In the account of the Annunciation of the Birth of our Savior, we read the following response of the Holy Virgin Mary to the Holy Archangel Gabriel’s announcement that she would miraculously conceive and give birth to the Savior of the world: “How can this be, since I know not a man?” (Lk 1:34).
From this response, we learn the important lesson that, sometimes, there is value in ignorance. The Holy Virgin Mary’s response to the angel, “I know not a man,” was an expression of her vow to consecrate herself to God as a virgin forever. For her, knowing a man was evil, because she had resolved to consecrate herself to God alone. Women around her, however, found pleasure in getting married and experiencing normal marital relations with their husbands, especially since it was believed that any one of them might have the privilege of giving birth to the Messiah. The Holy Virgin Mary, however, gave up that hope and ended up receiving it! Her ignorance in not knowing a man, therefore, proved to be a blessing beyond anything she imagined.
The Holy Virgin thus teaches us that, sometimes, there is wisdom in ignorance. Specifically, there is wisdom in ignorance of evil.
In the world, we are oftentimes told to be “open” and “willing to try new things.” We are told, “You haven’t lived until you’ve ______.” There is very much a focus on experimentation and the gaining of as much experience as possible. Sadly, almost always, what we’re being encouraged to do is something worldly, something sinful in nature.
This has been the way of the world ever since the devil tempted our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise. God had previously told Adam that he should not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil so that he wouldn’t experience evil and death:
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’ (Ge 2:16–17 LXX).
And then the devil came along and told them that the reason God forbade them from that Tree is because God didn’t want them to be as wise as He is wise. The devil encouraged them to experience it for themselves, promising them equality with God if they did so. And what was the result? Sin, death, sickness, violence, sadness, and every other evil befell mankind.
The Lord God wished to preserve Adam and Eve from the experience of evil. God knew all about evil as the Omnipotent and Omniscient Being. He knew about evil in an abstract way, just as a healthy physician knows about terminal cancer without having it himself. He wanted us to know evil in the same way, i.e., to have knowledge of it without the full experience of it, but what did we do? We chose to follow the devil and experience it for ourselves, and the result is that we were made slaves to it.
The devil continues to tempt us in this way. Consider the high school student who smokes a joint “just to see what the big deal is.” Consider the college youth who insists on having premarital sex because she wants to “practice before marriage” or ensure there is physical compatibility with a guy she loves (or thinks she loves). Consider the happily married man who goes out and gets drunk with his coworkers “just to fit in” and be able to relate to them. Consider the parents who encourage their children to “be like other kids” in terms of things like boyfriends/girlfriends, proms, music, activities, etc. In all of these scenarios, the devil is telling us the same thing he told Adam and Eve: “Experience evil and you’ll be the better for it.”
But we know from the human condition that we are not the better for it. How many of us truly consider ourselves wiser because we’ve smoked pot, had premarital sex, or gotten drunk? We are not wiser because of these things, but instead, our lives are now more tragic. If our soul is in the right place, we say to ourselves, “I wish I never did that!” and we dream of a way to go back to a time when we hadn’t experienced that evil. We bow our heads low and ask God to forgive us for our stupidity and willful disobedience.
We should not think, therefore, that to live a good and full life, we have to willingly experience evil. That physician who treats cancer patients does not become a better physician if he is diagnosed with cancer. In fact, that diagnosis will weaken him and prevent him from helping others. Similarly, we don’t learn holiness from throwing ourselves into sin. After all, do we see better by making ourselves blind? Do we become more clean by making ourselves filthy?
The real way to know evil is by overcoming it. Imagine two young boys who want to test the power of a particular river. The first blindly jumps into the river and gets swept by the current, unable to escape, and perishes. The second studies the river and measures the current while remaining on the banks. Of these two, who really knows the power of the river? Who lives to tell the story of its power? Who overcomes it in the end?
We are called to do the same in our lives, striving to remain observers of sin, not participants, because the more we experience sin, the less we know about it.
Moreover, ignorance of evil places us within the reach of God’s forgiveness. Who can forget the first words of our Savior on the Holy Cross? “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’” (Lk 23:34). Our Crucified Savior forgives His executioners precisely because they were ignorant of the evil they committed. Had they known that they were crucifying the Lord of Glory, there would be no forgiveness, but since they were ignorant of the great evil they were committing, our Lord prayed for their forgiveness.
One cannot help but wonder whether our Savior learned that phrase, “For they know not what they do” from His Mother, who said earlier, “I know not a man.” In both cases, they teach us that ignorance of evil is a blessing.
Let us, therefore, pray that we may strive to “know not” evil, as well.