Why read?

Marvellous things may be learnt from the Internet. For instance, I was just told in this miraculous medium that Saint Isidore (died 636 “CE”), scholar and for decades Archbishop of Seville — declared Patron Saint of the Internet by Pope John Paul II — actually died before the first Arpanet connexion (c.1969).

For the modern schoolchild, whose sense of chronology may not include the concepts of “before” and “after” (see the mass media for proof), this may not come as a useful datum. But by old-fashioned people like me, such things are worth bearing in mind. There was even a time when an educated person would know who St Isidore of Seville was, and to distinguish him from St Isidore the Labourer, who came five centuries later, and who anticipated in his love for animals the more famous St Francis of Assisi, who came two centuries after that, and had much the same to say about labouring:

“He who works with his hands is a labourer. He who works with his hands and his mind is a craftsman. He who works with his hands, mind, and heart, is an artist.” We might guess from this that he lived in the days before assembly-line manufactories.

Among the uses of the Catholic (and Orthodox) cult of saints, is the groundwork they provide for the student’s sense of historical time. The saints arrive in succession, some earlier than others. Yet each is a figure who comes from outside time, and leads us, as it were, back where he came from. There is no “progress” from one saint, or generation of saints, to another. Each is sui generis — one of a kind — and each is “perfect,” by which we don’t mean entirely free of sin but complete to a purpose.

In their immense numbers they provide a constellation of light to our dark world, invisible to most but visible to many. The liturgy brings one after another into view, to serve as searchlights of us: thousands or millions of “little Christ lanterns” spread as the stars from horizon to horizon.

The custom of assigning saints to functions, of naming “patron saints” for trades and activities, sufferings and conditions of life, should be self-explanatory. To the faithful, of course, it is more than just custom. The Christian faith was from its origin extremely practical. (“Do this, in memory of me.”) To say, as they teach in our schools today, if they teach anything besides despair and juvenile delinquency, that the cults within our religion are “pagan survivals,” or “old superstitions,” is all very well; so long as we realize that this misses the point entirely, as all acts of malice tend to do.

Isidorus Hispalensis, the saint with which I started (feast day April 4th, I believe), last of the Latin Fathers of the Church, stands at the intersection of the ancient and modern eras, at the height of the (thoroughly misunderstood) “Dark Ages.” (In another sense, all the Fathers of the Church are moderns, and Christ marks the real division between “then” and “now.”) His project to create an encyclopaedia in which all things that could be known were explained, shines from either side. The modern efforts, from Diderot to Wikipedia &c, are similar in outward purpose, notwithstanding change in the recording technology, though less didactic by intention.

Saint Isidore might also be considered the Patron of the Footnote, though my argument for this is sufficiently cumbersome to be omitted today. He previews the mediaeval habit of seeking and posting the exact, checkable source, when it can be located. He was a true “original” in this and other ways — in that ancient, extraordinary, Visigothic Spain, Christianized before the Islamic conquest.

But the real distinction, between an Isidore and any creature of the Enlightenment, is that Isidore was a saint, whose conception of reading reflected his conception of prayer. We pray in our whole selves, to God in Christ and e.g. through the Saints to Him.

Reading, which in Isidore’s mind included the acts of meditation through which understanding and memory are achieved, was from God. The post-modern idea of reading as pure entertainment would not have occurred to him, except as a temptation. It would be too squalid.