Practical wisdom, therefore, is key to our moral development. In the order of nature, the attainment of the natural virtue of practical wisdom is the culmination of our journey to moral maturity. In the order of grace, its perfection helps us to imitate Christ, to fulfill His command: "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). I pray that God bless every one of you with the wisdom that you will need in the journeys that commence today.
III. Taking Time for Deliberation
I said that I would reflect on two aspects of practical wisdom. The first is this: Practical wisdom enables us to make decisions. In the next weeks, months and years, you will be making decisions that change your lives and can change the world. Not just any decisions, but difficult decisions, decisions that draw upon multiple perspectives and multiple virtues, decisions that involve competing goods or conflicts of interest. When faced with such a decision, it is a virtue unto itself — or an aspect of practical wisdom — to understand how quickly or how slowly to arrive at a conclusion.
Noting this is of great help: You need not rush. Nor should you delay. How we arrive at the right balance, the right speed, is something that we learn through practice. We get better at making decisions, and at pacing our decisions, through practice and through listening carefully to the advice of our elders. For those of you who face great decisions on the horizon, and perhaps feel anxiety or stress about them, this advice might bring little consolation. But I shall not leave it there.
We can extract from Aristotle some more detail. He suggests that taking time for deliberation before we make a decision is itself a good, a good which we ought not overvalue or undervalue. He recommends that we deliberate slowly in most cases. First, he recommends that we give more time to more grave choices and less time to less grave choices. In other words, we ought not distract ourselves over lesser things, and fail to give adequate attention to what matters more and to what matters most.
Second, he recommends that we seek further clarity in a situation only to the degree that the field under consideration allows for it. For example, there was no way for any of you to guarantee ahead of time that the choice of Christendom would be the best choice of school for you. The process of choosing a school does not admit of such a guarantee. The choice of a school always involves a risk. Likewise, in any domain, we should respect the degrees to which we may attain certainty, on the one hand, or to which we must admit uncertainty, on the other. This point too saves us time and protects us from needless worry. It sharpens our deliberation and discernment.
Finally, Aristotle acknowledges that we do not always have the time that we might like for deliberation and discernment. Sometimes situations demand that we make decisions, even momentous decisions, quickly. It is in times like these that the value of the habits that we have formed and the formation that we have received is clearest of all. In these moments, when a decision is demanded of us, we fall back on what we have practiced. We fall back on the insights with which we have grown familiar and on the skills that we have developed over many years. It is then that we are most grateful for our firm and settled dispositions to know and love what is true and good.
This was the first characteristic of practical wisdom that I wanted to discuss: It is a distinct aspect of practical wisdom to understand how quickly or slowly to arrive at a conclusion in a given situation. You need not rush. Nor should you delay. This is a skill for each of you to acquire.
IV. An Example of Practical Wisdom: St. Ignatius of Loyola
The second characteristic upon which I would like to reflect is not a systematic component of practical wisdom but a particular example of its appearance. It is an example both fitting and startling in light of our experience of the pandemic and comes from the autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola. I quote:
"At that time the plague was beginning to spread in Paris ... Ignatius [entered a house in which there were many corpses of those who had died of the plague, and he] consoled and revived a sick man he found lying there. When he had touched the wounds with his hand, Ignatius departed alone. His hand began to cause him great pain, and it seemed as if he had caught the disease. The fear that came upon him was so great that he was unable to vanquish and drive it away, until with a great effort he placed his fingers in his mouth, and for a long time kept them there, saying [to himself], 'If you have the plague in your hand, you will also have it in your mouth.' As soon as this was done, the illusion left him and the pain he had felt in his hand ceased."
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After caring for a sick man, Ignatius worried that he too had been infected. If he had had a deeper understanding of bubonic plague, he would have known that infection would not have been indicated by pain in his hand. But that is beside the point. What is striking is his deliberate action. He puts what he takes to be his infected hand in his mouth. He does not want to fear infection. He prefers to have the infection, and to know that he has it, rather than to fear it. For us, after the enormous sacrifices made to reduce the spread of COVID, the action of Ignatius might appear utterly reckless, even offensive.
But his action brings to light something profound, or rather a series of profound insights. First, you are all familiar with the claim that virtue seeks the mean, the middle way between two extremes. In order to hit the middle, virtuous action must often overshoot its target. When we naturally incline to one extreme, such as fear for our own health, virtue must tend toward the opposite extreme, again and again, until what is truly the middle way becomes clear to us. What may appear to be an extreme action by St. Ignatius perhaps allowed him to find the mean. He feared that he had already been infected with bubonic plague. By his dramatic action, he did not expose himself anew but simply disciplined his own fear. He rebuked himself, prohibiting fear from troubling him, from discouraging him from tender care for the sick, and from distracting him from the work of God.
Second, Ignatius' action is decisive. Once he has spread the infection to his mouth, according to his own understanding of the plague, there is no turning back. Beforehand, he was greatly troubled. He could not contain his fear. Different goods, different interests pulled him in different directions. In those minutes or hours of anxiety, he must have undertaken some form of deliberation, as much as his overwhelming fear would permit — considering, on the one hand, the value of his health, his natural fear of death, his fear of suffering the agony of plague, and then, on the other hand, his vocation to service, the freedom to which God calls us all, and the judgment before God that awaits us after death. Once these factors were weighed and considered, he acted suddenly. No further deliberation was necessary. There was no need for delay. And by his action, the tension is resolved. He has made his choice.
This is the third insight that we can glean from Ignatius' account. Not only does virtuous action appear to be extreme at times, and not only is it decisive, it reveals a choice. Practical wisdom culminates in decision. It commits us to one path instead of others. And in so doing, it re-arranges the values in our lives. It reorders how they appear to us and how they appear to others. The choice of Ignatius to risk his life to overcome his fear affects us all. He presents to us courage and self-sacrifice and perhaps even a degree of foolhardiness as choice worthy and preferable to overwhelming fear of disease. Health is a legitimate good, which we ought to take care to preserve. So, the choice of Ignatius was not simply an act of courage. It was a decision of practical wisdom, aided by the supernatural perspective on life and death that comes from Christian faith. He shaped his life in that moment, and set before us all a startling manifestation of human choice and human virtue.
It is to such action that we here today are called. Not necessarily to expose ourselves to disease. But to act contrary to the tendencies in ourselves and in others that obscure the middle way of virtuous action. To act decisively, after mature deliberation, so that we might live in the freedom that formation in virtue affords. And to reveal to the world by our choices the beautiful arrangement of the values that God integrates within each of us — in other words, to reveal the vocations that He gives to each of us. I propose to all of you to carry the account of St. Ignatius in your heart, knowing that God will call you, too, to surprising, startling, and decisive choices that will shape your lives and the lives of all around you.