Quizbowl and the Rosary Lady

Nicholaes Maes, Old Woman in Prayer

Can you name this sixth President of the Uni…Bzzz! John Quincy Adams!

In high school I enjoyed being on the “It’s Academic” team, which competed with other high schools on two televised quiz-shows each year, along with the lower-stakes, but still high intensity, quiz-bowl tournaments held throughout the county. Victory was often elusive as we faced accomplished teams who never bungled the Bronte sisters and seemed to have Olympic workout regimens to hone their buzzer speed. Yet, thanks to my team’s ever growing recollection of all-but-useless facts – the Presidents by name and number, famous books by author and title, and the only English architect they ever asked about (Christopher Wren, who built St. Paul’s Cathedral) – we occasionally pulled off a dramatic underdog victory.

Breadth of knowledge was key: literature, geography, and history experts were indispensable, and someone who knew something about sports or pop culture could reap an occasional windfall against an otherwise ironclad opponent. A few times, however, our successes against high-caliber teams were not so humorous, as we had to witness the sad implosion of a house divided against itself. Nasty looks aimed at blundering teammates and muttering – “if only you had waited and let me answer that one” –  revealed that an impressive breadth of knowledge can easily lead to a destructive pride.

When I shifted from learning trivia to learning the anything-but-trivial truths of the faith, I developed a simple litmus test to avoid the pitfall of pride: if I ever began to think that my knowledge made me better than the faithful old rosary lady at daily Mass, then I would know that something had gone amiss. In fact, my test wasn’t nearly as original as I supposed; the “little old woman” was a recurring theme for our Order’s greatest theologian (whose impressive memory could have ensured quiz-bowl dominance), St. Thomas Aquinas.

“A little old woman now knows more about what belongs to faith than all the philosophers once knew.” (See here for the full text)

“No one of the philosophers before the coming of Christ could, through his own powers, know God and the means necessary for salvation as well as any old woman since Christ’s coming knows Him through faith.” (Full text)

“Is it not correct that a charity with knowledge is more eminent than a charity without knowledge? It seems that it is not, for then a wicked theologian would have a charity of greater dignity than a holy old woman.” (Full text)

Unlike the many philosophers through history who tended to absolutize philosophic knowledge and denigrate the simple faith of their less scientifically enlightened neighbors, St. Thomas clearly has a deep  respect for the “holy old woman”. However, he also firmly values knowledge. Responding to that last quote, St. Thomas shows that knowledge, of a certain sort, can and does enrich charity: “what is discussed here is a knowledge which exerts its influence. For the force of the knowledge stimulates one to love more since the more God is known, so much the more is he loved.”

The knowledge which makes charity more splendid is not the breadth of knowledge of facts that leads to quiz bowl victory. Knowing what a certain theologian said about God, the chapter and verse of various Bible passages, or the years of the eccumenical councils can be quite helpful, but the aim of theology, as well as the little rosary lady’s meditations, is not to know a wide breadth of opinions and facts related to God, but to know God Himself, with depth.

The most elementary truths of Christian faith, such as those expressed in the Our Father, are, we find, the most profound truths when we have meditated upon them long and lovingly; when, through the years, we have lived with them, while carrying our cross, and they have become the object of almost continuous contemplation. To be led to the heights of sanctity, it would be enough for a soul to live intensely but one of these truths of our Faith. – Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.

Image: Nicholaes Maes, Old Woman Saying Grace (public domain)

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Br. Isidore Rice entered the Order of Preachers in 2015. He grew up in Gaithersburg, MD and graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, where he studied Materials Science and Engineering. On DominicanFriars.org