Prudence: Our Missing VirtueMatthew J Bellisario 2012
Do you ever wonder at the end of a long day if you should or should not have said, written or done something you should not have? Perhaps you spoke out of emotion or sat down and wrote a scathing email just after you have read something upsetting on the internet. Maybe you did not speak when you should have spoken? As Catholics, we should understand that we are always at war with our passions. Our emotions and our intellectual weaknesses are always pulling at us causing us to act, or not to act, not always irrationally, but lacking in spiritual wisdom. Let me explain.
Although our intellect and emotions plays a huge part of human makeup, so likewise does our soul. After the fall of Adam and Eve, the order between our bodies our intellect and our soul has been turned upside down. Which means that our human passions often usurp our soul’s desires, which should ultimately be turned towards God. Although I could go through all of the seven deadly sins and the virtues that subdue them, one virtue that is often ignored is that of prudence. I will be bold enough to say that most people are often lacking in this most important virtue. The internet websites and blogs clearly demonstrate this fact. There is no shortage of ad-hominem attacks and character assassinations posted many times by notable Catholic apologists and writers. What we all must be concerned with is the virtue of prudence. The virtue of prudence falls under the category of the moral virtues. Father Garrigou Lagrange calls it, “The charioteer among the virtues...” Why is this virtue so important? This is the virtue which properly guides all the moral acts of man. Father Lagrange says, "What separates the wise from the foolish is the wise man's care, the caution with which he judges his options and chooses actions that avoid extremes. Our faith calls this practical ability Prudence, which the Catechism defines as "the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it"
The difference between acting boldly when one ought for example, or running like a coward when one should act, is governed by prudence. Likewise, the difference between remaining in humble silence, or running off at the mouth, is likewise governed by this exalted virtue. How do we acquire this virtue? Like all things with God, we must begin with long hours, weeks, months and even years of prayer and mortification. It is most always good to begin by saying little until one has spent much time being faithful servants of God, which means struggling daily with sin, going to the Divine Liturgy at least once a week, going to confession at least once a month and maintaining a strong prayer schedule at home. As one spends time with God in the Sacraments and prayer, one begins to be given prudence by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We then begin to do God’s will rather than our own, and this is of the utmost importance.
Why is it that we often times get on the internet and write scathing articles or retorts to someone who has offended us? The short simple answer is pride. We all like to make it seem as if we are governed by righteous anger. After-all we all love to tell the story of Jesus overthrowing those crooked moneychangers in the temple. Most of the time however we do not possess this righteous anger. When we act upon our pride, prudence is absent. But how is it that prudence is further developed? Yes, we must start with prayer for their is no substitute for this needed bond with God. But what else does prayer and God’s grace bring us? It also brings us other virtues such an understanding of justice and temperance for example. Prayer is the primary vehicle which makes us one with God, and this "oneness" is made evident by the virtues.
It is crucial to understand also that it is through our intellect that we understand the teachings of the Church, which also govern our understanding of right and wrong. For example, one would not have the tools to council a good friend using contraception if one were not informed that the action was not a licit one. How can one understand the things of God unless one has been instructed? But knowing the teachings of the Church is not enough for someone to be a counselor in these important moral affairs. This is often the problem we see today in the realm of popular Catholic speakers and writers. Many, though certainly not all, think that by studying the Catechism, reading some theology books and pursuing a college degree qualifies them to lecture the public on the Catholic faith and the moral dilemmas that people often face. This is simply not the truth. This is often why the Fathers of the Church often said that this virtue was often lacking in the young, because they did not have time to cultivate it. This is likewise similar to new converts, as I have said before in previous articles.
Garrigou Lagrange gives us some insight into my point. “Prudence cannot command unless the will and the sense appetites are seasoned in obedience.” This means that holiness, and the subjection of the will to God is just as, if not more important than, our book knowledge. In fact, an immense amount of time oriented to book knowledge can often steer us dangerously off the path to self obsession, which not only endangers the soul of that person, but also the others counseled by him or her. Remember, we must understand that counsel is a gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift must be cultivated under much labor and struggle to lose ourselves in God. This is something that I have come to realize more clearly over the past year or so, and as a result you can see that I now try to stay away from more polemical writing these days.
Prudence is something we should all strive to cultivate in our lives. We can start by learning to control ourselves in conversation, remaining silent until we have gone to God in prayer for our counsel. I cannot tell you how many times I have written a blog post with fire coming out of my nostrils responding to something that offended me only to regret it about 15 minutes after publishing it. Even if what I had written had been factually correct, it did not always mean that it needed to be written or publicly aired. This demonstrated a complete absence of the virtue of prudence. Likewise the same can be said of conversations with others where we may get perturbed by some public outrage made by a high ranking bishop of the Church. Oftentimes our passions get the best of us and we end up going into an all out attack on that bishop rather than just acknowledging the comment, remaining silent, and then taking our concern to God in prayer.
In closing, I must reiterate that prudence determines when we must act and when we must not act. It also governs in what manner and the proper time in which to act. This makes all the difference between being an instrument of God, or an instrument of the devil. If we rebuke someone out of our own pride rather than love for the other person, then prudence has been suppressed. Our words will only be only our own, not God’s. Again, even though factually we may be correct in what we say or write, and we may present the hard cold facts to someone, it will often do little good because it was not communicated in love through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In other words, we are often doing our own will, not God’s. One other practice to help guide us on our struggle towards the virtue of prudence is to always examine what we say and do, understanding that every word we speak and every action we do, we will have to give an account for in eternity. In other words, we all need to make sure that what we say and what you do, that we are prepared to stand before the judgement seat of God to give an answer for. If we are unsure of whether or not our words will withstand the judgement of eternity, it is probably better to remain silent. Of course this is easier said than done, but by the grace of God may He grant us all this most necessary virtue.
Let us now turn for a word of wisdom from the Saints and Fathers of the Church to help guide us.
Let everything be regulated by prudence which should be the rule in all our actions.”
“...imprudence denotes lack of that prudence which a man can and ought to have, and in this sense imprudence is a sin by reason of a man's negligence in striving to have prudence.” (St Thomas Aquinas)
“Blessed the one who does not speak through hope of reward, who is not always ready to unburden himself of his secrets, who is not anxious to speak, but who reflects prudently on what he is to say and the manner in which he is to reply.”
(St. Francis of Assisi)
"My brother, wisdom is not found in much learning and many letters; rather, as the Holy Scriptures say, the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, and prudence the desire of the Holy; indeed, it is good to know the law of the mind. This is correct, for faith in God engenders a good mind, and the good mind is a river of living water; he who has attained it will be filled with its beneficial and life-bearing waters...Neither wisdom nor prudence can exist where there is not fear of the Lord, because the wealth of wisdom is to revere the Lord, to whom belongs all glory" (St. Ephraim).
Let us employ the gift of reason for actions of prudence. Let us learn now abstinence from what is wicked, that we may not be forced to learn in the future. Let us employ life as a training school for what is good; and let us be roused to the hatred of sin. Let us bear about a deep love for the Creator; let us cleave to Him with our whole heart; let us not wickedly waste the substance of reason, like the prodigal. Let us obtain the joy laid up, in which Paul exulting, exclaimed, 'Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?' (Rom. 8.35). To Him belongs glory and honour, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen. (St Clement of Alexandria)
From the Life of Saint Pambo of the Desert
St. Pambo excelled most other ancient monks in the austerity of his continual fasts. The government of his tongue was no less an object of his watchfulness than that of his appetite. A certain religious brother, to whom he had applied for advice began to recite to him the thirty-eighth psalm . I said I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue. Which words Pambo had no sooner heard, but without waiting for the second verse, he returned to his cell, saying, that was enough for one lesson, and that he would go and study to put it in practice. This he did by keeping almost perpetual silence, and by weighing well, when it was necessary to speak, every word before he gave any answer. He often took several days to recommend consultations to God, and to consider what answer he should give to those who addressed themselves to him. By his perpetual attention not to offend in his words, he arrived at so great a perfection in this particular, that he was thought to have equalled, if not to have excelled, Saint Antony himself; and his answers were seasoned with so much wisdom and spiritual prudence, that they were received by all as if they had been oracles dictated by heaven...