Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Poor in Guatemala may lack knowledge, but still possess wisdom

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the May 22, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

Sister Marie Tolle works with pre-school children at Our Lady of the Highway parish church in Guatemala. Sister Marie is a Sister of Charity of New York who has worked in the Spokane Diocese Mission area for many years. (IR photo from the Guatemala Commission)

Knowledge is good. It is the most basic object of our intellect. We have a natural tendency to want to know about things, and we learn a lot about things in schools.

One of the first challenges missionaries face in “underdeveloped” countries is to set up schools for the native people. The Diocese of Spokane has been helping with basic education of the poor in Guatemala for over 40 years. At the present time, the diocese helps support schools in the villages of Nahuala, Tzamjuyub, and Sololá. It also provides for some preschool and adult classes in other communities.

Although schools are also the learning centers in our country, our high-tech culture has provided us with an exponentially increasing amount of information. Computers, with their internet access, give us an overwhelming amount of knowledge about everything under the sun. TVs in our homes, businesses, and airports bombard us with continuous “24/7” satellite coverage of events from all over the world, whether we’re interested in them or not.

This might be characterized as a problem of information overload. The data storage cells of our brains are inundated with news, weather, and entertainment. Instead of fostering creativity, the intellectual challenge of this overload is frequently reduced to passively following the escapades of a soap opera. Coupled with that is the psychology of TV commercials, which hammer at our consciousness to create a need for products that we don’t really want.

Some people assume that the poor are ignorant because they lack knowledge and 21st century learning. That may to be true in some respects, for we can benefit from information in a multitude of ways. However, an over-abundance of data and “useless” knowledge also has its downside. In some ways it may even be more detrimental than being in a state of ignorance. It depends upon how one’s knowledge is organized, prioritized, and used. That is where wisdom enters the picture.

Wisdom goes beyond knowledge. It is a gift that puts our knowledge into an ordered perspective. This enables us to analyze and synthesize what we know into systems of understanding that prompt us to act in the best interests of ourselves and others with whom we interact. Moreover, those best interests are multidimensional. They can incorporate a multitude of factors that influence our existence, such as our needs (food, shelter, safety), aspects of time (present vs. future), virtues (faith, concern for our neighbor), and so on.

Whereas the poor are frequently not in a position to benefit from the abundance of information in the world, they are spared the problems of having to prioritize such information and circumvent some of the moral pitfalls it contains. The route to wise choices – the route to wisdom – is therefore less cluttered with temptations and distractions.

For the poor, it seems natural to extend their awareness and thought process beyond a focus on temporal (and superficial) knowledge to eternal (and inevitable) considerations. For example, if rain floods out a recently seeded field in Guatemala, instead of bemoaning the damage done, a farmer may instead thank God for the rain. That (ignorant) farmer is thus exercising a wisdom that recognizes the longer term relationship with his Creator as more important than the here and now effect.

How does this happen? How can a knowledge-filled culture such as ours be so absorbed with passing satisfactions while an underdeveloped culture give more priority to the eternal?

First, we must be careful not to draw conclusions about everyone in our culture from the actions of some. Many people faithfully maintain an awareness of God in their daily lives. However, material things do appeal to our appetites. And satisfying our appetites makes us feel emotionally good. With the information and temptation ever present, it is easy to spend our time on things that are emotionally (but not necessarily intellectually) satisfying. Thus we may follow the antics of movie stars, stock prices, batting averages, top 20 DVDs and a host of other incidentals competing for our consciousness. Many of these things have little or no positive effect on the eternal life of our soul.

Knowledge of these things is irrelevant to the poor in Guatemala. Their immediate concern is for survival within a world where their actions are closely linked to their faith in God. A heavy rain could wash their house down the hillside, causing some of their family to lose their lives, as happened in a community outside Ixtahuacán. Life is more tenuous for them, and they know they could be meeting their Creator at any time.

Their activities reflect the wisdom of Thomas a Kempis who said, “It is vanity to be concerned with the present only, and not make provision for things to come,.... to wish for a long life and care little about a well-spent life.”

Knowledge of science, art, music, and the like is worthwhile. It does not preclude us from acting wisely, and when properly assimilated can be a source of peace and joy. But much of the information that occupies our daily life does not lend itself to peace, and has little relevance to our reason for being.

Because of their situation, the people in underdeveloped countries typically focus more of their consciousness on activities that incorporate an awareness of God. They may lack knowledge, but still possess wisdom. Although it may be more difficult for us to maintain that same focus, it can be a source of peace to us when we do. Keeping our activity priorities in line with the Christian values we hold is a lesson we can learn from the poor.

(Jerry Monks works with the diocese’s Guatemala Mission Committee.)


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