Reviews

Ńĺđăĺé  Ŕ. Čâŕíîâ. Âčçŕíňčéńęîĺ ţđîäńňâî. Ěîńęâŕ: Ěĺćäóíŕđîäíűĺ îňíîřĺíč˙, 1994, 240 pp., (paper).

 

            Iurodstvo Khrista radi (holy foolishness for Christ’s sake) is a peculiar form of Eastern Orthodox asceticism, whose practitioners feign madness in order to provide the public with spiritual guidance whilĺ acting to a greater of lesser degree as institutional outsiders in relation to the Church. The phenomenon of iurodstvo has been the subject of several recent academic monographs. The iurodivyi as an individual who “rugaietsia miru” (“berates the world”), tempts his audience (thus transgressing against scriptural prohibitions), yet at the same time is regarded saintly: he lives his life according to the spirit of the Gospel, emulating the Passion of Christ on a daily basis. He is a social outcast continuously abused by society, yet at the same time he is allotted respect of a spiritual teacher who after his death acquires the status of a holy man. Iurodstvo is crucial for understanding national self-perception in Russia. The culturological aspects of this unique phenomenon were explored by D. Likhachev and A. Panchenko (Smekh v Drevnei Rusi (Laughter in the Ancient Rus), [Moscow, 1984]), while Harriet Murav analyzed Dostoievskii’s characters, themes, and narrative techniques from the perspective of holy foolishness (Holy Foolishness: Dostoievskii’s Novels, the Poetics of Cultural Critique, [Stanford, 1992]), and M. Epstein found this behavioral paradigm productive for an analysis of Russian twentieth century avant-guard (After the Future, [Amherst, 1995]).

            The phenomenon of iurodstvo is described in the vita of Byzantine and Russian holy fools as well as in the apologetic writings of Russian theologians. While the vita are known to continuously exploit the same traditional form, imagery, and motifs, the theological writings in question are attempts at providing a canonical definition of holy foolishness. However, neither these attempts at a canonical definition of iurodstvo nor the recent academic studies on the subject adequately account for the dynamic and protean nature of this phenomenon.

            The Russian Byzantinist Sergei Ivanov uncovers aspects of holy foolishness that were previously unexplored. The question he wishes to answer is, “What makes society see sanctity where on the empirical level one can see nothing but madness?” (10) His point of departure is one of the most interesting features of Byzantine holy foolishness: the fact that its historical development was paralleled (and to a great extent influenced) by its evolvement as a theological issue and a hagiographical representation. By analyzing the original Greek, Latin, and Slavic sources, as well as Western translations of fourth -- fifteenth century Byzantine works, Ivanov reveals the genesis, evolution, and decline of Byzantine holy foolishness. The first six chapters of the book trace the path of the Byzantine iurodstvo from its origins in the Egyptian and Syrian deserts and monasteries (Ch. 1-3) to the summit of its evolution as a living reality in sixth century Byzantium, when it served as an integral part of the Christian mystical doctrine (Ch. 4, 5). He then traces its decline and dissolution in other ascetic practices (Ch. 6).

The phenomenon of iurodstvo is set in the “concrete historical environment” of Orthodox Byzantium. Ivanov’s own assessment of his book’s import—as an analysis of iurodstvo “from the point of view of the history of culture”—is far too modest. In fact, the reader gains insight not only into culturological aspects of Byzantine iurodstvo, the relevant theological controversies and debates, and the development of hagiographical genres rooted in holy folly, but is also offered an opportunity to see its Byzantine development against the background of typologically similar phenomena of both East and West.

            Ivanov emphasizes the ethical aspect of holy foolishness. The paradoxical phenomenon of iurodstvo is presented through a wide array of the textualized transgressions by saints against both social conventions and Christian dogma. When the Church cast off the eschatological ardor of its early history and emerged as a powerful social and political institution, its profane status was fiercely attacked by holy fools. They became a living reminder to both the world and to the Church of the early Christian spirit. By his behavioral eccentricities (nakedness, madness, talking in tongues, aggressiveness) and religious transgressions (consumption of meat during the Lent) the holy fool both obscures his sanctity and provokes his audience to meditate on divine issues. Mocked and chased during the day, he prays and weeps at night. He symbolically reconciles the sacred and profane dimensions of human existence and achieves recognition of his saintliness in his own posthumous vitae and through eventual canonization.

            Ivanov discusses the forerunners of the Byzantine holy fools, from the extravagant Egyptian and Syrian monks depicted in “beneficial tales” to the humble characters in tales about “God’s secret servants.” The “beneficial tales” ponder the sanctity of early Christian ascetic abbas who display subversive features. The value of Christian obedience (and implicitly dogma) is tested when the abba’s disciple is confronted with the impossibility of reconciling Christian dogma with the instructions of his saintly teacher. “God’s secret servants” display a kind of sanctity that is neither obvious to the unenlightened observer nor even known to themselves. They exemplify the early Christian understanding of the world as being “pregnant” with sacredness. Ivanov returns to the issue of secret sanctity throughout the book (e.g. chap. 3).

            Ivanov dwells at length on the vita of two archetypal holy fools, St. Simeon of Emesa and St. Andrew of Constantinople. The first was a figure from the heyday of Byzantine holy folly. The latter—whose life was modeled after that of St. Simeon—supplied Russian hagiographers with a textual paradigm of holy foolishness.

            The chapter dealing with Russian iurodstvo (Ch. 7) is brief. Yet it serves its purpose well: within Ivanov’s work this chapter offers a comprehensive introduction to Russian holy foolishness, rather than an exhaustive analysis of its evolution and character. The study ends with a discussion of analogues to holy foolishness in other cultural and religious environments (chaps. 8-9), for example the Sufis and malamatiyya in the East, and several Catholic saints in the West (e.g. St. Francis of Assisi).

            One of the most attractive features of this study is the up-to-date bibliography—the fullest on the subject. In addition, the book has an index of geographical and proper names. There is also a succinct and informative English synopsis at the end.

 

 

 
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