Saint Isidore of Seville (560-636) grew up in a home known for its Christian love and, I say this tongue-in-cheek, its overachievers. As it turns out, all three of Isidore’s siblings are also canonized saints and in their lifetimes were great leaders of the faith in a time of great turbulence.
Little is known about Isidore’s early years. He was born in Roman Iberia (modern day Spain) during the period where the Western Roman Empire was slowly collapsing under the weight of huge Indo-European migrations within its borders. If you were Roman, these people were called ‘barbarians’ because their language and customs seemed so undeveloped. In reality, these newcomers to Spain were a people known as the Visigoths. And while some of their manners could use some improvement, they were largely a Christian people although their doctrines about Jesus differed greatly from those that have always been held by Catholics and Protestants. In Isidore’s world, his people who had been there forever, were being increasingly crowded out by the Visigoths. They lived in and shared the same homeland, but they were clearly two separate peoples.
When Isidore was in his early teens he was sent to live with his older brother Leander who was given full charge of his education. Leander was the bishop of Seville (a leader of all the churches in the area), and a highly disciplined and educated monk. While Leander had the momentum of many years of living the monastic life, he apparently had little sympathy for his younger brother who was just starting out. He pushed Isidore very hard expecting him to make great strides in his education (which apparently was at a university level by our standards today) and this would eventually press Isidore to his breaking point emotionally.
According the Leonard Foley O.F.M., Isidore ran away from his brother's house because he couldn't take the pressurized environment anymore. One day, while hiding out from his brother in the woods, he watched drops of water falling on a stone. Even though each drop seemed small and inconsequential, the constant dripping of water had worn a hole into the hard rock. It occurred to Isidore that he could do with his education what the little drops of water did. If he remained persistent and tackled things little by little, he would eventually learn all his older brother wanted him to learn and thus wear a hole through the rock of his own ignorance (Saint of the Day, 4th edition, p.70).
Soon Isidore returned to his brother’s house and eventually mastered Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and a host of other subjects. In fact, Isidore soon fell in love with learning and made his brother’s richly endowed library his new home. As he grew in his learning, his older brother trained him to read not only Christian books, but also the classical and pagan literature of the Greco-Roman empire. Isidore was learning the spiritual practice of reading with discernment, where non-Christian works are analyzed not only for their philosophical errors (as to refute them) but also their usefulness to human experience and understanding. For all truth is God's truth, man merely discovers it.
Eventually Isidore’s brother Leander died, and Isidore became the natural choice to replace him as the bishop of Seville. In his role as bishop, Isidore was given great wisdom and opportunity not only to build up the church, but to unite and build up his nation. First of all, Isidore had opportunity to speak with key leaders in the Visigothic nation and was able to bring several of them into the Roman Catholic church (remember, in Late Antiquity, this was the only true church around). Second, but of equal importance, was that in every parish in Spain, Isidore established high quality schools for the young. Some of these schools specialized in training people for ministry, while others focused on other specialties such as science, medicine, and law. Not only did these schools educate multiple generations of people, they elevated the Roman-Visigothic society overall, creating a single and learned culture based on the rule of law and united in Christian belief.
But how does this tie-in with Isidore being the patron saint of the internet? That brings us to his greatest achievement which is called The Etymologies. While Isidore was called to the active life of leading his community, there was that other side of him that developed in his brother’s library. The quiet and contemplative life of research and learning was actually his true passion and the fruit of this passion was a 20 volume, 448 chapter encyclopedia of virtually every subject, writer, and piece of literature from the ancient world. In addition to this, Isidore wrote books on prayer, Christian doctrine, and even a history of the Visigoths!
The completion of The Etymologies earned Isidore of Seville the nickname: “Schoolmaster of the Middle Ages” by later historians because his work was read and used throughout Europe for nearly 1000 years. It was not only the basis for learning, but sometimes was the only place a person could find out about an ancient philosopher or piece of literature. This ancient encyclopedia would serve as a model for others in later generations who would seek to collect, systematize, and organize all forms of knowledge for the sake of posterity.
While Isidore of Seville was canonized in 1722, in recent years the Vatican has suggested that he is the patron saint for the internet. During a general papal audience in Rome (2008), Pope Benedict XIII spoke of Saint Isidore: "...his nagging worry not to overlook anything that human experience had produced in the history of his homeland and of the whole world is admirable. Isidore did not want to lose anything that man had acquired in the epochs of antiquity, regardless of whether they had been pagan, Jewish, or Christian.”
I think if Isidore were able visit the world of today, he would be impressed with Google and how fast it works, but he wouldn’t be shocked by it. For in the 7th century, Isidore of Seville was essentially the embodiment of Google before the computer age.