Instruct the Ignorant
The following comes to us courtesy of Msgr. Charles Pope, priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC and contributor to: Community in Mission: Creating a Culture of Encounter:
To instruct comes from the Latin in + struere, which means to build up or (even more literally) to pile up. In English, there is also the notion of strewing something. Thus, to instruct means to disperse knowledge or build someone up in what is learned.
These days, the word “ignorant” is most often used in a negative or pejorative sense. And thus to say that someone is ignorant usually means (in modern English) that he is stupid or foolish. But more literally and less pejoratively, the word simply refers to someone who does not know something. And while some ignorance can be said to be inexcusable (in that a person should know better), it can also be more innocent: one simply does not happen to know something and can benefit from instruction in the matter.
And this is what is meant by the spiritual work of mercy “Instruct the Ignorant.” All of us can benefit from proper instruction by those who know more about a certain subject or issue than we do. And it is a work of mercy when someone takes the time to instruct us. It is an even greater work of mercy when the knowledge conferred is something essential or saving for us.
Can any of us ever really be grateful enough for all those who took the time to teach us down through the years, whether it was as young children in school, or as we grew through maturity and into a career, or even today as we learn new technologies or new issues and things that are on the scene? A patient and generous teacher is a great gift. And indeed the knowledge we gain is so enormously valuable as to be literally invaluable. Yes, to instruct the ignorant is a great work of mercy, and knowledge is one of our most precious gifts.
In speaking of instructing the ignorant as spiritual work of mercy, at least two things are meant. First, because the intellect is a faculty of the soul, our human spirit is nourished by all instruction. Second, however (and more particularly), the Church has in mind the kind of instruction that most benefits the soul: instruction in religious truth rooted in the Holy Scriptures and in the Sacred Tradition of the teachings of the Church. If secular instruction can benefit us unto worldly ends, how much greater the benefits of religion instruction that has heavenly and eternal rewards.
The goal of religious instruction is always to place one into a saving relationship with God. And thus the goal is not to simply help people know about the Lord, but to know the Lord, and by that relationship with Him in the truth, to be saved. What an enormous boon, what a wealth and treasure it is to know the sacred truths of God!