The best advice I ever got on a horse came from a nun, but I didn’t take it.
We were at Churchill Downs for a special event. Sister Mary Margaret and I were standing in line waiting to place our bets on the third race. She turned to me and asked, “So, Michael, who do you like in this race?”
“I think I’m going to put my money on Trinity to place,” I said.
She shook her head sadly. I knew immediately I’d gotten the wrong answer. I just didn’t know why.
“Never bet on a horse with a holy name,” she said. “They’re always dogs.”
“Are you sure,” I asked, hoping for a little redemption.
This was a real nun. Unsentimental. Faithful to God. True to her order. And reasonably tolerant of whatever man Holy Mother Church deigned to choose as Pope.
She looked at me with eyes that seemed capable of bearing a world of disappointment. “If a horse can’t run, Michael, they give it a holy name. Pulls in the suckers.”
We placed our bets. Trinity came dead last. No joke. Dead last. And a sharp elbow and a sly smile punctuated my folly.
“Where can wisdom be found?” asks a biblical searcher. We often think first of high places. Epiphany celebrates three kings bearing gifts and calls them wise.
When I retired from a seminary presidency I was told that my IQ would rise in the estimation of many folks around the church because a past-president of a seminary is always smarter in the church’s eyes than an active one. This hasn’t been my experience, but who knows?
Wisdom, I am reasonably sure, is intuitive. I mean by that, it is the product of distilled general knowledge combined with genuine experience put through the mill of patient generous reflection. I am tempted to say that it is a product of critical thinking, and critical thinking may be involved, but wisdom smacks too much of grace and humor to simply owe its existence to critical thinking. Any fool can be cynical.
Real wisdom often raises a rueful smile.
My old friend Lewie Donelson, for example, once told me, “Never bet on the first tee with a guy with squinty eyes, a deep tan, and a one iron in his bag.” There’s wisdom behind that mischievous twinkle in Lewie’s eye.
Someone else has said, “Never play poker with a fellow named after a city. So why are so many bits of wisdom about gambling?
I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure they have their roots in Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” He likens a soul in Purgatory to a man who sits staring long after his partners at dice have departed. He’s lost, Dante says, every throw. And, sitting there, he is broke, sad, and left rehearsing every toss of the dice. “Sad,” Dante says, “but sadly wiser.”
I heard a sad-eyed analyst on the news just this morning talking about the uncertainty we experienced in 2020, and then a professor from Harvard talking about the illusion of control as though she had thought of it for the first time. But anyone who has paid attention to life at all knows that life is uncertain and beyond our control. We try to harness the fates. We try to fix the wheel of fortune to spin in our favor. And some lucky few delude themselves into believing that they have bent the world to their will. Until their luck runs out, the wheel of fortune comes off its axis, and fate blithely ignores their plans.
Then they have a chance – and so do we – to find wisdom walking around the neighborhood, just waiting to be found.