"The Holy Fool"

Final Chapter of The Inspired Heart, by Jerry Wennstrom


"He who fears to be foolish will never learn to be wise." -- I Cor. 3:18
"A slave you must be. Either you are a slave for the world or you are a slave for God."
-- Paramahansa Yogananda
"There is in all of us a Holy Fool, a friend to the soul of our world, often forgotten, or worse, feared. When we make a complete and unconditional surrender and trust the mysterious, unknown void with our lives, we enter the domain of the Holy Fool for God. We become a slave to God, which is as free as we can be as human beings. We are led by the allure of a deeper mystery, a presence that leads to unimaginable freedom.
Fearing that we may be fools in the eyes of the world, we use this world as a safe and reasonable reference point. We go about creating our lives in the image of what we see externally, thus eliminating all mystery. We risk nothing at all that may lead to a unique and holy freedom. Reason has an important place in our lives, but its range is limited, and it becomes a foolish activity when we rely on it too heavily. There is a saying, "Reason will take us to the door of heaven, but love will get us in."
We can reason ourselves into being, fool ourselves into believing that our lives are our own unique, logical, fixed creation. Then we must use endless amounts of will and strategy to uphold this illusion. We receive no support from the larger creative forces in this effort. When approached by the trusting and emptied Fool for God, these same forces are available, hovering in manifestation mode, ready to dispense of their gifts. The personal link to the sacred is all we have when we are fully engaged in our own true life. The mystery is all the support and structure we need to bring through the magic that charms our lives.
Most of us do our best to live for something that feels like life and beauty. However misguided, we pour our energies and our life force out with great determination into whatever world we believe in. It is disheartening when the final expression of that investment looks more like dust than dance. This brings to the surface a deep grief, for which the only remedy is a final and lasting victory that is uniquely our own.
In stories, "happily ever after" resonates with our souls. It is a truth that we know in our bones. "Happily ever after" is our birthright! When grace delivers at the end of the well-lived story, the final gift is compassion, which allows us to forgive ourselves and our world. In this we find our freedom. We allow ourselves to be happy, knowing that creation is not all our responsibility. We work hard and joyfully and allow space for the universe to meet our gifts halfway. The Mystery of the universe leads us gladly, given the chance. It can free us from an unconscious creation, with a final expression we did not intend or hope for, and bring into play the life we had imagined for ourselves."
There is an image in the Bhagavad Gita of a bodhi tree that is seen as upside down from the worldly perspective. When seen from heaven, it is clear that the tree is right-side up and that the upside down tree is its reflection. The Holy Fool is right-side up in this upside down world. She sees the real tree and does not create the illusion of a reflection. With an eye on the way things truly are, the Holy Fool can use her alchemical touch to hand over what is difficult and out of order to the divine, to be returned sanctified. Like a child, she can laugh when God laughs and cry when God cries.
If we go deeply into the difficult places in our life, we find an edge where we have faltered before, which remains unresolved and therefore unchanged. We have backed away or run away from this edge more than once. If we have not done the necessary introspective work, backing away is an unconscious, instinctual response. The ego informs us that we are confronting our death, so we believe that we need to retreat from the edge to survive.
The ropes course is a wonderful training ground for practice of the metaphoric death experience. It is a way to activate the internal Holy Fool. You have to be a little foolish to do it in the first place. One of the exercises in the program is to climb way up high, forty feet, to the top of a pole. There are iron stakes in the pole to climb on. When you reach the top, you let go with your hands and stand fully erect on the top of the pole. You are told to leap out and catch the large bar hanging six feet away and slightly above you. Of course, while all this is going on, you are in a harness fastened to a rope that will hold you should you fall.
The ego does not interpret this experience as a metaphorical death. The irrational need of the unconscious to survive is more powerful than we imagine. In spite of the metaphor and the safety rope, what you feel is terror! The Holy Fool is empowered by the mythic reality of the metaphor and has faith in the unseen safety rope above. When we are immersed in our own journey, alone and full of doubts, and hearing the message, "This is death," then we should remember this: There is a rope.
The metaphorical death experience is a given in our lives. As time will always reveal, we have no choice but to fully traverse this dark landscape and emerge into light on the other side. The form the journey takes is a uniquely individual experience. In telling the stories of this journey, we create and share a newly emerging myth. Conscious participation in the shared story is probably the most important gift we can experience, physically and spiritually, in the world today. We need a healthy and irrational foolishness to receive this gift. We must trust our intuitive feeling for the simple love, adventure, and joy of life! There is no reference point for this experience. We have only the inherent support that comes with being in right relationship with the Mystery. The support and communication we get from the universe along the way-the feedback that informs us that all is well in our creation-is a miracle!
There is a story told about the Buddha calling the earth to witness. The Buddha was asked a reasonable question, something like, "Exactly who do you think is going to understand these lofty ideas of yours, and who do you think you are anyway, to become such a large and beautiful truth?" His answer was a most unreasonable one. He reached down and touched the ground, and there was a rumble from the core of the earth. The earth itself spoke on the Buddha's behalf. Jam not sure he caused the earth to quake. I believe, however, that he was at the perfect place at the perfect moment, being asked the perfect question by the perfect person, who may in fact have been the archetypal devil himself. This right relationship to a larger harmony is the unreasonable reality of the Holy Fool for God.
The ego responds to life by trying to survive, avoiding difficult situations, rather than expecting a miracle. Remember the TV comedy show from years ago, Sanford and Son? Sanford would feign a heart attack when confronted with something that he didn't want to look at. He would place his hand dramatically on his heart and say, "This is the big one!" And he'd solicit the help of his dead wife in heaven to coerce those responsible to have pity and back off. I think that we are all often a bit like Sanford when we attempt to avoid the uncharted territory that awakens our fears.
If we can keep our immediate reactions in check when we are confronting difficulty and discomfort, we discover a place in our hearts where we know that all is well. Held in innocence, this place protects us. The people or events that present the challenges are seen ultimately as our best helpmates. They come bearing gifts, even those who choose to be our enemies. "An insult, to a sage, is a boon!" (Lao Tzu)
The immediate response of backing away to survive a difficult situation is often the product of an old habit. When we remember what previous choices we made at this juncture, we begin to see the recurring pattern of this habit. We realize that we have turned away at this decisive moment before. We can make a different choice this time. We can break old patterns and set in place the good habits that serve us.
We do, however, have our own timing for full entry into the mysterious Fool's journey. Although we need to work diligently and be as conscious and self-aware as possible, there is, in the end, that all-important element of grace. Grace is on good speaking terms with the Holy Fool. We must call on her constantly with passion, invoking her power as we go. How we do that seems not to matter as much as that we do it consistently. This invocation is a living prayer. There is a way of being prayer that is fully grounded in a personal relationship with the divine. It is the way of trust, in which we do not feel separate from the source. The entrance to this way has everything to do with the sincerity and intention of the practice and little to do with the particular form of practice, Being prayer includes time and space for lighthearted foolishness and beauty.
There is a wonderful story from the Hindus, I believe, Once a very determined spiritual seeker went to see a very great guru who was also a king. The guru was a Holy Fool. Upon seeing the determination of this young seeker, he instructed the woman to walk through his entire castle. She was told not to miss a single room. The castle was a dark and beautiful place, and she would need a light to see. She was given an oil lamp that was filled to the very brim with oil, and she was told that it was most important not to spill a single drop. This young seeker, intuiting the spiritual significance of the task, was extremely careful with the very full lamp. After several hours of walking with great seriousness of purpose through the entire castle, she finally returned to the king, feeling that she had accomplished the difficult assignment he had given her. She said, "I managed to go through every single room without spilling a single drop of oil." The king said, "Very good! But tell me, did you enjoy the beauty of my castle?" The young woman said, "No! How could I? I was focused on the oil and was being very careful not to spill it. I didn't notice a thing!" The king said, "Then you have failed the test!"
We must find the beauty in our own journey, but many spiritual traditions hold that it may not be accomplished in one lifetime. This is a timeless involvement; therefore, it can also happen now, and why not? What more important work is there to do?
The importance we give to this Fool's journey will fade if we do not maintain the relentless attention that it requires. Most of us begin our soul's journey with at least one foot limping along. And many of us begin it as young people, with the foolhardy belief that we can do the things that have never been done! Eventually, if the entirety of our being does not engage the process and ground it in consistency, we lose our dream that a deeper spirituality even exists. We need to focus on the spiritual reality of our lives with a fierce hold on our original innocence. We apply enormous amounts of time, energy, and discipline to the things that do not last in this life. These activities have little to do with anything that results in real happiness for others or for us.
We are at a rare time in the history of our world. Consciousness is attempting to come through the spirit of our lives. It brings with it all that we need to live out its gift. At the same time, our old ways of being on the planet are beginning to fail. Our social forms and structures are radically changing and breaking down. Our mother, the Earth, is ailing! We are truly in uncharted territory.
Perhaps the Holy Fool in us trusts that this, too, is God. The light could not exist except in relation to the dark. When we hold this Fool's vision, we can begin to see that where we stand now is holy ground, perfectly in place under our feet, ready for our next step in a meaningful new direction. This unknown, mysterious universe will show us the way that it needs to go! We must realize that we do not know how to save ourselves or our world. This not-knowing is a healthy, worthy position that can lead us in a true direction, The wisdom of the Holy Fool is off-limits to human manipulation. It is out of the reach of intellectual understanding and control. It is a holy wisdom inside experience, where mind leaves off and spirit takes over. Even our best intentions are rendered useless here.
"Goodness is the final obstacle to God," says the Bhagavad Gita.
We need to wait and trust that all will be served in some joyful, mysterious way, in which we can be willing participants in our own good stories. Reality knows the way; it is not lost, and neither are we.
A time may come when you are asked to let go of everything you think you are and all that you think you possess. If you can give yourself to this process, what will emerge will be a truer self in a truer world. All will be well. All that you had hoped for, all that is most important to you, all that seemed to be impossible or gone forever will be sanctified and returned to you. This is the innermost wisdom of the Holy Fool!
July 26 on NPR:
Surrendering to Wholeness with Jerry Wennstrom and Marilyn Strong:
Is enlightenment really a possibility the contemporary world? What would happen if you truly surrendered to what comes your way, without expectation or attachment? Are the things you fear the source of trouble or beauty? At the age of twenty-nine, Jerry Wennstrom changed the course of his life in a way that brought answers to these questions and more.
He was a successful New York City artist when he began to sense that something much larger and more important was stirring, waiting to emerge in his life. "I intuited something much more alive that promised nothing. There were no guarantees, but I intuited it was everything that was most creative, most alive. It was everything that I had been searching for with my will and whatever intelligence I had available. And so on the strength of that simple place, I went for life, and I destroyed the work and I gave everything I owned away. And it proved to be the most powerful thing and the most important thing I've ever done." What he discovered was a path to understanding and wholeness that brings the ancient teachings into the context of our modern world.
Jerry Wennstrom is the author of The Inspired Heart: An Artist's Journey of Transformation (Sentient Publications 2002). His life and work are the subject of the video "In the Hands of Alchemy" (Parabola 2001). Marilyn Strong is an ordained minister and a Jungian-oriented spiritual counselor. She has created a CD of her chants, songs and drumming, Song for Sophia. Her singing can also be heard on the soundtrack of the video, In the Hands of Alchemy.
 "The Key to Heaven,"
(detail from one of Jerry's sculptures)
Visit Marlyn and Jerry's website to learn more about their work and programs.