April 3, 2017

St. Isidore of Seville, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, "The Schoolmaster of the Middle Ages"

St. Isidore of Seville

Though it might seem strange to reach back to the late seventh and early eighth centuries for a patron saint of something as modern as computers and the Internet, one of the names suggested for just such patronage is Saint Isidore of Seville. Born in Spain around the year 560, St. Isidore amassed in his lifetime such a treasure trove of knowledge that he is referred to as “The Schoolmaster of the Middle Ages.”  For anyone who relies on a computer search engine to access information, the thought that so much learning could be contained in one man’s mind, all of which he recalled without the aid of Google, is impressive indeed.

That doesn’t mean that Isidore came by this erudition easily. His schooling, at the hands of his (much) older brother Leander, was, at least by today’s standards, imparted in a very harsh way. Leander, although he would himself also become a saint, believed that force and punishment were the proper pedagogical tools to be used on Isidore, and his methods often shocked even the people of that time.

At one point in his education, young Isidore had had enough; he ran away from both home and school and soon found himself alone in a nearby wooded forest. Frustrated by his seeming inability to learn all that his brother wanted him to, and hurt by the severe way he was being treated, he sought escape as far away from Leander as he could get. While he was sitting there, mulling over his troubles, he happened to notice a bit of water dripping on a rock. At first it seemed as if nothing beyond that was happening; it was only when he looked closer that Isidore realized that the constant drip, drip, drip of the water had worn a hole in the stone where it fell. That image inspired Isidore to understand that he, too, by consistently keeping at his studies, would eventually possess the knowledge, of man and of God, that his brother believed he was capable of.

As it turned out, Isidore’s learning would outstrip even his brother’s expectations. He wrote an encyclopedia that was used as a textbook in schools for the next nine centuries. He became Bishop of Seville, built seminaries in every diocese in Spain, and insisted that schools be founded that taught all branches of inquiry. His other written works included a dictionary and a history of the world, which ambitiously reached back to Creation itself. His efforts democratized information.

But by far, the greatest use of his knowledge was to bring his fractured country and its church back together. Some 150 years before Isidore’s birth, Visigoth invaders had overrun Spain. Not only did they threaten to destroy centuries of culture in that country, but these conquerors were also Arians, a faction in the Church that did not believe in the divinity of Christ. Isidore realized that if both the Church and the Spanish culture were to survive, both the secular and the sacred aspects of society had to be addressed. Under his influence which, perhaps owing to his own experiences as a youth, consisted of collegial synods rather than tyrannical dictates, Spain gradually began to not only convert the Arians, but also preserve its ancient culture, while also incorporating altogether new elements that enriched the whole. This union of ideas proved revolutionary.

Isidore of Seville lived to be 76 years old. Always one to deny himself comforts in favor of serving the poor, his house was filled to the end with those in need whom he helped. He died in 636. His feast day is April 4th. (Note: Three of Isidore’s siblings, his brothers Leander and Fulgentius, who served as bishops, and his sister Florentina, a nun would also be canonized as saints. Graciously hear the prayers, O Lord, which we make in commemoration of Saint Isidore, that your Church may be aided by his intercession, just as she has been guided by his heavenly instruction. Through the Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you, and in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

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