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July 24, 2008

Holy Fools

Icon_of_the_protection In Orthodox Christianity, there are those known as Holy Fools or yurodivy (юродивый) in Russian. (St. Francis of Assisi was a kind of Western Catholic Holy Fool.) The Holy Fool

acts intentionally foolish in the eyes of men. He or she often goes around half-naked, is homeless, speaks in riddles, is believed to be clairvoyant and a prophet, and may occasionally be disruptive and challenging to the point of seeming immorality (though always to make a point).

The figure of the Holy Fool has inspired and figures prominently in art. For instance, Dostoevsky's The Idiot.

My favorites, though, come from the world of music and film. In the tenth century, Constantinople was under siege by Islamic forces. During an all-night vigil at Church of St. Mary of Blachernae, Andrew the Holy Fool

saw the dome of the church open and the Virgin Mary enter, moving in the air above him, glowing and surrounded by angels and saints. She knelt and prayed with tears for all faithful Christians in the world. The Virgin Mary asked her son, Jesus Christ, to accept the prayers of all the people entreating him and looking for her protection. Once her prayer was completed, she walked to the altar and continued to pray. Afterwards, she spread her veil over all the people in the church as a protection.

To this day, the Feast of the Protecting Veil of the Theotokos is celebrated every October 1. It also inspired one of my favorite pieces of music: The Protecting Veil by John Tavener.

It's scored for solo cello and orchestra and is divided into, in Tavener's words, "eight continuous sections" inspired by "various feasts" of the Orthodox Church --

for instance the second [section] is related to her birth, the third section to the Annunciation, the fourth to the Incarnation, the fifth (which is totally unaccompanied) to her lament at the foot of the cross, the sixth to the Resurrection, the seventh to her Dormition, and the first and last sections to her cosmic beauty and power over a shattered world. The PROTECTING VEIL ends with a musical evocation of the tears of the Mother of God.

Tavener's goal was to create a "lyrical ikon in sound" and like all ikons, it's a place I go to when I desperately need to see beyond this world with its troubles and tears and peer into something greater.

Unfortunately, the best I can offer you by way of a sample is this link to Amazon's page for the performance by Yo-Yo Ma and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. I own it and can vouch for how good it is. If you like what you hear, follow this link to a much less expensive highest-quality MP3 download featuring German cellist Maria Kliegel that is as good or better. Less than seven bucks for a glimpse into eternity.

A Holy Fool is the protagonist of the Russian film, Ostrov or "Island." The IMDB summary, taken straight from the DVD box --

Somewhere in Northern Russia in a small Russian Orthodox monastery lives an unusual man whose bizarre conduct confuses his fellow monks, while others who visit the island believe that the man has the power to heal, exorcise demons and foretell the future.

-- doesn't do justice to this story about sin, grace, and forgiveness. Don't just take my word, ask Dave the Swede (not his real name) -- he will tell you how this film grabs you and will not let you go. Father Anatoli is a reminder that grace doesn't always come in an attractive or easy-to-accept package -- it's defining manifestation was an act that was considered foolishness. Little wonder it often requires us to look beyond appearances.

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