28 September 2012

Charioteer of the Virtues! Prudence

In which the Pilgrim seeks out the Lamp-bearer of the Virtues—Prudence—to be his unerring guide and friend along the way.

For everything there is a season, and time for every matter under heaven.
—Ecclesiastes 3:1, from the Readings for Friday of the 25th Week of the Year

"If anyone loves righteousness, her labors are virtues; for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for men than these." (Wis 8:7). Prudence of these virtues allows us to determine what actions are right for the season, the time and place. They allow us not only to always choose the good, but to choose which path we take for the greatest good.

Prudence, like the other Virtues, is classically depicted as a woman, but one holding a book and/or a mirror, and sometimes accompanied by a snake ("Be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves" [Mt 10:16]). The book and mirror represent, two-fold, that Prudence is based upon knowledge of what is real, Truth, and self-knowledge. Nosce te ipsum "Know thyself" was inscribed above the portal leading to the Oracle at Delphi. In other words, to understand the path one was supposed to take, first one had to know who they were. The mirror was also used to look behind because those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

     Deus, qui errantibus,
          ut in viam possint redire justitiae,
          veritatis tuae lumen ostendis
     O God, who show the light of your truth
          to those who go astray,
          so that they may return to the right path
     (Collect for the 15th Sunday of the Year)

Prudence is frequently called the charioteer or lamp-bearer of all the other virtues. "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness." (Mt 6:22-23) Prudence is the light of the eye, allowing one to see the paths ahead and find the choose the narrow gate and navigate the hard way (Mt 7:14) True Prudence is built, then, upon knowledge of how to choose the right path of virtue, and there is no greater moral knowledge than that which can be gained from the Scripture, especially from the words and actions of our LORD. "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." (Jn 8:31-32)


Construction of the Temple of Solomon
The Knowledge gained from Scripture and prayer gives each Christian a plan, just as the prophet Ezekiel was given a plan of the Temple to be restored in Jerusalem.
And you, son of man, describe to the house of Israel the temple and its appearance and plan, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities. And if they are ashamed of all that they have done, portray the temple, its arrangement, its exits and its entrances, and its whole form; and make known to them all its ordinances and all its laws; and write it down in their sight, so that they may observe and perform all it's laws and all its ordinances. (Ez 43:10-11, from Office of Readings for Friday of the 25th Week of the Year)
In the process of pursuing the Virtue of Prudence, each Christian builds within them a temple according to the corresponding plan of God, building a proper place in which the LORD can reside within the spirit's heart. "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?" (1 Cor 6:19). With that interior temple, or Interior Castle, wherein the LORD dwells we must "mark well those who may be admitted to the temple and all those who are to be excluded form the sanctuary." (Ez 44:5)

Pope Benedict in his homily at the ordination of five new bishops was careful to stress that
Prudence is something other than shrewdness. Prudence, according to the Greek philosophical tradition, is the first of the cardinal virtues. It indicates the primacy of the truth which, through "prudence", becomes a criterion for our action. Prudence demands humble, disciplined and watchful reason that does not let itself be blinded by prejudices; it does not judge according to desires and passions but rather seeks the truth, even though it may prove uncomfortable. (Benedict XVI, Homily)
Saint Wenceslaus, whom we honor with his feast day today, was king of Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) at a time when intrigue ran high with several parties competing for the throne. But rather than be ruled by the shrewdness that people mistake for Prudence, Saint Wenceslaus was ruled only by the Gospels. "He was by God’s grace a man of utmost faith. He was charitable to the poor, and he would clothe the naked, feed the hungry and offer hospitality to travelers according the summons of the Gospel." (Office of Readings, Feast of St Wenceslaus) His choice to rule his Kingdom according to Christian virtues got him murdered when out of the prudential choice to honor charity and brotherly love over political gain, he trusted his brother who had King Wenceslaus murdered in September of 929.

Let us pray then, and ask the intercession of Saint Wenceslaus, for the grace to grow in Prudence, that the lamp of the eye may shine like the sun, always showing us the path we must trod as pilgrims in this valley of exile. May Our Lady, mother of our Lord, be always our guiding star and gate of heaven, so that we look always to her to show us the path to the Son, and by His Cross the path to the Father united by the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.

Sources and notes

Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues

Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; "the prudent man looks where he is going." "Keep sane and sober for your prayers." Prudence is [recta ratio agibilium]"right reason in action," writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.(CCC 1806)

The second characteristic that Jesus asks of the servant is prudence. Here it is necessary first to eliminate a misunderstanding. Prudence is something other than shrewdness. Prudence, according to the Greek philosophical tradition, is the first of the cardinal virtues. It indicates the primacy of the truth which, through "prudence", becomes a criterion for our action. Prudence demands humble, disciplined and watchful reason that does not let itself be blinded by prejudices; it does not judge according to desires and passions but rather seeks the truth, even though it may prove uncomfortable. Prudence means searching for the truth and acting in conformity with it. The prudent servant is first and foremost a man of truth and a man of sincere reason. God, through Jesus Christ, has opened wide for us the window of the truth which, before our own mere forces, often remains narrow and only partially transparent. In Sacred Scripture and in faith in the Church God shows us the essential truth about man, which impresses the right orientation upon our action. Thus, the first cardinal virtue of the priest as minister of Jesus Christ consists in letting himself be moulded by the truth that Christ shows us. In this way we become truly reasonable people, who judge on the basis of the whole and not on chance details. Let us not allow ourselves to be guided by what we see through the small window of our personal astuteness, but, rather, let us look at the world and at human beings through the large window that Christ has opened to us on the whole truth and thus recognize what truly counts in life. (Benedict XVI, Homily)

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