Abraham Lincoln, Sam Waterston, and Lectio Divina

Abraham Lincoln, Sam Waterston, and Lectio Divina

In Illinois Abraham Lincoln is the 4th member of the Holy Trinity. If you don’t believe me, visit the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield. I studied the civil war as a hobby from late elementary through high school. I read all the Lincoln-Douglas debates during 8th grade. I had a poster of the Gettysburg Address on my wall throughout childhood and adolescence. I memorized every word.

My favorite part was the finale:

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Every person I had ever heard recite or read the last line placed the emphasis as follows:

. . . and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The emphasis was always on the prepositions. It made sense to me that it would be read that way, perhaps because that is how I had always heard it. It also made sense, though, because prepositions are used to show connections and context. According to Warriner’s English Grammar, “a preposition is a word used to show the relationship of a noun or pronoun to some other word in the sentence.”  

Here each of the prepositions shows a different way in which “the people” relate to our “government.” 

“Of” can indicate origin or source. Therefore our government is “of the people” because its power originates from the people. We are, ultimately, the substance that creates a country from which a government can be made.  

“By” can identify the agent performing the action. Therefore our government is “by the people” because the agent that created and that controls the government is the people.

“For” can indicate that one noun suits the purposes or needs of another. Our government is “for the people” because its purpose is to create mechanisms to help citizens live together in peace and harmony. The government is not reasonably for the redistribution of wealth, the meager attempts at utopia creation, or bargains with the devil to protect or encourage the sacrifice of children.

In September of 1990 everything changed. With thousands of others, I watched Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary on public television. Sam Waterston of Law & Order fame voiced Abraham Lincoln. When the episode that featured Waterston’s reading of the Address aired, I heard something completely new.

. . . and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

I almost fell off the sofa. What I heard both made complete sense to me and changed forever the way I read familiar texts. While it remains true that the prepositions give us context, the noun is the ultimate end of the phase. The prepositions are only important because of the noun. And these particular nouns and prepositions hold stunning insights into our relationship to our government. Waterston’s emphasis on “people” shouts that our government is related to the People rather than the aristocracy, the king. The subliminal message is “people . . . people . . . people,” which reminds us of our solidarity with each other and lifts our hearts. In the more typical reading, the emphasis is on a variety of relationships. When the emphasis is on “of . . . by . . . for” the message is more like a civics lesson.

I could now mine new insights from something I knew by heart simply by changing the emphasis. Now old soliloquies, musical theater numbers, and even scripture could come to life in new ways. I began with one of the most familiar:

The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack. In green pastures he makes me lie down; to still waters he leads me; he restores my soul. (Psalm 23: 1-3)

In the past, I had read this with the emphasis on “The Lord,” and paid little attention to the emphases after that. Now I began to read it by emphasizing the first word in each phrase, then the second, etc. I read it aloud to increase the power of this experiment. I felt rather stupid the first time though, but after settling down, I realized that it was having the same effect as Waterston’s changes. While it did not initially bring the deeper understanding that the re-reading of the Address did, as I kept at it over the weeks and months, I could see how much was to be gleaned through this process. By emphasizing “my,” I thought more about the ways in which I belong to God, and He belongs to me. By emphasizing “shepherd,” I entered into a meditation on the ways in which God protects me and steers my life.

I had not heard the term Lectio Divina until about eight (8) years ago. Like many such areas of interest, once I had heard about it, I heard about it on many fronts. Once I understood the basics of it, I realized that this is partly what I was attempting with my meager multiple emphasis-changing readings. Listening to information about the practice gave me some insight, but I found that I needed more to embrace this type of prayer fully. While mental prayer/meditation and Lectio Divina are generally considered two separate forms of prayer, I find that I have benefited from putting them together in my beginner state.

The Ways of Mental Prayer by Rt. Rev. Dom Vitalis Lehodey and Conversations with Christ by Peter Thomas Rorhbach have been indispensable in my growth in this area. I know that I am still a beginner at mental prayer, yet I find that I cannot return to a prayer life without it. Shame-facedly I admit that I tried to read Avila’s seminal work and felt somewhat lost. Perhaps this admission can give encouragement to others who wish to try Interior Castle but also find such a holy work a little beyond them.

The basics of the process are these:

Selection: Reading from scripture can be chronological throughout a year or you can select different kinds of readings from the Old and New Testaments as you wish on different days. I make sure the selection is short enough to allow deep thought.

Reading: I read the selection at least three times focusing on different elements and emphases each pass through. The change of emphasis throughout can assist in deeper understanding.

Meditation:  I contemplate the meaning of the reading. This can take the form of putting ourselves deeply into the scene or focusing on some of the words.  I attend to the emotions or memories that bubble up.

Response/prayer: Because I have been allowed this meaningful time with Our Lord, I then respond in prayer to Him.  I try to engage all four elements of prayer: Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.  In each I continue to focus on the reading and its meaning in my life.

Contemplation: I ask how I need to change to embrace what I have learned today.  My sinful nature can sometimes hide in plain sight, and I wish, though prayer and love, to grow closer to God.  I sometimes see in this process stark areas of needed growth. If I learn to trust God more, I can continue in this growth toward Him.

Action: I now require myself to implement the insights that I have discovered in this process.

This is obviously only the bare bones of this process. Many books have been written on Lectio Divina and mental prayer, and I’m sure many more will be to assist us in mastering its steps. The most important thing to remember, though, is to begin. It’s possible to read all the books written on prayer, and never begin to pray. To echo Dr. Peter Kreeft in Prayer for Beginners, I can often fool myself that I have begun a process because I think about it. Perhaps thinking is a precursor to the first step, but it is not the process itself.

Let’s begin.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Written by
Jennifer Borek