Saturday, 31 March 2012

Holy Fools: Uncommon Sense

The blog below was originally published on "April Fools Day" 2012, when it fell on the same day as "Palm Sunday"...

“Life is too serious to be taken too seriously”  I can’t really remember where I was when this first dawned on me or who first said it to me, or where I first heard it. It is though a line that keeps on re-emerging into my consciousness. “Life is too serious to be taken too seriously”.

I suspect it originates from that great Victorian wit Oscar Wilde who said “Life is too important to be taken seriously”. Maybe, maybe not. I know that they are words that I keep on remembering.

Today is Palm Sunday, but it is also the 1st of April, “April Fools Day”. I am sure that we’ve all fallen for April fools Jokes over the years. I think the most famous one must be the Panorama "Spaghetti Tree Hoax" of 1957. The program showed images of spaghetti growing on trees. Pasta was a not a popular dish in those days and apparently hundreds of viewers phoned the BBC as a result asking how they could grow their own spaghetti. Many years later CNN described the broadcast as “The biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled.”

No one is really sure of the origins of April Fool’s Day. There are references made to it in Jeffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the 14th century and there are festival of fools that can be found throughout most cultures dating back to ancient times. I suspect that the modern day custom has its origins in sixteenth century France. In 1564, under the reign of Charles IX, the Gregorian Calendar was adopted. Prior to this date New Year had been celebrated, with the giving of gifts, on the vernal Equinox on March 21st. New Year now fell on 1st of January. People were now expected to give gifts on New Year’s day and they also began to give mock gifts on 1st April. It seemed that many folk resisted the change and those who persisted with the old ways were victimised and had pranks played on them. These people became known as an “April Fish”. April Fish are pinned on people's backs to this day, on April 1st.

There is great wisdom in folly. The fool can reveal deeper truths that common wisdom appears blind to. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians chapter 3 v 18 makes reference to the wise fool. He said “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.” Every culture, throughout human history, has a version of the “Holy Fool” The fool fulfils a vital role , he counteracts human arrogance and pomposity, he protects humanity from hubris. He breaks down the order of things and his crazy outspoken talk questions what is regarded as common sense; he reveals a new kind of sense, an uncommon sense. His unconventional appearance exposes the pride and vanity of those around him and his seeming foolhardy loyalty and love of hopeless causes undercuts the self interest of those who possess power. That said this does make him vulnerable and at the mercy of those who hold power in this world. The "Holy Fool" is often abused.

One of my favourite “Holy Fools” is Nasrudin. “The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin” by the Sufi Mystic Idries Shah, chronicles his adventures. I love Nasrudin because he is funny, but also because he possesses uncommon sense. He often uses his apparent foolishness to his advantage. Below are a couple of tales based on his wisdom...

One day Nasruddin saw a man sitting by the roadside sobbing uncontrollably.

"Why are you crying, my friend?" asked Nasruddin.
"Because all I own is in this bag" said the man, holding up a tatty little canvas bag.
"Just look. all I have are a couple of rotting pieces of fruit, some stale bread, a few rags, a bit of old rope and few coins. That's it. I don't own anything else, and I'm so miserable."
"I'm sorry to hear that," said Nasruddin, sympathetically, and he immediately grabbed the man's bag and set off running at top speed down the road.
"Oh, now I have absolutely nothing!" wailed the poor man, but he picked himself up from the ground, and began walking wearily in the direction Nasruddin had gone.
"If I can find the thief, maybe he'll take pity on me and give me my bag back," he thought to himself.
He'd walked about a mile when he saw his bag lying in the middle of the road. He ran towards it, picked it up, kissed it and shouted out, "Hurray, I've got my bag and all my belongings back. Thank you, thank you!"
"How strange." said Nasruddin, as he appeared from behind a bush. "how strange that the bag which a few minutes ago was making you cry is now making you ecstatically happy."

Nasrudin met an old friend whom he had not seen for twenty years. They sat down together in the cafe and talked over old times. “did you ever get married Nasruddin?” asked the friend.
“No I’m afraid I didn’t.”
“Why not? I’ve been married many years and I’ve never regretted it.”
“Well”, said Nasruddin, “I was always looking for the perfect woman. I wanted my wife to be beautiful, intelligent, and sensible.”
“And you never found her?”
“I thought I had, when I was twenty. Her name was Ablah.
She was beautiful, just the kind of woman I like, but I’m afraid she wasn’t very intelligent, and her language was atrocious! I was embarrassed to be with her! She certainly wasn’t the perfect woman.”
“Was she your only girlfriend?”
“No. When I was twenty-five I met a woman called Bahira. She was good looking and intelligent, but she wasn’t very sensible. She spent all my money on frivolous things, and she couldn’t even boil an egg! She wasn’t the perfect woman either.”
“Were there any more?”
“Only one. At thirty I met Haddiyah and she was truly a gift from God! She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, and the most intelligent. What’s more she was prudent and sensible, a good cook, and a brilliant conversationalist.”
“She sounds like the perfect woman you were looking for.”
“Then why didn’t you marry her?”
“Unfortunately, she was looking for the perfect man!”

It is not always easy being the fool, holy or otherwise. Just think of the Jester in King Lear. He does not gain the King’s favour by revealing the truth about him. The King threatens to whip the fool when he refuses to tell the whole truth and the fool responds by saying that he wishes that he could lie. King Lear then replies by saying he will whip him if he does lie, to which the fool utters these  immortal words...“They want to whip me for telling the truth, you want to whip me for lying, and sometimes I’m even whipped for keeping quiet. I’d rather be anything besides a fool.”

I’m sure we’ve all felt this frustration at times. It will hurt if we tell the truth, it will hurt if we tell a lie and it will hurt if we remain silent. No it’s not always easy playing the fool, Holy or otherwise.

Below is the "Holy Fool" scene from the opera "Boris Godunov"

So much of what Jesus is purported to have said is cloaked in mystery. To most logically minded people it may not even make sense, but what’s wrong with a bit of mystery? Mystery can often reveal deeper, hidden truths. He said: lend money but don’t expect to get it back; love your enemies; that the poor are blessed by God; that the person who gave the least, actually gave the most; that you should invite strangers to your party; that the tiniest seeds grow into the biggest plants. Yes Jesus was the King of paradox, he spoke in riddles. His sayings shocked and surprised those who heard them, because they reversed the order of the day. I suspect that Jeremy Paxman would have struggled with him. He answered questions with questions or with a story which on the surface does not necessarily make sense. The point is that he was trying to make the questioner think for themselves. He mocked religious piousness and hypocrisy. Long before the story of the emperor’s new clothes he pointed out who was dressed and who was undressed. He definitely displayed uncommon sense.

When I say life is too serious to be taken too seriously I am not being flippant and I am not denying the harsh realities of life. I am very aware of them. In the examples I have shared and many others, the life of the holy fool is far from easy, they are all hurt and abused at one time or another. Things are constantly going wrong, they are made to look foolish and are often embarrassed. There is a great deal of humour in the stories, but they are by no means a barrel of laughs.

We need the “Holy Fools”, on so many levels. We need humour, we need laughter, we need someone to point out when the king is in the all together. We need someone to reveal that uncommon sense that is so easy to miss.

On Palm Sunday Jesus was mocking the triumphant entry of the victorious Roman emperors and the people knew this. The Roman’s had conquered the entire known world of that day. They imposed their rule of law over the Jewish people and their religious leaders simply went along with it, deep down the people knew this. Jesus broke through their denial. His entry was a protest, but one filled with humour, a bit like a modern day flash mob I suppose. He was criticising what he saw as the hypocrisy of the time, but he did it with love. He was not simply mocking people for the sake of it and poking fun at the defenceless in some crude or crass manner. He was motivated by pure love and I think that this is the real key to the power of his message.

Humour is a vital tool for pointing the truth out to someone. Why? Because sometimes pointing out the direct truth can be too painful. The truth can sometimes be too unpalatable, so we need to wash it down with a spoon full of sugar or a good dose of humour. Jesus and others like him were great teachers because of how they revealed these uncommon truths that most folks wouldn’t or couldn’t face up to. They did not merely present facts or rules, they told stories, made jokes or gave us some unforgettable examples. By conveying a tiny mustard seed of truth, a great truth eventually sprouted and grew and thus uncommon sense truly did flower into common sense.

I think this is the message of Palm Sunday and April Fool’s Day; this seeking of the uncommon, unobvious sense; this looking for the truth that is not easily found. The Buddhists teach that the beautiful lotus flower grows in the most unexpected of places, in the muck. Well maybe it’s the same with all of life, maybe this is the ultimate joke. Maybe this is what we all fail to see and maybe just maybe it takes a holy fool to point this out to us.

Maybe the problem is that we’ve spent too long seeking after common sense when in reality the truth is only revealed through un-commonsense?

Maybe that commonwealth of love is already here amongst us we just have not yet got eyes that can see it or ears that can hear it?


  1. Very thoughtful post, thank you

  2. This wouldn't open last night......if it would have I could have cut n pasted it....v tempting at the time......I have two Nasruddin stories this morning, God's gift, and the pregnant pot! I've mastered being a fool....need to work on the holiness.....thank you, and happy fools day!

  3. Someone said "Life is a comedy playd to an audience who've forgotten how to laugh."