St. Isidore the Farmer was a lay person (and farmer!) who lived an ordinary life in Spain and died in 1130. I have long loved his story, because he is an example of what a desire for holiness can look like in ordinary, mundane, life. St. Isidore desired holiness and wanted to go to daily Mass, and pious tradition says that while he was at daily Mass, angels would attend to his farm work. Although most of us do not have angels assisting us with our daily tasks, many of us do want to grow in our practice of the faith. Here are some of the foundational lessons that St. Isidore teaches us.
Sanctity is for the Laity
Lay ministry was not an established role in the Church of St. Isidore’s time. He reminds us that sanctity isn’t about what you do but about your assent to God’s will in your personal life. In the lives of many of the canonized saints in the Church, priesthood or religious life was part of God’s plan for them. This was not so for St. Isidore – he was a married man and a farmer. Yet, he responded to God’s call in his heart with generosity. He leaned into the desire for God that had been gifted to him, and he did so without counting the cost.
God will Always Provide
As a poor man, St. Isidore couldn’t really afford to take time off work. Every hour of daylight mattered for a farmer (especially in a time before electricity), and time spent not farming would mean income lost. Unlike the wealthy of his time, Isidore really couldn’t afford to attend daily Mass. He did so, anyway.
And God sent angels to help with his farm work.
While God may not send angels to wash our dishes, do our laundry, or type away on our keyboard in an office, he will provide for us when we give him our “yes.” We may not have as much earthly wealth and security, but we can rest assured that our basic needs will be met, and that the sacrifice of that time and money will be more than worth it.
Mass is more than an Ordinary Prayer
Some of us find ourselves in a situation in which we are unable to attend daily Mass with the regularity that we would like. Others may struggle with trying to understand why attending Mass is so important, when we could just as easily pray at home or watch a livestream. St. Isidore shows us the difference between personal prayer and participation in the Mass (or time spent in the Eucharistic presence of Jesus).
St. Isidore knew what many of us forget – prayer is the building of a relationship. Relationships are about more than conversation – they are about time spent in one another’s presence. In the case of the marital bond, relationships can also be about a call to deep union. Although we can come to know and draw near to our spouse or spouse-to-be while talking on the phone or texting or emailing them, none of these modes of communication are a substitution for sitting quietly holding hands (or, after the wedding, the act of consummation in marriage). The intimacy and union of those acts cannot be replaced by any other interaction. So it is with the sacramental life. Christ, the Divine Bridegroom, desires more than conversation with us. He desires union with us. He desires time spent in his physical, Eucharistic presence. Although it may be popular to think of Jesus as a “best friend,” in reality he is something more. He wants to be one with us, as spouses are one in marriage. (For this reason, the union of spouses, especially in their embrace, is meant to be an image of the union of Christ and his Church. The sacraments, especially the Eucharist, are like that marital embrace – they make real a deep, profound union between the Bridegroom and his Bride, the Church.)
It is good and important to take time for personal prayer. Surely, Isidore prayed at other times of day – while working in the fields, or tending livestock, or sitting down to a meal with his wife. But Isidore longed for something more – union with his Beloved Jesus, and time spent in his presence. And, just as that time is essential to happiness in marriage, Isidore knew that time with the Eucharistic Jesus was essential to happiness in his relationship with God.
Love is Worth the Cost
In terms of free will and human agency, Catholic theology strides a delicate balance between an individual’s choice and use of their will and the grace given by God that enables them to act. God’s grace and God’s call must come first, but holiness consists of both listening to that call, acting on, and receiving that gift of grace.
Isidore didn’t attend daily Mass because he was checking off boxes or trying to do what the Catholic bloggers said he should do. He attended daily Mass because Jesus had placed a deep desire for Himself in Isidore’s heart, and Isidore heard and pursued that desire – no matter the cost.
This is what love does – it responds without counting the cost. And it does so because the alternative – life without the Beloved – is unthinkable.
All of Life is a Prayer
Finally, St. Isidore, as a man who lived a very ordinary life, shows us that all of life can and should be made into a prayer. I am sure that Isidore offered up his daily work to God, and that his deepening relationship with Christ overflowed from the bounds of time spent in a church. Holiness does not just consist in doing “holy things” – it consists in consecrating our lives entirely to God. Holiness consists in allowing God to turn the ordinary into an offering that is pleasing in his sight.
Inspired by the spirituality of St. Isidore the Farmer, let us offer to God our daily work, knowing that if we earnestly seek him, he is already there – waiting for us and longing for us. Let us set aside time for daily Mass or at least a daily stop at a church where we may visit Jesus in the Eucharist. Let us receive the love of Christ, which will enable us to be entirely His.
Image: Daddy Longlegs, by Willem de Zwart, c. 1885-1910. Dutch painting, oil on panel. Two farmers piling hay on a hay wagon with horse on the field. Shutterstock/Everett Collection