Virtues for Lent
The Virtue of Prudence (Column #2 in Building Virtues in Lent)
How do I tell the truth and yet keep confidences? When annoyed or insulted by family or friend how do I temper angry feelings and also reasonably express them? When confronted on my morning commute by the hand gestures of an angry driver should I respond in kind or ignore it? What do you do? What guides your thinking in these situations? Your feelings? Your wounded ego? Or principles like the virtues of justice, temperance and fortitude?
The virtue of prudence is the first of the four cardinal virtues. The word cardinal means ‘hinge’, something upon which other things depend, like a door hinge. All the other virtues depend on the cardinal virtues. The virtue of prudence is the most important because it perfects our intellectual habits of deliberating moral matters in order to then judge a course of action. How do we apply moral principles and especially how do we apply Gospel teachings into the unique particular circumstances of our daily life? Prudence.
Due to original sin our intellects have suffered a wound of ignorance. Our intellect and our powers of judging accurately- what is the morally good thing to do- is severely weakened and we are prone to error, prejudices, and misjudgments. We don’t see the world, people and events as they are. We experience this all the time.
However, our intellects still retain a fundamental ability to know the truth and orient our actions in accordance with that truth. Doing so we will flourish as a human being, grow in holiness, contribute to the happiness of others and make our lives a bit less difficult.
Prudence is regarded as the first and most important virtue because it guides and illumines the rest of the virtues. It’s called the ‘charioteer of all virtues’. Like practicing temperance when we’re angry- do I keep quiet or speak my mind? How do I justly treat the homeless man or woman I encounter at a stop light- do I give money, do nothing, or give them a gift card? How do I bravely stick up for the kid who gets bullied at school- tell someone or get involved and stand up for them? How do I justly discipline this child for disobedience- the velvet glove or iron fist? Depending on the circumstances in each of these scenarios my prudential judgment can and will change. Prudence guides one to know how to act, given a set of circumstances guided by universal principles, and then acts.
A principle is a universal norm of action. For example: do good, avoid evil. Everyone knows they should abide by this. It’s clear. But life in its concrete reality is manifold and complex- never exactly the same from one person’s circumstances to another. How do I do good and avoid evil today, in this place, with this person, at this time? Our unique circumstances- time and place- require a habit of reasoning and judging and acting in order to apply the universal principle to these particular and unique contexts situations. Prudence!
St. Thomas Aquinas explains that every virtue is composed of integral parts- parts that must be present in order for it to be a perfect act of virtue- much like every house to be called a house must have a foundation, walls and a roof. Prudence has eight integral parts. Memory- to learn from my experience what is to be done or avoided in this instance. Understanding- is this action lawful or unlawful, morally good or evil, fitting or unfitting. Docility- willingness to seek the advice and counsel of those who have experience if I’m lacking experience. Shrewdness- ability to act immediately when the time and circumstances are urgent. Reason- thinking logically and reflectively. Foresight- projecting into the future the long term effects of an action, not just the short term results. Caution- potential dangers, obstacles, or personal weakness in a given action. Circumspection- circumstances of time, place, and person. It’s wise to consider what parts I could work.
As Catholics we are not simply called to practice the natural virtue of prudence. All women and men are called to be virtuous. Simply being a good person is not our calling nor how we will be judged by Christ. Due to our baptism we also have been given a supernatural destiny. Our calling is holiness. Our life is to be modeled after the life and death of Christ and the teachings of the Church. It’s a much higher vocation and demands a conversion in our thinking and acting. St. Paul says, “Put on the mind of Christ” (Phil 2:5). In other words: What would Jesus do? What lives of the saints am I modeling my thought and behavior after? Lastly, it’s prudent to evaluate all of our actions in terms of our destiny: what does this profit me toward eternal life?
– Scott Johnson – Director of Evangelization
– Catechism of the Catholic Church #1776-1811
‘How to Think Like Aquinas: The sure way to perfect your mental powers’ by Kevin Vost ‘
50 Questions on the Natural Law’ by Charles Rice.
Week 1 – Prudence
There’s a Latin phrase used in the Lenten Season: ‘sub specie aeternitatis’ which means ‘under the light of eternity’. This phrase reminds Christians of always keeping the long view as guide for our actions and circumstances in the present. How will my present situation look in the context of death and eternity? How will this cross, problem, sin, temptation, or present situation look at the moment when I stand before the Lord at my Judgment? Depending on our daily habits and due to the busyness of life, it’s quite common to lose this eternal perspective and the seriousness our life. We hear frequently in the gospels, Christ’s encouragement to his disciples to ‘stay awake’ and ‘keep watch’.
Lent is a season to remind ourselves of this perspective and our final end- union with God for all eternity- and on the means to that end- conformity to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This conformity to the life of Christ demands a conversion of life- a ‘repentance’ – a more intentional and sustained effort at focusing on the areas of our soul and personal lives ,where sin has become a habit. It demands fortitude. Just as any professional has spring training to get athletes back into shape by rooting out bad habits and cultivating good habits (exercise and diet), so too Lent is a season of spiritual training to work on the fundamentals of the spiritual life (prayer, fasting, almsgiving). Also, we need to work on our character by a closer look at the virtues (good habits) and we need to cultivate the vices (bad habits), which we need to root out.
Virtues are important because they are the aim of the moral life (the pillars of good character) and they lead to human flourishing (our happiness). They are also the call of Christ to us: “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is Perfect”. For example, young people ask what kind of character is needed to have a happy marriage? What elements of a good character will lead to greater chance of happiness?
The cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude are the foundation. For example: Temperance (self-control) is necessary in order to stay faithful to one’s spouse. Fortitude (courage/guts) is needed in order to face the challenges, setbacks, losses together and to persevere. Justice orients a husband and wife towards caring for the other’s needs and those of their children. Prudence (good-decision making) is also needed in work, financial problems, and raising children to have good character themselves. The virtues are good habits (repeated choices) which perfect the powers of the soul (intellect/will) and bodily passions (emotions/feelings).
There are virtues which perfect your intellect’s ability to reason wisely – to make proper judgments in light of your final end. There are virtues which help you to be more self-controlled with the emotion of anger and tempering the excessive desire for food and drink. We need fortitude/courage to persevere in doing what’s good when it’s difficult and just (giving your neighbor their proper due).
There are also virtues that specifically apply to your relationship with God, hence the reason they are called theological virtues (Faith, Hope, Charity). In the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus one of the titles invoke says: “Heart of Jesus, abyss of all virtues.” In contemplating Christ’s Passion during this Lent, we see the greatest display and example of all the virtues which we should aspire after and pray to cultivate. Hence the need for more prayer and meditation to ask the Lord for the grace to imitate the virtues of his Sacred Heart.
It’s important to remember that virtues are cultivated by our repeated choices until they become second nature. It’s also wise to have someone or something to keep you accountable (coach, priest, friend) because ridding one of old habits and creating new ones is hard. Frequent sacramental confession can also be a great source of grace to conquer bad habits and sins.
During the next six weeks we are going to focus on the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues. We’ll give an explanation in the bulletin and a virtue card describing the nature of the virtue and then practical tips at how to grow in this virtue. We’ll also provide links, books or articles to help you further explore the topics if you want to learn more, which we encourage you to do.
May God bless your Lent,
Director of Evangelization