The inspiration of holy fools
A Reflection for the Optional Memorial of St. Paul of the Cross, priest
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
I’ve been blessed to know a lot of “holy fools”—people who make decisions that are incomprehensible in the eyes of the world but that they’ve genuinely discerned are what God has asked them to do. Just last night, I spoke here in Rome with a man who has worked for several years to build up a farm but is allowing it to go fallow so he can pursue his true vocation: writing. Another friend of mine left dental school and then medical school, having taken on much debt, because she felt God was asking her to become a teacher. And in New York, I’ve known lots of Catholic Workers who forewent families and careers to live in voluntary poverty and community with the poor.
Today’s optional memorial is the feast of St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists. Like these contemporary “holy fools” I know, he gave up a career as a soldier to care for an elderly, childless couple. When they offered to make him their heir, he declined, and likewise turned down his uncle’s offer to arrange a marriage for him, instead starting a small religious community originally called “the poor of Jesus.” This trope of the “holy fool” is echoed in the stories of countless saints and even ordinary Christians.
Yet in all these cases, God’s grace overflows. Because of these seemingly foolish decisions, edifying books are written, children are taught, the poor are served and accompanied, the Gospel is preached.
Because of seemingly foolish decisions, edifying books are written, children are taught, the poor are served and accompanied, the Gospel is preached.
One last story: Today is the feast of Mater Admirabilis, celebrated by the Religious of the Sacred Heart, who have long ties to the Jesuits. (There are multiple versions of this story, some that include no miracle at all, but I will tell you the one I grew up with.) A young Sacred Heart novice living at a Roman convent decided she wanted to paint a fresco of Mary, despite having never painted a fresco before. She also made the unorthodox decision to clothe Mary in pink, instead of blue. The painting, on a wall in a hallway, came out awful: Mary looked—God forbid!—ugly, and the pink dress was a garish orange. Embarrassed, the sisters covered the fresco with a curtain until it could be painted over.
Later, when the pope was visiting the convent, he inquired about why there was a curtain on an interior wall. The sisters tried to brush it off, but the pope insisted on seeing what was behind the curtain. When they pulled it back, the pope fell to his knees, exclaiming “Mater Admirabilis!” (“Mother most admirable!”). The fresco had transformed into a beautiful image: Mary is peaceful, taking a break from work, her eyes downcast in prayer. Yet if you study the shadows, it is clear there is a bright light shining on her from the front. The way I interpret the painting, in just one moment, Mary will raise her eyes to see the angel Gabriel.
That young novice was a “holy fool,” too; she attempted an ambitious fresco out of love for Mary and for her community, with no prior experience. And in the end, her foolishness was revealed to be something beautiful, an instrument of grace.