Part 1: Prudence

The following is the first in a seven-part series on the cardinal and theological virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and charity:

One of the hardest teachings in all of Christianity is that we must each take up our cross and follow Christ (see Mt 16:24-26; Lk 9:23). It's hard because willingly going to one's own death - whether it be a physical death or the death of one's selfishness and sinful habits - is a miserable proposition. And yet, all too often, Christians make it even worse than it needs to be.

You see, we have a very bad habit of trying to carry the wrong cross.

There is a story told that one day, a man was in prayer complaining to God. He felt overburdened, weighed down by cares and labors, and he wanted God to know that he thought he'd been given too much. His cross was too heavy, and he wanted to lay it down.

And God spoke to this man. He offered him the chance to survey a whole room full of crosses, to lay his own down and choose whichever he'd rather carry. The man was delighted. Eagerly casting his own cross aside, he plunged into the room and began to examine his options.

But as he went through the room, he became more and more sad. All the crosses seemed too heavy; too uncomfortable; too much. Finally, as he began to grow desperate, he discovered a cross that didn't seem too heavy. Choosing that one, he turned to God, only to see God smile.

The man had taken back up the cross he'd been so eager to cast aside.

We are often poor judges of the means needed to achieve a good end, or what good end is most desirable. But still worse: Today, we often seek to solve all problems on our own strength. We believe that we can carry, not just our own cross, but any and all crosses. Further, we've come to assume that we can do this on our own strength, that God gave gifts once at the start of our lives, and so we have everything we need on our own, without further help from Him, to do whatever we want to do.

We forget that He holds us in existence from moment to moment, and if He were ever to let us go, we would cease to exist in an instant. We forget that all things are possible with God, and to be with God is to abidingly be with God, always to be with God, in constant, loving communion. We aren't ever completely independent creatures, setting out on a pilgrimage on the strength that was once given, but rather wayfarers stopping every night to seek shelter in a place constructed and sustained by divine love, eating sustenance provided by God, drawing strength from gifts constantly given.

We must remain in constant loving communion with God in order to carry our crosses, and in order to be in constant loving communion, human beings need to be receiving Holy Communion. We need to be receiving the Sacraments. We need to be in community with the Body of Christ, with the Church. We need to be living and loving in a living relationship with God - not because He needs it, but because we do.

And prudence shows us the way.

To be prudent isn't to be timid, or to avoid hard labors, though many people may assume that's the case.

No. Prudence is to see rightly, to perceive what the right goal is in any given situation, and further, to discern the right way of achieving it (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1806).

Now, I am not usually a prudent man. A sad statement, but true. I have been blessed by God with Catholic faith, and so by grace I have been given a supernatural prudence that leads me to (stumblingly, haltingly) follow Jesus Christ; to remain within the Church He established; to attempt to trust in God and His merciful love; to try to love those whom God loves; to be Catholic.

But in ordinary matters? Well, I can make my list of good things that would be good to do. But discerning which things must be done; which things should happen first; which things would render everything else on the list easier or unnecessary - there, I struggle.

I often feel overwhelmed, gazing at my lists, full of things that (I believe) all have to get done. And if they all have to get done, then why not all at once? Why shouldn't I multitask? Why shouldn't I pretend to be God and not some contingent creature? Why not fool myself that I can with perfect precision and excellence do everything whenever I want to do it?

And so I procrastinate, or I lurch into a driven frenzy of doing. I attempt rest, or I attempt the labors of Hercules.

Rather than steady, disciplined, temperate action, following proper discernment; rather than justly giving to things what is owed them at the right time in the right measure; rather than have the courage to accept that I am a creature with limits who must steward a limited amount of time, talent, and treasure - rather than live a life of virtue, I all too often try to act as though I am unlimited, and can do all things without the One who would gladly strengthen me.

Each of us is not called to every single labor. No one person alone has the strength for that. We are only called to be all things by love and mercy to all people, not to attempt all things. There are many members of the Body of Christ, and many labors to be undertaken. Those labors are apportioned amongst His creatures, and strength given accordingly. No one person alone does all things - heck, God Himself is a communion of persons! Saint Faustina describes this in her Diary:

On one occasion God's presence pervaded my whole being and my mind was mysteriously enlightened in respect to His Essence. He allowed me to understand His interior life. In spirit I saw the Three Divine Persons; none of them is either greater or smaller; there is no difference in either beauty or sanctity, for They are One. They are absolutely One. His Love transported me into this knowledge and united me with Himself. When I was united to One, I was equally united to the Second and to the Third in such a way that when we are united with One, by that very fact, we are equally united to the Two Persons in the same way as with the One. Their will is One, One God though in Three Persons. When One of the Three Persons communicates with a soul, by the power of that one will, it finds itself united with the Three Persons and is inundated in the happiness flowing from the Most Holy Trinity, the same happiness that nourishes the saints. This same happiness that streams from the Most Holy Trinity makes all creation happy; from it springs that life which vivifies and bestows all life which takes its beginning from Him. In these moments, my soul experienced such great delights that I find this difficult to express (911).

So even God alone is never God Alone, but rather God the Family, God the Lover, Beloved, and Loving, infinite, unlimited, capable of all things on His own power, holding all things in existence effortlessly, loving all.

We who are creatures; we who are contingent, dependent, needy; we who are not I Am Who Am - we each have a role, and a place. We have a certain amount of time, space, and strength given to us to use as we see fit, and God hopes that we use it rightly so that we may come home to Him in the end.

But we who have begun in sin may well end in sin - indeed, short of a miracle, that's the normal path of human life. And so prudence drives us to the Divine Mercy, to trust in God's goodness, for God has given us the Sacraments for a reason. He has given us the Anointing of the Sick and the Sacrament of Confession for a reason: We will need them (or perfect contrition) in order to come home to Him in the end.

We self-confident modern men and women need to always remember that the perfect people have already lived, that no matter what we may believe about our age being the peak of all previous ages, the best of humanity have already lived and are interceding for us from Heaven. The only creature to be perfect, to have the fullness of all virtue, is the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Immaculate Conception. She is Our Lady Most Prudent, always choosing the good and discerning the right way to pursue it. And she prudently helps us all, sending grace and strength to lead the whole of humanity (if we'd only say yes) to God.

Prudence points us to Divine Mercy, to Mary Immaculate, and to the Communion of Saints, to the great Mystical Body of Christ, in which we find everlastingly life and love, in which abides the supreme Good - that is: God.

And so pray for the grace of discernment, to know the good and to pursue it rightly. Pray that you may always remember we are never to do evil so that good may come of it. All things are possible with God, and so pray that you may never simply rely on your own strength; that you may never believe the myth of the self-made man, or that you can somehow perform the miracle of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps without God. Pray for all those imprudent souls whose motto is "We don't accept charity," that they may be saved by Divine Charity, that they may realize that their very existence depends on God who is Charity, who is Love, and so reflect that love to their fellow men.

View other parts of the 7 Virtues series.

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