Wednesday, June 18, 2008
General Audience: On Isidore of Seville
Pope Benedict XVI waves after his weekly general audience at Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican June 18, 2008. REUTERS/Chris Helgren (VATICAN) Reuters via Yahoo! News
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today I wish to speak of St. Isidore of Seville, younger brother of Leander, bishop of Seville, and great friend of Pope Gregory the Great. This relation is important because it leads us to keep in mind a cultural and spiritual approach that is indispensable to understanding Isidore's personality. In fact, he owed much to Leander, a very exacting, studious and austere person, who had created around his younger brother a family context characterized by ascetic demands proper of a monk and the rhythms of work required by serious dedication to study.
In addition, Leander was attentive to prepare in advance what was necessary to address the political-social situation of the moment: In those decades, in fact, the Visigoths, barbarians and Arians, had invaded the Iberian Peninsula and taken over territories belonging to the Roman empire. It was necessary to win them over to Romanism and Catholicism. Leander and Isidore's home had quite a rich library of classical, pagan and Christian works. Isidore, who felt attracted simultaneously to both one and the other, was taught, therefore, to develop, under the watchfulness of his elder brother, a very strong discipline in dedicating himself to their study with discretion and discernment.
In the bishop's residence in Seville one lived, therefore, in a serene and open climate. We can deduce this from Isidore's cultural and spiritual interests, as they emerge from his works themselves, which contain an encyclopedic knowledge of the pagan classical culture and in-depth knowledge of Christian culture. Thus can be explained the eclecticism that characterizes Isidore's literary output, which extends with great ease from Marcial to Augustine, and from Cicero to Gregory the Great.
Indeed, the interior struggle that the young Isidore had to endure, having become his brother Leander's successor in the episcopal chair of Seville in 599, was not light. Perhaps the impression of excessive voluntarism that one detects when reading the works of this great author -- regarded as the last of the Christian fathers of antiquity -- is due precisely to this constant struggle with himself. A few years after his death, which occurred in 636, the Council of Toledo of 653 described him as: "Illustrious teacher of our time and glory of the Catholic Church."
Isidore was without a doubt a man of accentuated dialectical oppositions. And, also in his personal life, he experienced a permanent interior conflict, rather like that which St. Gregory the Great and St. Augustine had already noted, between the desire for solitude, to dedicate themselves solely to meditation on the word of God, and the exigencies of charity toward his neighbors, for whose salvation, as bishop, he felt responsible.
He wrote, for example, in connection with persons responsible for the Churches: "The person responsible for a Church -- "vir ecclesiasticus" -- must on one hand allow himself to be crucified to the world with the mortification of the flesh and, on the other, accept the decision of the ecclesiastical order, when it stems from the will of God, to dedicate himself to governance with humility, even if he does not wish to do it" (Sententiarum liber III, 33, 1: PL 83, col 705 B).
He then adds just another paragraph: "The men of God -- "sancti viri" -- do not in fact desire to dedicate themselves to worldly things and lament when, by a mysterious plan of God, they are entrusted with certain responsibilities. They do anything to avoid it, but accept that which they wish to flee, and do that which they would have wished to avoid. In fact, they enter into the secret of the heart and therein try to understand what the mysterious will of God requests. And when they realize that they must submit to God's plans, they humble their hearts under the yoke of the divine decision" (Sementarium liber III, 33, 3: PL 83, coll. 705-706).
To better understand Isidore, we must recall, first of all, the complexity of the political situations of his time, to which I have already made reference: During the years of his childhood he had experienced the bitterness of exile. Despite this, he was permeated with apostolic enthusiasm: He experienced the rapture of contributing to the formation of a people who were finally rediscovering their unity, whether on the political or the religious plane, with the providential conversion of Erminigild, the heir to the Visigothic throne, from Arianism to the Catholic faith.
However, we must not underestimate the enormous difficulties he faced in adequately addressing very grave problems such as those of relations with the heretics and the Jews -- a whole series of problems that appear very concretely also today, above all, if we consider what happens in certain regions in which it seems that situations somewhat similar to those of the Iberian Peninsula of the 6th century have reappeared. The wealth of cultural knowledge that Isidore possessed allowed him to constantly confront the Christian novelty with the Greco-Roman classical heritage, even if, beyond the precious gift of synthesis, it seems he also had that of "collatio," namely, of compilation, which was expressed in an extraordinary personal erudition, not always ordered as might have been desired.
To be admired, in any case, is his persistent desire not to neglect anything of that which human experience had produced in the history of his homeland and of the whole world. Isidore did not wish to lose anything that was acquired by man in ancient times, whether pagan, Jewish or Christian. We should not be surprised, therefore, if, in pursuing this purpose, at times he was not successful in passing on adequately, as he would have wished, the knowledge he possessed through the purifying waters of the Christian faith.
In fact, however, in Isidore's intentions, the proposals he makes are always in harmony with the Catholic faith, which he firmly upheld. In the discussion of several theological problems, he shows perception of their complexity and often suggests with acuity solutions that take up and express the complete Christian truth. This enabled believers through the course of the centuries and up to our times to benefit with gratitude from his definitions. A significant example of this matter is offered to us by Isidore's teaching on the relationships between the active and contemplative life.
He writes: "Those who seek to attain the repose of contemplation must first train themselves in the stage of the active life; and thus, freed from the dross of sins, will be able to exhibit that pure heart which, alone, allows one to see God" (Differentiarum Lib II, 34, 133: PL 83, col 91A).
The realism of a true pastor convinces him however of the risk that the faithful run of reducing themselves to being one-dimensional men. Hence, he adds: "The middle way, composed of both ways of life, is generally more useful to resolve those tensions that often are acute by the choice of only one kind of life and are better tempered by an alternation of the two ways" (o.c., 134: ivi, col 91B).
Isidore looks for the definitive confirmation of a correct orientation of life in the example of Christ and says: "Jesus the Savior offers us the example of the active life when, during the day he dedicated himself to offer signs and miracles in the city, but he showed the contemplative life when he withdrew to the mountain at night and dedicated himself to prayer" (o.c. 134: ivi).
In the light of the example of the divine Teacher, Isidore could conclude with this precise moral teaching: "Therefore, the servant of God, imitating Christ, must dedicate himself to contemplation without denying himself the active life. To behave otherwise would not be right. In fact, as we must love God with contemplation, so we must love our neighbor with action. It is impossible, therefore, to live without the presence of one and the other way of life, nor is it possible to love if one has no experience of one or the other" (o.c., 135: ivi, col 91C).
I hold that this is the synthesis of a life that seeks the contemplation of God, dialogue with God in prayer and the reading of sacred Scripture, as well as action in the service of the human community and of one's neighbor. This synthesis is the lesson that the great bishop of Seville leaves us, Christians of today, called to witness to Christ at the beginning of a new millennium.