St. Isidore of Seville
A Life of Action And Contemplation
BY The Editors
June 29 - July 5, 2008 Issue | Posted 6/24/08 at 1:12 PM
Weekly General Audience June 18, 2008
Pope Benedict XVI spoke about St. Isidore of Seville (560-636) during his general audience on June 18. Torn between his devotion to study and contemplation and the demands of his office as bishop, he found his model in Christ, in whom he saw a fusion of both the active and contemplative life — a lesson that is still valid today.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to speak about St. Isidore of Seville, the younger brother of Leander, bishop of Seville, and a good friend of Pope Gregory the Great. This background information is important because it allows us to keep in mind the cultural and spiritual context that is indispensable for understanding St. Isidore.
Peace Amid Turbulent Times
Indeed, he is very indebted to Leander, a very demanding, studious and austere man, who created a family environment for his younger brother that was characterized by ascetic demands that were more typical of monastic life and a rhythm of work required by serious devotion to study.
Moreover, Leander was careful to prepare what was needed in order to confront the social and political situation of his era.
For several decades, the Visigoths, barbarians and followers of Arianism had invaded the Iberian peninsula and occupied territories that belonged to the Roman Empire. These lands had to be won over to Roman culture and to Catholicism.
Leander and Isidore’s home was furnished with a library that was rather rich in classical works, both pagan and Christian. Isidore, who felt attracted to both kinds, was educated under his brother’s supervision to develop a strong discipline of study marked by dedication, discretion and discernment.
As a result, they lived in the bishop’s residence in Seville in an atmosphere of peace and openness.
We are able to deduce from Isidore’s cultural and spiritual interests — as they emerge in his works — that they encompassed an encyclopedic knowledge of classical pagan culture and a deep knowledge of Christian culture. This explains the eclectic character of Isidore’s literary output, which ranges with the greatest of ease from Marcial to Augustine and from Cicero to Gregory the Great.
Indeed, as a young man, Isidore, who succeeded his brother Leander as bishop of Seville in 599, experienced an uneasy, interior struggle. Perhaps it was that constant struggle within him that conveys the impression of an excess of voluntarism that we sense when reading the works of this great author, who is considered the last of the early Christian fathers.
A few years after his death in 636, the Council of Toledo in 653 described him as the “illustrious teacher of our epoch and a glory of the Catholic Church.”
Isidore was, without a doubt, a man of pronounced dialectical counterpoints. Even in his personal life, he experienced a permanent interior conflict, quite similar to what St. Gregory the Great and St. Augustine had experienced, between a desire for solitude in order to devote himself exclusively to meditating on the Word of God, and the need to show charity towards his fellow man for whose salvation he, as bishop, felt responsible.
For example, he wrote the following words regarding those in charge of the local Churches: “A person who is in charge of a local Church (vir ecclesiasticus) should, on the one hand, allow himself to be crucified to the world through the mortification of his flesh, and, on the other hand, humbly accept the decision of the Church’s hierarchy, when it stems from God’s will, that he dedicate himself to governing, even if he would rather not do so” (Sententiarum liber III, 33, 1: PL 83, col 705 B).
A paragraph later, he adds: “Indeed, men of God (sancti viri) have no desire to dedicate themselves to worldly things and they complain when, in God’s mysterious plan, they find themselves laden with certain responsibilities. ... They do anything to avoid it, yet they accept what they would rather flee and do what they would rather have avoided. In fact, they enter into the secret of their heart and there they seek to understand what the mysterious will of God requires of them. When they realize that they must submit to God’s plan, they subjugate their heart to the yoke of the divine decision” (Sententiarum liber III, 33, 3: PL 83, coll. 705-706).
Life Amid Political Complexities
In order to understand Isidore better, we need to remember the complexity of the political situation of his era, to which we have already referred.
During his childhood years, he had to experience the bitterness of exile. Despite this, he was permeated with apostolic enthusiasm: He experienced the exhilaration of contributing to the formation of a people that was finally rediscovering their unity, both political and religious, through the providential conversion of the heir to the Visigoth throne, Hermenegild, from Arianism to the Catholic faith.
Nevertheless, we must not underestimate the enormous difficulties of adequately confronting some rather serious problems such as the relationship with heretics and Jews. It involved a whole series of problems that seem very real even today, especially if we consider events in some regions today, in which we can almost see the re-emergence of situations quite similar to those of sixth-century Spain.
Isidore’s extensive knowledge of culture enabled him to continually draw comparisons between the novelty of Christianity and the legacy of classical Greek and Roman culture. But rather than the valuable gift of synthesis, he seemed to have the gift of collatio (gathering it all together), which resulted in an extraordinary personal erudition that was not always ordered as one might desire.
In any case, we have to admire his constant concern not to ignore any of the fruits of human experience throughout the history of his homeland and the history of the entire world. Isidore did not want to lose anything of what man had achieved in ancient times, whether it was pagan, Jewish or Christian.
Therefore, we should not be surprised if, in his pursuit of this goal, he sometimes failed to adequately pass on through the purifying waters of his Christian faith — as he might have wanted — the knowledge that he possessed.
In fact, though, in all of Isidore’s initiatives, the proposals that he made were always in harmony with the Catholic faith, which he firmly upheld.
In discussing various theological problems, he showed that he understood their complexity and often proposed, with great insightfulness, solutions that encapsulated and expressed the truth of Christianity in its entirety.
Active and Contemplative Life
Throughout the centuries and up to our time, Christians, with gratitude, have benefited from his teaching. Isidore’s teaching on the relationship between the active life and the contemplative life is a significant example in this regard.
He wrote: “Those who seek to attain the repose of contemplation should first train themselves within the setting of an active life; thus, freed from the dross of sin, they will be in a position to exhibit a pure heart, which, alone, allows them to see God” (Differentiarum Lib II, 34, 133: PL 83, col 91A).
As a true pastor, however, his realistic outlook convinced him of the risk that the faithful incur if they are reduced to being men and women of a single dimension. For this reason, he adds the following words: “The middle way, which is composed of both ways of living, is normally more useful in resolving those tensions that are often made more acute by choosing just one way of living and are better tempered by alternating the two forms” (op. cit., 134: ivi, col 91B).
Isidore seeks the definitive confirmation of the proper orientation for living in the example of Christ, saying: “Jesus our Savior offered us the example of an active life when, during the day, he would devote himself to offering signs and performing miracles in the city. Yet, he showed us the contemplative life when he would withdraw to the mountain and spend the night in prayer” (op. cit., 134: ivi).
In light of the example of the divine teacher, Isidore was able to conclude with this precise moral teaching: “Therefore, let the servant of God, imitating Christ, dedicate himself to contemplation without rejecting an active life. To behave otherwise would not be right. Indeed, just as we must love God through contemplation, so we must love our neighbor through action. Thus, it is impossible to live without the presence of both ways of living and it is impossible to love if one does not experience both” (op.cit., 135: ivi, col 91C).
I think that this is the summary of a life that seeks contemplation of God, dialogue with God in prayer and the reading of sacred Scripture, as well as acts of service to the human community and to one’s neighbor.
This synthesis is the lesson that the great bishop of Seville leaves to us, Christians of today, who are called to bear witness to Christ at the beginning of a new millennium.
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