Learning Prudence with St. Wenceslas

Someone close to me recently said about being a Catholic, “It is so hard to know when to be a lion and when to be a lamb.” Jesus is both the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Rev 5:5; Jn 1:29). As Christians, we are called to conform ourselves to Christ. We are called to be lions and lambs, but is it possible to be both as ferocious as a lion and as docile as a lamb?

St Wenceslaus was a virtuous leader. He was generous, merciful, kind and brave and also a great defender of the Christian faith in Bohemia when Christianity was under attack by various groups, including Wenceslaus’ own mother and brother. Wenceslsaus was murdered by his brother on September 28, 935. When he was martyred, he was the Duke of Bohemia, but Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I, posthumously declared Wenceslaus King of Bohemia because of his great piety, heroic virtue and benevolent leadership over the Bohemian people.

There are several stories about Wenceslaus, but the one that is best known is told in the Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslas. When the song begins, Wenceslaus sees a poor man walking through the snow in the evening on December 26th, the feast day of St Stephen. Feeling pity for the man, Wenceslaus asks his page who this man is and where he lives. The page tells Wenceslaus that the man lives about a league (over three miles) away. Wenceslaus tells the page to gather food and wine and wooden logs. After these items are gathered, Wenceslaus and the page venture out into the bitter cold to deliver these gifts to the poor man and his family. As the two trudge through the deep snow, the page is overcome by the cold and unable to continue. Wenceslaus tells the page to follow him and to place his feet into the footprints Wenceslaus leaves in the snow. The page does as Wenceslaus says and notices that when he steps into the king’s footprints, his feet are miraculously warmed. The song concludes with a message that says, regardless of our wealth and rank in life, those who bless the poor will be blessed by God.

Another story says that every Christmas Day Wenceslaus visited prisoners and even released some. On one particular occasion Wenceslaus visited a pagan woman imprisoned for witchcraft. When Wenceslaus learned of her crime he said he would have released her, even if her crime had been murder, but the crime of worshipping false gods was so offensive to our Lord that he could not release her unless she repented and accepted Christ. The woman refused and told Wenceslaus that he knew nothing about the freezing peasants in his kingdom and that even the scummiest jailer in his castle lived better than the peasants who inhabited his lands. Wenceslaus left the prison and continued to give gifts to the people and partake in the season’s festivities, but the pagan woman’s words nagged at him throughout the day. The next day Wenceslaus, filled with a spirit of mercy, released the pagan woman so she could return home to her family. The woman gained a new appreciation for the Christian faith and also for the king.

In another story, a foreign king invaded Wenceslaus’ lands. At first, Wenceslaus offered the enemy leader peace on almost any terms he desired, as long as the terms were consistent with Wenceslaus’ Christian values. The foreign leader arrogantly refused Wenceslaus’ offer, believing it to be a sign of weakness.

To spare the bloodshed of many, Wenceslaus offered to settle the entire battle in a one-on-one duel between himself and the foreign leader. The foreign leader accepted Wenceslaus’ proposal. When the hour arrived, Wenceslaus, armed only with a light sword and shield, approached the battlefield to face the foreign leader. As the enemy closed in on Wenceslaus, he threw a javelin at the king, but two angels appeared beside Wenceslaus and protected him from being harmed by the foreign leader’s weapon. At that moment the enemy leader fell upon his knees and surrendered to Wenceslaus, begging for mercy.

St Wenceslas is an excellent model for Christian leadership. He was a man of many virtues, including fortitude and mercy, but especially prudence. The Catechism says prudence is the virtue that enables us to discern the true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it (CCC 1806). St Thomas Aquinas called prudence “right reason in action” (ST II-II,47,2).

Prudence has also been called the “charioteer” of the virtues since it guides all the other virtues (CCC 1806). “The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid” (CCC 1806).

It was prudence that guided Wenceslaus to perform a great act of love when he trudged through the snow at night to deliver gifts to a poor man. It was prudence that guided Wenceslaus to show mercy to an undeserving pagan woman when he released her from jail so she could be with her family. And it was prudence that guided Wenceslaus to humbly offer peace and also to courageously confront invaders, putting the good of others, rather than his own ego, first each time.

This is the challenge of being a good Catholic. We can only choose what is right and avoid what is wrong in each situation, to be truly virtuous people, if we develop the virtue of prudence. Because prudence helps us to know when to be lions and when to be lambs.

image: Artush / Shutterstock.com

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Andrew Garofalo lives in Parkland, Florida with his wife Julie and their three children. He has practiced law for seventeen years and is currently discerning a vocation to the permanent diaconate. You can find more of his work at www.saintsjourney.com.

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