Symeon the Holy Fool

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Symeon was a sixth century holy fool, originally from Syria. Although he broke social norms in the way that he lived, he also carried out charity work, often in secret, and reportedly healed many of the sick through miraculous acts. His life was recorded in a hagiography by Leontius, bishop of Neapolis, Cyprus, in the seventh century. Leontius emphasised the ways in which Symeon imitated Jesus. However, in reality Symeon’s imitation was a deliberately poor imitation.

It is hard to fit Symeon into the usual life template of other holy fools, especially because his acts of healing were normally destructive. His miracles depend on the spectators’ and later readers’, expectations of how miracles are supposed to be performed. They indicate his holiness, but also challenge conventional notions of sanctity. Their destructiveness highlights the ambiguity of holiness. The fact that his charitable works were hidden from the populace of his chosen home, Emesa, also challenges conventional notions of sanctity. People only became aware of many of the things he did after he died.

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In Symeon’s case, his shamelessness in defying the norms of polite human behaviour in for example defacating in public, became blessedness: he had reached a state of bodilessness. This was not connected to social convention, but with theological self-understanding. Late Antique Christians understood bodilessness as one definition of the angels, a condition to which the ascetics aspired.

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