Here’s a Lent 2010 challenge: Spend some serious time recovering the meaning and practice of prudence. 

In the Catholic tradition, prudence is the linchpin of all the other virtues, but in our society today, and, unfortunately, even among Catholics, we’ve reduced it to a Boy Scout slogan of “be prepared” or risk aversion, perhaps fine for stick-in-the-muds who never have any fun, but not a worthy option for those who embrace spontaneity and want to suck the marrow out of what life has to offer. As good Catholics should. 

Contrary to what we sometimes think, though, prudence doesn’t mean being dour or melancholic or cautious or crafty. At its core, prudence means being oriented toward what matters in life, and having the practical wisdom to advance toward that goal. 

As Catholics, we know — but need to regularly remind ourselves — what matters: developing a friendship with Jesus Christ in this life so we can be with him in the next. That is made possible through grace, prayer, recourse to the sacraments of his Church and by following his commandments and example of selfless sacrifice. Prudence is a recognition that every other thing we do in this life either advances us toward that goal, or moves us away from it. 

Sometimes making that discernment is hard work, and occasionally it can lead to unnatural death (see In Focus, Pages 9-12). But developing prudence comes with real benefits, eternal life being the most important of them. 

We don’t have to look far to see the drawbacks of not practicing prudence. The housing boom, and in too many cases the foolishness of people buying more house than they could afford (sometimes at the urging of a mortgage broker), led to about 3 million foreclosure notices last year, and experts expect as many as another 4 million in 2010. 

But imprudence is also manifested anywhere you see “culture of me” self-centeredness, vanity or materialism. A letter writer notes this week that Americans in 2007 spent $41.2 billion on pets and pet care. That is more than the gross domestic product of 60 percent of the world’s countries. Some other uncomfortable statistics: Annually Americans spend $110 billion on fast food, and $33 billion on weight-lost products (and about $13 billion — roughly the gross domestic product of Senegal — on cosmetic surgery). 

Not that it is imprudent, at least in every case, to spend on a pet or buy a cheeseburger. And it is encouraging that Americans give more than $300 billion to charity every year. But patterns of American frivolous spending cannot be reconciled with the specter of abject poverty in other parts of the world, some virtually on our own doorstep. An estimated 25,000 children die each day due to poverty; 40 percent of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. 

Sooner than most of us will be ready for, we will be standing before Christ, reviewing our life. In Scripture, he encourages us, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). That’s another way of saying, “I see you have developed the virtue of prudence.” 

There’s no better liturgical season for reclaiming prudence than Lent, with its emphasis on prayer, fasting and almsgiving. 

And, blessedly, it is also the path to the truest joy possible in this life. The useless worldly anxieties and fears that burden us — maybe especially in this time of economic uncertainty — melt away the more steadfastly we fix our gaze on Christ and his love.