Orthodox America

  God’s Holy Fool - Blessed Feofil of the Kiev-Caves Lavra

      The spiritual podvig of foolishness-for Christ is both difficult to undertake and difficult to comprehend. The following explanation was used to preface the Life of one who engaged himself in this uncommon exploit, and we have found it suitable as an introduction  to our own spiritual hero·

       "These fools-for-Christ voluntarily abandoned reason, that gift of God which sets man --the crown of Creation--apart from the other  creatures; they relinquished that aspect of the mind which governs the words of man as a rational, sensual being, in order that through restricting their relationship to the world they might expand further their field of labor for God· They lived upon the earth, yet it was as if they did not belong on the earth. All that which flatters and attracts man--wealth, glory, pleasures--was alien to them; all worldly attachments they held for nought, considering them to be hindrances to the upbringing of their inner man...

 "Their example brilliantly illumined the one thing needful, the high calling, forgotten through attachment to the good things of this world. Their words, at times harsh, brought their neighbors, their brothers in Christ, back to their senses; they guided the wayward, comforted the grieving, denounced the mighty of this world--for they feared no one. The violation of God's truth alone filled them with dread. · ·"

     Through the glorification of Blessed Xenia four years ago, many people have become more familiar with this exceptional form of ascetic struggle · And in fact there are many others who have attained sanctity in following this path, and who await the Church's recognition. Among them is Blessed Schema-monk Feofil of the Kiev Caves Lavra, whose Life has for some years been available in English. We hope the following highlights will inspire a closer acquaintance with this luminary of the Church, who became a 'fool' that we might become more wise.

     The Blessed One was named Foma at baptism. He was the eldest of twins born in 1788 into the family of a priest in the district of Kiev. His mother was a simple woman, and when the infant Foma refused to be breast-fed or to accept milk in any form, she gave credence to some superstitious gossip and began to regard him as some kind of freak. Finally, she became so possessed with loathing for the baby that she persuaded a servant to throw him into the river to drown. The fact that he was miraculously saved from three such attempts only confirmed her impression of his being abnormal. In despair over the child's safety, his father entrusted him to the care of a wet-nurse. Shortly thereafter his father died, and the orphaned Foma spent his childhood in being passed from one household to another until he was settled with a widowed uncle in the Bratsk Monastery. The boywas enrolled in the school attached to the Theological Academy, but he considered his true education to be what he absorbed in church, where he "disciplined his mind to constant spiritual thought and prayer." His schooling was discontinued when his uncle died leaving him no means of support and, after some difficult years in the world, Foma entered the Bratsk Monastery as a novice.

    His exemplary conduct and spiritual fervor impressed his brethren and superiors dike, and in 1821 he was tonsured with the name Feodorit. Striving yet more to imitate the angelic life, he was found worthy to b ordained to the priesthood in 1827, and in 1834, as a sign of complete renunciation of the world, he was clothed in the great schema and received the name Feofil. When his request to withdraw to the monastery cave was denied, he concentrated himself on the supremely difficult struggle of foolishness for Christ's sake, concealing in his feigned eccentricity the high valor of his character.

       Feofil's ragged appearance presented a: queer picture indeed; he often wore a boot on one foot, a slipper on the other; he sewed bits of old cloth to his cowl; his cassock was, patched and spotted and he sometimes tied an old towel around his head. His cell presented a similarly untidy impression, though it contained little besides a narrow bench on which he slept, a table and an analogion. When asked how he could tolerate such mess he would reply: "It serves as a reminder of the disorder in my soul·" Similarly, he mixed all his food together for, he explained, such is life; the sweet is mixed with the bitter.

      Feofil was never idle; he knit stockings and wove canvas which he gave away to iconographers. With his hands thus occupied, he would recite the Psalter which he knew by heart. But his primary occupation was prayer. He was given a bullock which he hitched up to a small cart. Sitting at the back of the cart with his back to the bullock, he would read the Psalter as he journeyed, leaving the unharnessed beast to take him to his destination. And why should anyone wonder at this, for such was the relation of man and beast before the Fall. Through obedience to God's commandments, God's holy ones restored the image of God in themselves, and "the animals sensing in man the fragrance of original purity, become obedient to him."

     Through his utter self-abasement, the Blessed One drew upon himself the abundant grace of God. He received the gift of healing, of fore vision and discernment of thoughts. "It was strange to see," witnesses said, "how the Blessed One heard the confessions of the people who came to him. He did not ask for their sins as spiritual fathers usually do, but having placed his saintly hands on the head of the person confessing,., he himself listed all the secret and known sins. At this, not only , did the penitent shed tears of emotion, but from fear and shame, even the hair of his head would stand up on end."

         The Elder never spoke in vain but always used his gifts for the spiritual welfare of a souls. One spring day the Elder met a certain Nikolai walking in the woods. This young man was so troubled by lustful thoughts that he was considered possessed. Seeing Feofil approaching, Nikolai tried to turn aside to avoid conversation.

      "Haloo, Nikolai, wait up. Where are you going Come here to me. We will delight in lascivious thoughts together."

      Nikolai felt that he had been accused and wept sorrowfully before the Elder.

      "Well, that's nothing. The Lord is merciful," the Elder 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.

      To cite just one example of his fore-vision: once at a very narrow place in the road leading from the Lavra to the Kitayevskaya Hermitage where the Elder lived, Blessed Feofil drivingin his cart, met the Metropolitan in his carriage driving from the Lavra. There was no room to pass. The Blessed One refused to budge. The Archpastor became rather agitated: "Will you stop trying my patience? .... No," replied Feofil, "I won't stop, because it is you and not I who must turn back." Just then someone rode up to Vladika with a message that an artisan at the Lavra had fallen from some scaffolding and had been killed. The shaken Archpastor ordered his coachman to return to the Lavra at once.

      One might, of course, say that the Blessed One had been chosen from his mother's womb to be a lamp of the Faith, and therefore the attainment of such gifts was only natural. Tog peasant who asked how it was that he knew everything and could foretell the future of people's lives, the Elder replied: "There is nothing difficult about it. Do you want to be able to do the same? Then pull a small hair from your eyelash and tie two knots in it. When you do that you will be as wise as I am." The naive peasant tried to make use of this advice but no matter how hard he tried, he could not even tie one knot in the eyelash. "That is how difficult it was for me to attain my present condition," said the Blessed One,

      Elder Feofil was constantly besieged by people asking his blessing and his advice. To those who came out of curiosity he did not hesitate to be rude and sent them away, or he would deliberately set them at some unpleasant or dirty task. Once he emptied a bowl of soup onto the silk dress of a visiting landowner, at the same time openly revealing her adultery. But while he did not fear to sternly rebuke those who needed it, he was kind and compassionate towards the simple and God-fearing. Those who humbly and obediently followed his advice, even if it were stern and uncomfortable, never failed to benefit their souls.

     Elder Feofil's popularity, together with his bizarre behavior, evoked much jealousy and slander from those dose by. The higher meaning of his actions escaped them and all they could see was a "little capable, disrespectful, self-willed, stubborn" monk who could not "correctly and ceremoniously conduct a service." His extremely peculiar behavior while serving in the altar fired a hostof complaints and a request for his dismissal. Little did his slanderers suspect that while celebrating the Divine Liturgy, the Blessed One would be transported in seeing "a strange dew descending on the Holy Gifts and shining angels soaring above the altar-table, saying, 'Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!'"

    Blessed Feofil meekly bore his persecution, and when vexed or rebuked he would calmly say to his cell-attendant, "Ah, Ivan, Ivan. it is better to endure injustice than to commit it oneself .... [Besides], we are ill in soul and body, and bitter medicine is useful for the ill." He would say, "We must pray for our enemies .... Indeed, they are our benefactors; they force us to strengthen our will towards what is good; they humble us here on earth, and weave crowns For us in heaven."

     Even after his death on October 28, 1853, Blessed Feofil is "still quick and incessant in giving help in illness and grief to all who call to him." He is particularly known to give help in finding lost or misplaced articles, as many, including the writer of these lines, can abundantly testify. 

Before us he stands, a reproof to our way of thinking, the very sight of him weighs our spirit down; his way of life is not like other men’s; the paths he treads are unfamiliar… (Wis. 2:12-16)