Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
President Thomas S. Monson, and his daughter sister Ann M. Dibb exit the Conference Center in Salt Lake City following the morning session of the LDS Church’s 187th Annual General Conference on Saturday, April 1, 2017.

In paying tribute to extraordinary individuals it is easy to focus on their impressive achievements, professional accolades and educational accomplishments. While the how of such success is simple to measure, it often prevents us from exploring the principles behind the why of what they did.

As we review the life of Thomas S. Monson, the magnitude of his actions causes many of us to wonder: “How did he do that?” But viewing his life through the lens of his positions of prominence in business and as a leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would miss the mark. Even as we celebrate the way he reached out to those who silently suffered, we might casually excuse ourselves for not doing the same — because, after all, this was President Monson. In so doing we would miss and possibly dismiss the principles that drove the why of his actions — the principles he was perpetually trying to teach us all: that we have a loving Heavenly Father and a redeeming Savior in Jesus Christ, and that true happiness is found in serving others.

The essence of President Monson could be summed up in the declaration that he was a dedicated disciple of Jesus Christ — in word and in deed. Words and deeds, however, were merely the means to teaching the why of enlightening, eternal principles.

President Monson understood that words have meaning and meaning matters. He loved powerful phrases, poetry and parables, which he carefully laced through his sermons and writing — for the purpose of teaching principles. He also knew that a personal experience, a little laughter or a humorous metaphor could create space for a meaningful teaching moment. His use of a literary or rhetorical device was never to draw attention to himself but rather to help his listeners and readers better see themselves in the light of such principles.

Paraphrasing a tribute once given to Winston Churchill, of President Monson it could be rightly said that “he marshaled the power of principles and mobilized the English language, then sent them into battle for the hearts and minds and souls of men.”

More important than the oratory from the pulpit or the ink on the page was the reason for the words — the why: to encourage and enlighten, inspire and instruct people. In an interesting paradox, this man of mighty words lived — better than perhaps any — the principle proclaimed by Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, "Always preach the gospel; when necessary use words."

President Monson daily demonstrated that when the principles driving the “why” are big enough, the “how” behind the action is never a problem. For this prophet, his deeds were a natural extension of his words. He recognized that opportunities to help the poor, cheer the lonely and strengthen the struggling soul usually came at inconvenient moments. He regularly reminded us that chances to serve rarely arise when you are sitting around with nothing to do. Rather, they tend to come when you are extremely busy, weighed down with your own worries or are running late. Left to the “how,” most of us would justify inaction on any inclination to help others. President Monson understood why, so he acted on every prompting, no matter how inopportune it may have been.

President Monson challenged people everywhere to live their lives with a sensitivity to spiritual nudges so that they could become the answer to someone’s silent cry for help. He said, “We watch. We wait. We listen for that still, small voice. When it speaks, wise men and wise women obey. We do not delay promptings of the Spirit.” Throughout his life, President Monson was the epitome of the adage that “God hears every prayer, then usually answers it through the goodness and kindness of another human being.”

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I witnessed an example of this once in the hallway of a church building. An elderly woman stood talking with a man who was an adviser to the young men of the congregation. She took him by both hands, looked gratefully into his eyes and softly said, “Thank you for being the answer to a grandmother’s prayer for her grandson.”

President Monson proved that responding to every inclination and every prompting to do good and lift others is the surest path to a life well-lived and a legacy worth leaving. He showed by word and deed what it means to live the principles of the gospel in order to become a disciple of Jesus Christ — and in his customary way invited each of us, in our time and turn, to go and do likewise.