CHAPTER SIXTEEN: His Prudence
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.1 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.2 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.3 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.”4 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.”5 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.”6 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.7 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.8
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.
SECTION ONE: Continuation of the Same Subject
We have already remarked that Monsieur Vincent held it as a principle that, when asked his advice on some matter, he would not rush, but would carefully weigh all the circumstances of the matter in question. When not pressed for an immediate answer, he would usually take his time to consider the matter before God, so as to give it more careful attention. We give some examples, among many others we might have chosen.
A person of his acquaintance was anxious to have a young lawyer appointed to a noble family to serve as steward and to handle the business of the family.9 He requested Monsieur Vincent to use his influence in obtaining this position, but he replied, “we must think about it, but before doing anything definite we must keep our counsel for an entire month, to listen to God and to honor the silence Jesus Christ so often observed.” In doing so he wished to repress the ardor this man displayed and the pressure he brought to bear, and also to seek out the will of God. He put him off for five or six months, but he finally took steps to have the lawyer appointed to the position. In this his manner of acting differed from the ordinary procedure of people of the world. They act promptly and use all manner of ways to move heaven and earth (as they say) to achieve their wishes.
When it was a question of giving rules and constitutions to his Congregation, without which he knew it could not survive, he waited thirty-three years before finally finishing this task, although his heart was disposed to finish this important work. He meanwhile had his Company practice them. He believed strongly that to perfect the rules to the extent possible and to ensure their stability they must first be observed, and then written down. They had to be engraved on the hearts of his confreres before being put on paper.
He was very reserved and circumspect in his words, not only to avoid anything which might cause suspicion or distrust, but also to prevent what might injure anyone. He would say nothing which had not first been carefully thought out and turned over in his mind. There is reason to believe that this is why he spoke so little, and so carefully.
It is an attribute of prudence and of wisdom not only to speak well and to say good things, but also to say things in such a way that they will be well received and profit the one to whom we speak. Our Lord has given us the example of this on several occasions, and particularly when he spoke to the Samaritan woman who came to draw water from the well. He took the opportunity to speak of grace and inspired her to desire a conversion of life.
Once, traveling in the country, he met a young priest from a village, whom he did not know, holding a book. As a greeting, Monsieur Vincent’s prudence and charity inspired him to say, “Oh, Monsieur, how good to see you commune with our Lord by good reading. You edify me greatly, and your example shows well how we engender good thoughts.” Monsieur Vincent was not aware of what book the priest was reading, whether good or bad. Supposing in his charity that it was good, he wanted to encourage him by his gracious words to read well.
A noted pastor of Paris wished to appoint as his vicar a former member of the Congregation of the Mission. He wrote to Monsieur Vincent, asking why this priest had left the Company, how he had conducted himself, and whether he would recommend him for the position he had in mind. Monsieur Vincent was in doubt just how to reply. He did not want to harm this man, although he was well aware of his faults, and felt that they made him an unsuitable candidate for the office of vicar. Also, he did not want to deceive the pastor, nor to make him believe things that were not so. In an attempt to avoid either of these pitfalls, his prudence suggested that he use the following statement: “Monsieur, I am not well enough acquainted with the priest of whom you have written to recommend him to you, although he spent much time with us.” An older priest of the Congregation, who was present when he dictated this response, felt free to say that the pastor would surely be astonished to have him say he did not know a priest who had spent such a long time in the Company, and under his spiritual direction. He answered, “I see that, but could I improve on what our Lord said in reproving those who had prophesied in his name, that he did not know them? This meant, of course, that he did not approve their activity. Consider it fitting, then, that I follow his example in using this same language.”
While he was in the council of Her Majesty, he had no other objective than the greater good of the Church in the distribution of benefices. In awarding these to the persons he felt most worthy, he used no other method than to commend the virtues and merits of the most worthy candidates, and the likely advantage to God’s service and the public good of their appointment. He would never speak against the qualities of the other candidates, to avoid doing them any harm. In these situations he was obliged to use great prudence and circumspection in his words, to promote the interests of the Church and to wound neither truth nor charity.
Those occasions when he was obliged to warn or reprove someone give us an opportunity to appreciate his marvelous prudence. He left no bitterness or anger in those whom he admonished, but rather an effort to make good use of the reproof they had been given. The examples we give will allow us to judge how prudently he acted.
Once, he was alerted to a renowned preacher who often came to see him for other business, and who seemed to be skeptical about certain truths of the faith. When this charge seemed likely from the testimony of others, Monsieur Vincent used a charitable and prudent device to bring home to him his deficiency. We learn about this from an account he wrote under an assumed name.
Considering before God what I should do in this situation, I felt according to the rule of the Gospel that I ought to call Damasus10 in private, and speak to him in parables. One day, speaking lightly to him, I said, “Monsieur, I have something I would like to ask you, a renowned preacher. It sometimes happens when we are working in country places that we run into people who do not believe the truths of our holy religion. We are at a loss to know how we should proceed to convince them. I would like to ask you what you think we should do in these cases, to lead them to believe in the truths of faith.” Damasus asked me with some feeling why I would ask such a thing of him. I replied, “because, Monsieur, the poor approach the rich to get some help and charity. Since we are such poorly lettered persons we do not know the way to deal with things of the spirit. We come to you to beg you to favor us with your thoughts on this matter.” Damasus got control of himself quickly, and replied that to teach the Christian faith he would do so first by Holy Scripture, second, by the Fathers, third, by argumentation, fourth, by the common consent of the Christian people throughout the ages, fifth, by the witness of so many martyrs who have shed their blood for these same truths, sixth, by the miracles which God has wrought in confirmation of these beliefs.”
When he had finished, I said this was indeed well stated, and asked if he would put what he said in writing, simply and directly, and send it to me. He did so two or three days later, and brought it to me himself. I thanked him, saying I was much obliged to him and was happy to see such good sentiments from his own hands. Besides the use I can make of the suggestions myself, I said, I can use them for your own instruction. You may not believe what I am going to tell you, although it is true: some people think, and say, that you yourself do not agree with some truths of faith. You must acquire fully, Monsieur, what you have begun so well. After writing so well about the faith you must now give yourself to God to live in a way that will dispel all doubts from the minds of those who speak about you, and become the edification of everyone. I told him also that people in higher ranks, like himself, are the more obliged to be adorned with virtue. Those who wrote the life of Saint Charles Borromeo said that virtue was greatest in those of higher rank. This is like the beauty of a precious stone enhanced by being mounted in a gold ring, rather than being placed in one of baser metal. Damasus agreed with all that had been said, saying that from this point on he was going to reform. Then he departed, leaving me satisfied at seeing him in such good dispositions.11
One day he was with several persons of some standing when one of them from long habit allowed himself to say “Devil take me,” and similar curses. Hearing this, Monsieur Vincent went to him, embraced him, and said with a smile, “And I, Monsieur, will hold on to you, for God’s sake.” This edified the whole group, and served as a gentle and yet efficacious reminder to the speaker. He admitted his fault and promised to abstain from such curses in the future.
A respected priest reported a similar affair, although on a totally different subject, in regard to a prelate whom they happened to meet on the street. After some usual pleasantries, Monsieur Vincent said very graciously, “Bishop, please do not forget your ring.” The prelate responded, laughing, “Ah, Monsieur, how you manage things.” As an explanation to the priest, he explained that this bishop, with whom he was friendly, had several times protested that he would never divorce his wife, that is to say his diocese, for another, no matter how rich and beautiful she might be. He showed the episcopal ring he wore on his right hand, and quoted the words of the psalmist: Oblivioni detur dextera mea, si non memineretur [“If I forget, may my right hand be forgotten”].12 He added that there was talk about this same prelate’s being considered for a wealthy archdiocese. There were many occasions such as this in the life of Monsieur Vincent which, although things were said in jest, yet showed great prudence and often had excellent results.
Another effect of prudence is to control the use of words so that they never offend anyone and never send anyone away unhappy. The superior of one of the missions said:
In my own case, I never had the honor of meeting with him that I did not leave with perfect satisfaction, whether he had granted what I asked, or had to refuse. Even on the eve of the day I was to leave Paris to go where he had sent me, I spent a long time with him, only to be interrupted by several persons who came to speak with him. I admired then, as always, the way he sent each one on his way, perfectly happy. I remember two visitors in particular. The first, a priest, asked for the release of a prisoner who had committed murder on the Saint Denis road, in the section under the jurisdiction of Saint Lazare. Monsieur Vincent received the priest graciously. He spoke with him, and showed him every mark of respect, but since the affair did not depend on himself alone, he spoke of the Providence of God manifested in his justice as well as in his mercy, and that we must accept both the one and the other. He then spoke of the circumstances of the murder committed, and the justice of the punishments God had allowed to be enacted for such crimes. He did this so graciously that the priest left satisfied, having nothing more to say.
The second case concerned a layman who came to borrow some money. Monsieur Vincent made a thousand excuses why the house of Saint Lazare could not lend him anything, and how grieved he was at not being able to serve him on this occasion. He spoke with such gentleness and prudence that his refusal had no bad effect on his visitor, who left in peace.
On a trip he made in 1649, he visited several of his houses, among others a seminary in an episcopal city where the see was then vacant. A new bishop had been named, but the official papers had not yet come from Rome.13 Monsieur Vincent had been opposed to this appointment, and this prompted many complaints from the bishop. Contrary to all expectations the bishop appeared in the town, leaving Monsieur Vincent to wonder how he ought to act towards him. If I go to pay my respects (he said to himself), he will surely be taken by surprise, and may be touched. If I send to ask if my visit would be agreeable to him, I do not know how he would react. Not to go, or not to send someone would surely give this good prelate reason to be angry with me, and I must avoid this. What should I do?
The prudent humility of this wise priest suggested a way out of this dilemma. He sent the superior of the house, together with another priest, to say that Monsieur Vincent had just arrived in the diocese. As he would not dare stay without his permission, he humbly asked if he might stay seven or eight days at the house of the priests of the Mission. The bishop received this humble request well. He stated that he might remain as long as he liked, and that if he did not have a place to stay he would have offered his own home. Monsieur Vincent wanted to take advantage of such an obliging reply to thank the prelate in person and pay his respects. He was, however, prevented from doing so by the bishop’s leaving unexpectedly that very day for some other place.
Monsieur Vincent took it as a rule in all his deliberations and resolutions to consult always and before all else the oracle of divine truth, that is to say, to consider what our Lord did and said about the matter under discussion, to conform himself to his example, and to submit to his teachings. This was the source from which he drew all the wise advice which he gave to others and which guided his own behavior. We are not surprised, then, that he acted with such prudence or succeeded with such blessings, since he went to the source of wisdom itself, the incarnate Word of God. It could be said of him, in the words of the wise man of Scripture, that divine Wisdom helped him, directed him, and worked in him in all his undertakings.14
In this connection he one day asked one of his priests for some advice on a particular matter. The reply was that the thing should be done, because of the grievous consequences if it were not carried out. Monsieur Vincent pointed out that so much attention should not be paid to the consequences of an action as to the nature of the action itself, and to its relationship to the words and example of Jesus Christ.
In an effort to model himself on his divine exemplar, another of his principles was to do everything with as little fanfare as possible. He chose the most simple and humble works along with the most charitable. In this way he avoided the envy and opposition of others. When Satan raised difficulties, he was challenged solely by the weapons of humility, patience, penance, and prayer. He never justified or defended himself from malicious talk or calumny, nor made use of temporal authorities to support his undertakings, judging this to be the most prudent way to act.
The purity and soundness of his prudence and wisdom appeared in his always seeking to follow and accomplish in all things the holy will of God. He did so in preference to any other consideration, with no regard for temporal advantage. He rejected this and trampled it under foot when it was a question of the interests, of the service, and of the glory of Jesus Christ. This was the great and only object he had in mind in all his work, and by which he carried out faithfully and constantly what he had begun. He preferred absolutely and completely this holy will of God to every other consideration, with no exception whatsoever.
To conclude this chapter we cite the testimony of a most worthy priest who wrote his appreciation of the wise and prudent conduct of Monsieur Vincent, particularly in the replies he gave to those who consulted him or sought his advice. This is the order we follow, just as this priest often observed:
Before all else, he raised his mind to God to seek his help, and usually asked those who came for counsel to do the same. By a short fervent prayer he would ask the light and grace to know the will of God in the matter under consideration. Then he would listen most attentively to what was asked, and consider it at length. If he thought it necessary, he would ask for greater details to be well aware of all the circumstances. He would never rush to give his opinion. If he felt that the matter required more thought he would ask for time to think about it, recommending meanwhile that it be prayed over in the sight of God. He was agreeable that others be consulted, and he himself was not loathe to seek advice. He deferred always, if justice and charity allowed, to the opinion of others, even in face of his own contrary opinion. When, finally, he was obliged to express himself, he gave his own opinion so judiciously and yet humbly, that he left the person free to decide on his own. For example, he would say that, for this or that reason, it seems it would be good to do such and such; or, if pressed to give a definite answer, he would use similar language: it seems to me it would be good, or more expedient, to do this or that. After all this, he followed two inviolable rules. First, to keep absolutely secret what he had been consulted about, unless authorized by the person concerned to speak to others because of some necessity or utility. Second, to be firm in following whatever decision he had come to. After discerning the will of God, he would not falter. He held it as a principle that it must be carried out, and that the vice of inconstancy strongly opposes true prudence, and ruins even the most saintly and solid resolution.
- PL 40.6:1240-42.
- 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.
- Matt 10:16.
- John 8:7.
- Matt 22:21.
- Matt 24:35.
- Mark 7:37.
- CED XI:51-53.
- Martin Husson, then a lawyer with the Parlement of Paris. He entered the service of the Duke de Retz in 1650.
- A convention, like “So-and-so.”
- CED XIII:170-72.
- Ps 137:5.
- Lavardin de Beaumanoir, bishop of Le Mans.
- Wis 9:10.