The St. Francis Holy Fool Prayer Book
Excerpted from the Introduction
HOW IT IS GOOD TO BE A FOOL
For those who try to live the Gospel, and by doing so, feel like fools
I will always remember the day I decided to introduce my preschool-age daughter to one of my favorite movies, Singing in the Rain, starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds. We sat and watched it together on the couch. She didn’t wiggle much and laughed at the right places. I knew she was enjoying it.
But then we got to the title song and dance number. There was Gene Kelly, blissfully enjoying a rainstorm. You probably remember how he runs back and forth across a city street at nighttime in the pouring rain, singing at the top of his lungs, tap-dancing by stomping in puddles, grinning at a cop on patrol, becoming completely drenched in his business clothes. He is wearing a suit—and even gives away his umbrella!
As my daughter and I watched, I laughed out loud and was grinning ear to ear. That’s what I always do when I watch that scene. She watched carefully, and was smiling, but to my surprise, she then turned to me in the middle of the scene and said, “That’s kind of stupid, Dad.”
She was only four at the time, but I was sort of offended. I don’t know for certain why. Forget that she said the word “stupid” for a moment; we’ll deal with that another day. Why was I bothered by her reaction? It isn’t as if the movie has anything intimately or immediately to do with me, but I wanted her to like it as I did. “Why?” I implored. Then I suddenly realized that I probably knew what she meant by what she said. So I revised. “Do you mean . . . because he’s getting all wet?”
“Yeah,” she replied, still smiling, looking at the screen. The puddle-stomping continued even as we talked, and she was still trying to figure out the meaning of the scene. “But he’s being kind of stupid,” she added, yet again.
How do I answer this? I thought. How do I get her to understand what this means?
Adults easily understand that what Gene Kelly is doing is anything but stupid. But can his spirit be communicated in words? I at least gave it another try. “Not stupid, honey,” I said. “Maybe he’s just being . . . foolish.”
A child can’t really appreciate what “foolish” means, nor how being a fool can be a virtue, a really good thing. Nor can she appreciate how foolishness might be a healthy sign that something good is happening, or able to happen, in your life. After all, how could someone who is still innocently carefree most of the time—without real responsibilities or stress—understand the absolute delight that can come when we allow ourselves to “let loose” others’ expectations? That’s what Gene Kelly is doing by singing and dancing in the rain: allowing his joy to overcome his decorum. We adults know this, and that’s why we love watching him do it. Probably, we are wishing, deep down, that we could do that too.
- K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” We’d all like to fly like angels—or at least like Gene Kelly.
I might have communicated better with my daughter that day as we watched the movie together if I’d said that Gene Kelly was being “crazy.” She sometimes likes to be “crazy” with her friends. They seem to know and appreciate that word for its sense of nonconformity and playfulness. But as an adult, “crazy” is a word that doesn’t seem appropriate. I know how it means a lot of things, some clinical, and how sometimes it might be perceived as an insult, or at least out of place. That’s why I quickly decided it wasn’t the way to go when I was trying to explain why singing in the rain isn’t necessarily “dumb.”
I used the word “fool” instead, but then again, “fool” is also an insult to many. The word was even used that way—as a kind of insult—in the Hebrew Scriptures, as we will see in a second. But to many Christians throughout history, foolishness has been a goal, a spiritual occupation, even a badge of honor. They have gone out of their way to earn the name fool, even when they knew that those who were saying it never intended it as a compliment. They have been “fools for Christ’s sake,” to quote St. Paul, who says it like this:
Here we are, fools for Christ’s sake, while you are the clever ones in Christ; we are weak, while you are strong; you are honored, while we are disgraced. To this day, we go short of food and drink and clothes, we are beaten up and we have no homes; we earn our living by laboring with our own hands; when we are cursed, we answer with a blessing; when we are hounded, we endure it passively; when we are insulted, we give a courteous answer (1 Cor. 4:10–13).
Otherwise known as holy fools.
This can be confusing and for good reasons. Even the Bible seems to contradict itself about fools. A fool for Christ’s sake is altogether different from the kind of person the psalmist describes when he or she begins, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Ps. 14:1–3). That’s not a foolishness to emulate! Nevertheless, St. Paul’s foolishness is. The Bible speaks about both kinds of fools—good and bad—but for the most part, the good sort has been lost.