“Pick up and read, pick up and read.”
While in a garden, St. Augustine heard these words spoken by a child and was inspired to pick up Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Reading, he received the grace of conversion which spurred him to entrust himself to Christ and seek baptism.
Like St. Augustine, St. Ignatius of Loyola’s conversion came through reading: stuck in bed, Ignatius noticed how tales of knights left him unsatisfied while the lives of the saints brought him lasting joy. Inspired, he boldly set out on a quest to join the number of the saints himself.
Besides inspiring conversion, the saints also identify reading as crucial for spiritual growth. St. Philip Neri wrote, “There is nothing more to the purpose for exciting a spirit of prayer than the reading of spiritual books.” Even the great mystic and Doctor of Prayer, St. Teresa of Avila, recounts that for eighteen years she “never ventured to start praying without a book” (The Life of Saint Teresa).
Reading, especially reading the revealed word of God in the Sacred Scriptures, is indispensable for putting us into conversation with God Himself. As St. Isidore of Seville tells us, “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us.” One can see why St. Isidore of Seville would make another bold claim: “All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.”
Yet where does all this emphasis on reading leave St. Isidore the Farmer, the 12th-century husband, father, and farm-hand whom the Church remembers today? Although he shares a name with St. Isidore of Seville and was canonized alongside St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Philip Neri, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Francis Xavier in 1622, unlike these learned companions, St. Isidore the Farmer was most likely illiterate.
By all accounts, St. Isidore the Farmer was a man of great holiness and virtue. He awoke early each morning to pray, visiting various churches around Madrid, and he continued this union of prayer with Christ, Mary, the saints, and the angels as he worked plowing his employer’s fields. St. Isidore sought first the kingdom of God, and the Lord made good on his promise that “all these things will be given you besides”: while St. Isidore worked in the fields, two teams of angelic oxen plowed alongside him, helping him to complete all his farm work (despite the time it took him to say his morning prayers) so that he could return with plenty of time to give himself in love to his family and to the poor. The fruit of St. Isidore’s holiness is perhaps best seen in this: his wife, Bl. Maria Torribia, is also venerated for her own holiness.
St. Isidore the Farmer did not have the great gift of literacy, which gives us the opportunity to scatter the life-giving seed of the Holy Scriptures over the soil of our hearts at will. But he knew something about dirt: it must be plowed if a seed is to take. Thus we can imagine St. Isidore listening with attention to any words of Scripture spoken to him and receiving them like seeds in rich soil. After contemplating them in prayer and at the plow, they bore fruit in his life, such that St. Isidore could truly be called by his first biographer “a loving imitator of the Sacred Scriptures.”
Thus we can see St. Isidore the Farmer in these words of St. Isidore of Seville: “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.”
Image: The Miracle at the Well, Alonso Cano.