Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Works of Mercy: Instructing the Ignorant

Our Wednesday series on the Works of Mercy has completed the corporal works, those dedicated to the good of the body, and now we turn to the spiritual works, those pertaining to the good of the soul.

The first spiritual work of mercy is to instruct the ignorant. Here we come to a difficulty of terminology. It seems that in our contemporary culture (at least I have run across this many times), the word ‘ignorant’ is used as a term of abuse, intended only to insult. Oddly enough, it seems to have acquired a harsher sting that the word ‘stupid’, which makes no sense.

I guess I am just too aware of ancient languages and word etymologies to really understand this. ‘Ignorant’ simply means ‘not knowing’ something. ‘Stupid’ means ‘incapable of knowing things because of some intellectual disability. Which is a worse insult, really?

I am ignorant of all sorts of things—auto mechanics, rugby, the chief exports of Indonesia, and how to stop LinkedIn from sending me spam e-mail. I am always grateful, and in fact experience it as a work of mercy, when someone who knows about something that I do not know much about takes the time and trouble to educate me. It’s so easy to just throw up one’s hands and say ‘Well, this person is stupid and I can’t be bothered – imagine not knowing about that at their age!’

And so… instructing the ignorant. A great work of mercy, and one which all of us can engage in, though some of us are called to engage in it a lot more frequently. Today in Madonna House we begin the guest classes on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is a straightforward ‘just the facts, ma’am’ kind of course: this is what the Catholic Church teaches, and it’s all in this here book laid out with paragraph numbers and everything, see!

The reason we do this is because about fifty years ago the Catholic Church in North America decided as a general policy to stop instructing the ignorant. People of my generation and younger grew up learning precisely nothing about what the Catholic Church teaches, what our faith actually is. And then we are puzzled and shocked when they all leave the Church as teenagers—were they ever given a reason to stay?

Well, I had nothing to do with that decision, and have no idea why on earth it was decided that we should no longer tell anyone anything of the doctrines of the faith. I have in fact dedicated quite a bit of my adult life to doing what I could to reverse that disastrous course of action. And I call on all Catholics of good will—pastors, teachers, parents, everyone—to do what they can, because we are in a ridiculous situation now, where we have had fifty years of exemplary magisterial teaching, pope after pope laying out the riches and splendors of the Catholic faith for all to see… and very few know anything about it, because those charged with telling them have refused their charge.

Well, enough on that subject, which obviously I feel very strongly about and can rant away on if I please. But instructing the ignorant is more than just religious education, central as that is. What about auto mechanics? What about teaching a handicraft you yourself have learned? What about simply sharing with someone else a fantastic movie, a great piece of music, an appreciation for art that you have? And… does anyone know how to block LinkedIn from sending me e-mails? Because man is that ever annoying!

Knowledge is wealth, and wealth of any kind in this world is given for one reason only—to be shared with those who lack it. That there is a basic principle of reality, by the way. Wealth only is given so as to be shared—it has no other purpose.

Catherine Doherty loved to tell the story of going to school for the first time when she was a wee girl in Russia. She came home and told her father excitedly “We learned the alphabet today!” He looked at her gravely, and said “That’s wonderful, Katia. But remember, knowledge received must be passed on. The kitchen maids don’t know how to read. Why don’t you go now and teach them the alphabet?”

And so this little six year old child began what would be a life long work, as she climbed up on a tall stool in the kitchen and taught the kitchen maids the Russian alphabet. And for the rest of her life she tirelessly passed on, with ingenuity and creativity, whatever knowledge she had been given along the way.

Go and do likewise.

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