Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 16
We join the discussion of prudence with simplicity because our Lord Jesus Christ spoke of them together in his Gospel when he taught his apostles, and in their persons all the faithful, especially those charged with the direction of others. These two virtues are so connected that one without the other, as Saint Augustine says, is of little or no advantage. <Ftn: PL 40.6:1240-42.> Simplicity without prudence is close to folly, but prudence without simplicity soon degenerates into craftiness and cunning. While it is unworthy of a Christian to use deceit, it is unsuitable that he allow himself to be surprised or taken in by the artifices of the wicked. All this Monsieur Vincent knew well, and he possessed and practiced both these virtues, having united them in his soul to an eminent degree.
We have already in the preceding chapter given a sketch of his simplicity. In this chapter we will speak of his prudence.
Among the many other virtues of this servant of God, this particular one appeared so clearly that he was commonly held to be one of the wisest and most enlightened men of his time. People came to him from all sides to seek his counsel, and he was asked to attend meetings where most significant matters about religion and piety were discussed. Almost every day at Saint Lazare there were to be seen persons of all classes, coming to seek advice in their doubts and difficulties. The papal nuncios, Bagni and Piccolomini, honored him by coming several times to confer about various matters concerning the good of the Church. <Ftn: Giovanni Francisco Guidi di Bagno (or Bagni) was the papal nuncio in Paris until 1631. He was an influential friend of the saint's. Coelio Piccolomini, cardinal and archbishop of Caesarea, was papal nuncio in Paris, 1656-1663. He attended the saint's funeral.> Many pastors, clerics, canons, abbots and even respected prelates consulted him in writing when they could not do so face to face. Many religious, also, sought counsel in the reform of their orders, or on other important business. Various lay people, among them the most respected and virtuous of the city of Paris, came to Saint Lazare to seek his advice. We can truly say that scarcely a project of any consequence in Paris related to religion did not have his hand in it. Even in the other provinces of the kingdom, his advice was sought by letter.
It was not without reason that this opinion of Monsieur Vincent was so universal. His mind was enlightened and capable of conceiving great ideas. He also had received such light and special graces from God that they provided a marvelous addition to his acquired prudence, and attracted the blessings of heaven upon the advice he gave to those who came to him.
Before citing examples of his prudence in particular cases, it would not be amiss to hear what he had to say himself on this virtue. We can see here how the Holy Spirit had fashioned it in his soul. In a conference he gave one day to his community, he spoke of prudence in this way:
It is the function of this virtue to regulate and direct our words and actions. It helps us speak wisely and to the point. It directs our conversation with circumspection and judgment when it is a question of things good in themselves and in their circumstances. It helps us keep quiet about anything which would offend God or harm the neighbor, or which would tend to our own praise, or to any other bad purpose. This same virtue makes us act with maturity, and with a good motive in all we do, in both the substance of the action and in its circumstances.
Prudence helps us act as we should, when we should, and how we should. Imprudence, on the contrary, is unmindful of the right manner, time, or motive, and this is its failure. Prudence, on the contrary, acts discreetly, and does all with weight, number, and measure.
Prudence and simplicity tend to the same end, which is to speak well and act well, in view of God. Since both must be present at the same time, our Lord recommended them together. <Ftn: Matt 10:16.> I am well aware that a rational distinction can be made between the two virtues, but in practice they are closely allied. The prudence of the flesh, which seeks honors, pleasures, and riches, is entirely opposed to Christian prudence and simplicity. These virtues avoid these false goods for those which are more substantial and enduring. These two virtues are like two inseparable sisters, both necessary for our spiritual development. A person who knows how to profit from them will undoubtedly amass great treasures of grace and merits.
Our Lord manifested these virtues in the various encounters reported in the Gospel, but particularly in the case when the poor woman taken in adultery was brought to him. Not wishing to act as judge on this occasion, and preferring to rescue her, he said to the Jews, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." <Ftn: John 8:7.> In this situation he gave an excellent example of the practice of the two virtues of simplicity and prudence: simplicity in the merciful design to save this poor creature and fulfill the Father's will, and prudence in the means he used to succeed in this design. In the same way, when the Pharisees tempted him by asking if it were allowed to pay tribute to Caesar, he had two choices. On the one hand he wanted to uphold the honor of his Father but not harm the people, and on the other he did not want to give his opponents the opportunity to say that he favored exorbitant taxes and oppression by the Romans. What did he reply, to avoid saying anything amiss and avoid all surprise? He asked that they show him the coin of tribute. When he heard from their lips that the image of Caesar was engraved thereon, he said, "Give to God the things that are God's, and to Caesar the things that are Caesar's." <Ftn: Matt 22:21.> The simplicity of this response corresponded to the intention that Jesus Christ had in his heart. He wanted to render to the King of heaven, and to those on earth, the honor which is their due. Prudence enabled him to avoid the trap they had laid for him.
It is then proper to prudence to regulate the words and actions we do, but it has another aspect too. It enables us to choose the appropriate means for reaching our end, which is to go to God and to take the most direct and assured way of getting there. We are not speaking of political or worldly prudence, which is directed to temporal success, and which is sometimes unjust and makes use of doubtful and most unsure human means. No, we speak of that prudence which our Lord counseled in the Gospel. It makes us choose the proper means for arriving at our goal, which is wholly divine. The means, then, must be otherworldly and appropriate.
We must choose means in keeping with our goal. We can do so in either of two ways: by our natural reasoning, which often is faulty, or by the maxims of faith which Jesus Christ has taught us. These are always true, and we should adopt them with no fear of deception. This is why we subject our reason to these maxims, and make it an inviolable rule to judge things on all occasions as our Lord has judged. We make it a practice to say to ourselves, "How did our Lord look upon this or that? How did he handle this or that meeting? What did he do, and what did he say to this or that question?" This is the way we form our behavior according to his maxims and example.
Take this resolution, gentlemen, and walk on the royal road on which Jesus Christ is our guide and our leader. Recall that he said, "heaven and earth shall pass away, but my word shall never pass away." <Ftn: Matt 24:35.> Bless God, my brothers, and strive to think and judge as he did, and do what he recommended by word and example. Acquire his spirit to learn his way of acting. It is not enough to do good, it must be done well after the example of whom it was said, Bene omnia fecit, that he did all things well. <Ftn: Mark 7:37.> No, it is not enough to fast, to observe the rules, to fulfill our duties in the house. These must be done with the mind of Jesus Christ, that is perfectly, for the goal and in the circumstances as he did. Christian prudence consists in judging, speaking, and acting as the eternal Wisdom of God, clothed in our mortal flesh, judged, spoke, and acted. <Ftn: CED XI:51-53.>
This, then, is the way Monsieur Vincent looked upon the virtue of prudence, and the way he practiced it. When there was question of deliberating upon some matter or of giving an opinion or decision, he would raise his mind to God to implore his light and grace before opening his mouth to speak, and even before considering the question at hand. He would be seen to raise his eyes to heaven, and then keep them closed as though he were consulting God himself on what to reply. If it were a matter of some moment he would take time to pray, and to invoke the help of the Holy Spirit. Since he relied solely on his divine wisdom and not on his own personal insight, he received grace and light from heaven. This enabled him to discern things which the unaided human spirit could never have known. He used to say, "where human prudence begins to diminish, there the light of divine wisdom dawns."
A certain person once came to him for advice, saying he wanted to retire from an occupation to give himself more completely to his own salvation. Monsieur Vincent replied that this seemed to be a temptation, and that he should not listen to the suggestion. The man returned three different times, but always got the same advice. He was to look upon this as a temptation, and if he would show more patience, and resist with more courage, he would be victorious over this trial. It happened as Monsieur Vincent had predicted, and this person later recognized that the evil spirit had suggested the move. After following Monsieur Vincent's advice he found all his troubles disappear.
A noblewoman had entered a state of life contrary to the advice of Monsieur Vincent. When she was, several months later, obliged to leave her position, she knew she would have been much better off if she had followed the counsel of such a wise and enlightened guide.
His prudence allowed him to foresee the consequences of things in such a way that, when a project was suggested which appeared good, useful, and even necessary, he was able to foresee the likely difficulties. This happened on several occasions which showed his strength of mind and the lights with which he was favored. Where others saw no problems, his prudence discerned many, and enabled him to judge the best course of action, or even of inaction.