Scholars, students and pastoral ministers who read this book (and they should) will be surprised how wonderfully relevant a book written over fourteen hundred years ago can be. Isidore’s work was one of the most influential sources for Christian liturgy in the history of Western Christianity; read and cherished for centuries. This alone would make this short work interesting and enlightening for anyone interested in liturgy. The translator, Thomas Knoebel and his colleague, Raúl Gómez-Ruiz, make clear that the work has special importance for Latino/a Catholics. Isidore’s work is based on the ancient, but still practiced, Mozarabic liturgy of Spain and contains practices familiar to Hispanics. In describing the marriage ritual, for instance, Isidore notes, “After the blessing by the deacon, those being married are joined by a cord, one to the other, lest they disrupt the joining together of conjugal unity (99).” This is still the custom at many Latino/a weddings.
Book one contains descriptions of the Eucharistic liturgy, the Divine Office and the principal feasts of the sixth century church of Spain. Book two contains a history and description of the different orders (ordines) of Christian service to the community. One finds comforting similarities, and surprising differences. Monks, penitents and virgins, for examples, are included among the orders of the church. Isidore also includes lectors among the ordained, and one can only nod in agreement when he counsels, “However, the one who is promoted to this grade ought to be imbued with learning and with books, and adorned with the knowledge of meanings and words. Thus he may understand in the different kinds of sentences where the paragraph is to end, as well as where the meaning of the sentence should be placed, and where the last statement should be brought to a close. (82).” It’s easy to see how such a practical book remained so popular for so long.
Isidore was a man of his time, of course. One would not want to follow all his advice. He has, for instance, little place for women in his schema of the church. With the exception of virgins, for instance, “Women are not at all ordered in ecclesiastical rankings or offices. (95)” Nor would Vatican II support his admonition to the married, “Whenever, therefore, anyone lives more pleasurably than the necessity of procreating children demands, immediately it is a sin. (100)” Not only can Isidore help us discover how we became who we are, but more importantly, what we might accept or reject from our own past.
If there is one minor drawback to Fr. Knoebel’s great gift to all of us, it would be that his translation sticks too closely, for this reviewer’s taste, to the convolutions of classical Latin, of which Isidore was a master. Paragraph-long sentences are sometimes hard to untangle (see p. 101 on adultery). The Latin work “sacramentum” had a much broader meaning in Isidore’s time than the English “sacrament.” Translating the former into the latter can also be confusing until the reader gets used to it. These are minor quibbles, though. Fr. Knoebel had a difficult task living up to Isidore’s flowing prose, and has admirably made Isidore alive for those who don’t read Latin. Don’t miss this classic.