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


Isidora the Simple vs. Simeon the Holy Fool

  • Isidora the Simple (54%, 3,823 Votes)
  • Simeon the Holy Fool (46%, 3,192 Votes)

Total Voters: 7,015

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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. It troubles me that Isadora was mistreated by her sisters until she was validated by a man. But as several have said, we shouldn't judge the ancients by our contemporary standards.

  2. I've been to the Abba Gerasimus monastery. But it is in the Occupied (by Israel) Territories on the West Bank of the Jordan several kilometers north of the Dead Sea and probably close to two hundred kilometers south of Syria. Beautiful small church there.

  3. I loathe and despise doing housework, especially doing dishes (cuts into my reading time), so I voted for Isadora as a reminder of chores that have to be done, no matter how unpleasant.

  4. Today is another good day to sit out the vote. Isadora the Simple reminds me of the popular medieval story "Patient Griselda." Griselda's husband beat her, cheated on her, and took her for granted. But Patient Griselda bore it all . . . patiently. I really hate these stories of women who endure all manner of abuse and their womanliness is marked by how much abjection they can be reduced to. Fellow nuns beating you, husband beating you . . . what's the difference? Then Simeon the Holy Fool fits neatly into the Greek category of the Cynic. The Cynics were the "dog" philosophers, who did outrageous things like have sex in the middle of the road to flout social mores. I prefer to celebrate July 1 as Canada Day. Kudos to the Celebrity Bloggers for gamely Keeping Calm and Carrying On.

  5. My perceptions are skewed by 40 years in nursing-a sense of humor that borders on the societally inappropriate makes the horrible and tragic bearable. Those that lose that humor soon exit the profession. Laughing heals. And, you probably want your nurse to put your or your loved ones needs ahead of their need to pee, eat, or engage in other extraneous activities. I can relate to Isadora. I can also relate to her just wanting to be left alone to do her thing. I can relate to Simeon, having married a man who frequently skipped down the grocery store aisle with the cart before hopping onto it to do a 360, just because. If I commandeered the cart, I would hear him call my name from the other end of the aisle and turn to find a can of soup being bowled to me or a roll of paper towels being lobbed for me to catch and place in said cart. Our knees and our throwing arms have aged, but our foolishness has not, thanks be to God! I will grant Isadora her wish to be left alone and vote for Simeon, because of the above and also John Cabot’s rhyme.

    1. Amen and amen. I loved your story and thank goodness your "foolishness has not aged." So many comments are SOOOOO serious in a contest that was meant to combine light heartedness with learning and spiritual awakening. I remember my adult children, desperately worried when their father was having emergency open heart surgery, finding a box of surgical gloves, blowing them up like balloons and playing volleyball in the waiting room (perhaps not becoming popular with some others there) until we found out he was all right. And the distinguished, learned judge, wearing his Cursillo clown suit for a quick trip to the grocery store when we had a kitchen crisis. The clerk asked him if he was a professional clown and he said no, he was a referee.
      I voted for Simeon.

    2. Your description make me LOL! Please let me know next time you go grocery shopping - I love seeing people being playful with one another! (Says a woman whose aging husband once grabbed a scooter that was for sale and rode it around the store yelling “wheeeeeee”! )

    3. Laurie, your husband must have studied under my father! And I think that that must have been somewhere in my subconscious when I decided to cast my vote for Simeon! Dad's crowning embarrassment for me as a child was when, after perusing the specials in the store windows and finding one that proudly proclaimed "navel eating oranges", he stood inside the entranceway and shouted "Cover up your belly buttons! Here come the navel eating oranges!"

    4. Thank you Laurie for bringing some wonderful insights into our discussions. Wheeeeee!

  6. Thank you to Julianne - good comment about projecting modern sensibilities on other centuries. Based on today’s thinking, how would we see Mary or Jesus or Paul?
    Also, I did not try to vote twice! It was a slip of the hand...operator error. Poll id#312
    Please do not banish me

  7. Generally, I tend to favor women if the matchup seems to be fairly equal. But in this case, Simeon got my vote. I don't think that abegnation, on its own, qualifies someone to advance -- and it amuses me to consider that Isadora herself would refuse it!
    Simeon's actions qualify him, in my opinion.

  8. Today's choices are tougher than I anticipated, because each of these people did things that would make me very uncomfortable. I have to think hard about them. Isadora humbled herself. Did she feel humiliated? Simeon made a spectacle of himself. Yet somehow, he drew attention to caring for others, not just acting up. These two make me uncomfortable. I know I'm too comfortable with doing things that are meant to preserve my social status and with NOT doing things that really help people in need. Do I turn away from the weirdo with the head rag? Do I drive by the nut burger hopping up and down on the corner? I better embrace both fools, and look for a bell cap of my own. Bless us every one.

  9. Voted for Simeon because he reminded me of my brother in law Rev. Henry Hoover (now deceased) who hopped up on a table, sat cross legged and sang a parody from Pinafore to raise money for the church.

  10. Poor Isidora, she was stuck in a convent with the Mean Girls. I wouldn't be surprised if she just ate on her own, away from the nun middle schoolers who picked on her constantly.

  11. I know God loved each of these mentally challenged Saints as much as He loves me. However, I had to vote for Isadora, the Cinderella story and of course the dishrag.

  12. I am voting for Isadora. She reminded me of Bob Dylan's You gotta serve somebody.

  13. Gah! I want to vote for both of them! Isadora’s behavior seems more directly connected to her spiritual practice, though,

  14. Dangit! — after several days when I didn’t feel very inspired by either saintly option, now I have to choose between two I love! Will be happy for either of them to win — although maybe Isidore would *hate* winning!
    Btw, I found an interesting perspective on Symeon and his friend John here

  15. “I pity the fool” Simeon, but I voted for the dishwasher Isidora.
    I’m not the chief cook around here, I do the dishwashing-a never ending chore.

  16. So today's contenders are quirky. Does that mean that they were too weird to glorify God? I don't think that is possible. To be honest, I wish that both of them could advance to the Saintly Sixteen. Jesus gravitated toward those who did not fit the mold. Isadora found God's presence in solitude, and Simeon in gaining attention. Clearly, they both influenced others, as they are represented here.

    1. I agree, Chris. I could vote for both, but chose Isadora...the dish rag won me over!

  17. Thanks to John Mears for the geographical correction—even without a map or a clue as to the monastery’s actual location, I know the Dead Sea and Syria are nowhere near each other. While I might take issue with CB Amber’s understanding of true humility apparently equaling self-abasement, and I can’t say I understand Isidora’s methods of practicing her piety, she gets my vote today.

  18. When I read the story of Isidora the Simple I immediately thought of the adults with intellectual disabilities who are part of our congregation. They help with the chores of the church - helping to take out trash, run the floor sweeper, as well as serve as acolyte, bell ringer, usher. Their faith is pure and they have inspired many. Our little church is a better place because they are part of it. I voted for Isadore in honor of them.

  19. I’m surprised no one has connected the dishrag headcovering with the House Elves of Harry Potter world. It was the first thing I thought if. So, in honor of all house elves, my vote goes to Isidora

  20. For centuries the Church counseled women to endure whatever humiliations were heaped upon them, in service to God. Endure cruel and violent husbands and receive a reward in Heaven. Great way to keep us down. This is a troubling way to encourage Christian behavior. Not going to validate that view.
    Simeon took up the useful profession of Fool. Fools followed the rule of “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” and that’s sufficient for me to pick Simeon.
    I highly recommend Alan Gordon’s books, probably out of print, about a Fool, spy, and consulting detective, beginning with Thirteenth Night.

  21. Isidora could have been a Down child. It could explain both her constancy and humility, as well as fleeing the sudden attention. My interpretation is not so much that she chose this life as a way to serve God, but that she was a gift from God to show the sisters what holy beauties of service they were ignoring and degrading. It's shameful that it took a crotchety old man to show those women what they were doing. He was a saint, too.

  22. Okay
    I think I am done with Lent Madness
    Yesterday a rape victim, blamed for her victimization, seeking “forgiveness”.
    Today an abused woman, sainted for being a doormat
    I don’t need Lent to remind me of the horrors that patriarchy inflicts on women to this day
    The portrayals here only serve to reinforce timeless images of women celebrated for their suffering
    Enough already

    1. I've found these troubling too. No way can I celebrate these "saints."
      Before retirement, I encouraged my congregation and others to join Lent Madness. I would not do so now. There are enough church women who still live in the shadow of patriarchy that no way would I want to reinforce that image.

  23. I am casting my lot with Isadora. As others have pointed out (far more eloquently than I could) her constancy in carrying out her duties so humbly despite her poor treatment at the hands of her fellows in Christ, is as heroic (and perhaps more so) as a St. Joan of Arc. She did not deserve the treatment she received from her supposed allies, and while their actions speak to their own sins, it does not detract from her faithfulness. Let's try to learn from the shortcomings of the past, and address the wrong doing we see both past and present.

  24. Yesterday there was consternation over Maryam of Qidun, and today Tim Schenck (aka Tim the Complex) has responded. I just want to say, my appreciation for types of spirituality has expanded enormously since doing Lent Madness. Over the years we have encountered forms of religiosity that have really "stretched the bounds" of the imagination. I remember being repulsed by Margery Kempe's "gift of tears." Levitating saints? Saints that carried their own heads? Saints who possibly never even existed but are entirely apocryphal, existing only in the enthusiasm of simple folk repeating stories? Actually, I'm to the point where I might vote for a saint who never actually existed, or at least for whom there is no empirical proof. And I'm definitely going to vote for St. Guinefort, whenever he shows up in a bracket, doggone it. Because, people, the resurrection itself has no empirical proof. We have only . . . an empty tomb and the assurance that "their hearts were burning within them." A couple of angels spouting stuff. And the ejaculation "rabbouni." What if the resurrection is apocryphal, some fanciful narrative simple folk adore? Ought we to vote for it? Currently opinion columnists are arguing that the public expressions of grief most recently manifest in the Black Lives Matter movement are powerful means of effecting political and social change. Just two months ago Judith Butler said in her presidential address to the Modern Language Association that "grieving is a powerful form of protest." Is not that a contemporary, post-modern re-articulation of the "gift of tears"? I had never heard of taking a saint's name when I was confirmed, but I find myself musing over the offerings we have had and considering whom among the saints I might choose to "have my back." The Virgin Mary, duh, but she's awfully busy. The clumsy guy from last year who broke all the dishes? No way. What in these stories most speaks to me and gives my heart strength? What a wealth of possibilities we have before us. I concur with someone who posted that perhaps Lent Madness faces a redefining moment. How shall it go forward as a Lenten devotional practice? Tim and Scott have labored in the vineyard for a decade and built a successful, even an amazing, project. I cannot imagine Lent without it, and it has sustained me through two springs of COVID. What might the future look like? Have we a saint of prophetic inspiration with strong organizational skills and access to an NGO venture capitalist in the offing? We just might! I give thanks to everyone who has been involved in this annual pilgrimage to Canterbury, each of us on his or her various mount, jostling together over pot-holed roads and occasionally helping one another pull mired steeds out of the mud, except on Sunday. Here's to the fellowship, and the limericks.

    1. I think that it's true right now, that due to COVID, people are carrying an enormous load of stress and grief that they may or may not be able to acknowledge. During this year we find things that we could have coped with before to be "the straw" that breaks our backs. It's a cumulative strain that becomes TOO MUCH (similar to the current joke being "too soon"). A story about a woman who suffers while becoming a saint? I thought that was every woman saint in the book!! but because we are carrying so much right now, no one has the capacity to deal with one more terrible story. It is not Lent Madness that has changed, it is certainly not the (maculate) history of the church that has changed-- it is we who have changed and our perception of that history that has radically changed in a relatively short amount of time. I hope we will continue to look at different saints with different stories -- and when those stories bother us, take note and ask ourselves, what that botheration is whispering that we should try to do or try to become. 🙂

    2. You write so movingly, compellingly, cogently. Thanks for all your comments over the 7 years I’ve engaged in wonderful (“wonder” truly) Lent Madness.

  25. Some people chose not to vote and their reasons trouble me.
    We tend to assess history with 2021 knowledge, science and technology. It is always easy to criticize people and events from the past, but we really do not know what we would do or how we would act if we lived at that time in history.
    I agree we need to study the past, insofar that we do not not want to repeat harmful behaviours and actions. However, we should be careful about judging the people involved. For the most part they were doing their best with the knowledge and values available to them.
    Remember, some future generation will be judging us, and it is my hope that they will far more be generous, understanding, and forgiving than we seem to be at times.

  26. Have to vote for Simeon as I was a a fool for Christ as I was a Clown for God in my younger years.

  27. Julianne said it well; judging the past by our 'modern standards' is pointless. Isidora reminds me of Brother Lawrence, an early influence on my personal spiritual development. Bless you, Isidora, for the example you set for a people who do not see the value of menial tasks as a way to connect with the Lord's teachings of humble service.

  28. This was difficult because both candidates made me uncomfortable. I did not want to vote for Isidora because I felt that she would not want the attention or position but then Simeon turned me off with his silly behavior. I could not vote for someone who threw food and scooted around on his backside, no matter what else he did. So, with apologies to Isidora, I have given her my vote.

    1. Most of these saints are exemplars. But I think sometimes it's not their lives from which we should be learning but our response to them--or that of the people around them. I feel like Isadora's convent failed her terribly, even after they recognized her worth (and I'm actually not so sure they ever really did). So, if an Isidora ever comes into my parish, I'd love to have her help me and keep me company in the kitchen during coffee hour, and I would save some of the best cookies for her. But if she felt the need to wear a dishrag on her head, I'd insist it be a clean one!

  29. While I can't bring myself to vote for either, I do think it is good that they are in the bracket. They serve well to remind us how far we have come in our understanding of God. Having a teenager in the house,this is a great opportunity to talk about the importance of respecting sincerity although it be misled, cultural shifts and how an unchanging God fits in with that and lastly.....Wondering what Christians in a 1000 years will cringe about when they read about our faith lives. Have a great day! I can hardly wait for tomorrow 's match up! New and interesting things to think about.....Thank you, Tim and Scott!!!!