The Wisdom of Past Presidents

During this past school year, the 7th grade of Saint Andrew School had a day trip to visit Springfield IL. At the center of the trip was a visit to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, a place I highly recommend for you to visit if you’ve never had the chance. It is almost like an actual encounter with Abraham Lincoln.

To be honest, I would like it if everyone make a trip to the library. In our current era where both sides of the political divide are talking in echo-chambers that lack respect, decorum, and commonality, I think Abraham Lincoln has something to say.
And not because Abraham Lincoln was necessarily the most unifying personality in our history. To the contrary, most of his life he was divisive and stubborn. Thousands of people died at the sword, cannons, and bullets thrown as a result of his decisions. He had all the trappings of a politician and his family was constantly in tragic turmoil. The harvest that came from this chaos however was wisdom rightly won. In the end, I consider Abraham Lincoln a mystic.

To clarify my use of the title, I find these days that I use the name “mystic” to apply to anyone who has gleaned the wisdom of life by living through any type of hardship. Whenever someone speaks through lived experience, I feel they possess a certain vulnerability that give them keys to the fountain from which wisdom flows.

And one person whom I have come to recognize as a mystic is Saint Paul. In his second letter to the Corinthians read at Mass today (2 Cor 12:7-10), he refers to something called “the thorn in the flesh.” Now a lot of ink has been spilled by theologians and authors in reflections about the “thorn in the flesh” that Paul experienced. Was it malaria? Epilepsy? Did he have some sort of disgraced addiction that we would consider scandalous? Did he have permanently broken leg or a personality disorder?

The thing is that no one knows. It just bothered him. A lot.

Which is why I sometimes think it was nothing more than a big splinter that got under his skin and he couldn’t get it out. Based on what we know of Saint Paul, he was a perfectionist. Being “right” about everything was the currency in which he dealt. Even a small imperfection would have troubled him and I imagine a skin blemish was considered a fatal “weakness” to him.

His narcissism may not have been like the cannon ball that struck Saint Ignatius of Loyola (rendering Saint Ignatius a convalescent for several months) or the fatal illness of Saint Therese Lisieux (both of which led to their deep conversion and dependence on Christ). Saint Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” may not have even been the emotional scars of a president who led America through the Civil War, but whatever it was, it was Saint Paul’s weakness that humbled him. And from that place he found wisdom, a mystic’s wisdom, for “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

Perhaps my attraction to figures in history such as Abraham Lincoln, Saint Ignatius, Saint Therese, or even Saint Paul is that there exists within them a profound integration of their whole self. They accept not only their strengths but also their weakness. They are also aware that it is their weakness, not their strength, through which they develop a stronger relationship with God.

I don’t know that the 7th graders with whom I traveled to Springfield had the same experience. They may see Abraham Lincoln as a towering figure who is nothing but strength and heroism. I guess that’s alright. I just hope that we as a society can recapture a sense humility that Lincoln embodied near the end of the civil war. With the war nearly won, he could have bragged with hyperbole about “the great America defeating the South” and how his military “smashed the worthless rebels.” Instead, fatigued and repeatedly haunted by the choices he had to make – his own “thorn in the flesh” – Abraham Lincoln spoke with tender humility.

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

He spoke a mystic wisdom we have yet to reclaim.

-David Heimann, Pastoral Associate

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