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Center for Action and Contemplation

Becoming Wise Fools

Friday, February 26, 2021


Becoming Wise Fools
Friday, February 26, 2021

Those who will lead into the future will have some hard-won wisdom. We might call them the “holy fools.” By the holy fool I mean what the Bible and mythic literature have always presented as the “savior.” They are persons who are happily, but not naïvely, innocent of everything the rest of us take for granted. They alone can trust and live the new work of God because they are not protecting the past by control (conservatives) or reacting against the past by fixing (liberals). Both of these groups are too invested in their own understanding to let go and let God do something new on earth.

According to the pattern, the wise fools are always formed in the testing ground of exile when the customary and familiar are taken away and they must go deeper and much higher for wisdom. As a result, they no longer fit or belong among their own. Yet paradoxically, they alone can point the way to the “promised land” or the “new Jerusalem.” Conventional wisdom is inadequate, even if widely held by good people.

I believe that there are two necessary paths enabling us to move toward wisdom: a radical journey inward and a radical journey outward. For far too long we’ve confined people to a sort of security zone, a safe “lukewarm” midpoint, which the Bible warns us against, as to the Laodiceans (Revelation 3:15‒16). We’ve called them neither to a radical path inward, in other words, to contemplation, nor to a radical path outward, that is, to commitment on the social issues of their time. We prefer to stay in a secure middle position, probably because these two great teachers, the inner and the outer way, both cause pain. Failure and falling short are the best teachers; success has virtually nothing to teach us on the spiritual path.

It is Paul, one of the “holy fools” of our Christian faith, isolated but enthralled by a vision of universal Gospel, who can say, “Make no mistake about it: if you think you’re wise, in the ordinary sense of the word, then you must learn to be a fool before you can really be wise” (1 Corinthians 3:18). The holy fool is the last stage of the wisdom journey. It is the individual who knows their dignity and therefore does not have to polish or protect it. It is the man or woman who has true authority and does not have to defend it or anyone else’s authority. It is the child of God who has met the One who watches over sparrows and fashions galaxies, and therefore can comfortably be a child of God.  They and they alone can be trusted to proclaim the Reign of God.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, What the Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self (Crossroad Publishing: 2015), 118–120, 133–134.

Story from Our Community:
The whole way has been / wisdom, calling / waiting, waiting, / just there, through those / trees. / Take a rest here, / in the center of the circle. / Lay your doubts and fear / here, by the fire. / Rest in this / love; / it is always all that / is. —Lynnly T.

Image credit: Mark Kauffman, Howard Thurman (detail), photograph, copyright, used with permission.
Image inspiration: Pictured here are the hands of the Howard Thurman, revered theologian and inspiration for civil rights in the 20th century. We see a profound gentleness in the way Thurman holds his glasses; the same timeless and human gentleness that permeates his writings and teachings.
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