O Wisdom, you came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and reaching from beginning to end, you ordered all things mightily and sweetly. Come and teach us the way of prudence.
Now there’s an unsexy virtue. Do you know anyone who sets her heart on becoming prudent? Works at it everyday in her spiritual exercises? To become loving, yes, that’s a lovely goal; faithful too, or patient, even humble. But prudent?
The very sound of the word is off-putting. It sounds … prudish. Careful, surveying the scene, looking for trouble to avoid. Who wants to be like that—calculating risks, playing it safe, and sourly disapproving of the bold?
Too bad about prudence. It’s a lonely virtue, like meekness, forbearance, and long-suffering, misunderstood and underrated. But without it, the world would be doomed. Already is, almost, since it is singularly lacking. Which is why we pray in Advent that Wisdom, who appears among us as a Child, will hurry and teach it to us.
So what is it? Prudence is one way to worship God with your whole mind, as the Great Commandment says we ought. We tend to neglect this part of that charge in favor of the more familiar and comfortable loves of heart and soul. (We don’t love God very much with our bodies, either, but that’s a story for another day.) But there it is: love God with your mind, your intellect, your reason.
Prudence is thinking things through and distinguishing among things correctly. It’s telling good from bad, excellent from mediocre, ultimate from penultimate—as well as slogging through the proverbial gray areas, the complexities of the middle ground and the forgotten ground. The prudent person willingly spends time among the perplexities, listening and thinking, and then thinking some more.
Prudence studies the evidence of love and the rumors of life, skimming dross from the surface to reveal glints of gold beneath. Like a skilled shopper at a big department store sale, she sorts through everything that’s on offer until she finds clothes that fit God’s taste and style. These she buys.
All this she does not obsessively, in an anxious effort to get control over life, but “mightily,” as the antiphon says, strongly confident that there is in fact a discernible God-hinting pattern, and that the gift of reason graced by faith will be able to perceive it.
Prudence is not content to say, “We shall never know.” It is of course true that we shall never know, completely. But prudence is avid for as much knowledge as she can get by peering intently through the mirror Paul talks about in I Corinthians 13. Even if our seeing is ever only dim, prudence believes that looking will yield something true enough.
True enough for what? To choose. This is the key. Prudence chooses, she decides, she commits, she sets out. And orders things.
This is where the “sweetly” part comes in. Because in that choosing, in the ordering of decisions and actions, in the reorientation of life that deep and godly knowledge directs, prudence is prudent enough to know that despite faithful application of graced reason to the maze of worldly possibilities for making life good, we could be finally mistaken in our judgments and in the choices that flow from them.
Her action is thus as humble as her seeking, which doesn’t mean it is not loud or long or deep or keening or ecstatic or prophetic; only that in all things it is profoundly charitable and meek, in the way Jesus was meek, in the way we are all meant to be foolish in order to be wise. Prudence is, in the end, not so much an egghead, a scholar, a weighty theologian, nor even a conventionally wise person filled with common sense–perhaps she is that least of all. No, she is the one who engages doggedly in a great and necessary folly. Prudence is a great and wise old fool.
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. [1 Corinthians 1:20-25]