

Holy Fool and Hysteria

What do foolishness (moros) and holiness share? For foolishness contains the unattractive notions of the stupid, the silly and absurd, a dull and boorish person. And lying along the tradition of the Holy Fool is the appearance of one who seems clinically insane and mad. Julia Kristeva, in her study of Teresa of Avila, represents a broad attitude of modern psychoanalysis toward the hysteria of the Holy Fool, of mystics and stigmatists generally. She writes that Teresa is

“an anguished, laughing woman whose harshness is born of generosity, a woman morbid and yet cheerful, a crazed but surprisingly lucid nun, who imposed on the world the metamorphosis of her amorous body on the pretext of its desire for Christ’s humanity.”[1]            

The author adds she “is steeped in Teresa, her faith and madness speak to me [...]” (p. 16). Kristeva is clearly conflicted in her encounter with Teresa but this is a helpful modern setting in which to meditate on the tradition of the Holy Fool and to ask if it illumines or indeed shares with St Francis a common charism.


The Holy Fool defines a limit by dancing on it as though it were a tightrope and at the same time going beyond it, satirizing any notion of a prudential measurement or neat category. This accounts for the sense of the Holy Fool as provocative in one’s inconsistencies and riddles as one plays the fool for Christ. In this way the Holy Fool wishes to point out the folly of the world. The Holy Fool tradition enjoys farce, good humor and light-heartedness that shares in the comic spirit of Mozart or Moliere or Falstaff. In his In Praise of Folly, Erasmus contrasts folly with what is gloomy and moralistic, identifying folly with all that is vital, passionate, irrational, playful and full of grace.[2] It is this folly that has the capacity to expose rampant and widespread decline in the Church hierarchy and in the religious orders. Their reform is undertaken by proposing a return to the folly of the Incarnation, the folly of the anawim, the folly of the evangelical counsels, the folly of the cross. The Faith has an affinity with folly.


Beauty is a riddle and is not a simple transparency for the divine.[3] Beauty can just as well be a mask and sacrament of the devil. The harmony of things is built on pain and death. We have come a long way from the tradition of beauty, represented, eg., in Bonaventure, to the nineteenth century where hardly anything divine shines through the beauty of the world. The character of the epileptic Prince Myshkin stands out. He goes beyond understanding in favor of forgiving. He does not forgive because he understands but because he loves. Everyone else well understands sin or fault but Myshkin forgives it by overlooking it. This makes him look ridiculous. He is the idiot who is quickly deceived. He is easily mocked – you know you have been deceived yet you still trust. Myshkin is naive with a blind trust in others and that is the greatest absurdity. But Myshkin will consider being absurd a kind of virtue or grace. This absurd love often goes by the name compassion that gives Myshkin insight into human conduct and imbues his own behavior with remarkable generosity. Love is the whole essence of Christianity. It is simply Christ who communes with the sinner without wanting to distinguish Himself from the sinner. This is illustrated in the silent depths of Holy Saturday when Love died the death of sin, with sin and for sin.[4] Myshkin’s compassion, insight and generosity are the elements of his folly. We recognize them in him as gospel values lacking in self-consciousness. Yet Myshkin is sensitive to the charges that he is stupid in what he does. He grants people may have a point but so do those who recognize Myshkin’s loyal and honest friendship. Myshkin’s folly gives him insight into the major flaw of Catholicism, viz., papocaesarism with it’s recourse to the ‘sword of Caesar’ in temporal matters in preference to the word of Christ. In this one finds an echo of Erasmus’ critique. The cost of his folly remains Prince Myshkin’s destiny. He is always the ridiculous idiot and treated as one. The folly of love cannot make itself understood.

The Clown

The tradition of the holy fool has found consistent expression in the broad legacy of the knight errant as with Percival, Quixote and Myshkin. But perhaps in the appearance of the clown we find the most instructive image of human existence – a wanderer without a homeland, unarmed and exposed by his costume as ridiculous. He can be sad, melancholic, detached from any background. He looks at us motionless. His makeup seems to disfigure his face. These elements together suggest the tragic but out of the tragic emerges compassion. If the clown sums up all that is humanly grotesque, this portrait turns into the image of Christ. The clown unifies the humiliation of Christ and the grace of His love. There is room in the clown for all disfigured grace for a gentle, divine idiot has been crucified.                                      


This brief sketch of the tradition of the Wise Fool or Holy Fool yields some helpful notes. The Holy Fool has apostolic origins. The apostles are simply fools for Christ. The Holy Fool exposes vice, e.g., by satirizing greed, pomposity and arrogance. Perhaps unexpectedly he shows his steel by contributing in any age to the reform of the Church and her religious orders by recalling the Church to the folly of the Incarnation and the folly of the cross that are to be imitated and embraced. Very importantly the Holy Fool or idiot is embodied in, e.g., Percival, Don Quixote or Prince Myshkin. As embodied the Holy Fool’s concrete personality is etched as virtuous and insightful, wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Mt 10:16). The wisdom of the Holy Fool is a crucified wisdom, the distillation of love as the heart of the matter and compassion as the proper way of loving. With his makeup the figure of the clown fool appears disfigured, an embodiment of the Suffering Servant (Fool?) of Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7; 52:13-53:12). On the basis of this brief sketch, does the Holy Fool illumine St Francis? Does the Wise Fool accentuate certain dimensions of his life and personality?

St Francis the Wise Fool

Francis’ conversion is uniquely expressed in his self-designation as the jongleur de Dieu. The Holy Fool fits well into the jongleur tradition that embraced the jester, the juggler, the acrobat, the minstrel, the servant. He was a gentle figure, full of good humor. His dancing, his music and singing could bring people a message of reconciliation and peace wrapped in the pleasure of the jongleur’s skill. The jongleur is vulnerable and knows nothing of violence or disrespect. Francis was stung in his efforts to rebuild San Damiano. Had he been a coward as a knight? Did he steal from his father to rebuild the church? These were stunning rebukes to his integrity. He was a very vulnerable jongleur, a jongleur who to some simply made a fool of himself. The jongleur is not a dandy or a fop. He knows no one deserves the dawning sun that is given to us as our brother. The Wise Fool sees the nothing out of which existence comes, a vision that fills him with gratitude and dependence on God. There is joy in this truth and it breaks out in praise and song, the stock in trade of the jongleur.

One wonders whether the sights and smells of the Crusader camp at Damietta reminded Francis of his early desire to be a knight.[5] Did the Crusader camp at Damietta, in the year 1219, with its dead and wounded, stir the embers of awful memories? There were the horrors of war with Perugia at Collestrada (November 1202), his year as a prisoner of war until his father ransomed him, his embarrassing return from a journey to join the army of Walter of Brienne in Apulia. Will this tortured memory be of any help as he prepares to visit the Sultan of Egypt al-Malik-al-Kamal who, it was said, would compensate anyone who brought him the head of a Christian? Only a Holy Fool could pass through the Saracen lines and enjoy the presence of the Sultan for two or three weeks and speak as a Holy Fool speaks.

In preaching penance to the Sultan, Francis was witnessing to the dignity of each person as opposed to the pervasive hatred between Saracen and crusader, a hatred condoned by many Christians as represented, eg., in the papal legate Cardinal Pelagius at Damietta. For Francis, the enemy (inimicus) was friend (amicus), even a brother (frater). In the hatred fueled by bloodlust at Damietta, this was the message of a pazzo, a crazy man. The Sultan was learned and cultivated, a man curious and open minded. It is likely he was familiar with the figure of the Holy Fool from within Islam. It may be that Francis and Brother Illuminato resembled the Sufi mystics who wore patched woolen garments similar to those of the friars. It made for a different relationship between the Sultan and Francis, a relationship that strengthened a message of reconciliation and respect and gave them the courage to listen to each other. This was a Holy Fool’s message but clearly not a fool’s errand. One fruit of this encounter in our own time is the commitment to interreligious dialogue as seen through this lens of Francis and the Sultan. Similarly it is Assisi that hosts and welcomes the world day of interreligious prayer.

Then there is the clown’s disfiguring make up. The leper made Francis a Holy Fool because the leper brought Francis face to face with his own fears as a humiliated knight. The leper freed him from his own interior violence and self-hate. The disfigurement of the leper is stamped on Francis. It is reinforced at La Verna with a different kind of leprous disfigurement, the wounds of the Lord that heal, restore, reconcile and speak peace.                       

A Brief Conclusion

The tradition of the Wise and Holy Fool shines a welcome light on Francis the Jongleur de Dieu, on Francis before the Sultan and on the disfigured Francis. We have come full circle from the crucified wisdom of the Lord in St Paul to the teaching of St James regarding the Holy and Wise Fool whose life is characterized by a meekness of wisdom – “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity. And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (Jas 3:17-18, RSV).   


[1] Julia Kristeva, Teresa My Love: An imagined Life of the Saint of Avila (New York: Columbia University Press), 61.

[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics V. The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 165. This article is largely drawn from this text, section “Folly and Glory”, 141-204.

[3] I am here closely following Balthasar on Dostoievsky. See the section “The Christian as Idiot”, 188-201.

[4] Balthasar develops a profound articulation of the theological significance of Holy Saturday. See his Mysterium Paschale, trans. Aidan Nichols (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990), 148-188.

[5] I am indebted to Anthony Carrozzo, O.F.M., for a reference to the scholarly works of Michael Calabria, O.F.M., and Michael Cusato, O.F.M., on Francis and the Sultan.


Kevin Tortorelli is a 74 years old Franciscan of the Order of Friars Minor. Born in Boston, MA, he holds degrees from the Washington Theological Union, St Bonaventure University, Boston College and has done research at St Edmund's College, Cambridge, UK. He has taught Religious Studies and Classical languages at Siena College, Loudonville, NY. His chief interests lie in Patristics and in the thought of Bernard Lonergan and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Presently he lives in St Petersburg, FL, in happy semi-retirement. He has written two books and published a little over two dozen articles.