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Prudence: A Practical Virtue?

August 17, 2013 by  
Filed under Mary Kaufmann, 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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About Mary Kaufmann

Ms. Mary Gannon Kaufmann, M.A., M.S. is Director of Incarnate Institute and co-founder of Word of the Vine Online. Through Word of the Vine Online Ministries, Mary offers face to face and also online interactive retreats. She teaches internationally on vocations, priesthood, the role of the laity, the Theology of the Body and topics of spiritual growth. Information can be found at Mary holds a post-graduate certificate in Spiritual Direction and Retreats from Creighton University in Omaha, NE, a Masters in Theology from Loras College in Dubuque, IA and a Masters in Nutrition from the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. She attends classes with her husband John, who is in formation for the Permanent Diaconate for the Archdiocese of Dubuque. They live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa with their six children.

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  • Wretched Sinner

    Mary, thank you for your post, it is immensely practical, and immediately helpful.

  • JoFlemings

    Mary! this is really helpful- (but please tell me both Dorothy Day and Catherine Doherty had white hair when Msgr. made this comment…that will encourage me a lot!) I very much appreciate what you have explained here about how prudence helps us pace ourselves, and Conchita’s example, and your story about Dark Night of the Soul. Everywhere we turn in this culture, even in the Church and among holy peers there can be so much pressure on young women- or so many self-imposed pressures on women, to go, do, and be, so many things that are other than the ‘one thing necessary’ in Christ. It is a discipline to focus on one’s duty, and to harness oneself in prudence to the Lord’s will moment by moment in one day at a time. I would like to have more discussion here about the gifts of the Holy Spirit and how we develop and work with those in building the experience of prudence. Prudence is the actuation of moving our will according to wisdom, understanding, knowledge and counsel right? Or what would you say about how this works out? I know it is often trial and error by which we learn… we pray, and listen, then do- and, often in my case go back to pray, listen, confess, and regroup, etc. I am really interested in your reflections on how these gifts of the Holy Spirit work with this virtue to direct a soul in doing the will of the Lord-
    ( I like systems and flow charts, but maybe it is actually more like a Jackson Pollock painting! :o)

    • marygannon

      Dear Jo,
      I will see what else surfaces for me through this evening with your question about how the gifts of the Holy Spirit and virtues interact. Right now, this is my sense! All virtues have two aspects: the infused gifts of the Holy Spirit, ie. prudence, and the second part, our response and interaction with that gift that comes through our own choices and behavior. We want to avoid the sense that everything is up to us as far as virtues come. We grow in virtues by simultaneously willing to practice them as best we can and by growing in receptivity to the Holy Spirit through our prayer. Then, the Holy Spirit and us respond more together…that is the key to moving like Dorothy Day…we waste nothing of the inspiration shared with us through the HOly Spirit. In this, there is no pressure for we receive everything from God in doing good. When we fall short, this gives us greater capacity to approach God and ask for even more… Blessings!

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  • patricia

    Thank you Mary this is very helpful.

  • abandon56

    Mary, thank you so much for this! Very timely as I am faced with some challenges of deciding how to proceed in my work situation as well as in ministry. I appreciate the comment that it is not ours to blindly follow others who are doing good and to listen to the greater good that God has for us. Certainly this stems from turning to God often in prayer…especially that “glance” and the sharing of hearts that St. Theresa and Little Therese encourage.

  • Tantem Ergo

    Hi Mary! Thank you for this thoughtful and well written post. I see a Young Mother’s Ministry in your future! With the demands mothers face with diapers, feedings and later sports and music practice, it is important to know the virtue of Prudence is available that we not lose sight of the Father’s plan for us. Looking forward to more. Blessings!