Filed under: Patristics
Pope Benedict spoke today about St. Isidore of Seville, considered by many to be the last of the Western Fathers. But, by my calculation, he still has a few important Easterners to discuss. Teresa Benedetta translated.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I wish to speak about St. Isidore of Seville. He was the younger brother of Leander, Bishop of Seville and a great friend of Pope Gregory the Great.
This point is important because it allows us to be aware of the cultural and spiritual closeness [with his brother] that is indispensable to understanding the personality of Isidore.
In fact, he owes much to Leander, who was very studious, demanding, and austere, creating for his younger brother a familial atmosphere characterized by ascetic requirements worthy of a monk and work rhythms appropriate to serious dedication to study.
Moreover, Leander was concerned to pre-dispose conditions necessary for facing the socio-political situation of the moment: In those decades, the Visigoths, who were barbarians and Arians, had invaded the Iberian peninsula and had taken control of territories that had belonged to the Roman empire. It was necessary to win them over to Romanness and Catholicism.
The house of Leander and Isidore was furnished with a library rich in classic, pagan and Christian works. Isidore, who felt attracted to all of them, was educated under his brother’s supervision to develop a very strong discipline of study, with dedication, discretion and discernment. But they lived in the bishop’s palace in a serene and open atmosphere.
We can deduce from the cultural and spiritual interests of Isidore – as they emerge in his own works – that they comprehended an encyclopedic knowledge of classic pagan culture and a deep knowledge of Christian culture.
This explains the eclecticism that characterizes Isidore’s literary production, which ranges with extreme facility from Martial to Augustine, from Cicero to Gregory the Great.
The interior battle sustained by the young Isidore – who succeeded his brother Leander as Bishop of Seville in 599 – could not have been easy. Perhaps it was that constant struggle within himself that gives the impression of an excess of voluntarism [a philosophical school that considers God or the ultimate nature of reality as some form of will] that one gets when reading the works of this great author, considered the last of the Christian Fathers of antiquity.
A few years after his death in 636, the Council of Toledo of 653 described him as “illustrious teacher of our epoch and glory of the Catholic Church.”
Isidore was without a doubt a man of marked dialectic positions. Even in his personal life, he underwent permanent interior conflict, similar to what Gregory the Great and Augustine had known, between a desire for solitude in order to dedicate himself only to meditating on the Word of God, and the requirements of charity towards his brothers for whose salvation he felt responsible as bishop.
For instance, he wrote about Church authorities: “A person with Church responsibility (vir ecclesiasticus – man of the Church] should on the one hand, let himself be crucified in the world with the mortification of the flesh, and on the other, accept the decision of the Church hierarchy when it comes from the will of God, and dedicate himself to governing with humility, even if he may not wish to do so” (Sententiarum liber III, 33, 1: PL 83, col 705 B).
He adds, one paragraph later: “Men of God (sancti viri – holy men) in fact do not want to dedicate themselves to secular things, and groan when, by a mysterious plan of God, they find themselves laden with certain responsibilities… They will do everything to avoid this, but they accept what they wished to escape from and do what they wished to avoid. In fact, they enter into their secret heart, and there, they seek to understand what the mysterious will of God wants of them. And when they acknowledge that they must submit to the plan of God, then they subjugate their heart to the yoke of divine decision” (Sententiarum liber III, 33, 3: PL 83, coll. 705-706).
To understand Isidore better, one must remember, above all, the complexity of the political situation in his time, which I already referred to. During his boyhood, he experienced the bitterness of exile. Despite this, he was permeated with apostolic enthusiasm. He knew the inebriation of contributing to the formation of a people who were finally finding unity on the religious and on the political levels, with the providential conversion of the heir to the Visigoth throne, Hermenegild, from Arianism to the Catholic faith.
But we must not underestimate the enormous difficulty of adequately confronting problems as serious as relationships with the heretics and with the Jews. It is a whole series of problems which appear very concrete even today, especially if one considers what is taking place in some regions today in which it is almost like witnessing a revival of situations in sixth-century Spain.
The wealth of cultural knowledge at Isidore’s disposal allowed him to continually draw comparisons between the Christian novelty and the Greco-Roman classic heritage. But more than the precious gift of synthesis, he also seemed to have that of collatio, of gathering together, which was expressed through an extraordinary personal erudition, even if it was not always ordered as one might desire.
In any case, one must admire his constant concern not to ignore anything that human experience has produced in the story of his country and of the entire world. Isidore did not want to lose anything of what man had acquired in ancient times, whether pagan, Jewish or Christian.
One should not be surprised, therefore, that in pursuing this end, he sometimes failed to adequately pass – as he might have wished – the knowledge that he possessed through the purifying waters of the Christian faith. Indeed, in his own mind, the propositions he made were always in tune with the Catholic faith, which he sustained most firmly.
In discussing various theological problems, he showed perception of complexities and often proposed, with great acuteness, solutions that bring together and express the Christian truth in its entirety. This has allowed believers through the centuries to avail gratefully of his definitions even up to our time.
One significant example is Isidore’s teaching on the relationship between the active life and the contemplative life. He writes: “Those who seek to reach the repose of contemplation should first train themselves in the stadium of active life; thus rid of the slag wastes of sin, they will be in a position to exhibit a pure heart which alone allows us to see God” (Differentiarum Lib II, 34, 133: PL 83, col 91A).
But the realism of a true pastor convinced him, nonetheless, of the risk that the faithful run of reducing themselves to beings of one dimension. Thus he adds: “The middle life, composed of both forms of living, normally results more useful to resolve those tensions that are often sharpened by choosing just one way of living, while they are tempered by alternating the two forms” (op. cit., 134: ivi, col 91B).
Isidore finds the definitive confirmation of a correct orientation in life in the example of Christ, saying: “Our Savior Jesus offers us the example of an active life in that, during the day, he devoted himself to offering signs and miracles among men, but shows us the contemplative life in that at night he retired to the mountain and spent his nights in prayer.” (op. cit. 134: ivi).
In the light of this example by the Divine Teacher, Isidore could conclude with this precise moral teaching: “Thus, the servant of God, imitating Christ, must dedicate himself to contemplation without rejecting the active life. To act otherwise would not be right. Indeed, just as one must love God in contemplation, so must one love his neighbor in action. It is therefore impossible to live without the presence of both forms of living, nor is it possible to love if one does not experience both” (op. cit. 135: ivi, col 91C).
I think that this is the synthesis of a life which seeks contemplation of God, dialog with God, in prayer and reading Sacred Scripture, along with acting in the service of the human community and one’s neighbor.
This synthesis is the lesson which the great Bishop of Seville leaves us, Christians of today, who are called to bear witness to Christ at the start of a new millennium.