You have probably seen pictures of the colorful “onion domes” at the heart of Moscow’s Red Square. Now a museum, the Собор Василия Блаженного or Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed (Saint Basil’s Cathedral) is a true Russian icon. But who is this Saint Basil?
One might assume it is Saint Basil the Great, a fourth century archbishop of Caesarea and one of the most famous of all the early Church fathers—but that assumption would be incorrect. Instead, this beautiful shrine is named for the little-known (outside of Orthodoxy and Russian culture) Saint Basil the Blessed, Wonderworker of Moscow.
St. Basil was born around 1468–69 in present-day Moscow to parents Jacob and Anna. As a teenager, he worked as an apprentice to a local shoemaker. His apprenticeship came to an abrupt end soon after he accurately foretold the untimely demise of one of his customers. Around the age of sixteen, Basil began his rather eccentric and counter-cultural behavior. He would walk barefoot in extreme temperatures, steal from merchants and give his spoils to the poor, expose those who gave donations to the Church with ulterior motives, and even had the gall to scold Tsar Ivan “the Terrible” for not paying attention during liturgy.
At his funeral (~1552), Tsar Ivan himself helped carry Basil’s coffin to the grave, while St. Macarius of Moscow presided. Canonized as a Saint in 1580, Basil’s relics were soon placed in the new cathedral built by Ivan (originally Trinity Cathedral), and it would later come to bear his name.
As one not afraid to point out the sins and wrongdoings often ignored by others—even by the faithful—Basil was recognized by the people of Moscow as a “Fool for Christ.” A specific title given to many Saints over the centuries, this foolishness for the sake of Christ is inspired by the words of the apostle Paul:
We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things. —1 Cor. 4:10–13
Outside of Saints, fools for Christ can also be found in popular literature and the arts, as with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky (in both Crime and Punishment and The Idiot), and The Island, a film set in 1970s Russia featuring a fictional, fool for Christ named Father Anatoly.
Fools for Christ go against the grain. They shun the zeitgeist and preach the truth, even when uncomfortable—and often specifically for the sake of making others uncomfortable. In a way, the monastic vocation was the post-apostolic genesis of this category of Christian behavior, as the Desert Fathers sold all of their possessions and went into the wilderness to pray and serve Christ.
One such father, St. Anthony the Great, is famous for his warning:
A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, “You are mad, you are not like us.”
Fast-forward to the present, and the recent Disney iteration of the classic Cinderella.
Kenneth Branagh’s new film has been critically acclaimed for everything from its faithfulness to tradition (at least, to the 1950s Disney tradition of the tale) to its charming and eye-opening presentation.
But for many critics, the film falls short. The character of Cinderella is berated as a terrible role model for little girls everywhere, as she fails to be “feisty” and “strong” like other, recent Disney princesses (with Frozen and Brave being the two, most commonly cited examples).
When I took my daughter to see this movie a few weeks ago, I was blown away. After only a few minutes, I knew something was different. The movie was warm, positive, uplifting, and perhaps even naively hopeful. There was little of the snark, wit, sarcasm, and malice so prevalent in popular entertainment today—even so-called kids’ entertainment. I was surprised it made it through the Hollywood machine unscathed. If this Cinderella errs, it “errs” in not cowering before the tyrannical spirit of our age.
If and when you see the film, you’ll soon discover that the lack of feistiness or strength desired by feminist and other critics is best exemplified in how Cinderella lets the evil of her world walk all over her. Her heartfelt mantra—inherited from her dying mother’s last breath—is to in all things “be kind and have courage.” Cinderella teaches—much like the apostle Paul—that when you are reviled and persecuted, you bless and endure.
For the film’s detractors, this courage and kindness is a position of weakness. It is an attitude that supposedly “sets the clock back” on what it means to be a strong, female role model.
Eschewing character traits like humility and long-suffering, these critics would prefer she snap back at her step-mother with a scathing one-liner before knocking her out cold. Instead, Cinderella merrily handles the household chores, prepares meals for her ungrateful step-sisters, and carries on conversations—much like a fool for Christ or desert monk—with little creatures.
Dr. Rebecca Hains, author of The Princess Problem, complains not only about Cinderella’s dress size but also her “lack of bravery” in her willingness to take abuse from her step-family. Others lament that the story essentially teaches a woman is hopeless without a “prince charming” (this is completely false, if one actually pays attention to the film). And still more complain about her dress size.
But from my perspective, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better role model for a little girl than the Cinderella depicted in this latest adaptation.
She displays a kindness towards animals and the world around her—a spiritual connection, even—that rivals Francis of Assisi or St. Seraphim of Sarov. (The film makes a connection between this and how there’s something deeper “beneath the surface” in the world around us, much like one finds in Orthodox spirituality.) Her patience, long-suffering, and mercy towards those who revile and persecute her is inimitable, and is yet worth emulating to our best ability. At the film’s climax, as she is finally rediscovered by the Prince and his entourage, she turns to her abusing step-mother and declares: “I forgive you.”
It’s certainly true that this Cinderella does not fit the feminist mold for a young girl’s role model. Instead, she models a Christ-like attitude that any Christian parent should be thrilled to find emulated by their own daughter(s). In going against the cultural norm, she becomes a fool. “She is mad, because she is not like us.”
What Cinderella lacks in feistiness and sarcasm she makes up in both kindness and courage—a courage that is audacious enough to be merciful in a world that says be “strong,” and patient in a world that says be “feisty.” Cinderella shows our little girls what it means to be a true princess—based not on good looks, noble blood, or how much she acts like a man (one of the strangest tenets of feminism, I must add). Instead, we learn from this Cinderella that a true princess is one who—above all things—gracefully strives to be both courageous and kind, no matter the circumstances.
And if this doesn’t make her a perfect role model for our daughters, I must be crazy.