The story of Isadora, Fool-for-Christ, is told in the Lausiac History, a manuscript by Palladius dating back to the 5th century. Although most of the book narrates the life of “holy fathers,” he included the bios of several holy women, one of which Isadora is contained in the chapter “Concerning the Nun Who Feigned Folly.”
Although we don’t know when Isadora was born, we know that she must have died around 365, during the height of Egyptian monasticism. She was a nun in a convent located in Tabennisi on the right bank of the Nile near Thebes. The Nile separated the male monasteries, on the left bank, from the female convents on the right. The convent where she resided included four hundred nuns and was according to the monastic tradition, founded by Mary, sister of Saint Pachomios, the founding father of Tebennisi, the birthplace of coenobitic monasticism. Isadora was considered during her time and most definitely in ours, a nut job. She did not wear the conventional monastic habit but dressed in rags, went around barefoot and wore a rag around her head always. She did not behave like the other nuns. She lived a lonely, separate existence. She did not eat with the rest of the sisters; in fact no one had ever seen her eating. She did scrap up the crumbs from the table after the rest had finished however.
She was considered crazy by the other nuns and mistreated for it. Called “the broom of the whole community”, she scoured pots and pans, scrubbed floors and bathrooms in effect becoming a non-person. She did not complain however and did not become angry at the other nuns.
What the other nuns did not realize, however, was that she was pretending to be stupid and crazy (or maybe not). Her spiritual merit was recognized when the Holy Spirit revealed here holiness to a monk, Saint Piteroum. Somewhere between the Nile and the Red Sea, an angel visited the hermit on a remote mountain and told him, “Why do you consider yourself a pious man? If you wish to see someone who is more pious than you, go to the convent at Tabennis. There you will find a nun who wears a rag around her head. She is your superior.”
St. Piteroum took the angel’s advice and traveled to the convent, something that was done only on exceptional occasions as the male and female communities were strictly segregated. When he asked to see all the nuns, he noticed that the one with a rag on her head was missing. “Is this all of you?” he asked. “Yes, father, all of us are here,” answered the igoumena. “ The nun who the angel described is not here,” he replied.
“Well there is one more. But she is touched in the head. She is working in the kitchen,” she said.
Isadora was dragged to the reception hall to meet the holy father. Once he saw her, he bowed and asked for a blessing. She bowed to him asking for a blessing from him. While the nuns urged him not to take her seriously, he reproached them for not recognizing that this “crazy” one was in fact a woman of great spiritual knowledge who surpassed them in holiness. One by one, the nuns accepted this revelation and came crying in repentance to her feet.
Once her true spiritual state was revealed, Isadora had trouble dealing with all the spiritual papparrazi who came to venerate her as a holy woman. She soon after left the convent and disappeared into the wilderness. No one knows where or when she died.
The idea of playing “the fool for Christ” is a difficult one to understand outside of a Christian context. Coined by St. Paul, it refers to the discrepancy between outward appearance and inward truth. The ways of God are opposite to those of the world in many ways subverting them, so that what seems “weak” is actually “strong”, what seems “foolish” is actually “wise.” The ways of God are not the ways of the world. In fact, God’s wisdom has a way of turning the world’s ways upside down in ironic reversals. (“If any one thinks they are wise, let them become a fool so that they may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God” 1 Corinthians 3:18).
Isadora is one of the first saints to be donned with this title. The 4th century manuscript makes it seem as if she were pretending or faking that she was crazy or slow, but had she really been mentally ill or disturbed would not have changed her holiness and the recognition she deserves for her spiritual struggles. Christ I am sure would see that there is a blessing and a deeper wisdom in madness. That the mentally ill or mentally retarded, those who suffer from emotional or psychological disorders, have a different handle on the world. It is they who are freed from the conventional constraints of the world, who are excused for their folly, who can critique it and actually tell the truth as it is without fearing ridicule because they are beyond it, that are more wise and true in the eyes of God than the “normal” ones. The story of Saint Isadora contests to this idea and the paradoxical truth of God’s wisdom, that those who are “slow” might be quick wits, and those who play dumb are actually wise. We cannot judge from external appearances the true merits of a human soul. The inner life of the soul is so mysterious that only God can judge it. And that in order to gain favor with God, we must go against the outward trappings of success, glory, honor, reputation that our fellow men and women aspire to and answer to a higher and deeper calling. She reminds us how much we can benefit from the foolish wisdom of the mentally ill.
Feast Day: May 10th