God speaks to us through many experiences and images. Sometimes there are differing layers of meaning and we must carefully and prudently discern what God is saying to us. Prudence is not the same as caution. Rather, it is the virtue that bids us, in each situation, to keep in mind our deeper call and final goal.
Consider the following story:
A man, walking through the forest saw a fox that had lost its legs, and wondered how it lived. Then he saw a tiger come up with game in its mouth. The tiger ate its fill and left the rest of the meat for the fox. The next day God fed the fox by means of the same tiger.
The man began to wonder at God’s greatness and said to himself, “I too shall just rest in a corner with full trust in the Lord and He will provide me with all I need.”
He did this for many days, but nothing happened, and he was almost at death’s door when he heard a voice say, “O you who are in the path of error, open your eyes to the truth! Stop imitating the disabled fox and follow the example of the tiger” (The Spirituality of Imperfection, p. 93).
This story illustrates the need for discernment and prudence. Growing in trust is a good thing of itself, but not if done so in a selfish or reckless way. Like any virtue, trust is not detached; it exists in real-life situations and the virtue of prudence must direct its application. This is true of all the virtues. St. Thomas and others called prudence the “charioteer of the virtues” because its role is to direct them properly in accordance with our final goal.
In the case of the story above, magnanimity and generosity were the true call; the man in the story sinned against hope. We ought never to despair that when we are truly in need God will supply us with the essentials needed for eternal life, but neither should we presume that He will rescue us from every one of our sins or poor decisions. Like any virtue, hope stands in the middle, warding off both despair and presumption; it gives us the confident expectation of God’s help, but not the kind that reduces Him to a sort of divine butler. Prudence also directs us to remember that our first instinct should be to serve rather than to be served (see Mark 10:45).