The Sinner's Guide
Ven. Louis of Granada
With Imprimi Potest and Imprimatur
TAN BOOKS AND PUBLISHERS, INC.
Ch 40. The Three Kinds of Virtues in which the Fullness of Justice Consists;
and first, Man's Duty to Himself
Our Threefold Obligation to Virtue
Having spoken at length of the sins which profane and degrade the soul, let us now turn to the virtues which elevate and adorn it with the spiritual treasures of justice, It belongs to justice to render to everyone his due: to God, to our neighbor, and to ourselves. If we faithfully acquit ourselves of these duties to God, to our neighbor, and to ourselves, we fulfill the obligations of justice and thus become truly virtuous.
To accomplish this great work let your heart be that of a son towards God, that of a brother towards your neighbor, and that of a judge towards yourself. In this, the prophet tells us, the virtue of man consists: "I will show thee, O man, what is good and what the Lord requireth of thee; Verily, to do judgment, and to love mercy, and to walk solicitous with thy God." (Mich. 6:8). The duty of judgment is what man owes to himself; the duty of mercy what he owes to his neighbor; and to walk carefully before God is the duty he owes to his Creator.
Charity, it is truly said, begins at
Let us, therefore, begin with the first obligation mentioned by the
prophet-----the duty of judgment which man must exercise
towards himself. Every just
judge must enforce order and discipline in the district over which he
jurisdiction. Now, the kingdom over which man rules is divided into two
distinct parts: the body with all its organs and senses, and the soul
all its affections and powers. Over all these he must establish the
of virtue, if he would faithfully perform his duty to himself.
Such, indeed, should be the effect of the words, the actions, and the bearing of those who serve God, so that none who draw near to them can resist the sweet attraction of sanctity. This is one of the principal fruits of a modest and recollected deportment. It is a mute but eloquent teaching, which draws men to the love of virtue and the service of God. Thus do we fulfill the precept of Our Saviour: "So let your light shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven." (Matt. 5:16). The prophet Isaias also tells us that God's servants should be plants bearing fruits of righteousness and virtue, the beauty of which will lead men to extol the power of their Creator. (Cf. Is. 61:3). This does not mean that our good works must be done to gain the applause of men, for, as St. Gregory tells us, "a good work may be public only while its intention remains a secret between God and the soul. The example we thus afford our brethren destroys neither the merit of humility nor the desire to please only God." (Moral. 29,18).
Another fruit which we derive from this exterior modesty is a greater facility in preserving the recollection, devotion, and purity of the soul. The interior and the exterior man are so closely united that good or evil in one is quickly communicated to the other. If order reign in the soul, its effect is experienced in the body; and the body, if disturbed, renders the soul likewise restless. Each may in all respects be considered a mirror of the other, for the actions of one are faithfully represented in the other. For this reason a composed and modest bearing must contribute to interior recollection and modesty, while a restless exterior must be incompatible with peace of soul. Hence the Wise Man tells us: "He that is hasty with his feet shall stumble." (Prov. 19:2). Thus would he teach us that he whose exterior is wanting in that calm gravity which is the distinctive mark of God's servants must inevitably stumble and frequently fall.
A third effect of the virtue we are considering is to communicate to man a composure and gravity befitting any office he may fill. We behold an example of this in Job, who tells us that the light (the dignity) of his countenance never fell to the earth. (Cf. Job 29:24). And speaking of the authority of his bearing, he says: "The young men saw me and hid themselves, and the old men rose up and stood. The princes ceased to speak, and laid the finger on their mouth. The rulers held their peace, and their tongue cleaved to their throat." (Job 29:8-10). But the gravity and dignity of this holy man were mingled with so much sweetness and mercy that, as he tells us, when seated as a king with his army about him he was a comforter to them that mourned. (Cf. Job 25).
Wise men condemn this want of modest gravity less as a fault in itself than as a mark of levity; for, as we have already observed, an unreserved and frivolous exterior indicates an uncontrolled and ill-regulated interior. Hence the author of Ecclesiasticus says: "The attire of the body, and the laughter of the teeth, and the gait of the man show what he is." (Ecclus. 19:27). "As the faces of them that look therein shine in the water," says Solomon, "so the hearts of men are laid open to the wise" by their exterior acts. (Prov. 27:19).
Such are the benefits which result from a grave and modest deportment. We cannot but deplore the conduct of those who, through human respect, laugh and jest with a freedom unbecoming their profession, and allow themselves indulgences which deprive them of many of the fruits of virtue. "A religious," says St. John Climachus, "should not abandon his fasts through fear of falling into the sin of vainglory." Neither should fear of the world's displeasure cause us to lose the advantages of gravity and modesty in our conduct; for it is as unreasonable to sacrifice a virtue through fear of offending men as it would be to seek to overcome one vice by another.
The preceding remarks apply to our
in general. We shall next treat of the modesty and sobriety which we
observe at table.
The first thing to be done for the reformation of the body is to put a rigorous curb on the appetites and to refrain from immoderate indulgence of any of the senses. As myrrh, which is an exceedingly bitter substance, preserves the body from corruption after death, so mortification preserves it during life from the corruption of vice. For this reason we shall consider the efficacy of sobriety, or temperance – a virtue upon which all the others depend, but which is very difficult to attain because of the resistance of our corrupt nature.
Read, then, the words in which the Holy Spirit deigns to instruct us in this respect: "Use as a frugal man the things that are set before thee, lest if thou eatest much thou be hated. Leave off first for manners' sake, and exceed not lest thou offend. And if thou sittest among many, reach not thy hand out first of all, and be not the first to ask for drink." (Ecclus. 31:19-21). Here are rules worthy of the Sovereign Master, who wills that we should imitate in our actions the decorum and order which reign in all His works. St. Bernard teaches us the same lesson in these words: "In regard to eating there are four things to be regulated: the time, the manner, the quantity, and the quality. The time should be limited to the usual hours of our repast; the manner should be free from that eagerness which makes us appear absorbed in what is set before us; the quantity and quality should not exceed what is granted others, except when a condition of health manifestly requires delicacies." (Ep. ad Fratres de Monte Dei.).
In forcible words, supported by appropriate examples, St. Gregory declares the same sentiments: "It belongs to abstinence not to anticipate the ordinary time of meals, as Jonathan did when he ate the honeycomb (Cf. 1 Kg. 14:27); not to desire the greatest delicacies, as the Israelites did in the desert when they longed for the fleshpots of Egypt (Cf. Exod. 16:3); not to wish for the choicest preparation of food, as the people of Sodom (Cf. Gen. 19); and not to yield to greediness, as Esau did (Cf. Gen. 25:33) when he sold his birthright for a mess of pottage." (Moral. 30,27).
Hugh of St. Victor tells us we must be very attentive to our deportment at table, always observing a certain modesty of the eyes and a reserve of speech. There are some, he says, who are no sooner seated at table than their uncontrolled appetite is manifested by their bearing: Their eyes eagerly scan the whole board; they rudely help themselves before others, and seize upon the nearest dish, regardless of all save self. They approach the table as a general approaches a fort which he is to assail, as if they were considering how they can most quickly consume all that lies before them. (Discip. Monast.). Control these disgraceful indications of a degrading vice, and overcome the vice itself by restricting the quantity and quality of your food. Bear these wise counsels in mind at all times, but particularly when the appetite is stimulated by hunger, or by rare and sumptuous viands which prove strong incentives to gluttony.
Beware of the illusions of this vice, which St. John Climachus tells us is most deceptive. At the beginning of a repast it is so clamorous that it would seem that no amount could satisfy our hunger; but if we are firm in resisting its unruly demands, we shall see that a moderate portion is sufficient for nature.
An excellent remedy against gluttony is to bear in mind when we go to table that there are, as a pagan philosopher says, two guests to be provided for: the body, to which we must furnish the food which its necessity craves; and our soul, which we must maintain by the virtues of self-denial and temperance. A no less efficacious remedy is to compare the happy fruits of abstinence with the gross pleasures of gluttony, which will enable us to appreciate the folly of sacrificing such lasting advantages for such pernicious and fleeting gratifications.
Remember, moreover, that of all the pleasures of the senses those of taste and feeling are the lowest. We have them in common with all animals, even the most imperfect, while there are many which lack the other three, seeing, hearing, and smelling. These former senses, tasting and feeling, are not only the basest, but their pleasures are the least enduring, for they vanish with the object which produced them.
Add to these considerations the thought of the sufferings of the martyrs, and the fasts and mortifications of the saints, Think, too, of your many sins which must be expiated; of the pains of Purgatory; of the torments of Hell. Each of these things will tell you how necessary it is to take up the cross, to overcome your appetites, and to do penance for the sinful gratifications of the past. Remember, then, the duty of self-denial; prepare for your necessary meals with such reflections before your mind, and you will see how easy it will be to observe the rules of moderation and sobriety.
Though this great prudence is necessary in eating, how much more is required in drinking! There is nothing more injurious to chastity than the excessive use of wine, in which, as the Apostle says, there is luxury. (Cf. Eph. 5:18), It is at all times the capital enemy of this angelic virtue; but it is particularly in youth that such indulgence is most fatal. . Hence St. Jerome says that wine and youth are two incentives to impurity. (Ad Eustoch, de Cust. Virg.). Wine is to youth what fuel is to fire. As oil poured upon the flames only increases their intensity, so wine, like a violent conflagration, heats the blood, enkindling and exciting the passions to the highest pitch of folly and madness. Witness the excesses into which man is led by hatred, love, revenge, and other passions, when stimulated by intoxicating liquors. The natural effect of this fatal indulgence is to counteract all the results of the moral virtues. These subdue and control the baser passions, but wine excites and urges them to the wildest licentiousness. Judge, therefore, with what vigilance you should guard against the attacks of such an enemy.
Remember, too, that by wine is meant every kind of drink capable of robbing man of the use of his reason or his senses. A philosopher has wisely said that the vine bears three kinds of grapes: one for necessity, one for pleasure, and one for folly. In other words, wine taken with moderation supports our weakness; beyond this limit it only flatters the senses; and drunk to excess it produces a species of madness. Heed no inspiration or thought which you have reason to think is excited by wine, the worst of evil counselors.
Avoid with equal care all disputes or arguments at table, for they are often the beginning of grave quarrels. Be no less moderate in speech than in the indulgence of your appetite; for, as Holy Scripture tells us, "there is no secret where drunkenness reigneth." (Prov. 31:4). We shall find rather unbridled tongues, immoderate laughter, vulgar jokes, violent disputes, the revelation of secrets, and many other unhappy consequences of intemperance.
Another evil against which I would warn you is dwelling upon the merits of certain dishes, and condemning others because they are not so delicate. How unworthy it is of man to fix his mind and heart on eating and drinking with such eagerness that the burden of his conversation is on the excellent fish of such a river, the luscious fruit of such a country, and the fine wines of such a region! This is a clear proof that he has lost sight of the true end of eating, which is to support nature, and that, instead of devoting to this work the senses destined for it, he debases his heart and his intelligence to make them also slaves of his gluttony.
Avoid with especial care all attacks upon your neighbor's character. The malicious rapacity which prompts us to tear our neighbor's reputation in pieces was justly condemned by St. John Chrysostom as a species of cannibalism: "Will you not be satisfied with eating the flesh of animals? Must you devour human flesh by robbing another of his good name?" St. Augustine had so great a horror for this vice, from which so few tables are free, that he inscribed on the walls of his dining room the following lines:
"This board allows no vile detractor
Still another point to which I wish to direct your attention is the warning given by St. Jerome, that it is better to eat moderately every day than to fast for several days and then to eat to excess. A gentle rain, he says, in proper season benefits the earth, but violent floods only devastate it. (Ep. 7 ad Loec.).
Finally, let necessity, not
you in eating and drinking. I do not say that you must allow your body
to want for nourishment. Oh, no; like any animal destined for the
of man, your body must be supported. All that is required is to control
it, and never to eat solely for pleasure, We must conquer, not destroy,
the flesh, says St. Bernard; we must keep it in subjection, that it may
not grow proud, for it belongs to it to obey, not to govern. (Ep. ad FF,
de Monte Dei.).
This will suffice to show the
of this virtue. But he who would learn more of the happy fruits of
and its salutary effects not only upon the soul but even upon health,
honor, and happiness, may read a special treatise on this subject which
we have added to our book on meditation and prayer.
The next step in the reformation of the body is the government of the senses. These are the avenues which a Christian should guard with special care, particularly the eyes, which, in the language of Holy Scripture, are the windows through which death enters to rob us of life. Persons desirous of making progress in prayer should be very vigilant in guarding this sense, for this watchfulness not only promotes recollection, but is a most efficacious means of preserving chastity. Without this guard they are a prey to all the vanities which surround them, and which take such possession of the imagination that it is impossible to banish them during prayer. This is the reason of the modesty of the eyes which devout souls observe. Not only do they avoid images which could tarnish the purity of their hearts, but they resolutely turn their eyes from curious objects and worldly vanities, that their mind and heart may be free to converse with God without distraction, and to advance in the knowledge of spiritual things. Prayer is so delicate an exercise that it is impeded not only by sinful images, but also by the representation of objects otherwise harmless in themselves.
The sense of hearing requires a no less vigilant guard, for through it we learn a multitude of things which weary, distract, and even defile the soul. We should protect our ears not only from evil words, but from frivolous conversations, worldly gossip, and idle discourses. During meditation we suffer from a want of vigilance in this respect, for these things are great obstacles to recollection, and persistently interpose between God and the soul in time of prayer.
Little need be said of the sense of smell, for an inordinate love of perfumes and sweet essences is so sensual and so effeminate that most men are ashamed of it, for this is a gratification in which few but women indulge.
Here is a subject upon which there
to be said, for we are told in Holy Scripture that "death and life are
in the power of the tongue." (Prov. 18:21). From this we can understand
that the happiness or misery of every man depends upon the use he makes
of this organ.
St. James asserts this truth no less strongly when he says, "If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, He is able also with a bridle to lead about the whole body, We put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, and we turn about their whole body. Behold also ships, whereas they are great and are driven by strong winds, yet are they turned about with a small helm whithersoever the force of the governor willeth. So the tongue also is, indeed, a little member and boasteth great things. Behold how small a fire kindleth a great wood. And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity." (James 3:2-6). To govern this great instrument for good we must bear in mind, when we speak, four things: of what we speak, how we speak, the time we speak, and the object for which we speak.
In regard to the first point, what we speak, remember the counsel of the Apostle: "Let no evil speech proceed from your mouth, but that which is good to the edification of faith, that it may administer grace to the hearers. All uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be so much as named among you, as becometh saints, or obscenity, or foolish talking, or scurrility." (Eph. 4:29 and 5:3-4). As the sailor always bears with him a chart indicating the shoals and rocks which could wreck his vessel, so should the Christian bear with him these counsels of the Apostle indicating the shoals of speech which could wreck him in his voyage to eternity. Be no less careful in guarding a secret which has been confided to you, for the betrayal of a trust is one of the vilest faults into which the tongue can lead us.
In regard to the second point, how we are to speak, let us observe a just medium between silence and talkativeness, between timidity and self-sufficiency, between frivolity and pomposity; always speaking with becoming gravity, moderation, sweetness, and simplicity. Beware of haughtily asserting and obstinately persisting in your statements, for this fault gives rise to disputes which wound charity and destroy the peace of the soul. It is the part of a generous nature to yield in such contentions, and a prudent man will follow the counsel of the inspired writer: "In many things be as if thou wert ignorant, and hear in silence and withal seeking." (Ecclus. 32:12).
Consider also the necessity of observing when you speak, and always endeavor to select a suitable time: "A parable coming out of a fool's mouth shall be rejected, for he doth not speak it in due season." (Ecclus. 20:22).
Finally, we must consider the end for which we speak. There are some whose only purpose is to appear learned. Others desire to parade their wit and conversational powers. The first are thus led into hypocrisy and deceit, and the second become the sport of self-love and vanity. It does not suffice, therefore, that our conversation be good in itself----it must be directed to some good end, such as the glory of God or the profit of our neighbor.In addition to this we must also consider the persons to whom we speak. For example, it does not become the young to engross the conversation in the presence of their elders, nor the ignorant in the presence of the learned, nor lay persons in the presence of ecclesiastics or religious. When you have reason to think that your words may be untimely or presumptuous, be silent. All persons are not capable of judging correctly in these points, and therefore, in doubt, the wisest course is a prudent silence. We shall thus conform to all the rules we have been considering; for, as the Wise Man says, "Even a fool, if he will hold his peace, shall be counted wise; and if he close his lips, a man of understanding." (Prov. 17:28).
Having thus regulated the body and all its senses, the most important reformation still remains to be effected, which is that of the soul with all its powers. Here the first to present itself is the sensitive appetite which comprises all our natural affections: love, hatred, joy, sorrow, fear, hope, anger, and other sentiments of a like nature. This appetite is the inferior part of the soul, which gives us our strongest resemblance to irrational animals, because, like them, it is guided solely by inclination. Nothing degrades us more or leads us further from God. Hence St. Bernard says that if we take away self-love, by which he understands all the movements of the sensitive appetite, there will be no longer any reason for the existence of Hell. (De Resurrectione Dei., Serm. 3).
The sensitive appetite is the arsenal which supplies sin with its most dangerous arms. It is the vulnerable part of the soul, a second Eve, frail and inconstant, heeding the wiles of the old serpent and dragging with her in her fall the unhappy Adam----that is, the superior part of the soul, the seat of the will and the understanding. Original Sin is here manifested in all its power. Here the malignity of its poison is concentrated. Here is the field of man's combats, defeats, and victories. Here is the school in which virtue is exercised and trained, for all our courage, all our merit consists in overcoming the blind passions which spring from the sensitive appetite.
This is why our soul is represented sometimes as a vine needing the careful pruning of the husbandman; sometimes as a garden from which the gardener must diligently uproot the weeds of vice to give place to the plants of virtues. It should be the principal occupation of our lives, therefore, to cultivate this garden, ruthlessly plucking from our soul all that can choke the growth of good. We shall thus become true children of God, guided by the motions of the Holy Ghost. We shall thus live as spiritual men, following the guidance of grace and the dictates of reason, and not as those carnal men who, following the irrational animals, obey only the impulse of passion. This subjection of the sensitive appetite is the mortification so much commended in Scripture; the death to which the Apostle so frequently exhorts us; the practice of justice and truth so constantly extolled by David and the other prophets. Therefore, let it be the object of all our labors, all our prayers, and all our j pious exercises.
Each one should carefully study his own disposition and inclinations, in order to place the most vigilant guard on the weakest side of his nature. We must wage constant war against all our appetites, but it is particularly necessary to combat the desire of honors, of riches, and of pleasures, for these are the roots of all evil.
Beware, too, of that pride which bears with no opposition. It is a fault which prevails among persons of elevated station accustomed to command, and to deny themselves no caprice. To conquer it, learn to deny yourself innocent gratifications, that you may more easily sacrifice those which are unlawful. Learn to bear contradictions with a dignity and patience worthy of a creature who was not made for the things of this world, but who aspires to immortality. Such exercises will render us skillful in the use of spiritual weapons, which require no less practice than is necessary for the proper management of material arms. Much more important, however, is a skillful use of the former, for a victory over self, over pride, or over any passion far outweighs all the conquests of the world. Humble yourself, then, in the performance of lowly and obscure works, regardless of the world's opinion; for what can it take from us, or what can it give us, when our inheritance is God Himself?
One of the most efficacious means of effecting this reformation is to strengthen and adorn the superior will-----that is, the rational appetite-----with humility of heart, poverty of spirit, and a holy hatred of self. If we possess these, the labor of mortification is easily accomplished. Humility, according to the definition of St. Bernard, is contempt of self founded on a true knowledge of our baseness. The effect of this virtue is to pluck from our heart all the roots of pride as well as all love of earthly honors and dignities. It inspires us to seek the lowest place, persuading us that had another received the graces we enjoy he would have been more grateful and would have used them more profitably for the glory of God. It is not sufficient that man cherish these sentiments in his heart; they should also be evident in his deportment and surroundings, which, regardless of the world's opinion, should be as humble and simple as his position will admit. And while he maintains the dignity due to his station his heart should ever be ready to submit not only to superiors and equals, but even to inferiors for the love of God.
The second disposition required to strengthen and adorn the will is poverty of spirit, which consists in a voluntary contempt for the things of this world, and in a perfect contentment in the position in which God has placed us, however poor and lowly it may be. This virtue effectually destroys cupidity, and affords us so great a peace and contentment that Seneca did not hesitate to affirm that he who closed his heart to the claims of unruly desires was not inferior in wealth or happiness to Jupiter himself. By this he signified that as man's misery springs from unfulfilled desires, he may be said to be very near the summit of happiness who has learned to subdue his desires so that they cannot disturb him.
The third disposition is a holy hatred of ourselves. "He that loveth his life shall lose it," says Our Saviour, "and he that hateth his life in this world keepeth it unto life eternal." (Jn. 12:25). By this hatred of self Our Lord did not mean that wicked hatred in which they indulge who yield to despair, but that aversion which the saints experienced for their flesh, which they regarded as the source of many evils and as a great obstacle to good. Hence they subjected it to the empire of reason, and denied its inordinate desires, that it might continue a humble servant and willing helper of the soul.
If we treat it otherwise we shall realize these words of the Wise Man: "He that nourisheth his servant delicately from his childhood, afterwards shall find him stubborn." (Prov. 29:21). This hatred of self is our chief instrument in the work of salvation. It enables us to uproot and cast from us all our evil inclinations, however much nature may rebel. Without it how could we strike rude blows, penetrate to the quick with the knife of mortification, and tear from our hearts objects upon which our affections are centered? Yes, the arm of mortification, which draws its force as much from hatred of self as from love of God, enables us to treat our failings with the firmness of a skillful physician, and relentlessly to cut and burn with no other thought than to rid the soul of every evil tendency. Having developed this subject in the Memorial of a Christian Life, we shall not here speak of it at greater length.
Besides these two faculties of the sensitive appetite there are two others, imagination and understanding, which belong to the intellect. The imagination, a less elevated power than the understanding, is of all the faculties the one in which the effects of original sin are most evident, and which is least under the control of reason. It continually escapes our vigilance, and like a restless child runs hither and thither, sometimes flying to the remotest corners of the world before we are aware of its ramblings. It seizes with avidity upon objects which allure it, persistently returning after we have withdrawn it from them. If, therefore, instead of controlling this restless faculty, we treat it like a spoiled child, indulging all its caprices, we strengthen its evil tendencies, and in time of prayer we shall vainly seek to restrain it. Unaccustomed to pious objects, it will rebel against us.
Knowing the dangerous propensities of this power, we should vigilantly guard it and cut off from it all unprofitable reflections. To do this effectually we must carefully examine the thoughts presented to our minds, that we may sec which we shall admit and which we shall reject. If we are careless in this respect, ideas and sentiments will penetrate our hearts and not only weaken devotion and diminish fervor, but destroy charity, which is the life of the soul.
We read in Holy Scripture that while his doorkeeper, who should have been cleansing wheat, fell asleep, assassins entered the house of Isboseth, son of Saul, and slew him. (Cf. 2 Kg. 4). A like fate will be ours if we permit sleep to overcome our judgment, which should be employed in separating the chaff from the grain-that is, good thoughts from evil thoughts. While unprotected, bad desires, the assassins of the soul, in this manner are able to enter and rob us of the life of grace.
But this vigilance not only serves to preserve the life of the soul, but most efficaciously promotes recollection in prayer; for as a wandering and uncontrolled imagination is a source of much trouble in prayer, so a subdued imagination accustomed to pious subjects sweetens our conversation with God.
We have now come to the greatest and noblest of the faculties, the understanding, which raises man above all visible creatures, and in which he most resembles his Creator. The beauty of this power depends upon that rare virtue, prudence, which excels all others. In the spiritual life prudence is to the soul what the eyes are to the body, what a pilot is to a vessel, what a head is to a commonwealth. For this reason the great St. Anthony, in a conference with several holy monks on the excellence of the virtues, gave the first place to prudence, which guides and controls all the others.
Let him, therefore, who desires to practice the other virtues with profit earnestly endeavor to be guided by prudence in all things. Not limited to any special duty, it enters into the fulfillment of all duties, into the practice of all virtues, and preserves order and harmony among them. Having the foundation of faith and charity, it first belongs to prudence to direct all our actions to God, who is our last end. As self-love, according to a holy writer, seeks self in all things, even the holiest, prudence is ever ready to examine what are the motives of our actions, whether we have God or self as the end of what we do.
Prudence also guides us in our
with our neighbor, that we may afford him edification and not give him
scandal. To this end it teaches us to observe the condition and
of those about us, that we may more wisely benefit them, patiently
with their failings and closing our eyes to infirmities which we cannot
"A wise man," says Aristotle, "should not expect the same degree of certainty in all things, for some are more susceptible of proof than others. Nor should he expect the same degree of perfection in all creatures, for some are capable of a perfection which is impossible in others. Whoever, therefore, would force all lives to the same standard of virtue would do more harm than good."
Prudence also teaches us to know ourselves, our inclinations, our failings, and our evil tendencies, that we may noc presume upon our strength, but recognizing our enemies, perseveringly combat them. It is this virtue also which enables us wisely to govern the tongue by the rules which we have already given, teaching us when to be silent and when to speak. Prudence likewise guards us against the error of opening our minds to all whom we may meet, or of making confidants of others without due reflection. By putting a just restraint upon our words, it saves us from too freely expressing our opinion and thereby committing many faults.
Thus we are kept constantly reminded of the words of Solomon: "A fool uttereth all his mind; a wise man deferreth and keepeth it till afterwards." (Prov. 29:11). Prudence also forearms us against dangers, and strengthens us by prayer and meditation to meet all the accidents of life. This is the advice of the sacred writer: "Before sickness take a medicine." (Ecclus. 18:20).
Whenever, therefore, you expect to participate in entertainments, or to transact business with men who are easily angered, or to encounter any danger, endeavor to foresee the perils of the occasion and arm yourself against them. Prudence guides us in the treatment of our bodies, causing us to observe a just medium between excessive rigor and immoderate indulgence, so that we may neither unduly weaken the flesh nor so strengthen it that it will rule the spirit.
It is also the duty of prudence to introduce moderation into all our works, even the holiest, and to preserve us from exhausting the spirit by indiscreet labor. We read in the rules of St. Francis that the spirit must rule our occupations, not he ruled by them. Our exterior labors should never cause us to lose sight of interior duties, nor should devotion to our neighbor make us forget what we owe to God. If the Apostles, who possessed such abundant grace, deemed it expedient to renounce the care of temporal things in order to devote themselves to the great work of preaching and other spiritual functions (Cf. Acts 6:2-4), it is presumption in us to suppose that we have strength and virtue capable of undertaking many arduous labors at one time.
Finally, prudence enlightens us concerning the snares of the enemy, counseling us, in the words of the Apostles, "to try spirits if they be of God," "for Satan transformeth himself into an angel of light." (1 Jn. 4:1 and 2 Cor. 11:14). There is no temptation more to be feared than one which presents itself under the mask of virtue, and there is none which the devil more frequently employs to deceive pious souls. Inspired and guided by prudence, we shall recognize these snares; we shall be restrained by a salutary fear from going where there is danger, but animated by a holy courage tc conquer in every struggle; we shall avoid extremes; we shall endeavor to prevent our neighbor from suffering scandal, but yet we shall not be daunted by every groundless fear; we shall learn to despise the opinions of the world, and not to fear its outcries against virtue, remembering, with the Apostle, that if we please men we cannot be the servants of Jesus Christ. (Cf. Gal. 1:10).
The virtue of prudence is no less efficacious in the direction of temporal affairs. It preserves us from serious, and sometimes from irremediable, errors which not unfrequently destroy both our material and spiritual welfare. To escape this double misfortune, here are the counsels which prudence suggests: The first is that of the Wise Man, who says: "Let thy eyes look straight on, and let thy eyelids go before thy steps." (Prov. 4:25). In other words, look at the enterprise you are about to undertake, and do not rashly enter upon it. First recommend it to God; then weigh all its circumstances, and the consequences which are likely to follow from it; seek counsel of just minds concerning it; deliberate upon the advice you receive, and reflect upon your resolution before acting upon it.
In a word, beware of the four great enemies of prudence; precipitation, passion, obstinate persistence in our own opinions, and vanity. Precipitation admits no reasoning; passion blinds us; obstinancy turns a deaf ear to all counsel; and vanity ruins everything.
It also belongs to prudence to observe a just medium in all things, for extremes are no less opposed to virtue than to truth. Let not the faults of a few lead you to condemn the multitude, nor should the virtues of a few lead you to suppose that all are pious. Follow the guidance of reason in all things, and do not allow yourself to be hurried to extremes by passion or prejudice. This latter failing is apt, moreover, to dispose us favorably towards what is old, and give us a dislike for what is new. Prudence guards us against this, for age can no more justify what is bad than novelty can condemn what is good. Let us esteem things not for their age, but for their merit. A vice of long standing is only more difficult to eradicate, and a virtue of recent growth has only the fault of being unknown.
Beware also of appearances. There are few who have not been taught by experience how deceptive these often are.
Finally, let us be thoroughly convinced that as reflection and gravity are the inseparable companions of prudence, so rashness and levity ever accompany folly. Therefore, we must guard against these two faults at all times, but particularly in the following cases: in believing everything that is reported, for this indicates levity of mind; in making promises, in which we often bind ourselves beyond our means; in giving, in which liberality often makes us forget justice; in forming resolutions which from want of consideration often lead us into errors; in conversation, in which so many faults may be committed; and in temptations and anger, which shows the folly of man. "He that is patient," says Solomon, "is governed with much wisdom, but he that is impatient exalteth his folly." (Prov. 14:29).
Not the least important means of acquiring this virtue is the experience of our own failures and the success of others, from which we may gather wise lessons of prudence. For this reason the past is said to be a wise counselor, for today learns from yesterday. "What is it that hath been? The same thing that shall be. What is it that hath been done? The same that shall be done." (Eccles. 1:9). But a still more efficacious means of becoming prudent is humility, for pride is the greatest obstacle to this virtue. "Where pride is, there also shall be reproach," the Holy Ghost tells us; "but where humility is, there also is wisdom." (Prov. 11:2). And throughout the Scriptures we are frequently reminded that God instructs the humble and reveals His secrets to the lowly.Humility, however, does not require us to yield blindly to all opinions or indiscreetly to follow every counsel. This is not humility, but weakness and instability, against which the author of Ecclesiasticus warns us: "Be not lowly in thy wisdom, lest being humbled thou be deceived into folly." (Ecclus. 13:11). By this we should understand that a man must resolutely maintain the truth and vigorously support justice, not allowing himself to be carried away by contrary opinions.
Finally, devout and humble prayer will afford us powerful aid in acquiring the virtue of prudence. For the principal office of the Holy Ghost being to enlighten the understanding with the gifts of knowledge, wisdom, and counsel, the greater the humility and devotion with which we present ourselves before this Divine Spirit, the greater will be the grace we shall receive.