September 23, 2020

Stories of Circus Acts Past

I am making an effort to read more Christian history this year. Right now I am working through Diarmaid MacCulloch’s impressive Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. On Friday, I will post the first in a series of articles on “God’s Marvelous, Massive, Messy House,” working our way through the long and complex story of our Christian family.

In addition to those regular posts, I will occasionally give glimpses of various people, places, and events that catch my attention in my studies. Today, we look at one of the outstanding “circus acts” in early Christianity.

You think Ed Young and his wife went “over the top” with their 24-hour “bed-in” last week? Wait ’til you hear about our subject today.

His name was Simeon, and he is the first known practitioner of a form that Diarmaid MacCulloch calls, “sacred self-ridicule,” performed in critique of society’s conventions. This became known as the tradition of The Holy Fool. By humiliating himself in public, the Holy Fool drew attention to the pride and self-assurance of those bound by society’s ways and called them to humble repentance.

According to MacCulloch, the roots of this tradition may be traced to the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, who became notorious for his stunts in Athens in the fourth century BC. Simeon, Christian heir of this tradition, lived in the sixth century AD in Syria, and became known as St. Simeon Salus (foolish), or Simeon the Holy Fool.

For much of his adult life, Simeon practiced the ascetic life of a hermit in the desert. Then he decided to return to his hometown of Emesa, prompted by the Spirit. His foolish behavior began immediately when he entered the village dragging a dead dog around, attracting attention and contempt. It is said that he then entered the church, extinguished the lights, and began throwing nuts at the women in the congregation. Upon exiting the church, Simeon turned over the tables of food merchants in the streets.

As if foreshadowing Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks,” Simeon Salus would move around the town feigning a limp, jumping up and down in the streets, dragging himself along on his bottom, or falling down and thrashing about. (There is no evidence he did the “Holy Ghost Hokey Pokey, however.) He would stick out his foot and trip others deliberately. On one occasion he is said to have run naked through the woman’s bathhouse.

As he was humiliating himself through these embarrassing, offensive acts, Simeon Salus became known for embracing the poor, homeless, and needy as well, living among them and sharing their shame. It is said that, in his humility, God’s grace was upon him and he was able to heal many who were sick and work other miracles. One commentator remarks, “The saint loved humility so much he was convinced one can only attain it perfectly by loving humiliations.” He died in 570 AD and was buried where the city poor were laid to rest.

In his Lives of the Saints (1866), Rev. Alban Butler draws this lesson from the career of Simeon the “Holy Fool” — “Although we are not obliged in every instance to imitate St. Simeon, and that it would be rash even to attempt it without a special call; yet his example ought to make us blush, when we consider with what an ill-will we suffer the least thing that hurts our pride.”


  1. The quote by Butler at the end is very convicting. I’m glad you included it.

  2. “(There is no evidence he did the “Holy Ghost Hokey Pokey, however).”

    Well, it sounds like even Simeon knew where to draw the line

  3. Jack Heron says

    Speaking of Diogenes and public stunts, you’ve reminded me of one of my favourite stories about him. He stood up in the marketplace one day and began to deliver an earnest and erudite lecture on aspects of philosophy, which was roundly ignored. Then he stopped and began to sing badly and dance stupidly, which resulted in an immediate audience. Having gathered the audience, he lambasted the lot of them for paying attention to the wrong part.

    • Highwayman says

      Well, the singing badly and dancing stupidly aspects seem to have caught on, so perhaps a bit of lambasting doesn’t go amiss…

  4. Richard Hershberger says

    I appreciate the shout to to Diarmaid McCullough. His history of the Reformation is equally excellent. Both are formidable books, but worth the effort.

  5. “Simeon Salus would move around the town feigning a limp, jumping up and down in the streets, dragging himself along on his bottom, or falling down and thrashing about… He would stick out his foot and trip others deliberately. On one occasion he is said to have run naked through the woman’s bathhouse.”

    My wife would say that this is pretty much like a trip to the mall with me. I’m a total embarrassment to her…although I haven’t run naked through the ladies room…

  6. Randy Thompson says

    There are Holy Fools and then there are regular fools.

    It’s important that we don’t confuse which is which.

  7. “A man who knows he is a fool is not such a great fool”-Chuang-tzu

  8. Reminds me of Ezekiel in Chapters 4 & 5. Make a model of a siege of Jerusalem, and lie in front of it for 390 days. Oh, and then cut of your beard and scatter it around the city.

    • That’s what I was thinking!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      My writing partner is convinced Ezekiel (besides having the dirtiest mouth of any of the Prophets) was probably schizophrenic. And that God used a crazy man to (in the words of a garage-band song from public-access TV) “speak to the wise with the voice of insanity.”

  9. being a Fool-4-Jesus still a ‘proud’ tradition today. why just look at the few stunts that have been discussed here in very recent posts…


    there is enough embarrassing ‘christianese’ behaviors to give even your garden variety fools a good reputation…

    i haven’t met any ‘holy fools’ in my lifetime though. i wonder if such Spirit inspired antics would lost amidst the plethora of dog-and-pony show circus perfomances already being done today in the name of God…

    probably the most egregious example of such blatant foolishness is the newest trend of X-treme prophetic, signs-and-wonders types like John Crowder & his New Mystics+Sons of Thunder.

    Lord Jesus…have mercy… 🙁

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      As in “Tokin’ the Ghost”, “Jehovah-Juana”, “Little Friar Tuck Beer Angels”, and “Pee-Pee Miracles”?

      • exactly. how bizarre. how strangely unholy about their entire circus act…not to mention severely skewed theological beliefs…

        Lord…save me from the religious nut cases tokin’ the Holy Ghost… 🙁

  10. +1 on this new series!!!! Anything Church history related that helps prove “there is nothing new under the sun”, is a plus for the pastors in the group.

  11. Glenn A Bolas says

    Differences between St Simeon and the fools who have been the subject of recent posts:

    * Lived as a hermit. Living in complete solitude for an extended period will either send you mad or make you a lot saner than before. I don’t think there’s much of a middle ground. In either case, the experience would at least force you to be authentic, with no crowd to play to or limelight to stand in. That’s got to be good for the soul even if it does send you batty.

    * Associated with the poor. That’ll keep you real too.

    * Didn’t take himself seriously. How many of the modern fools are in utter earnest about their folly? St Simeon appears to have been completely aware he was acting like an idiot- and indeed that was the whole point. A man who acts like an idiot and knows that he’s acting like an idiot will be humble. A man who acts like an idiot and thinks he’s acting in accord with some great insight or Important Message For The People is vulnerable to pride.

  12. I’d rather have St. Simeon’s foolishness than Ed Young’s any day.

  13. Can’t wait to read your other thoughts on this book. I read it a month or two ago and was utterly mesmerized. Any recommendations out there for more reading on the holy fool traditionl? I’m intrigued.

  14. Of course, when people start barking in Pentecostal services, suddenly it’s not so profound anymore.

    It happens, you know. I was asked about that some years ago. I referred them to Nebuchadnezzar losing his marbles in Daniel 4: The reason people were barking was because they were the sort of people who told God, “Never. I will never, ever, ever debase myself in such a way. God would never force that upon me; he believes in the integrity of the human free will; I don’t know what benefit to the Kingdom that behavior is,” and so on and so forth. All undone because sometimes, when God opposes the proud, he has to do so forcefully.

    As to the folks who didn’t have pride issues, but were barking anyway, well, some people will foolishly follow any charismatic fad that comes down the river.

  15. I think we could certainly use more “holy fools” in the church today….though without the tripping.

  16. I’ll have to remember that excuse next time I run naked through the ladies baths…

  17. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    For what it’s worth, remember this hit song from the Sixties?

    “The Fool on the hill —
    Man of a thousand faces
    Standing perfectly still;
    See the sun going down?
    Well, the eyes in his head
    See the world
    Spinning Round…”
    — The Beatles (Paul McCartney), 1967

    This was on the pop charts when I was 12; I didn’t understand these lyrics until 30 years later, when my old D&D Dungeonmaster claimed it referenced Tarot card symbology. For what it’s worth, here’s how I understand it, with a possible echo of St Simeon and the concept of the Holy Fool:

    In the Tarot deck (first created for a Renaissance card game called Tarock, later used in fortunetelling because of its surreal imagery), the highest-ranking trump card is The Fool. The symbology of The Fool is that of Hidden Truths beneath the surface. Everyone calls him a Fool because he can’t see the obvious; instead, he actually sees the Hidden Truth behind the obvious — “the world spinning round” instead of the obvious “the sun going down”.