Part 5: Mary, Most Prudent

The following is part 5 of a special series on the role Mary plays in the life of the Church.

Our Lady's second Gospel virtue was traditionally called "prudence" - but that's not a very attractive word in the way we speak today. People these days often use the word prudence to mean simply "caution;" the prudent person is someone who is always careful and never takes any risks. But that is not really what the Church means when she says that Mary exhibited this Gospel virtue. As we shall see, prudent souls are willing to step out boldly in faith and risk everything when it is clear that God is calling them to do so.

Prudence is the virtue that enables us to consider our options reasonably and to choose the right course of action in the light of faith. Remember how Mary reacted to the angel Gabriel's words to her at the Annunciation. First she was "troubled" at his words, the Bible says, "and cast in her mind what kind of greeting this might be" (Lk 1:29). Then she asked for more information: "How can this be, since I have no husband?" The Bible does not tell us that Mary was convinced from the start that the supernatural being addressing her was an angel from Heaven. When this supernatural being addressed Mary with the extraordinary salutation, "Hail, full of grace ... blessed are you among women," Mary probably had no idea why he was referring to her with such exalted language (for she knew herself to be the mere "handmaid of the Lord"). Perhaps she was initially unsure about what to make of it all. In The Imitation of Mary, Alexander de Rouville, SJ, speculates that in the first part of her dialogue with the angel, Mary must have been trying to discern the supernatural source of this message:




The Virgin most prudent knew that the angel of darkness sometimes disguises himself as an angel of light and that the spirit of falsehood imitates at times the voice of the spirit of truth. Therefore Mary questioned the angel and waited for an answer, so that she might judge whether it agreed with what the prophets had said about the Messiah and with the principles of her religion.

The angel went on to explain that Mary would conceive in her womb and bear a son; the true Son of David and the long-awaited Messiah. As the angel's message was so much in harmony with the promises God had made to His people from the days of the prophets, Our Lady's initial uncertainty about the heavenly source of this revelation must have vanished.

Then Mary asked how the angel's prophecy would be fulfilled, since she had already committed herself to follow the call of God to lifelong virginity. She asked this question not out of any doubt or disbelief that God could find a way through this obstacle, but simply to know how best to cooperate with His divine plan. The angel then explained to her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of God would overshadow her so that her child would be the true Son of God. After the angel had unfolded the full extent of the Lord's plan, Mary submitted to it with all prudence, for the expressed will of the Almighty, All-Wise, and All-Merciful God was reason enough for her. She discerned His will and promptly surrendered to it: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to your word" (Lk 1:38).

In our world today, Catholics find themselves confronted with many difficult matters of discernment. The secular culture all around us continually confronts us with new ideas, new discoveries, new fads and lifestyles for consideration. Should we make babies in petri-dishes and test-tubes? Should we facilitate gay marriage? Should we believe that human beings are no more than highly evolved apes? Should we help chronically ill people commit suicide? How closely can we work with Christians from other churches and faith communities on issues of common concern such as human rights, world hunger, or religious freedom? Should we support the use of condoms to stop the spread of the AIDS virus? All of these matters - and many more - require careful discernment. We must "test the spirits" (I Jn 4:1) to see if they really are from God and "hold fast to what is good" (Rom 12:9). We can find divine guidance in our dilemmas above all by the light of what God has revealed to the world through Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the "Magisterium" (in other words, the "the teaching authority" of the Church, for the Church is, as St. Paul reminds us in 1 Timothy, 3:15, "the pillar and bulwark of the truth"). Prudence always discerns what is right in the light of what God has revealed.

Mary and Joseph exercised the virtue of prudence when they fled into Egypt and would not return until the murderous King Herod was dead - and even then, they decided to settle in Nazareth to avoid the tyrannical reign of King Archaelus (see Mt 2:19-23). Blessed Gabriel Maria explains it this way in The Rule of the 10 Evangelical Virtues of the Blessed Virgin Mary:

Mary fled into Egypt for the safety of her son, and she did not return from there until after the death of Herod. Finally, she avoided the country where Archaelus reigned....Above all, [those who follow this rule of life] must beware of Herod and Archaelus. It is not without spiritual significance that the Virgin fled from these two kings: because Herod personified the vice of the flesh, and Archaelus that of ambition - two sins better overcome by flight than by combat.

Next Time: When It's Best to Run Away

Access the series to date.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Mary - Who She Is and Why She Matters (Marian Press).

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