The tradition of the Holy Fool, the person who is odd, at the edge of society, is strong in Russian Orthodoxy.
He was first educated by an uncle who was a priest. During an epidemic his uncle died as he was attending the victims.
Though Benedict Joseph tried to join the Trappists and the Carthusians, he was rejected by several monasteries. Accepted at a Trappist monastery, he left after several months, convinced that his vocation was to be a wandering poor pilgrim, like St. Alexis.
Though the Franciscans have claimed him, and some list him as a secular Franciscan, he was probably only a member of the Franciscan confraternity of Cordbearers.
He traveled as a pilgrim on foot, all over Europe. Finally he settled in Rome, living in the Coliseum, visiting churches, especially where the Eucharist was exposed during the Forty Hours devotion.
He did not beg but took what was given to him, often sharing his meager rations with other poor.
He had one set of clothes plus a few books to aid his prayer (including a New Testament, a breviary, and The Imitation of Christ. My guess is that he emitted a rather foul odor.
He is buried in the church of Santa Maria dei Monte in Rome, one of his favorite churches. Barely 35, he collapsed outside the church and was carried to a nearby house where he died, on April 16, 1783.
Almost immediately the word went throughout Rome, “The saint has died.”
When I was in Rome in February of this year I went to his tomb and prayed in the simple, yet seldom visited church. The bright sun illumined the church and his tomb (on the left).
His poverty and his simplicity have touched me for many years. “I am only a poor, ignorant beggar,” he told his confessor who thought he had been trained in theology.
He is a saint who calls us to solidarity with the poor, to be willing to love and accompany even the most repugnant and smelly persons. (This is sometimes a challenge to me here in Honduras.)
It is a call to become free of concern for acceptance and being recognized and free of our fear of being ignored or despised.
As Jim Forest has written:
“Holy fools pose the question: Are we keeping heaven at a distance by clinging to the good regard of others, prudence, and what those around us regard as ‘sanity’? The holy fools shout out with their mad words and deeds that to seek God is not necessarily the same thing as to seek sanity.… Does fear of being regarded by others as insane confine me in a cage of ‘responsible’ behavior that limits my freedom and cripples my ability to love? …
“Holy fools challenge an understanding of Christianity that gives the intellectually gifted people a head start not only in economic efforts but spiritual life. But the Gospel and sacramental life aren’t just for smart people. At the Last Judgment we will not be asked how clever we were but how merciful.”
May St. Benedict Joseph Labré inspire us to love without “clinging to the good regard of others.”
More on Holy Fools may be found in Jim Forest’s Praying with Icons, published by Orbis Books, 2008.