The question that remains, after the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins: What does the oil represent?
We considered this question exactly one year ago. Anyone remember what we came up with? The oil represents prayer. Specifically: praying the Mass.
But our Lord’s parables offer inexhaustible depths of meaning. So let me throw another answer at you. A two-fold answer. The oil in the parable represents:
1. Self-abandonment to divine Providence. Total trust. God’s foolishness is greater than human wisdom, and His weakness is greater than human strength. We live by faith in the unconquerable goodness of the Lord Who governs everything.
2. But total abandonment to divine Providence does not involve our abandoning our capacity for foresight and sound decision-making. The Lord said: Be innocent as doves. He also said…? Be wise as serpents.
–Yesterday I heard someone describe the American bishops as: Wise as doves and innocent as serpents. But let’s leave that aside—
So: The oil is total abandonment to divine Providence and also prudence. The virtue that “finds both the true good in every circumstance and the right means of achieving it,” as the Catechism puts it. Catechism goes on: “Prudence applies moral principles to particular cases and overcomes doubt about good and evil.”
Another definition, to paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas: “Prudence means both skill at thinking about how to live a wholesome, good life and skill at putting the good thinking into practice.”
Prudence requires self-control, honesty, and courage. By the same token, no one can exercise self-control–or stay honest and brave—without prudence. In other words: No one can think right about doing right without doing right. But no one can do right without thinking and judging right.
Prudence is not “policy.” It is skill at applying good policies. But, of course, without good policies–without good principles–prudence cannot correctly resolve any problem. A prudent person is a principled person who also sees reality clearly enough to know which policy should guide you right now.
We need this oil. May God help us to keep it in our flasks.