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The Loss of Culture and the Wisdom of Fools

April 20, 2020


There he sits brooding in the dark.

Slouched in a Renaissance-era high-backed chair, his chin rests deep in his chest. His legs are splayed out in front of him with feet gripping the floor as if the room was slowly turning sideways in an attempt to cast him out of his seat.

His red suit is ridiculous, as it should be. The fingers of his coxcomb are flaccid, the bells noiseless. Eyes sunken, skin sallow, countenance troubled.

This is not your typical jester.

And yet in the spacious, illuminated room behind, there is revelry, frivolity. A ball ensues with nobles and aristocrats drinking and dancing, toasting and laughing.

But he will have none of it.

What I am describing is the haunting yet sublime masterpiece Stanczyk by Polish master Jan Matejko. Stanczyk was a jester serving in the courts of three consecutive Polish kings (Alexander I Jagiellon, Sigismund I the Old, and Sigismund II Augustus) during the late fifteenth, early sixteenth century. History records Stanczyk as being a man of profound wit and deep insight. An ardent patriot of the oft-embattled Polish lands, this jester served well beyond his role of easing the royal mind. He was a truth-telling advisor and keeper/defender of Polish culture. So consequential was Stanczyk to the Polish cultural consciousness that he appears repeatedly across Poland’s artistic landscape including The Wedding, a play by Stanisław Wyspiański and the art of Leon Wyczółkowski. Perhaps the greatest literary parallel to Stanczyk is the Fool in King Lear—the funniest and wisest figure in the greatest tragedy ever written.

But in Matejko’s painting, Stanczyk is troubled. Unfolded and resting on the table next to him is a message alerting the court to an alarming turn of events. It was 1514 and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a stalwart ally of the Kingdom of Poland, had been dealt a mortal blow in a battle against the aggressive Grand Duchy of Moscow. After years of sieges, the Muscovites had captured the vital fortress and trade center of Smolensk. And the dire consequences for Stanczyk and the Polish people would be endured for over a century.

What has happened to them, Stanczyk’s beleaguered face betrays, is a blow of staggering magnitude. His barely perceived grimace seems to say, “I’m not sure what has happened. I am not sure what to do. And I am uncertain how we will reclaim who we once were.” Behind him, the party rolls on while the wisdom of the fool grapples with the deeper troubles at hand.

I just love Stanczyk. The image of this grieving jester is, indeed, worth a thousand words. But let me say just a few about why I like it so much.

The historical Stanczyk was vibrant and alive. He was bright with insight and quick with humor. He spent time with kings and nobles, servants and citizens. He was celebrated, but unimpressed with the accolades. His interest was not in illustrious titles and noteworthy rank, passing fashions or base passions. No. Stanczyk cared about keen wit and enduring wisdom, clever wordplay and penetrating logic, artful jest and its proximity to truth. He cared about the people, but especially the culture of the people—the fabric or soul of what truly makes a kingdom, a nation, a citizenry what it is.

And that is why he sits stricken. To have loved his king and country, to have reveled in and suffered for Poland is to have loved the faith and the mores, the customs and the eccentricities, the songs and the stories—the culture—of home. And to lose one’s home—one’s culture—is to feel that one has lost almost everything.

Exactly 325 years later, a young man, Karol Wojtyła, found himself in an even more dire position. His Polish homeland had been crushed under the boot of the Nazis, and then terrorized by the Soviets. Not only was the Polish nation occupied and humiliated, but their very homes were pillaged and their culture all but annihilated. Wojtyła was viewed by the oppressors who knew him as a poet, a dreamer—a fool. Surely, as the jackboots tramped and the doors were broken down, this young “fool” and aspiring priest sat, if only for a moment, like Stanczyk—bereft of hope and mourning the loss of who and what his country once was.

These reflective moments of darkness in the midst of tribulation (of one form or another) are not only inevitable; they are essential. We must not avoid the chastening that comes with suffering. To care little is to grieve little. But to invest profoundly in the deep strains of culture—the faith and freedoms, the chivalry and customs, the romance and legends, the poetry and songs, the defining essence of who we are—is to risk the agony of losing it. The crucible of profound loss is where the intensely fired hope for the future is formed.

In the wake of the Battle of Smolensk, Stanczyk would live for nearly fifty years serving his king and country. Advising and assessing, ribbing and remembering, Stanczyk would offer his people a wounded but proud continuity with the culture of the past. He would be remembered as one of the greatest jesters, but also as one of the great countrymen in all of Polish history. Likewise, Karol Wojtyła—in performing clandestine plays celebrating Polish culture, in illegally taking vows to the Catholic priesthood, and in standing as Pope John Paul II and listening to millions of his Polish countrymen chanting together, “We want God! We want God!”— brought his battered culture from consuming darkness to the very light of day

Stanczyk and Karol Wojtyła knew something about loss. But, especially, they understood that the greatest loss is not always life, but the loss of culture, the sense of who you truly are. In darkness, they brooded . . . but only because they were willing to confront the tragedy of what was becoming of them. In time, inspired by the memory of what is true and the unshakeable sense of personal and cultural identity, two “fools” walked out of darkness and into the brilliant light of day.