In the Eastern orthodox church, there exists a very strange phenomenon: monks who display a peculiar eccentricity. The phrase “Foolishness for Christ” refers to the act of renouncing all possessions and secular attachments in order to live a life of sanctity and service to God.
These eccentrics are people whose wisdom is hidden behind their bizarre appearance and unconventional acts. Such individuals in Christian history are known as “holy fools.”
One of the most famous “fools for Christ” in the history of Russia is St. Basil the Blessed (1469-1552).
St. Basil heals the blind with his touch
The beginnings of St. Basil
St. Basil the Blessed, whose parents were commoners, was born in December 1468 at the church in Elokhovo, north of Moscow. Growing up, he was sent to the capital to be trained as a shoemaker.
During his apprenticeship, the master shoemaker witnessed a marvelous event that made him realize St. Basil was no ordinary person.
One day, a famous grain merchant passing through Moscow came to order boots with a special request that they be made to wear in all seasons. St. Basil said: “Sir, we will make such boots for you, but you will have no use for them anyway.” Mysteriously, the apprentice wept.
Later, St. Basil explained to his master that he knew the merchant was about to die, but the master did not believe his words. A few days later, when delivering the boots to the merchant’s ship, he found out that the merchant was being taken to the cemetery to be laid to rest. The master was amazed and began to believe the strange young man.
Adopting the Godly life
In Moscow, a place full of temptation and luxury, St. Basil decided to make himself an example of the godly life by preaching morality through an austere lifestyle.
From the age of 16 until the end of his life over 72 years later, he left behind the comforts of home to wander around barefoot, wearing heavy iron chains to remind him of the weight of sin, and praying for both his own soul and the world.
Usually, he kept silent in public, but his words, if any, would often be strange, mysterious, and incomprehensible. His actions struck his contemporaries as equally inexplicable.
Once, he dropped a tray of bread at a baker’s market stall and dumped a beer mug at the brewer’s stand. The sellers got angry and beat him. However, he still happily thanked God and asked for his blessings over the market. It turned out later that the bread and beer had been mixed with poisonous impurities by the greedy merchants to increase their profits.
St. Basil collects a following
The reverence of the masses for St. Basil grew stronger and stronger. People considered him a “holy fool,” a man of God, and a fellow traveler of Saint Maximus the Blessed (1475-1556), a well-known Russian ascetic saint who went everywhere comforting people. Maximus encouraged them to keep their faith and hope when Russia was going through one of its darkest periods of war, famine, and disease.
St. Basil enduring the harsh winter with only a tattered loincloth to protect him
As was the tradition of the great ascetics, St. Basil the Blessed did not reside in any one place for long. Only occasionally he was seen going to the Stefanidy Yurlovoy monastery, dedicated to widows and orphans in Kulizhkakh.
After long days spent trying to steer people towards truth and goodness with his acts of renunciation, he spent the whole night on the church porch, praying on behalf of his brothers and sisters, who he believed were living in sin.
Learning to leave materialities behind
Another story told about St. Basil concerns a materialistic merchant who lacked respect for his parents. In order to impress his fellow townsmen with his generosity, he had donated money for a stone church to be built in the town of Pokrovka. However, the project seemed to be cursed, as every time the arches were put up they soon collapsed.
The wealthy merchant went to St. Basil the Blessed for advice, and received a strange answer. “Go to Kiev,” St. Basil said. “Find a beggar named Ivan and he will tell you how to complete the church.”
The merchant spent many days traveling to Kiev and found the miserable Ivan sitting in a fallen-down hovel, weaving sandals and rocking an empty cradle. The bewildered merchant asked, “Whom do you rock?” Ivan replied: “My mother, whom I repay for giving me life and nurturing me.”
This strange scene moved the merchant deeply, for the merchant recalled throwing his own mother out of the house because her presence impeded his selfish lifestyle. He finally came to realize why the church he had sponsored would not stand. When he returned to Moscow, he took his mother home, begged for her forgiveness, and only then was able to see the church to its completion.
Meanwhile, the Tsar wanted to test St. Basil to see if he was tempted by wealth. The king invited him to the palace and offered him gold, and much to the king’s surprise, the destitute St. Basil immediately accepted it.
The king sent an official to see what he would do next. St. Basil walked from the palace to the river and gave all the gold to a foreign merchant. When being reported about this strange affair, the Tsar was even more confused and summoned St. Basil to answer for his actions.
“Why did you give the gold to a rich merchant instead of a beggar?” he asked.
St. Basil explained that the foreign merchant’s ship had been hit by an accident, which left him with nothing except the fine clothing he wore. The merchant was too embarrassed to beg for food, knowing he had enjoyed a better life than many other unfortunate people. St. Basil said this gift was meant to exemplify God’s compassion and mercy, helping those truly in need.
St. Basil also strictly condemned those giving alms to beggars not out of compassion for the poor, but to win favor from God and accolades from their fellow men. Legend has it that a devil was pretending to be a beggar sitting at the Prechistensky Gate. He promised that anyone who gave him alms would get rich, but St. Basil saw through this trick and chased the demon away, rebuking those who had given in order to gain riches.
St. Basil never shunned those whose misdeeds had brought them misery, and always counselled them to repent.
Teaching through compassion
Once, St. Basil saw a man with just a penny left begging a shopkeeper for a glass of wine. The shopkeeper gave him some and then scolded him: “Take it and go to Hell!” he shouted. The drunken man took it, and made the sign of the cross in gratitude.
St. Basil laughed loudly when he saw this.
People asked what he meant by his laughter and he replied: “When the shopkeeper gave a glass of wine and said “go to Hell,” there was indeed a devil jumping into the wine glass. But when the drunken man made the sign of the cross,” he continued, “the devil jumped out of the glass and was burned by a fiery cross.”
People also realized that when St. Basil passed by taverns and brothels, he would stop and touch the corners of the buildings, crying and praying. People asked him why and he answered: “The angels are lamenting the sins of humans, and I also shed tears hoping that they ask God to grace the people inside.”
St. Basil was always honest and could never be tricked by those who were jealous of his renown. Once in the freezing snowy winter, a kind-hearted gentleman took off his fur coat and pleaded with St. Basil to wear it.
Jealous passersby saw him wearing the precious coat and tried to trick him to get it for themselves. One of them even pretended to die, and the others asked St. Basil for money to bury “the dead man.”
St. Basil offered them his rich coat to cover the deceased, and sadly said: “Now you will truly die, because God punishes anyone who betrays His compassion.” After he left, they found that underneath the warm coat, the trickster was indeed dead.
A prophetic legacy
St. Basil was also famous for his incredible gift of prophecy. One time Tsar Ivan the Terrible invited St. Basil to a reception at the court. When the servants brought him tea, he refused to drink to the health of the Tsar and threw the contents out the window. The Tsar became furious, believing Ivan was disrespecting him. “Don’t be angry, Ivanushka”, St. Basil said. “I am putting down the fire in Novgorod as it is spreading.” Tsar Ivan was not easily persuaded, thus, he sent a messenger to Novgorod to ascertain the truth.
What St. Basil said was indeed true. It is said that a fire started right as the Tsar was holding his reception and when it began to spread, an unknown naked man came to extinguish the fire with a cup of water.
Remembering St. Basil the Blessed
At 88 years old, St. Basil the Blessed fell dangerously ill. The Tsar and his two sons, Ivan the elder and Fyodor the younger, visited him. St. Basil told Fyodor: “All ancestral property will belong to you; you are the heir.” Ivan the Terrible did, in fact, later murder his eldest son, and the throne went to Fyodor.
This was St. Basil’s last prophecy.
He died on August 2, 1557. The Tsar himself and the nobles carried the most infamous of all Holy Fool’s coffin, while Archbishop Makari personally presided over his burial. St. Basil’s corpse was buried in the graveyard of what would become St. Basil’s Cathedral.
On August 2, 1588, the anniversary of his death, many miraculous things happened. A woman regained sight after 12 years of blindness, and hundreds of more cases of healing were documented by devotees who went to pray at St. Basil’s grave.
The Orthodox patriarch Job ordered an annual memorial to St. Basil on the day of his death, August 2 according to the old Russian calendar.
Tsar Fyodor ordered the construction of an altar to commemorate St. Basil the Blessed in the cathedral, at the burial place of St. Basil, and to make a silver box to hold the sacred remains.
For a long time the feast of St. Basil the Blessed in Moscow was celebrated very seriously. The patriarch personally performed the ceremony, and the Tsar himself was present when the sacrament was performed.
Today, the Cathedral stands on Red Square in Moscow as one of the most famous monuments in Russia, and a symbol of one its greatest and most extraordinary saints.