Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Prudence - Canon Robin Ward

In this season of Remembrance we reflect in particular on the descent of European civilization into the carnage and destruction which characterized the past century, epitomized by the unparalleled barbarity of the Holocaust. It is always chilling to recall how many of those most intimately associated with the extermination of the Jewish people bore the Christian names of the saints: Odilo, Johannes Chrysostomus and the like. These men were all products of centuries of Christian culture and education, raised in the rich spirituality of the German churches. The present Pope describes in his own memoirs the joy of church-going, the richness and the splendour of the liturgical life of German Catholicism, which thrived and inspired him right through the 1930s. And of course, Hitler himself was the product of a Catholic upbringing, even an altar server: how many times must he have knelt before the altar and repeated with the priest: I shall go unto the altar of God; even unto the God of my joy and gladness. Mass murder, carnage and destruction, the most insane and sinful ideology, all thrived within the hearts of men who were the products of a devout and pious world.

What went wrong with Christian Europe? Why are we now building a new order which will only accommodate Christian values in private, while in public life the tenets of secular liberalism and political correctness hold sway? One of the fundamental problems for Christian living has always been legalism, and one of the most besetting faults of modern Christianity has been to portray the moral life as a matter of rules, things to be avoided. The Christian life has not been taught as S. Paul taught it to the Galatians: it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; it has been taught as a set of rules to be kept, with anything further reserved for religious enthusiasts and the clergy. How many Anglicans taught their Catechism in the past considered their moral obligations to cease once they had kept their hands from picking and stealing, and applied themselves to learn and labour to get mine own living? Of course, this does not mean that moral rules are redundant or don’t apply to Christians: we continue to keep the Ten Commandments at the heart of all our moral teaching. However, as S. Paul states Christ is the end of the Law, and if we are in Christ through our baptism then our moral life is not one that can be summarized in legal form: it is a growth in virtue. All human beings are called to recognise fundamental moral values and live by them, and it is these fundamental moral values that we can work to put into effect in our own lives, and which constitute the cardinal virtues.

What we call the cardinal virtues were first sorted out by the Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, and are only mentioned together once in the Scriptures and then only in the Old Testament Apocrypha: If anyone loves righteousness, Wisdom’s labours are virtues; for she teaches temperance and prudence, justice and fortitude (Wisdom 8.7). But Christian thinker and theologians have always used them as a good moral map to teach the life of virtue, to show what is needed to make good moral decisions and to be equipped to live well with God’s help. Firstly among the cardinal virtues comes Prudence: the way in which we use our God-given reason and knowledge of good and evil to live and makes choices in our moral life.

Now of course the way in which Prudence is thought of has become something of a joke, because of the way in which our Prime Minister so cunningly appropriated its mantle to obscure economic and financial agenda which only now have been exposed to the cruel light of day. It evokes images of piggy banks, saving for a rainy day, stilted caution and Scottish bank managers turning you down for a loan. And of course there is a false prudence which is like this: a prudence which has as its end worldly things, a prudence which is little more than cunning and calculation, a prudence which stems fundamentally from covetousness and which S. Paul describes when he says To set the mind on the flesh is death (Romans 8.6). To be prudent in this way is to be as much a stranger to the real character of the virtue as it is to be heedless and reckless in all we undertake.

Christian prudence is not like this. Christian prudence trains us and helps us to learn how to apply the moral principles we have to the situations we encounter in life, how we can recognize what God wants of us in the complexities of human living so that we avoid sin and seek the good. When we are baptized and become children of God we receive the gift of prudence from God at its most fundamental level: we are able to recognize the ultimate good, eternal life, and to choose it as our destination and goal. But we need to learn how to be prudent in the way we make provision for ourselves and others in all the incidents of human life, to apply moral truth to our circumstances and do so courageously and well. How does this take place?

Firstly, through the integrity of our memory. What I mean by this is that we need always to strive for truth in what we recall, truth in the record of life past we preserve in our minds. If we allow the knowledge we have of life to be tainted and corrupted by our own gloss on events, reconstructing the past to suit our own ends and our own preferences, then we will never be able to to act prudently in the present. Think how we almost unconsciously rework conversations, encounters, events and relationships to show ourselves in a good light, to justify ourselves as the rich young man seeks to justify himself to Jesus: all this must go if we are to act prudently. One of the great benefits of the practice of sacramental confession is that we are called to think about our sins in an objective light: we see them ourselves in the cold light of day when we prepare, and we confess them aloud to God in the presence of his minister in the cold light of day as well, without evasion, self-justification or the distortions of false pride which corrupt our recollection.

Secondly, we become prudent through being taught by others. The apostle James writes: Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed (Jas 5.16). We need to have the modesty to take advice, to learn from those experienced in the faith and to trust them not as substitutes for our understanding, but as a means of enhancing it with the wisdom of others. One of the sadnesses of the decline in the religious life in the Church of England is that our opportunities of finding a wise soul-friend are so much diminished. A closed mind is the enemy of prudence, because it refuses to accept any knowledge of the truth of things which is not its own.

Lastly, to be truly prudent we need what the theologians call Solertia: which we might call a sort of spiritual intuition of opportunity. Moral choices do not come to us on our own terms and in our own time: they are sprung on us by our circumstances, our temperament and the spiritual warfare in which we are taking part. Real prudence, the capacity to recognise good and choose it, needs to be ready to respond to the unexpected and the new without hesitation and without recklessness, to be clear–sighted and nimble in the face of challenges.

Truthfulness in memory; open-mindedness in taking counsel; clear-sightedness in the face of the unexpected: these are the signs of Christian prudence. Without them the moral life will become at best the keeping of rules without reason or the ability to face new circumstances and new threats, and at worst a heedless cobbling-together of the fragments of morality in the face of life’s challenges. With them we will possess what the French poet Claudel termed the intelligent prow of our nature, the means by which we navigate through all the complexities of life to our final end and perfection with God.