In the Orthodox faith, especially in Russia, there is a long tradition of “fools for Christ;” these holy men and women, according to Orthodox sources: “…battling within himself the root of all sin, pride. In order to accomplish this he took on an unusual style of life, appearing as someone bereft of his mental faculties, thus bringing upon himself the ridicule of others.” The only Roman Catholic examples are St Jerome, to a lesser degree – St Francis of Assisi, but the Western version of a fool for Christ was most perfectly embodied in St. Benedict Joseph Labre.
One of the more fascinating hagiographies of an Eastern fool for Christ must be that of St. Theophilus (Feofil) the Fool-for-Christ of the Kiev Caves. Almost as soon as he was born, the rather mentally ill and superstitions mother of St. Theophilus tried to kill her infant son. Miraculously he survived, but, over the next few years, like a contemporary hard-luck foster child, he was passed from one relative to another. As a young boy, for a time, he was raised by a priest uncle; his abusive upbringing or a natural inclination towards mysticism made him a focus of torture to local boys; he would be regularly and severely beaten forcing him to hide out in the woods; later, during a failed reunion with his mother – she again tried to murder her son. Finally, at the age of 24, he entered the Bratsky Monastery in Kiev. By all accounts he was an exemplary monk: prayerful, humble, and obedient.
Not unlike the word-of-mouth fame which spread around Southern Italy concerning Padre Pio, St. Theophilus soon had his own following of spiritual seekers drawn to his simple life of extreme asceticism. This unwanted notoriety inevitably caused jealousy and consternation among some of the other monks who saw St. Theophilus as semi-insane attention-getter. On this point, to one of his pupils, he said: “Do not listen to them; behave like a dead person who does not respond to anything surrounding him. If you are praised — be silent. If you are scolded — be silent. If you incur losses — be silent. If you receive profit — be silent. If you are satiated — be silent. If you are hungry — also be silent. And do not be afraid that there will be no fruit when all dies down; there will be! Not everything will die down. Energy will appear –- and what energy!”
His other advice and counsel to those in need, was similarly simple, but profound. One day, while walking in the woods near the Monastery, St. Theophilus met a young man so troubled by lustful thoughts that he was considered possessed. Although the boy tried to avoid St. Theophilus, when he saw the holy man approaching, the fool for Christ shouted out: “Haloo, wait up. Where are you going? Come here to me. We will delight in lascivious thoughts together.” The boy felt that he had been accused and wept sorrowfully before the Saint. “Well, that’s nothing. The Lord is merciful,” St. Theophilus said to him in consolation. “Let’s go and pray to Him.” He knelt and began to pray. In half an hour he rose and, with a tender face, turned to the sufferer: “Well, go. Lascivious thoughts will no longer disturb you.” And immediately after this the youth was healed of his ailment. Beautiful: humility, love and prayer…from “fools” we see the true meaning of Christianity.