“He saw himself as an object, very small and distinct like a fly walking on a clear window pain; and it was unmistakably a fool.” Have you ever felt that way? Was it ever total and complete degradation leaving you isolated, alone, and perhaps humiliated?
I hope not. I hope so! I don’t know what to hope for you. This description above was written by C.K. Chesterton regarding St. Francis of Assisi and his journey into what some consider madness. At the juncture in his life above, he had failed at being a military knight, returned home and failed his father by stealing from him, and left town in dramatic fashion barely clothes with nothing and headed into the wilderness during a winters snow. In the moments after his departure, when he found respite in some cave or dark place, his rejection by family, friends, and even the church was complete. How did he ever come back out a changed man?
A detour describing the Tumbler of our Lady is presented here as well. In brief, the tumbler (jongleur) performs in front of our Lady. A juggler, acrobat, or tumbler standing on his head in front of the Blessed Mary. It takes a great freedom to be a juggler or acrobat as well as great discipline. The analogy Chesterton uses of course goes deeper. He drives it right into the heart of asceticism, more commonly known as self-denial and sacrifice. Takes the fun right out of it. Except St. Francis models asceticism that leads to great joy. I think of the marathon runner after they break through the pain, the artist that toils to the point of madness while achieving greatness, or the master craftsman that attends to every detail as if each represented the whole. All three practice self-denial to achieve something transformative, and though not envisioned, brings lasting joy beyond their understanding.
“But God, who knew his [the tumbler’s] intentions
And his great sense of duty
And the love for which he did his acts
Did not wish to hide his deeds;
Thus the Lord wished and bid
That the works of His friend
Be known and manifested,
Because he had joyfully served His mother,
And so that each one would know
And understand and see
That God refuses no one
Who in love trusts himself to Him,
No matter how he does his duty,
So long as he loves God and does right.” (Feminae)
St. Francis does not remain in that state of mind of being a fool. A transformation occurs and he emerges from the darkness somehow different. Chesterton puts it this way: “And as he stared at the word “fool” written in luminous letters before him, the word itself began to shine and change.”
There is an element of complete surrender here that perhaps only saints achieve. Many people who have hit “figurative” bottom in their lives experience this emptying making them more available to a spiritual transformation. I don’t just mean alcoholics, gamblers, or drug addicts. I mean anyone who played the part of being the fool.
Many never get this experience as they are too angry blaming others for their situation or to self-absorbed or even afraid to confront their own shortcomings. An eternal facade of perfection prevails over facing any risk of public humiliation or shame. To do otherwise might mean loss of material, status, or even relationships that one values. Sadly, in the end, corrosiveness possessiveness creates just the opposite results, individuals destroyed from the inside out clinging to something or set of things that in the end, cause their existential fall.
If you have played the fool, you are not alone. You have plenty of company. To be rare a amongst your peers, harnessing your folly through true humility and action can lead to a spiritual transformation. You may still be seen as a fool to some, but you will not care. The corrosiveness inside you will be gone. You will shoulder the pain and weights of many when before you could barely carry your own.