Isidora the Simple vs. Simeon the Holy Fool

Just to be clear, today's saints were not named after the two members of the Lent Madness Supreme Executive Committee. I mean, how would you even distinguish which one was which? But we return to the ever-popular Confusion Corner quadrant of the bracket as Isidora the Simple takes on Simeon the Holy Fool, two unconventional saints who have much to teach us about what really matters in this life.

Yesterday, Dunstan swept past Maryam of Qidun 68% to 32% to advance to the Saintly Sixteen. But enough of this. Go vote!

Isidora the Simple
Little is known of Isidora the Simple, a fourth-century nun. There are no biographical records of her, so her age and place of birth remain a mystery. But we know some details about her life in the Tabenna Monastery, the first religious house for women in Egypt.

At the monastery, she sought out the most strenuous and dirtiest of physical labor. She was nicknamed “the sponge” because of her willingness to do filthy tasks. She was considered mentally deficient by the other nuns, who ostracized and sometimes beat her. Hagiographers describe Isidora as a fool for Christ, not someone with a mental disability but someone who humbled herself to embody the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:18, “Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.”

As part of her spiritual practice of humility and rejection of worldly rewards, Isidora did not dine with the other nuns. Legend says she was never seen eating or drinking but subsisted entirely on the crumbs of the other sisters’ plates and the water she used to wash the dishes. Isidora wore a dishrag on her head rather than the nun’s cowl the other sisters donned. Although she was mistreated by her fellow nuns, she never retaliated or complained.

The story of Isidora reveals her manner of devotion to be a willing self-humiliation. A very old desert hermit named Saint Piteroum had a vision that rather than being proud of his own sacrifices and devotion, he should go to Tabenna and meet a truly religious woman. In a scene that echoes Samuel’s search for David, he met every woman in the monastery, and none wore the crown he’d been told to look for. He asked if there was another woman remaining, and so they brought out Isidora from the kitchen. Piteroum recognized the dishrag on her head as the crown he’d been told to seek and fell on his knees asking for her blessing. When the sisters realized she was not a fool but a devout spiritual leader, they repented and began to revere her. Isidora could no longer live humbly in the peaceful isolation of work and prayer, so she fled into the desert to live out her life as an anchoress.

Isidora’s life is a reminder that service to others and true humility are the paths to intimacy with God. Her feast day is May 1.

Collect for Isidora the Simple
O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might be rich: Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that, inspired by the devotion of your servant Isidora, we may serve you with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the age to come; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

—Amber Belldene


Simeon the Holy Fool
Have you ever been a fool for Christ? Done anything stupid? Then you, too, are like Simeon. Holy fools have been known throughout time as those whose actions and words disrupt the status quo. Saint Paul declared himself a “fool for Christ.” These “fools” often focus more on the teachings of Jesus than the social, political, or traditional construct of the time.

Saint Simeon (or Symeon) of Salus, is known as the Holy Fool. Born in the sixth century in Edessa, Simeon was a Christian monk who entered the monastic life at age twenty at the Abba Gerasimus Monastery in Syria near the Dead Sea. Simeon spent the next twenty-nine years developing his spirituality and a desire to serve others. Through his prayer, he found he was called by God to move to the town of Emesa and serve others in ways where he would not be thanked. He asked God to provide him a way to serve his fellow man and not be concerned with conventional mores.

Simeon developed a reputation as a madman, whereby he would turn over tables, throw food, and extinguish the lights in the church to gain people’s attention. Sometimes he was found to be jumping around, sometimes limping, and sometimes scooting around on his backside. His goal was to flout societal conventions of what was “normal.” He was taunted, jeered, and teased by this town, but his reputation grew as people saw his other actions of feeding the poor, tending the sick, and admonishing the sinner and calling them to repentance. He was a known healer and devout preacher of the gospel, one who cared deeply for the homeless and hungry. Many came to Christ through the care of Simeon in spite of, or perhaps because of, the craziness of his ministry. Simeon was a dichotomy. He would gladly flout society’s conventions to bring attention to the spiritual works of mercy and grace.

Simeon’s life calls us to do crazy things in the name of God, where our actions to others speak more loudly than craziness and the goodness of charity and love far outweigh foolish antics. If there were an epitaph of Simeon’s life, it would be, “He was crazy, but he was kind and served God.” Would your epitaph say something similar?

Saint Simeon’s feast day is July 1, which is also known as Fools for Christ Day. He is the patron saint of ventriloquists and puppeteers and fools in general.

Collect for Simeon the Holy Fool
Almighty God, whose will it is to be glorified in your saints and who raised up your servant Simeon to be a light in the world: Shine, we pray, in our hearts, that we also in our generation may show forth your praise, who called us out of darkness into your marvelous light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

—Anna Fitch Courie


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Isidora the Simple: Wikicommons, public domain
Simeon the Holy Fool: Aleksije Lazović, 1819 / Public domain


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210 comments on “Isidora the Simple vs. Simeon the Holy Fool”

  1. St. Simeon, born in Edessa,
    Had no patience with greater and lessa;
    When his madness would peak
    Cryptic limericks he’d speak;
    Praise the Lord that I’m not his confessa.

    1. If any among you now wishes
      To be humble instead of ambitious,
      Isadora the Fool
      Had this one simple rule:
      You begin by just washing the dishes.

      1. Thank you, Josh. A simple limerick with a simple message from a simple nun. Powerful writing, my friend.

    1. I agree. I won’t say how I voted, but I wish I had the strength to be A fool for God.

    2. I agree. I won’t say how I voted, but I wish I had the strength to be God’s fool.

  2. As a side note to yesterday's match-up, several commenters questioned Maryam's inclusion in this year's bracket, due to the troubling nature of her story and the way it was presented. A popular Syriac Christian saint, Maryam of Qidun is commemorated in the Episcopal Church's Lesser Feasts and Fasts on October 29. As always, we encourage further study into the lives of the people who make up the 32 saints we highlight each year. We also recognize that some of these lives are inspiring, some troubling, some uniquely tied to a particular cultural context. But in the end, we trust that they all point us in some way to the risen Christ. Thanks to all of you for your continued engagement in this patently absurd concept of saints competing against one another.

    1. I think this is helpful. I, for one, was not questioning Maryam’s inclusion in the bracket at all. I mostly thought it was odd that the write up about her never commented on the problematic nature of referring to her as a sinner. I was just surprised that there wasn’t some sentence like, “due to the way women were viewed at the time, Maryam saw herself as a sinner.” I am so used to witty insight in the write ups of these saints, that I found it odd that we didn’t get that with Maryam’s.

      1. Story, that was my issue as well -- and many of my parishioners concurred. Sadly, victim-blaming and victim self-blaming have not drifted away in the sands of time since then. ... Anyway, it will make for some spirited Zoom Coffee Hour discussion this Sunday.

    2. Thank you, Tim. And thanks to both you and Scott for continuing this spirited, spiritual matchup!

    3. Thank you. I was hoping for a response. I look forward to Lent Madness every year, and enjoy both the lighthearted and informative comments. Yesterday's matchup was not lighthearted and fun, but I found many of the comments to be particularly thoughtful and insightful, and although I was a bit confused about what was saintly about Maryam, I appreciated the discussion it inspired.

    4. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. My younger son struggled with bipolar disorder until he took his life 8 years ago.

    5. This exercise is certainly absurd on the face of it, but if you look a little deeper and take it more or less seriously, I think this daily (well, OK, minus the weekends) practice offers us rich opportunities to grow in faith and understanding. I always walk away from each day

      1. OOPS ... I hit some wrong key and didn't finish. Sorry.

        I almost always walk away from a Lent Madness day with a better grasp of what is truly important in this life as well as a challenge to myself to explore the faith in some new way.

    6. Thanks, Tim, for the reminder of Maryam's importance to Syriac Christians. When LFF 2018 comes back to General Convention next year, Maryam's biography and collect have been revised, to be a more frank that she was a victim rather than a sinner. We should confess not Maryam's shame but that societies continue to do such injustice to women.

    7. I learned that Maryam loved God and wanted to be worthy of God's love. I also learned that she lived in a time when men had far too much influence over women and women had no recourse to choose the direction of their lives. The Church should support women like Maryam, to encourage their freedom. We must never go back to the misogyny of the 10th century. That is a good lesson.

  3. I would bet today we would be looking for a mental disorder to explain away these behaviors. My heart breaks for them, especially for Isidora - to be looked down upon by others who were supposedly her brethren. I don't know what to say about today's match-up, mostly because they break my heart. So, I'm going to vote for Isidora because I worked with the mentally ill for years.

  4. I don't know. Yesterday, there was a young woman who was groomed, lured and raped. Today, another who was bullied. What is going on with Lent Madness

    1. Neither of these women are glorified as Saints because they were abused—but it happened. People can’t be Saints if something terrible happens to them? It is a tragedy that such things happen but they don’t disqualify their victims from holiness, do they?

    2. Because these things have happened to women. Always. No reason not to acknowledge the challenges these circumstances presented (and present), especially when the women go on to remain active and effective in the world.

      1. Sadly, these horrible events do NOT happen only to women. I represent many men who have suffered horrible sexual molestation and abuse as well. There is no excuse for the behavior against any person.

    3. Human beings do terrible things to one another, even human beings who have assembled as God's Church. To become a saint is to trust God above all else, even in the face of the terrible things that have been done to us (or that we have done).

      I find myself leaning toward Isidora today. I am hoping to become a Deacon in this church, and our diagonal stole is the Washrag (truly) that she wore. We have to walk a fine balance between Serving and being taken advantage of. I imagine Isidora praying as she washed the dishes of those she willingly served -- not for herself, but for their eventual repentance and salvation. It's a hard lesson!! The crown of this story is that the sisters repented. And, I pray, the crown to all these stories when people have been taken advantage of or mistreated (even through the auspices of our Church!) is that we must recognize human evil, learn, and turn away from it and towards God.

      Even the first martyr, Stephen, was a Deacon, who placed himself in the Service of the Church, and was stoned by the religious believers of his day as a result.

      Perhaps one function of these shocking stories of Saints is to awaken our grief, and allow us to Learn and Turn? while Blessing the names of those who example we hope will teach us something about walking in a life of faith and service.

      (Intentional use of terms from The Way of Love)

      1. As a Deacon candidate myself, your words resonate with me. Here’s to Isadora! May she inspire the self-emptying love of Christ in us.

      2. Thank you, Melissa - and thank you Ellen L. and Ellen B. I find both of these saints a bit troubling, and Isidora's story particularly so. But your reflection helps me decide to cast a vote for the humble Isidora.

  5. I follow “Ship of Fools” (“the magazine of Christian unrest”), which is where I first came across Lent Madness.
    It’s “patron saint” is Simeon, the Holy Fool, so he has my vote.
    I did like the story of Isadora though.

  6. This day’s pairing had me looking for the “Other” voting option.
    My goodness! Both of these tortured and misguided people needed an intervention by caring people. I propose The SEC introduce the Mr. Yuck symbol to precede these kind of write-ups.

    1. I agree with Linda S. These poor souls need help. I won't vote today.

    2. Ah, but this is what the world really was like for them. And they sought God above all else anyway.

    3. Why do you think they were tortured and misguided? Genuine question. Both were following what they authentically believed was God's path for them. Perhaps they are not choices that you or I would make, but they were their own choices none the less. Why should we diminish their experiences because they make us uncomfortable?

  7. I was really taken with Isadora's dishrag wimple but in the end I had to chose Simon as his crazy goodness seemed to reach more people, especially the hungry and the homeless. We need more holy fools.

  8. Isidora's story sounds too much like Cinderella. Plus, I'm suspicious of those who indulge in extreme acts of self abasement and deprivation in the name of piety. As for Simeon, he wasn't crazy for Christ, he was a show-boating exhibitionist! I fail to find any holy purpose in their stories, so I'm abstaining from today's vote.

    1. Sounds right to me. These two may have been as holy as their mental illnesses allowed, but this year we're being presented with an awful lot of mentally unhealthy people. Enough already!

      1. OK, as a mentally unhealthy person with mentally unhealthy children, I am deeply hurt by this statement. Am I less holy because of my mental illness? Would you find it troubling should I be called to serve in your church as a leader because of my illness? Do you think I am less called than you because I struggle with my head sometimes?

        In these comments we're presented with an awful lot of prejudiced people. Enough already!

        1. Thank you Josie! What we consider mental illnesses today, often would have been described as being "touched by the gods" in earlier times. While those of us with mental illnesses may struggle with the modern understanding of "problematic" behaviors, we are also blessed with being able to see completely unique perspectives on the world.

    2. I voted!!!! There is goodness and spiritual enlightenment in all God’s children.

    3. Add my name to this list of people who thought of Cinderella with Isadora's story. I found Simeon to be the antithesis of what Jesus recommended vis-a-vis piety. It seemed he was just about bringing attention to himself. He lost me at "scooting around on his backside," and I think he missed Paul's point of being a fool for Christ entirely. Isadora's asceticism turned me off as well--asceticism for asceticism's sake, it seemed to me--but at least she served the people around her. I voted for Isadora for her service.

    4. What I respected about Isadora is that when the tide turned and she was venerated, she stuck to her principles and just left. No part of her was looking for a Prince Charming ending.

  9. Here is another troubling duo. I could not vote today, both lives felt beset by issues that deal more with how we treat others who are different and suggest mental illness of some nature....their times may have rendered them saints but I cannot...their peers using Godliness as a cover for neglect perhaps.

    1. Although the past two matchups have been less "fun" than usual, I have found it interesting to read the discussion of the issues that their stories bring up.

  10. In oder to honor the spiritual gift of Isadora, I have voted for Simeon. I imagine, she would be grateful.

    1. So well said Richard. They are an example to me that the lowest of tasks and the calling attention to the needs of people are ways to serve God. So I dance a silly dance and weave a hot pad wimple to honor Isadora. I give this Easter to feed the homeless for Simeon.

    2. I don't know whether your comment is serious or ironic, but it is truly clever either way! Also as good a way as any to decide how to vote in today's impossible contest.

  11. Simeon reminds me of my sister. Her mental health has been a problem for years and her behavior often defies societal norms but there is no question of her devotion to Christ. Simeon gets my vote for giving me a new view on my sister.

  12. I think we need to stop projecting our "enlightened" modern views onto people who lived in a very different world. It doesn't make what happened to them "right" or "wrong", but the essence of the modern curse of "cancel culture" is just this: punishing people for simply being part of the prevailing culture of the time. We can and should try in our own times to do better, but judging someone who lived 1500 years ago by our own standards is pointless, and trying to erase or ignore those parts of history that make us uncomfortable is downright dangerous.

    1. Truly! I also question the decision to not vote because one doesn't care for the choices, similar Election Day behavior has contributed to the political schisms of which we're now reaping the benefits. Voting in Lent Madness isn't going to wreak havoc on the world, and the choices aren't always "easy" or obvious, but I choose to choose, and to be daily enlightened by meeting new saints and being inspired to put my faith to work.

      1. I agree. Also, although voting is fun, for me the main point is considering what we can learn from these stories. I think even the more disturbing stories have important points to make.

    2. Good point, Julianne! Thanks for the reminder. What makes this match-up difficult is how similar the "contestants" are in being "different" in some way. I admire the way each found ways to glorify God.
      I'm voting for Simeon in honor of my grown-up godson whom some would call rather odd, others might reject as being "other", but who loves God and Jesus and I'm sure has brought other "odd folks" closer to God.

    3. Thank you Julianne for your wise words. Last year was my first Lent Madness, when the pandemic took hold of our country. I found welcome
      wisdom and solace in the replies I read each evening. This year, I feel as though there has been no break from the judging of others... who lived centuries ago in such different times—- that I seem to hear about constantly in my daily life. Let us concentrate on these saintly people with compassion and kindness.

    4. Julianne, I agree completely. I am a substitute teacher and my specialty is history. I am frequently telling students that we cannot project current ways of being on people who lived in a different time, even in our own country.

  13. In the mad rush for vaccination during our pandemic, I heard a funny line about being "at the back of the line behind the ghosts of ventriloquists' dummies." I am deeply grateful for my good health and being employed (yay!) in a non-Covid facing job. If I am lucky, maybe I'll be vaccinated on St Simeon's Feast day July 1st.

  14. I do not understand those who cannot choose because one or both of the stories offends some personal value. We are looking at the lives of people, real or legendary, that exemplify some aspect of devotion for Christ. If the situation is too violent, sexist or unpleasant for you, please remember that the world is full of saints who are currently dealing with life in all it's worst and best. Just vote for a saint without the judgement of their times and environment, but on their hearts and legacies.

    1. Amen! Choosing not to vote because the nominees offend you in some way is a reminder of the "it's all about me" society of our day. Perhaps it's time to take a closer look at Isadora and Simeon and open our hearts to whatever inspiration they have to offer us.

  15. Finally a Saint after my own heart. I must have some of Isadora's DNA, as many of my traits and beliefs in helping and caring for others are very similar to her actions. She really did do some saintly things, even though not always recognized for what they were worth. It is through her eyes that I felt the connection. In fact, I almost did not read about Simeon, as I was ready to vote.

  16. Isadora's service in the kitchen reminds me of Martha of Bethany, who won the Golden Halo a few years ago. However, Martha was not bullied and put down by her community. Her story gives us pause to reflect on how we treat those who provide humble service.

  17. Cinderella vs. Robin Williams? Regardless of how these two expressed their "holy foolishness," each was eventually able to inspire better behavior in their fellows -- maybe that's what a saint does?

    1. Good analogies, Betsy! Thanks for a good laugh and the mental image of the four of them sitting around chatting--or more likely gathered together and dancing.

  18. Thank you Tim for your remarks. I was uneasy about yesterday but you have laid my concerns to rest.

  19. So in many comments the idea that these two might be mentally ill popped up. But my question to those who are thinking along those lines is : why can't a mentally ill person bring the Light of Christ to the world? Why does the Saint have to be completely neurotypical and "normal" to be "holy"? Idk, discounting the works and beliefs of someone just because they simply appear to be mental ill seems base at best and honestly contains a TON of prejudice.

  20. I vote for Simeon the Holy Fool because he was devout and crowned his devotion with good works. I have known people who would make a ruckus just to get the attention of others, who were not mentally ill. And even more important, mentally ill people can be saints as well. We all have our quirks.

  21. Simeon threw nuts at clergy while they preached, that's enough to win him my vote.

    1. I was about ready to abstain until I saw this comment! What chaotic energy Simeon had lol. He's got my vote!

  22. Isadora had me at the dishrag. Having been closed up at home these many months has allowed my housekeeping to be less than fastidious. After all, there is no one coming to visit.I'd rather be online with such creative ventures as Lent Madness. Isadora has called me back to Good Housekeeping--she's an inspiration! I woke up this morning knowing I needed to start spring cleaning STAT!

  23. Perhaps we want the perfect saint and are taken aback by those folks that do not fit our mold of what a saint should or should not be.

  24. Two saints that I struggle to relate to. I am aware that for some extreme self-abasement can be a besetting sin and a denial of God's gifts. I find Isidora's story diffiuclt for this reason and am also concerned that her behaviour led her sisters into sin, firstly in mistreating her, and then when their sin was exposed to revering her. I vote, reluctantly, for Simeon for the good he acheived, aware that I would be deeply embaraased by his behaviour and challenged by my response to his unorthodox methods of drawing attention to Christ.