March 22 – Isaac of Dalmatia; Isnard de Chiampo

Isaac of Dalmatia (d. 383) was a hermit near Constantinople, into which city he went during the Arian controversy to speak out for the Orthodox faith. Right about then the Goths were waltzing along the Danube, making Emperor Valens blue. When they got to Thrace, he saddled up and led his army out of the city. As he passed by, our saint called out, saying three times, “Re-open the Orthodox churches if you want God to help you!” The emperor had him thrown into the Thorny and Muddy Chasm of Inescapability. A few miles later, there he was again. “The angels rescued me!” cried Isaac. “Now re-open the Orthodox churches or you will be burned alive.” The emperor had him thrown in prison to be dealt with when he returned.

He never returned. The Goths smote the army, and when the emperor and the generals (all Arian to a man) took refuge in a barn (“full of hay” we are assured—good ’n flammable), the Goths burned it to the ground. When news of this reached Constantinople, Isaac was freed. The new emperor, Theodosius the Great, immediately built a monastery for Ike to be abbot of. No doubt knowing that hermits attract monasteries anyway, Isaac agreed. In case you’re wondering about the “Dalmatia” thing, the monastery was named after his successor Dalmatus, and the name traveled backwards in time and attached itself to Isaac.

Isnard de Chiampo (d. 1244) met (St.) Dominic the proto-Dominican at the University of Bologna, and became one of his first disciples. After school he went to Pavia, which was then under the religious sway of the Albigenses, a latter-day Gnostic group, while the Ghibellines and Guelfs (supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor or the Pope, respectively) fought for political hegemony. The remaining Catholic faithful (both of them) were in disarray, and religious practices were all but forgotten. Starting with a handful of poor folk, Isnard began to rebuild the church, winning hearts by his great humility, love, patience, and so on. He and his fellow Friars Preacher (plural of “Dominican”) preached anywhere they could set down a soap box, and soon Guelf and Ghibelline alike began to attend services and receive the sacraments.

Isnard’s great witness for the Catholic faith drew the ire of the heretics, who mocked, scorned, ridiculed, spurned, defamed, threatened, and disreputed him (not necessarily in that order). They even made fun of him for being heavyset, which wasn’t his fault—like most saints in those days, he kept a pretty limited diet. Yet even when the bishop (one Rodobald) was driven into exile, the nasties let Isnard continue his ministry. These were some conflicted nasties, I’m thinking.

We finish with a couple of miracles. Once when Isnard was preaching, a man possessed by a demon came into the church, screaming, convulsing, and saying, “If you are a man of God, cast me out!” Isnard said to himself, “If I don’t cure this guy, I’m going to lose my audience.” So he came down from the pulpit and hugged the man, saying (roughly), “Bug off.” The spirit bugged off, and the man became a lay brother in a local monastery. Another time, a notorious heretic (what kind of neighborhood do you have to live in to have notorious heretics?) said, “I won’t believe you’re a holy man unless this barrel”—and here he pointed to a barrel in the corner—“comes loose and whaps me.” Immediately the barrel came loose and whapped him, breaking his leg. “Ouch,” he said.

As with many a saint, after his death Isnard’s relics were taken out of sarcophagi, put into other sarcophagi, moved into ossuaries, sealed in boxes, and ultimately distributed to the four winds. His sainthood was pronounced by Benedict XV in 1919.