Prudence: A Practical Virtue?
In our series on virtues, so far, we have explored the virtues of humility, purity and sacrifice and how they help us become instruments of redemption for others, or spiritually life-giving to them. Virtues, in this light, seem kind of lofty, and a matter of life beyond. However, the hinge or cardinal virtues, another group of helpful dispositions and habits, help us live the Christian life now!
Four virtues, which we will explore in sequence in subsequent posts, the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, are like the upper management of the other virtues for they regulate our practical actions or good habits in specific ways. One virtue, prudence, which we begin with today, the Catechism (CCC) goes so far as to call “the charioteer of the other virtues [because] it guides and sets the rule and reason for the other virtues” (CCC paragraph 1806).
“Prudence disposes [us]…to discern in every circumstance, our true good and to choose the right means for achieving it” (CCC 1835). It helps us navigate so we know our strengths, weaknesses, and the needs of the situation clearly so we can implement what’s best. When we are prudent, we have discretion and have foresight or the ability to anticipate the right course of action and can avoid stumbling blocks. We become wise when we become prudent.
I am reminded of a conversation that I had with an old friend, Msgr. Marvin Mottet, a retired diocesan priest for the Diocese of Davenport, who headed the Campaign for Human Development in Washington, DC. He reported that while he lived in the Catholic Worker House, both Servants of God, Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Catherine Doherty of Madonna House visited him there several times. He said,
Mary, what stood out for me was their gentle poise and the power of their words. They did not rush in and speak at great lengths. They seemed to attend to the details but possessed inner light! When they spoke, their words had power that penetrated my heart and stuck with me. They had wisdom and an uncanny sense of how to proceed that came as a fruit of their own intimacy with God.
As a fruit of prayer, prudence harnesses our good actions so we can know what is best here and now.
In like fashion, Venerable Conchita (Concepción Cabrera) described prudence as the “divine compass which constantly points us back to God and his will for us in the moment.” In saying this, she seemed to know, that as humans, we are vulnerable. We get distracted by our own needs and the whirl of demands around us. We find a balanced life difficult to achieve for we either slack off or to take on too much, even in the Christian journey. Many times we follow the ideas and examples of others without prayer and reflection and choose a lesser good that’s not God’s will for us.
While the witness of others can inspire us, we do not want to blindly follow their example without reflection, to discern the middle ground of virtue. Prudence is a virtue of order that helps us preserve our energies, be creative in fulfilling God’s mission for us and discern the inner guidance of the Holy Spirit. Prudence orients us to walk a steady pace with God to harmonize our gifts with his will in the moment.
I remember attempting to read St. John of the Cross’ The Dark Night of the Soul as a newly awakened Catholic, and a sleep deprived, young mother of six children under ten years of age. Even though a middle aged friend had suggested it, it was like reading Greek to me. After this futile effort, what really helped me was to return to the regular practices of short daily prayer and the Sacrament of Penance. In this, I discovered what happens when God and I work together, when grace and nature cooperate so my Faith can be felt by others.
Like Dorothy Day or Catherine Doherty, we need to learn to slow down and let the bit and bridle of prudence guide us to decipher the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. When we rush, we get scattered and waste many graces and inspirations. When we act frantically on our own resources, we experience more doubt, unrest and anxiety. Multitasking, the hallmark of our media age hooks us into too many things at once. When we must act, we are to lean into grace by gently focus and re-focus our attention on the task and listen within for guidance.
For example, one day, Venerable Conchita was walking down the street and sensed the Lord’s words in her heart. He was teaching her loving attention to God, so that at each moment she could act and live gazing upon him. In the silence of her heart, Conchita shared,
“Lord, have you forgotten that I am the mother of a large family? How am I to keep my mind and attention focused on you all the time with so many children?” The Lord replied, “Conchita, I am aware of everything you do as a mother. I don’t ask the impossible. Glance towards me, offer the moment and go about your life. All I’m asking for is not to be forgotten.”
In the intimacy of this moment, the Lord taught Conchita the power of prudence, of simplifying her everyday actions in the light of the Holy Spirit, so God and she could act together. Prudence gave Conchita her bearings to act in sync with God so in everything she did not leave him behind.
As the “CEO” of the other virtues, prudence helps us function amidst competing demands; to know and fulfill God’s loving designs for us here and now. Let us thank our “charioteer,” the virtue of prudence, so we never look before the light and grace given to us.
Art: Dettaglio dell’Arca di San Pietro Martire nella Cappella Portinari della Chiesa di Sant’Eustorgio a Milano: Statue allegoriche delle Virtù. ””’Prudentia””’ (Prudenza). Foto di Giovanni Dall’Orto; Mar 1, 2007
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