In 1468, Basil was born near Moscow to a poor family of serfs. Their poverty had a lasting impact upon Basil in a variety of ways: 1) Basil learned what it meant to be impoverished, 2) Basil was not tempted to affluent disregard like so many of his contemporaries, and 3) Basil gained a powerful prophetic voice by virtue of his upbringing. In spite of their poverty they arranged to have their son sent off to be apprenticed to a cobbler. Making and repairing shoes would not be a luxurious or respectable job but it would be a way to make a steady living.
Though he was a cobbler by profession, he was a holy fool by vocation. As a holy fool, he followed in the footsteps ofEzekiel the Prophet and engaged in foolishness in a prophetic fashion. By refusing to live by people’s expectations, he constantly challenged people to reconsider what they felt and believed. A holy fool redefines foolishness.
For example, Basil would walk barefoot through the streets of Moscow during the blazing Summer. He would, seemingly without cause or rationale, turn over a table of food or pour out jugs of wine. Only later would it be found out that the food was improperly cooked or the wine poisonous. With their limited knowledge, the people would judge Basil to be an idiot and an incompetent but this was because they could not see and understand what Basil could. Until they would learn, they would beat and abuse Basil. Basil, in the fashion of his Lord and Savior, would accept these punishments wordlessly and compassionately. Though he was saving their lives, they abused him. In their ignorance, they scorned their salvation–a beautiful image for those who might reflect upon the life and death of Jesus.
Once, there was a merchant who had fallen upon hard times when thieves had stolen everything he owned. He was penniless and, yet, his clothes suggested his former wealth. As he begged alms on the street for food and assistance, people would pass him by thinking he was nothing more than a greedy and evil man. He could not simply lose his clothes as they were all he had left and, yet, he would not receive any help because the people knew him by what he had before he lost it. Basil, with the true-sight of a holy fool and prophet, recognized the merchant for what had happened. He gave the man a great gift he had received. The merchant went, sold it, and was able to buy back all that had been stolen from him. Basil was able to see the heart of the person when everybody else saw only the appearance. Once again, Basil understood what others missed.
Perhaps the greatest feat of this holy fool was his encounter with Ivan the Terrible. Ivan attended church services but Basil was unconvinced that it was anything more than a show of pseudo-spirituality for political purposes. Ivan had earned the title “the Terrible” but Basil had no fear of this man who spent time in church services daydreaming about building palaces. During Lent, when the people were not eating meat, Basil approached Ivan at dinner and slammed down a large piece of bloody meat on the table in front of Ivan. Ivan protested that he did not eat meat for it was Lent. Basil responded, “You eat and drink the blood and flesh of those you kill and torture…” Ivan, in an unexpected turn, did not punish Basil. Instead, he would be a pall-bearer at Basil’s eventual funeral.
For the people of Moscow, Basil was an oddity that one hoped to avoid for the most part. His tearful prayers over the houses of sinners and outcasts must surely have gathered some confusion and derision. And, yet, Basil was comfortable in his calling as a fool for Christ. He saw what others could not or would not see. His values were not the same as the world’s. He was a citizen of the Kingdom of God and his life was foolishness to the people he sojourned among.