Of Wisdom and Instruction

Detail from the cover art of Woman of Worth by Melanie Rigney

An excerpt from “Woman of Worth” by Melanie Rigney

By Melanie Rigney

She opens her mouth in wisdom;
kindly instruction is on her tongue. (Proverbs 31:26)

We need only look to the Book of Proverbs’ opening lines to begin studying this verse: “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and discipline” (Proverbs 1:7).

When we embrace fear of the Lord, that’s not about cowering in a corner, scared to death of his judgment today, tomorrow, and on the final day. It’s also not about scrupulosity, a problem I struggle with at times. (Was it six or seven weeks since my last confession? What if there’s a sin I forgot to confess? But I digress…)

Fear of the Lord is about gratitude, respect, homage, humility, and a whole lot of other words that are beautiful to hear but can be so difficult to do. Fear of the Lord in some ways begins with accepting that God is God, that we are not, and that while we are on earth, we can never begin to understand all his desires and ways and plans.

The woman of worth chooses her words carefully. The wisdom she obtains by study and prayer gives her the depth needed to instruct. She also is unafraid to provide loving correction where appropriate. When the woman of worth talks, people listen—and learn.


In The Catholic Catechism: A Contemporary Catechism of the Teachings of the Catholic Church, Servant of God John A. Hardon, SJ, explained wisdom this way: “Where faith is a simple knowledge of the articles of belief that Christianity proposes, wisdom goes on to a certain divine contemplation of the truths that the articles contain, that faith accepts without further development” (201). For example, as Catholics, we believe in Jesus’s true presence in the consecrated host and wine. In faith, we accept that teaching; we’re not required to attempt to understand how it happens. In wisdom, we contemplate Jesus’s gift in feeding us in such an intimate way. We are humbled by the giving up of his body and blood so that we might live with him in eternity.

Father Hardon puts it even more simply and beautifully in the Catholic Dictionary: “Wisdom means knowledge that is so perfect it directs the will to obey God’s commands” (533-34).

Who among us doesn’t yearn for, doesn’t strive for, that sort of knowledge, where our will and the Lord’s are in complete harmony? Who
doesn’t have a few holy moments when that has happened? In early 2018, I went to a retreat center intending to spend a weekend praying about the next steps for a women’s conference. The other three partners had had to leave the endeavor. I knew God wanted the event to continue, but we’d lost a substantial amount by holding the event at hotels, and it was more money than I could afford to lose by myself.

And yet—when I got to the center, I forgot about my prayer intention. I read some books. I interacted with other retreatants. I prayed for others’ intentions. I caught up on my sleep. Then all of a sudden, Sunday morning came, and I realized I had never talked with God about this. I offered him some praise and thanks for all he had done to spark and continue this little ministry, then humbly asked for his desire. Within a few minutes, a voice spoke the name of my parish, which, coincidentally, has a large center. Within a month, my pastor had signed off on the plan.

Now, God doesn’t speak out loud to me often, and maybe he doesn’t to you either. But if we have the courage and, yes, wisdom, to trust in him and accept his will, he’ll generally make it quite clear to us in some way. And if you don’t know what that wisdom looks like, read Ecclesiastes 8:1: “Wisdom illumines the face and transforms a grim countenance.”

Wisdom doesn’t need to know why bad things happen to good people, where Jesus was between the time he was put into the tomb and before the resurrection, or how the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary. Wisdom accepts the Father’s will and power and contemplates how it displays his awesome love for us. The woman of worth opens her mouth to help others join her in that contemplation.


Just as wisdom is accepting in faith and contemplating the mystery of God’s great gifts and love, instruction is about communicating that wisdom to others. Wisdom is talking the talk internally, deeper and richer as time goes on. Instruction is being able to show that wisdom to others so that they too may become wise. Think of it this way: Wisdom is knowing how to ride a bike. Instruction is teaching someone else to do it.

In writing, there’s this saying: Show, don’t tell. That means don’t write that someone was angry. Instead, show the person’s face turning red, his fist clenching, her voice moving up an octave. Jesus did a whole lot of showing—remember the wedding at Cana, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and the raising of the synagogue ruler’s little girl? Even when Jesus is teaching, he tells stories that show action, often with dialogue. That’s how he did his best work: face to face, friend to friend, engaging people at their own level.

Think about the teachers you’ve had, inside the classroom or out in the world. Who taught you more: the friend who seemed to have unending patience when she taught you to knit, even though you’re righthanded and she’s lefthanded, or the friend who told you that you’d “just know” when the egg whites were stiff, except you didn’t and so your meringue effort was an epic fail? Who taught you more: the second-grade teacher who stayed after school with you sounding out your vocabulary words, or the fourth-grade teacher who took away recess for the entire class for a week because she was sure someone had stolen something from her desk? It’s all instruction, but
sometimes it teaches us something other than the intended lesson.

It works the same way with spiritual works of mercy, most of which involve instruction. Which is more likely to bear fruit:
• Telling an adult son who has announced he’s an atheist that he’s going to hell, or talking about the ways in which your faith has challenged you and brought you comfort?
• Telling a friend who’s been out of work for a year that he needs to downsize his lifestyle and you’re not going to give him money anymore, or compiling a list of resources for low-income people and offering to help him see for which he qualifies?
• Telling a friend you can’t stand to be around her anymore because she’s always so negative, or gently stopping her when the familiar
tapes start to play and asking what needs to change to improve her feelings, if not the situation?

For the woman of worth, “kindly” is always part of her mode of instruction. She skillfully navigates the line between judgment and education. She doesn’t back away from difficult conversations but approaches them after prayer. She knows, as a former boss of mine used to say, you can say anything to anyone; it’s all in the way you say it.

The woman of worth also knows when her part is complete with those who turn away her offer of instruction. Part of wisdom is recognizing when conversations become toxic, and not putting our own salvation in danger. In his final instruction in Romans, St. Paul counseled, “[I] urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who create dissensions and obstacles, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them” (Romans 16:17).

Indeed, Jesus’s final instruction when he sends forth the Twelve is also good instruction for us: “Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words—go outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet” (Matthew 10:14).

Read more in Woman of Worth, available from Twenty-Third Publications and other online booksellers.

Melanie Rigney is the author of several books and  has written for Living Faith, Catholicmom.com, Women in the New Evangelization, Catholic Update, Viva Mercy, and other publications. She lives in Arlington, VA.

Excerpted from Woman of Worth: Prayers and Reflections for Women Inspired by the Book of Proverbs, by Melanie Rigney. Copyright 2019. Published by Twenty-Third Publications. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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