The world of Christendom possesses a variety of saints. Some Christians can list a series of martyrs, apostles, prophets, monks, bishops, priests, and hermits who have been canonized as saints in the Christian tradition. Yet, few of the saints have earned the moniker “Fool for Christ.” This title, which is referenced in Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (4:10), is given to those saints who, in order to battle spiritual delusion, pretended to be mad so that people would hate them and they could preserve their humility. At the same time, these particular saints, through their words and acts of pseudo-insanity, exposed the hypocrisy of the men and women scolding them. In his sermon on saints who were fools for Christ, Father Gregory Hallam of Saint Aidan’s Orthodox Church establishes an important distinction between foolish wisdom and wise foolishness. Regarding wise foolishness, Father Hallam states, “Holy fools only appear foolish because their wisdom is not of this world.” Regarding foolish wisdom, Father Hallam quotes from the first chapter of Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which states that foolish wisdom is regarding the radical teachings of Christ — abiding by “the message of the cross” — as foolish and only adhering to the words of the philosophers, thinkers, and teachers of the world (18-25). In other words, foolish wisdom gives birth to spiritual delusion, whereas wise foolishness eradicates spiritual delusion.
This truth is evident in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Minister’s Black Veil” (1836). In the story, Reverend Hooper, a once popular preacher in his local Puritan parish, is seen by his congregation one day wearing a black veil, a symbol of his secret sin. He refuses to take the crape off, even unto his last breath. Reverend Hooper’s decision to wear the black veil for the rest of his life causes him to become an outcast in his community. Yet, careful analysis of Reverend Hooper’s motive for wearing the black crape and his reprimandation of those ministering to him on his deathbed at the conclusion of the story will reveal that Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” depicts Reverend Hooper as a holy fool.
Reverend Hooper’s motive for wearing the black veil is indicative of a holy fool because he wears it to remind himself of his secret sin, which is a mark of humility. Reverend Hooper’s motive for wearing the black crape is most clearly revealed when Elizabeth, his fiance, asks him why he wears the veil, to which the Puritan clergyman explains its moral and spiritual significance: “There is an hour to come… when all of us shall cast aside our veils. Take it not amiss, beloved friend, if I wear this piece of crape till then.” He then goes on to regard the veil as “a type and a symbol” he is “bound to wear… both in light and darkness, in solitude and before the gaze of multitudes, and as with strangers, so with my familiar friends. No mortal eye will see it withdrawn.” He continues, “This dismal shade must separate me from the world.” Elizabeth pushes him to explain further, asking him if he casts the veil over his face due to some “grievous affliction” or “consciousness of secret sin,” to which Reverend Hooper replies:
“If I hide my face in sorrow, there is cause enough… and if I cover it for secret sin, what mortal might not do the same?” (8).
Reverend Hooper’s reference to the “hour to come… when all of us shall cast aside our veils” demonstrates his holy foolishness because his knowledge is not of the world; rather, he focuses on the afterlife, the Awesome Judgment of God, where all not only the secret sins, but also the hidden desires of the hearts of men, women, and children will be revealed. Reverend Hooper is wary of this reality and decides to cast the black crape over his face to remind himself of his sin. By doing so, he is “conscious of his secret sin,” repenting of his sinfulness, and he has “separated himself from the world” by making himself an outcast in his Puritan parish, which is the mark of holy foolishness because holy fools seek to die to the world so that they might attain union with God.
Beyond revealing his motive behind wearing the black veil, Reverend Hooper demonstrates wise foolishness by reprimanding his fellow Puritan clergymen and community on his deathbed for not taking their own secret sin seriously. Reverend Hooper’s critique of the clergymen and the community comes at the end of the story. He is on his deathbed, attended by Reverend Mr. Clark, Elizabeth, the deacons, and some members of the church; while Reverend Hooper is slowly dying, Reverend Mr. Clark tries to remove the black crape while telling his fellow brother in Christ to “let not this thing be! Suffer us to be gladdened by your triumphant aspect as you go to your reward. Before the veil of eternity be lifted let me cast aside this black veil from your face.” This effort by Reverend Mr. Clark is futile as Reverend Hooper clings onto his veil, saying that he cannot remove it while he still lives (12). Frustrated, Reverend Mr. Clark calls him a “dark old man” and asks him what sin has he committed that cannot be repented, which causes the dying minister to utter his last words:
Why do you tremble at me alone… Tremble also at each other. Have men avoided me and women shown no pity and children screamed and fled only for my black veil? What but the mystery which it obscurely typifies has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend, the lover to his best-beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin,—then deem me a monster for the symbol beneath which I have lived and die. I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a black veil! (13).
Some critics may argue that since Reverend Hooper has a judgmental tone, the dying Puritan minister fails in his attempt to be a holy fool. However, holy fools are known to expose the shortcomings of others, both by their words and actions. Father Hallam recounts the lives of Saint Simeon of Emesa and Saint Basil of Moscow, both of whom would eat meat during Lent — even on Holy Friday — and the public would ridicule them. However, because the public judged them during Lent, both saints proved that the people had not truly fasted, much less lived a life in Christ. In like manner, Reverend Hooper exposes the hypocrisy of his community. Throughout the story, he has suffered ostracization from his parish and fellow ministers. The “trembling” the men, women, and children had when seeing Reverend Hooper with the black crape stems from the “mystery” behind the veil since the community does not know what secret sin Reverend Hooper committed. All the Puritan congregation does throughout the story is speculate what he could have done to carry the black veil on his head like a cross. However, this speculation from the community proves the dying minister’s point: everyone has a secret sin, and everyone should take their secret sin seriously, be mindful of it, and seek to find a way to repent of it. Acknowledging his own secret sin and taking it seriously was Reverend Hooper’s approach, and — as a shepherd of his flock — he needs to pass on these last words of instruction to his congregation since they were not spiritually mature enough to apply their preacher’s method to their own lives. They do not have to necessarily dawn black veils over themselves; rather, they need to look at their secret sins — the sins they treasure the most — and learn to hate and go to war against them before they judge and gossip about one another. Without doing so, they will fall into spiritual delusion, assuming that they are more virtuous than others and, therefore, not achieve unity with God.
Furthermore, Reverend Hooper’s refusal to take off the black veil not only reestablishes his motive from earlier in the story, but it also further illustrates his humility and need for repentance. He knows that if he were to take off the veil, even while he is breathing his last breath, he would consider himself relaxed in his purpose to repent of his secret sin. And so, he needs to keep the black veil on until his soul has been judged and all his desires and sins have been revealed by the Lord. This relentlessness in repentance is what Reverend Hooper wants his parish to adopt, not to praise him, but to learn from him.
Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” abides by the teachings of holy foolishness. Even though the protagonist has made a calculated decision, through his reason, Reverend Hooper does what the fools for Christ did: through wearing the black crape, he made an effort in preserving his humility by acknowledging and repenting of his sin, and he educated his Puritan community on the importance of doing so in order to not fall into the temptation of spiritual delusion. Hawthorne’s story serves as a reminder to always stay vigilant in one’s relationship with God, to take the time to learn how to grow in Christ each day, and to inspect one’s truest desires of the heart and root out any sinful passions in it. Christ knows the heart of men, and so each Christian should examine their heart and soul in order to start and continue to build a relationship with God.