By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
If posed to a general audience, the question “What is prudence?” would likely elicit a series of memorable and perhaps depressing answers, ranging from “a name for a cranky granny” and “a cool Beatles song from the White Album” to “excessive hesitation in coming to a decision” and “the Catholic way of saying ‘NO’ to anything fun.”
As one of the cardinal virtues identified by the Greeks long before the birth of Christ, prudence is hardly a hip topic of discussion in most social circles, religious ones included. It falls far down the list of glamorous and easy-to-acquire virtues, and is usually equated with the dismissive noun “prude” to describe a long-skirted lady obsessing over modesty issues.
Focused reflection on this neglected virtue, however, yields some fascinating and salutary insights about the human ability to make sound judgments, put them into action and, ultimately, discern rightly the will of God. Prudentia, at its root, is a contracted form of providentia: literally, the foresight that allows us to assess reality properly and to act in accordance with reason. If God alone is truly provident, prudence provides (there’s the root again!) us with the ability to recognize what is good and to bring that good to active fruition. Thomas Aquinas speaks of prudence as the form, mold, and standard of all the ethical virtues; it is closely linked to conscience, and is sometimes referred to as practical wisdom.
While reading The Four Cardinal Virtues, authored by Josef Pieper, one of the great students of Aquinas, I was struck by how beautifully essential prudence is for proper discernment, whether of one’s vocation or a time-sensitive decision. Pieper identifies three “pre-requisites” for the perfecting of prudence, each of which has a concrete application to a healthy ability to know and to choose what is good and proper. The first, oddly enough for a virtue whose name is linked to a look toward the future, is memory. A proper recollection of reality, and specifically of our own experiences and self-understanding, must be the basis for a prudential decision about one’s life or a given situation. Far too often, fear drives us to a false understanding of ourselves as unworthy or no longer deserving of God’s love based on what we have done or what we think we are. An honest power of recollection, however, will allow us to remember that we never lose the image of God within us, and will also purify the inherent selfishness that always threatens to distort the good intentions of our will.
The second pre-requisite, according to Pieper, is docility: literally, the ability to be taught, to be open-minded and not committed to a covetous craving for my own comfort or opinion. The third, solertia in Latin, is difficult to translate with a single English word; it signifies the clear-sighted and swift ability to act calmly and resolutely in response to an unexpected change in circumstances. These three conditions lay the groundwork for the virtue of prudence to guide us in our prayerful deliberations about a proper course of action in line with the will of God.
The one thing that neither these conditions nor prudence itself can provide us, of course, is certainty regarding our judgments. The cultivation of prudence will not remove anxiety from the discernment process, which is why many people wait indefinitely, and perhaps never summon the courage at all, to act upon a discreet and persistent impulse. But a prayer to acquire the virtue of prudence is a necessary first step toward overcoming the frustration and fear associated with listening to the quiet God and (what amounts to the same thing) to one’s well-formed conscience. The one who is faithful in small matters (the moral life, carrying out one’s daily duties, obeying the basic dictates of conscience) will possess the capacity to become faithful in larger matters of discernment. This must be so, because the prudence guiding him or her will also generate a courage-inducing confidence (literally, something perceived with faith) that this careful deliberation and then action can be entrusted, along with one’s entire life, to the provident and loving hands of God.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.