Cultivating Spiritual Prudence

Prudence is the virtue whereby we discover the best means to the best ends. Christ teaches us how to cultivate prudence in spiritual things when he likens “the kingdom of heaven” (our salvation) to “ten virgins, who taking their lamps went out to meet the bridegroom and the bride” (Mt. 25:1-13).

The bridegroom is Christ and the bride his Church. The virgins’ goal is to be included in the festivity of their eternal union. In this sense, all who seek to enter heaven are virgins, as St. Paul says to his flock: “I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2).

In the parable, the lamps signify an essential means of gaining admittance to the heavenly feast. Five of the virgins were “foolish,” and “having taken their lamps, did not take oil with them.” When the bridegroom’s arrival was announced at “midnight,” “all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps,” but the foolish had no light.

The foolish virgins realize they cannot enter the marriage without oil, so they ask the virgins who are “prudent” (prudentes) to share theirs. The prudent virgins refuse, “lest perhaps there not be enough” for all. The foolish virgins must go “to them that sell” and buy for themselves—if there is anyone selling oil at midnight!

It may seem puzzling that the praiseworthy Christians in this parable are unwilling to share with their hapless companions. Is the Lord endorsing stinginess? Also, we may wonder why it is necessary for each virgin to have her own light. Can’t those with oil serve as guides for those without? And won’t the wedding hall be amply illuminated?

A clue to the puzzle comes when the bridegroom turns the foolish virgins away with these chilling words: “Amen I say to you, I know you not.”

The Lord, of course, is no more lacking in knowledge than he is in light. The lesson here concerns that part of salvation that depends on us. Though God’s grace is of infinite power, he expects us to cooperate with that grace. Though Christ offers his friendship to all, only those who strive to do what he commands can appeal sincerely to that friendship (Jn. 15:14).

Christ is the life and light of the world (Jn. 1:4). Our own lamps are capable of burning only when we live in the love of Christ. Though others can counsel and pray for us, no one can accept the Savior’s offer of friendship for us. Holy prudence teaches us that the grace of God is something we must “buy” by cultivating our own friendship with the Lord.

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