April 1, 2011

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The wisdom of the saints: St. Isidore

John F. FinkIt is possible that St. Isidore, whose feast is on April 4, is the least known of the Church’s 33 Doctors of the Church.

That would not have been true a millennium ago because Isidore was known as “the Schoolmaster of the Middle Age.”

The encyclopedia that he wrote was used as a textbook for nine centuries.

Isidore was the bishop of Seville, Spain, from 601 until his death in 636. It was a time of division in the Church, with the Visigoths there professing Arianism. Isidore reunited Spain mainly through councils, but also through his writings.

Besides that encyclopedia, Isidore wrote a dictionary, a rule for religious orders, a history of the Goths and a history of the world.

He encouraged everyone to pray and to read, especially Scripture. Here are some of the things he wrote in his Book of Maxims:

“Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us,” he wrote. “Both are good when both are possible. Otherwise, prayer is better than reading.”

If we want to always be in God’s company, he wrote, we must both pray regularly and read regularly. “When we pray, we talk to God,” he wrote. “When we read [Scripture], God talks to us.”

He went so far as to say that all spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection. “By reading, we learn what we did not know. By reflection, we retain what we have learned.”

He described two benefits from reading the Scriptures: “It trains the mind to understand them. It turns man’s attention from the follies of the world, and leads him to the love of God.”

He noted that two kinds of study are called for. First, we must learn how the Scriptures are to be understood then see how to expound them with profit. We must first be eager to understand what we are reading before we are ready to proclaim what we have learned.

Merely acquiring knowledge of what we have read isn’t enough, Isidore wrote. We must carry out what we have read: “For it is a less serious fault to be ignorant of an objective than it is to fail to carry out what we do know.”

It is impossible to understand sacred Scripture without constant reading, he wrote. “The more you devote yourself to a study of the sacred utterances, the richer will be your understanding of them, just as the more the soil is tilled, the richer the harvest.”

He observed that some people have great mental power, but can’t be bothered with reading, while others have a desire to know, but have slow mental processes. “The one who is slow to grasp things but who really tries hard is rewarded; equally he who does not cultivate his God-given intellectual ability is condemned for despising his gifts and sinning by sloth.”

Finally, he said that learning must be supported by grace or it won’t reach the heart. “But when God’s grace touches our innermost minds to bring understanding, his word which has been received by the ear sinks deep into the heart.” †

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