The Wisdom of Holy Fools

The Fool

Sr. Marie Estelle would not appreciate being called a fool, holy or not. She was the principal of our Catholic grade school in Milwaukee for many years.  Like so many great nuns, Sr. Marie Estelle ran the school on a shoestring budget.  But each morning she would greet us at the door with a smile, a pat on the back, a word of encouragement.  To a grade schooler she seemed to be everywhere at once – leading morning announcements, prefecting during lunch time, picking up trash as she strolled the hallways.

When I think of her I especially remember one Mardi Gras when, I cannot explain why, we students took turns hitting a pinata. After spinning a blind-folded seventh grader into dizziness, Sr. Marie Estelle didn’t quite manage to retreat to a safe distance.  She took a wiffle bat to the head that would’ve stunned Jose Canseco, let alone a septuagenarian religious.  There was no question in our minds whether she could take it though, and sure enough, she laughed it off and was there to say goodbye at the end of the day as usual.

I never stepped foot in a class taught by Sr. Marie Estelle.  But some twenty years later, I am still inspired by this holy woman.  No doubt each of us many have similar stories of those who’ve taught us about life, inside or outside the classroom.

Each of these stories we could tell are of people who are deferential and courteous, joyful and observant, people who don’t take themselves too seriously.  These stories, like mine about Sr. Marie Estelle are about those who can’t seem to find anything wrong with anyone else.  Those for whom God is good and life is good.  They’re stories at once inspiring and, in all honestly, a little depressing.

Just how did these people get so holy?  When did the pixie dust rain down on them?  And what must they think of the rest of us, who aren’t yet so far along the road to such love?

I used to think that holy people simply had their heads in the clouds, blissfully unaware of others’ eye-splinters.  I’d ask myself, “Why can’t I be less observant, like these ‘holy fools’?”  Sr. Marie Estelle was only able to be so unflappable, I reasoned, because she had no idea what was going on around her.  (Maybe she thought getting hit with a wiffle bat was a sign of adolescent affection?) Maybe life was just simpler for the people who populate our stories.  Maybe everybody was just less cynical back in the day.

“Not so fast, there, Simmons,” you might say.  And you’d be right.

Though Sr. Marie Estelle was old as the hills in the eyes of an eight year old, we could tell from the look on her face that she didn’t miss anything.  A-NY-THING.  When I’ve taken the time to really talk with the “holy fools” who populate my own Jesuit community I find something other than blissful aloofness.  I find that they know just what it is that slinks through the human heart. They too know pettiness, jealousy, competitiveness, pride, and sloth.  I find that they’ve walked with, talked with and wrestled with those same demons I’m still getting to know.

A few months ago, our resident voracious reader Tim O’Brien posted a quotation by author Marilynne Robinson which stopped me cold.  She writes, “The tragic mystery of human nature has by no means played itself out… [W]isdom, which is almost always another name for humility, lies in accepting one’s own inevitable share of human fallibility.”

Maybe that’s what holiness looks like for us in this somewhat cynical century.  The wisdom of our “holy fools” lies not in their ability to sniff out and name others’ shortcomings.  Rather, their wisdom lies in a learned love of others, a love which would sooner pardon than pin down.  Why?  Because they know their demons, own them, and ask God for help to keep them tamed.  They have experienced – and wish to be stewards of – that unsurpassed, forgiving love that God has for each of us from the first.  This God who knows all of our resistances and limits, and loves us all the more.

These are the wise teachers, the heroes of the stories we tell.  They are the ones who see the limitations we work so hard to cover over and yet refrain from rendering judgment.  It seems to me that it’s that loving restraint that gives them that aura of otherness and allows them to be so curiously unimpressed by the limitations of others.

If Marilynne Robinson is right then wisdom and humility are not magic.  They do not hit us all at once like a whiffle bat.  At least they haven’t for me.  Whatever greater patience and love I’ve summoned for others has come only – only – through recognizing that slow, patient love from the quiet teachers in my life.  Thank you, Sister.

If that’s how holy fools are forged, then sign me up.