Instruct the Ignorant: Make the Transformation Real

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By Sister Angela Perez

In this year’s Lenten reflection series, seven sisters offer their personal stories and insights on each of the Spiritual Works of Mercy and how acts of mercy can have a profound impact on the lives of our sisters and brothers. Accompanying these reflections are line drawings by Sister Mary Clare Agnew, a contemporary of Catherine McAuley, which illustrate the Sisters of Mercy in ministry in 1830s Ireland.

At the Mercy in Action Series on Non-Violence in January 2023, Father John Dear shared the following story:

A woman religious was walking home after work late at night when a man approached her from behind and told her that he had a knife. The sister turned around and said, “I don’t have an apple and I’m going home.” Befuddled by her statement, the man abandoned his mission.

Shortly before hearing this story, I received an invitation to write a Lenten reflection on the Spiritual Work of Mercy “to instruct the ignorant.” After listening to John Dear, my perspective shifted from how I was “making real” Catherine’s priorities of providing instruction to how I was “making real” the ongoing transformation needed to not be so ignorant.

I invite you to read, or reread, Sister Pat McCann’s excellent article “Ignorance is Not Bliss.” In the piece she notes that recent years the wording has been changed to uneducated as a less pejorative term. However, she writes: “In contemporary times, though, we are discovering a new urgency about denouncing ignorance. It cripples our society in so many destructive ways: racism is rooted in ignorance, bigotry is rooted in ignorance, sexism is rooted in ignorance, unbridled capitalism is rooted in ignorance, ignoring environmentalism is rooted in ignorance, tolerating violence is rooted in ignorance, oppressing those who are poor is rooted in ignorance. This list could go on. In fact, ignorance is bedrock to so much evil in human society …The grave danger of ignorance is in the moral blindness it fosters.” Pat continues citing examples of impairment due to ignorance.

“Many of the people impaired in the ways described above are otherwise quite ordinary good people. They go to church, love their families, are good neighbors, live among us, and sometimes are us. The ignorance grows out of limited experience of cultural diversity, misinformation, peer group influence, fear, etc.”

Sometimes, we are the people impaired by ignorance. I see it with awe and appreciation for the enlightenment as well as the hope in the realization that I have been and am a means of transformation. As Henri Nouwen noted in one of his books, “we are wounded healers.”

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a burial when a middle-aged gentleman came to me and asked if I remembered him. After he identified himself, I recognized and remembered him. He thanked me for helping him when I used to volunteer at a Residential Substance Abuse Treatment Program at the Department of Corrections. That was 21 years ago. “God is in my life, Sister,” he told me. Recently, I was at a funeral Mass for one of my former students. She was an impressively educated woman who was highly regarded at the University of Guam for her leadership in the academic community, particularly as dean of the School of Health. She was respected in the larger community for her outreach to those most vulnerable, especially those who are experiencing homelessness. The eulogy and homily acknowledged her witness to our Mercy Charism and referenced the Sisters of Mercy. Her life defied ignorance.

May we continue our ongoing journey of transformation, especially during these 40 days of Lent. We know that it starts with oneself and therefore must look deeply within and do the inner work of the heart.

Needless to say, may we love others and learn from them. According to John Dear, those who trigger anger in us are our teachers. Let us devote ourselves to an action that addresses the Spiritual or Corporal Works of Mercy or our Critical Concerns.

Peace be with you.