The Heart of the Gospel

Part 2

Instruct the Ignorant


Medieval hagiographers often enhanced their works with Scriptural texts or doctrinal allusions, seeking to show how the saint whose life they authored lived the counsels of the Scripture and fulfilled the teachings of the Church. Thus, when the early biographer described St. Clare of Assisi as the instructress of the ignorant, he was not simply praising her competence as a spiritual guide. He was linking Clare's instruction of her Sisters to a specific spiritual work of mercy: Instruct the ignorant.

Human life is, in one sense, a passage from ignorance to knowledge. A baby learns to walk; a child learns how to read and write. Most people need to master certain skills, manual or intellectual, in order to carry out their daily work. It is the same in the spiritual realm, so much so that one of St. Clare's fifteenth century followers forthrightly declared: Ignorance is dangerous. (TESTAMENT OF ST. COLETTE)

The Gospels show how much of our Lord's earthly ministry was taken up with teaching. He taught in the synagogues, on the mountain, from a boat, in the temple. Original sin had left the human family in a state of ignorance on so many levels and one of Jesus' primary tasks -- a truly great work of His mercy -- was to instruct the ignorant in the mysteries of the kingdom.

As the foundress of a religious Order, Clare of Assisi took seriously her responsibility as a teacher. While some claim that ignorance is bliss, the Lady Clare saw it as an obstacle to prayer and to perseverance. All her life she sought to deepen her knowledge of God, the Scriptures and Church doctrine. While not a formal-book-and-seminar student, the Holy Mother was a disciple, literally a learning one, in the deepest sense of the word.

What she learned, St. Clare passed on to others. Thus, even when she was ill, she gathered her Sisters each day for instruction in prayer and the spiritual life. To widen their horizons, the Seraphic Mother invited preachers to explain the Word of God to her community. She also taught her Sisters the fine art of discernment so that they could distinguish between right doctrine and erroneous opinion. And, like our Lord, the Lady Clare taught not only by her words, but by her example, so much so that Pope Alexander IV could write: her life was an instruction and a lesson to others. (BULL OF CANONIZATION, 10)

While St. Clare was not called to address the wider educational needs of her time, there is no doubt that she supported with prayer those who were. Ignorance is dangerous in every sphere of human life. This is why the Church has always actively promoted the work of mercy which is teaching. The lack of education locks children, families and even societies into an almost unbreakable cycle of poverty and hopelessness, as Pope Francis has pointed out. (cf. THE FACE OF MERCY, 15)

The Church needs disciples who are willing to take up the spiritual work of mercy which is instructing the ignorant. It is a multi-form, many-faceted work which begins by first learning, loving and living the truths of the faith ourselves. It branches out to those around us at home, in the neighborhood and workplace. We can offer formal instruction ourselves or support those who do so with prayer or material assistance. We can also offer that most sublime form of instruction which is good example. The Christ-work of instruction is mercy with a ripple effect, as we hand on to others what we ourselves have received (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3) and they, in turn, pass it on until we attain to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God. (Eph. 4:13)

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