My very first post at By Common Consent was a half-serious, half-satiric analysis of a talk by President Monson (newly appointed). In it I posited that there is a method to the madness of President Monson’s talks, that the seemingly random stories and aphorisms are carefully chosen for the mood that they convey, rather than for their content. I stand by that analysis; but I have also personally regressed from it. To be honest, I have had a hard time being inspired by President Monson, because he has often seemed out-of-touch to me.
Take the most recent Conference. President Eyring begins the Sunday Morning session with a call for faith in troubled times. Elder Packer calls for moral clarity and repentance in troubling times. Excellent talks follow regarding following the Spirit and working the Gospel into your daily walk. Elder Oaks tries to describe the differences between ecclesiastical and personal revelation. And, after a lot of doctrine and controversy to chew on, President Monson asks us to remember our pleases and thank yous. I, personally, deflated a bit when his topic became clear, thinking “what? This again?” This is because I am a spiritual midget, of course, but also because I didn’t know what to listen for.
Last Sunday, my ward’s sacrament meeting was devoted to gratitude (what with Thanksgiving coming up and all). Therefore, we had four talks on the same topic. Two of them wound up being based on President Monson’s Sunday morning talk. It got me thinking about it once again. The talk itself is full of the standard information that we frequently receive on gratitude. We should not take our loved ones for granted; we should be grateful for the blessings we receive. But, with President Monson, what is actually said is always secondary to the mood, the context. At a conclusion of a long session dedicated to the moral ambiguity and hard choices of the day, we are thrust by President Monson’s talk back to the simple contemplation of our duty to appreciate what we are given. Why?
I need to digress for a moment to talk about the Tao. I’m no expert and no Taoist, but, as I understand it, the Tao is the Way. To understand and to follow the Tao is to do what you are to do in the universe. It isn’t fate, really, but more of a cooperative act between yourself and the universe to accomplish what you are meant to accomplish. This can lead to normal behavior, but it often does not. Following the Tao can lead into danger and sorrow, but appreciating the Tao means appreciating even these. The best cinematic example of how I understand the Dao is Master Oogway in Kung Fu Panda.
My argument today is that Master Oogway is based on President Monson. Aside from looking somewhat physically similar to the aged turtle, President Monson has long been asking us to follow the Tao. The clearest example of this is his April 2009 Sunday Morning sermon, incongruously entitled “Be of Good Cheer,” in which he tells us story after story of people whose children died terribly. Just the sort of thing to put a smile on your face, right? The disconnect between title and content forces one to connect the dots. I think that in asking us to embrace the absolute worst in life cheerfully, President Monson is commanding us to embrace all of it.
Joseph Smith said:
The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! If thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity – thou must commune with God.
Joseph Fielding Smith (editor), Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 137
Moses 6:63 teaches that all things are “created and made to bear record” of God. Consider that. All things. The verse is very thorough. According to its logic, cancer is there to bear record of God. So are hurricanes, scorpions, paper-cuts, and downtown traffic. We think that God is the source of all good things and the devil is the source of the bad, but according to this God is the source of all. Embracing gratitude as a divine gift means understanding all things as good. Good because sin may make us reliant on God for redemption, which brings about repentance, which is God’s vehicle for changing us for the better. Good because disease may make us reliant on others, which brings about charity, which allows us the opportunities to do God’s work. Good because loss may make us turn to the Lord in our emptiness, which will give him the opportunity to fill us. President Monson asks us to contemplate gratitude at the end of a session devoted to our current troubles, not because he wants us to bury our heads in the sand, but because he is pleading with us to open our eyes.
Today, I am grateful for a prophet whose prophecies are hidden amongst the mundane and simple words of a very humble man. I have had a tendency to assume that President Monson has been recycling the same talks over and over again since he was a bishop, but I never really stopped to consider what that ministry meant. He helped widows through their long, lonely lives, holding their hands through their troubles until the day they died. He is as close to a Mother Theresa as the Church has ever produced, because he worked constantly with people at their very lowest, most dependent, most wretched. He is familiar with the dark humor of the dying soul; he has actually been there for people at their lowest ebb. Note that he says in his latest talk that Christ not only taught us how to live, but “He taught us how to die.” What he is asking of us is more than the internal repetition of a few aphorisms; he is asking us to be grateful for every thing in life. That is much, much harder.