Holy Foolishness: Byzantium, Italy, Russia

Professor Svetlana Kobets

IES (International Education of Students) Abroad



LUISS Campus Viale Pola 12, room 24

Main Office:

IES Corso Trieste 63

00198 Roma





Holy Foolishness: Byzantium, Italy, Russia

RU 34501, THEO 34803, 3.0 credits

Summer 2005


Most people know one Rome, the Rome of Italy. Yet two other cities laid claim to this name: the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, aspired to be the Second Rome, and Moscow, the capital of Medieval Russia, pronounced itself the Third Rome. This course is designed as a survey of cultural and religious traditions which these three cities represent. It bridges Early Christian, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox spiritualities and cultures. The central concern of this course will be the history, cultural manifestations and interactions of Christian asceticism of Italy, Byzantium and Russia, the three Romes of Christendom. One of the focal figures of this course will be the patron saint of Italy, St. Francis of Assisi. His life and legacy not only provide a unique Christological commentary but also are thoroughly intertwined with Italian history and culture. This class will use the power of religious and secular literature and film to analyze the Italian endorsements of the Franciscan monastic ideal vis-à-vis its Early Christian and Russian counterparts. St. Francis and his cultural milieu will be at the focus of our attention. At the same time, his asceticism will provide a unique venue for addressing a variety of forms of Christian asceticism, including foolishness for Christ. We will examine this unique form of Christian virtuosity in its different cultural endorsements: Italian, Byzantine, and Russian. This comparative study will provide a unique medium for exploring the Christian heritage of Medieval Italy and for discussing its interactions with Eastern Orthodox cultures.





-to explore literary expressions of ascetic traditions of Italy, Byzantium and Russia;

-to explore the life and spiritual legacy of St. Francis of Assisi;

-to survey artistic endorsements of Franciscan and Medieval Italian spirituality;

-to explore different aspects of a distinctive form of Christian asceticism, foolishness for Christ’s sake;

-to compare and contrast Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic civilizations;

-to explore the cultural uniqueness of Rome and its place in several Christian countries.

By the end of this course you should expect to have


-become acquainted with the concept and phenomenologies of Christian and non-Christian asceticism;


-become acquainted with the concept and phenomenologies of foolishness for Christ's sake in a variety of Christian traditions;


-become acquainted with a variety of aspects of Byzantine and Russian Christian cultural traditions vis-à-vis their Italian counterpart;


-become acquainted with important religious and cultural aspects of Franciscan spirituality;


-thought deeply about the national aspects of such important issues of Christian spirituality and culture as the ascetic ideal, sanctity, devotion, canon and marginality;


-learned about perceptions and conceptualizations of madness and folly in several Christian cultural traditions;


-critically assessed and analyzed a number of textual representations of ascetic and holy foolish phenomenology and spirituality;


-become acquainted with several outstanding representatives of Ancient Roman and Christian civilizations.





Your final grade will consist of the following elements:


·           Class Participation: 20%

·           Short responses to readings: 10%

·           Midterm Exam: 15%

·           Class leadership: 10%

·           Rome project presentation 10%

·           Final project Presentation: 15%

·           Final Exam: 20%



Class Performance:

As a preparation for each class you are expected to (1) attentively read all the assigned texts, (2) formulate your own questions and thoughts about the texts and write down your short responses. You will be expected to write a brief (maximum half-page) response to each day’s reading, to be submitted electronically to me no later than 10 pm the evening before class. The responses may consist of a series of questions about the text, or may take the form of observations; in either case, they will serve to trigger class discussions. (3) contemplate and prepare to answer the assigned questions. This class is for the most part a seminar (there will be several lectures though!), and its value to you will directly correspond to your level of active involvement in class discussions. 


Attendance Policy:

Please be sure to bring a letter of excuse for official or excused absences (illness, religious holidays, family emergencies). After three unexcused absences, your course grade may be lowered by one step (e.g., A to A-, B+ to B, D to F, etc.) Five or more unexcused absences may result in the lowering of your grade by a full letter (e.g., A to B, B to C, etc). Your presence and participation are crucial to the success of this course!



Teams of two students will lead selected class sessions. Each student is required to lead the class discussions at least twice. For the list of leadership topics click here. Leadership teams will meet prior to their class sessions to work out strategies and questions to be raised. The questions will be e-mailed to me no later than 10 am the day of class.



During the semester you will be expected to give 2 oral presentations: your final research project and Rome exploration project.

For your Rome exploration project you will explore and present to the class a particular city site of your interest, a prominent/ representative/ interesting aspect of the Roman/Italian civilization (architecture, history, music, art, literature etc.). These presentations will be prepared by teams of 2 students. They will take place on the site and will have a form of a tour or a short (7-10 min.) lecture followed by a tour. I will supply you with a list of topics to get you started. You can also choose your own topic. Rome presentations will take place throughout the semester (we will have to schedule them during the first two classes).

Your final project presentation will take place during the last two classes. It will explore in depth one of this course’s topics or a particular aspect of a text/texts we discussed in class. It will be 10-15 minutes in length. It will be followed by questions generated by your fellow students. Your final project presentation will be on a topic of your choosing (in consultation with me) therefore you should be thinking throughout the semester about a possible topic. The deadline for choosing your final project topic is firm. When you write the outline of your final project, remember to keep your ideas focused and specific, and please feel welcome to speak with me at any stage of brainstorming, research or preparation process! For the list of final presentation topics click here.



The midterm and final examinations will cover the contents of class lectures, discussions, and assigned readings throughout the semester. The midterm exam will be in an essay writing format. You will be asked to write 3 essays (1,5-2 double-spaced) pages each) on the topics discussed in the first part of the semester. The final exam will be in oral format. You will be asked to discuss three to five questions explored in this class. The lists of topics and questions will be provided at a later date. Your final exams questions you will find here.


Required books:

1. The Course Packet is available at Decio Copy Center.


2. The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century by Thomas Merton (ND bookstore)

3. Meditations (Modern Library Classics)
by Marcus Aurelius, Gregory Hays (ND bookstore)

4. Saint Francis by Nikos Kazantzakis (ND bookstore)

5. Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (The Classics of Western Spirituality) by Regis J. Armstrong (ND bookstore)

6. Shamara and Other Stories (Writings from an Unbound Europe)

By S. V. Vasilenko, Helena Goscilo (ND bookstore)

Note on ND Code of Honor


Please acquaint yourself with the chapter on Notre Dame`s Academic Code of Honor in Du Lac (beginning on p. a-33): particularly section IV, entitled "Student Responsibilities under the Academic Code of Honor," points A through D. A copy of the Honor Code can be obtained from the Office of Undergraduate Studies, or online at http://www.nd.edu/~orlh/dulac/academic-codeofhonor.pdf.

Please keep in mind that your written assignments must be entirely original. Furthermore, if secondary sources are used in your work, these should be listed in footnotes and/or a bibliography given at the end, and any quoted material should be placed in quotation marks and clearly attributed to its source (suggested bibliographic formats can be found in the MLA Handbook or the Chicago Manual of Style). Plagiarism (=any written work presented as entirely your own and original to the particular assignment that is not, in fact, entirely your own and/or original to the particular assignment) is a serious matter and will be investigated and brought to a hearing by the Honor Committee of the Department of German and Russian. Penalties for violations of the Honor Code are severe. If you are in doubt about the legitimacy of your activities with respect to this course, please ask ahead of time. It is always better to be safe than sorry!



Class Schedule




Th. June 9


Orientation, Welcome dinner



WEEK 1  


M. June 13

1. Introduction to the course


2. Rome and Roman Empire

Pagan Asceticism: the Stoics -- Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic of Rome

Assignment: read: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Short responses to the entire text 


Exploring Rome: Monument to Marcus Aurelius

Additional reading: essay by Joseph Brodskii, CP pp. 1-17.


Tu. June 14

15 pm. on site lecture, "Papal Patronage in the Renaissance: Michelangelo, Raffaello in the Vatican."

Lecturer: prof Pier Paolo Racioppi.

You will visit St. Peter's, the Sistine Chapel and several Vatican museums.


W. June 15

3. Marcus Aurelius and the Stoic tradition (continued)

Presenter: Tyler Maglione

Assignment: discuss one theme /one maxim from the book (refer to handout)


4. Diogenes and the Cynics CP (Course Packet)

For additional information click here

Assignment: CP 18-31 and 32-50.

Short responses to the readings


Exploring Rome: Paul of Tarsus in Rome

Peter and Paul in Rome: St. Paul’s Cathedral; St. Peter’s Cathedral.


Th. June 16

5. Folly to the Greeks and Jews

Paul of Tarsus, The First Epistle to the Corinthians

Assignment: read The New Testament: First Epistle to Corinthians

Short responses to the text


6. Christian Asceticism

Kalistos Ware, Asceticism “The Way of the Ascetics: Negative or Affirmative?”, CP 51-57

E. Clark, “Asceticism in Late Ancient Christianity”, CP 58-73

Presenter: Michael Lucci

Assignment: read the above articles

Short responses to the articles


Additional reading: Tombs of the martyrs, CP 74-83

and http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09736b.htm





M. June 20

7-8. Byzantium: the second Rome


Life of Antony—Christian paradigm of sanctity

Assignment: read the following online texts and write/send short responses to these texts





Full text



Tu. June 21

On site lecture: "Layers of Art and Culture: Christian Art in Rome in the Middle Ages."

Lecturer: Prof. Irene Baldriga.


W. June 22

9. Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Thomas Merton)

Assignment: read the text and introduction by Thomas Merton

Write/send short responses to the text(s)

Presenters: Tyler Maglione and Katie Houswirth


10. Unorthodox asceticism in early Christian Lives:

Assignment: read the following text; write/send your short responses to the text:

Secret Sanctity: Life of Isidora CP 112-114

from Palladius, The Lausiac History http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/palladius-lausiac.html


Th. June 23

11. Wandering Monks: Sarapion the Sindonite CP 115-118

12. Medieval Italy: Alexis the Man of God CP 119-121


Assignment: read the above texts; write/send your short responses to the texts


Fr. June 24

Field trip to Ravenna (2 days)




M. June 27

13-14. Byzantium: Life of Simeon the Fool of Emesa CP 122-142

Presenters:Sarah Boehm and Nick Weiler

Assignment: read the above text; write/send short responses to the text


Tu. June 28

In class lecture: "Italian Monasticism and Franciscan asceticism."

Lecturer: Prof. Andrea Monda.


15. Meyendorff, “The Schism between East and West” CP 194-200

16. Western Monasticism: overview of monastic spirituality CP 84-111

Presenters: Youki Moriwaki and Robert DeBroeck


W. June 29

Roman public holiday



Th. June 30

17-18. Mid-Term Exam, essay format


Many lives of St. Francis of Assisi--additional materials



St. Clare of Assisi. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04004a.htm 






M. July 4

19. Writings of St. Francis of Assisi

20. Writings of St. Clare of Assisi


       We will discuss the following texts:


1. The Canticle of Brother Sun (37-40)

2. The Canticle of Exhortation to St. Clare and her sisters (40-41)

3. The form of life given to St. Clare and her sisters (44-45)

4. Earlier Rule (107-135)

5. The Salutation of the Virtues (151-153)

6. The Testament (153-159)

7. The Frist letter of St. Clare to Blessed Agnes of Prague (189-194)


Presenters: Nick Weiler and Dan Klute

Assignment: read the above texts; write/send your short responses to the texts


W. July 6

21-22. Contemporary adaptations of St. Francis’ life

Screening of Franco Zeffirelli’s “Brother Sun Sister Moon”


Deadline for choosing the topic for your final project


Th. July 7

23. discussion of Franco Zeffirelli’s “Brother Sun Sister Moon”

Presenters: Patrick O'Shaughnessy and Michael Lucci

24. Holy foolishness in Eastern Orthodox and Catholic spiritualities (lecture)


Assignment: write your short responses to the film


Fr. July 8-Sat. July 9

Field trip to Assisi (2 days)




M. July 11

25. Life of St. Andrew of Constantinople, CP 143-193

Presenters: Patrick O'Shaughnessy and Katie Houswirth


Holy foolishness in Russian Orthodox tradition:

26. Kiev-Cave Patericon: Lives of Isaak the Recluse and Feodosii CP 201-235

 Lives of St. Prokopius the Fool; St. Theodore the Fool and Nikola Kochanov; St. Michael of Klopsko, CP 236-252; St. Basil the Fool CP 253-257 and St. Nicolas the Fool CP 258-260

The holy fool and the authority: Ivan the Terrible and the paradigm of Holy Foolishness;

Assignment: read the above Lives of saints; write your short responses to the texts


Additional Reading: Holy foolishness in Novgorodian tradition: http://www.slavdom.com/index.php?id=22

Filofei: Moscow as the Third Rome




W. July 13

27. Michel Foucault: “The Birth of the Asylum,” from Madness and Civilization

Assignment: read the above text; write/send your short responses to the text

Presenters: Mike Snyder and Sarah Kate

28. Modern Russian holy fools: St. Kseniia of St. Petersburg CP 261-275

29. St. John of St. Francisco http://saintjohnwonderworker.org/lifeidx.htm

His life in PDF format http://www.stvladimiraami.org/sheetmusic/stjohnsf.pdf

Presenter: Dan Klute


Assignment: read the above texts; write your short responses to the texts


Th. July 14

30-31. Holy fools in Russian literature:

Tolstoi: Childhood, chapters The Holy Fool and Grisha, CP 276-280

Dostoevsky: excerpt from the Possessed, CP 281-286

Dostoevsky: excerpt from the Brothers Karamazov, CP 287-289

Turgenev, “A Strange Story,” CP 290-300

Presenters: Sarah Boehm and Youki Moriwaki

Assignment: read the above texts; write/send your short responses to the texts


Deadline for submitting the outline of your final project




Friday. July 15

32-33. Svetlana Vasilenko’s “Little Fool”

Presenters: Mike Snyder and Sarah Kate

Assignment: read the above novel; write/send your short responses to the text


34. Students’ presentations of their final projects


Th. July 21


35-36. Students’ presentations of their final projects


Final Exam



© 2019 by Svitlana Kobets. All right reserved.