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. For example, to strew hay or to say that the seed has been strewn. 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 great work of mercy, and knowledge is one of our most precious gifts.
In speaking of instructing the ignorant as a 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!
Psalm 119, the longest in the Bible, goes on for 176 verses praising the glory of God’s truth, which is more precious than gold many times refined. The book of Baruch says, Blessed are we, O Israel; for what pleases God is known to us! (Baruch 4:4) Yes, how I love your law, O Lord.
The second and more particular sense of instructing the ignorant, however, seems to have been largely lost. Many otherwise good and conscientious parents place a low priority on the religious instruction of their children. Math and science classes must be passed; if trouble emerges a tutor needs to be secured! School attendance is essential, for indeed the child’s future very much depends on success in academic subjects. But there seems to be little concern if children do not grasp religious truths or balk at attending Mass.
Even more than understanding worldly truths, laying hold of sacred doctrine is essential for children’s eternal salvation. But too few parents have any sense of urgency about conveying these truths.
Part of the problem is theological, since many today have a diminished sense of the possibility of Hell, erroneously thinking little of the Day of Judgment for which we should have a holy fear and sobriety, not to mention a careful preparation.
Sociologically, however, the problem seems to have its roots in the last two centuries, when the religious instruction of youth was largely consigned to priests and religious. The idea of parents as the chief educators of their children in the ways of faith was largely eclipsed by a ceding of this authority to a professional class. And thus the Catholic school system, one of our greatest strengths and assets, also has had unfortunate and unintended consequences at the family level.
Today there is a greater emphasis from the Church on the need for parents to be equipped for their role as the primary educators of their children. But effective programs are still hard to come by. In my own parish, I have made the instruction of parents the most critical pillar in our Sunday school program. While the children are in the classroom, I am in the cafeteria teaching the same material to the parents. Nothing is more essential for parents than to hand on the saving truths of the faith to their children. Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it (Prov 22:6).
Instructing the ignorant: a great and wonderful spiritual work of mercy whereby souls are saved; the wonderful, astonishing, and inestimable gift of knowledge, given like food for the soul and light for the mind.
Be extravagant in teaching your own soul by frequent recourse to Holy Scripture and all sources of good knowledge and holy wisdom. Be extravagant in sharing what you have learned with others.
Oh, how I love your law!
I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands are always with me
and make me wiser than my enemies …
Your statutes are my heritage forever;
they are the joy of my heart.
My heart is set on keeping your decrees
to the very end.
Your statutes are wonderful;
therefore I obey them.
The unfolding of your words gives light;
it gives understanding to the simple (Psalm 119).