Of all the photographs of President Gordon B. Hinckley, my favorite is the one where he is "knighting" President Henry B. Eyring with his cane. The gesture is playful, affectionate and — like so many things the man did — it contains a lesson.
In the hands of President Hinckley, a cane was never a crutch.
It was a tool.
He took an emblem of weakness — a "walking stick" — and transformed it into an emblem of power.
But then, prophets have been doing that for eons.
In the popular imagination, ancient prophets always carry a staff. They were always on the move — seeking people in the hills and valleys. Jesus sent his apostles out with "a staff only." Moses never left home without one. And when the apostles and prophets preached to the multitudes, they hoisted those staves for visibility.
Who can forget President Hinckley entering the Conference Center, waving his cane high above his head in greeting? He didn't walk with a cane. He used it to sweep cobwebs out of the corners.
Like an orchestra conductor, he would lift it like a baton to bring people to attention and get them on the same page.
Like a shepherd, he raised his staff to summon his flock — physically, mentally and spiritually
Yet the biggest irony was — like the ancients before him — President Hinckley used his "staff" to bless, not injure. In the photo I mentioned, President Hinckley lifts his cane above the head of President Eyring, but there's no worry in his eyes. Let anyone else heft a club like that and the impulse would be to scuttle for cover. But President Eyring simply smiles, his face that of a man awaiting a gift.
The photograph brings to mind the 23rd Psalm and the line: "Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."
That Psalm's beauty, Charles Spurgeon pointed out, comes on the heels of Psalm 22 and the terrifying words that Christ would utter on the cross: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" They struck Jesus with a rod. Now, that rod and staff will also serve to comfort.
That's an odd notion in a way — a "staff" comforting. The thing seems made to bruise. Some Bible commentaries say the "comforting staff" in the Psalm really represents leadership — somebody showing the way. Matthew Henry quotes Leviticus, where shepherds would extend their staves and number their sheep as they scampered beneath.
But I hold to the notion that a staff can actually bless and heal. The paradox seems, well ... very biblical.
A staff in the hands of a prophet isn't a weapon. It's a lightning rod to call down the blessings of heaven. When he hoists a staff, a prophet points to a source of power beyond his own.
There are many photos of President Hinckley with his cane — one on the cover of the Ensign, another where he holds his cane against his shoulder. In each, he turns a symbol of aging into a symbol of vitality and energy. Of course, he would have been the first to say his astounding resilience was not his own. It, too, came from another source.
I think of a scripture:
"By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshipped — leaning on his staff."
He may have leaned on his staff, but it wasn't a piece of wood that kept Jacob upright and active. His "support" came from elsewhere.
Prophets don't use their walking sticks to help them relax. They use them to make sure we never do.
Anybody who's read the Bible can see that.
Anybody who's read the Bible, or witnessed the miracle known as President Gordon B. Hinckley.
Jerry Johnston is a Deseret Morning News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears weekly in the Mormon Times section.