Thursday, 30 June 2011

Christopher Johnson - Between Madness and Holiness: St. Symeon of Emessa and "the pedagogics of liminality"

The relationship between holy foolishness and liminality has never been thoroughly explored. Using Symeon of Emessa as an example, this paper will argue that holy foolishness can be seen as the preeminent liminal lifestyle, often existing between and outside of defined social boundaries and enjoying certain privileges and powers as a result.

In The Ritual Process and other works, Victor Turner explores the liminal period that bridges the transition from one social state to another, typically by a rite of passage. This period is characterized by separation from society, ambiguity, danger, power, and communitas, a strong social bond between initiates that is later integrated into one's new position in society. Holy fools possess many of the characteristics of liminality as described by Turner. Turner briefly mentions the liminality of 'holy beggars' and 'simpletons' and the concept of permanent liminality in reference to monasticism but does not follow up on these ideas as I intend to in this paper. 

Not only is there a liminal aspect to the lives of holy fools, but these figures can be said to exist permanently in a liminal state, never reentering into a particular well-defined role in their society. This was at times complicated as holy foolishness became a recognized institution and holy fools were sought out as holy people, thus ruining their anonymity. Instead of being transformed by a liminal rite of passage from one stable state to another, holy fools maintain their liminality and bring it into the midst of a structured society. This accounts for the stark contrast between the holy fool and their worldly environment. Leontius of Neapolis's The Life of Symeon the Fool can be effectively read as a unique example of liminality, which, in turn, contributes to our understanding of liminality more generally. 

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