You may remember the moment during the proceedings of the presidential inauguration this past January when Senator Lamar Alexander stepped up to the microphone and said: “The late Alex Haley, the author of Roots, lived his life by these six words: ‘Find the good and praise it.’”
Six words in six staccato syllables: Find the good and praise it. That’s English in its natural habitat – lean, attentive, poised to pounce. Every speaker longs to have (by invention or borrowing) such a tight, memorable phrase, even a speaker whose role is, as the senator’s was in this case, simply to make an introduction.
That whole short sequence in the day’s festivities was memorable for its many stark juxtapositions: a Republican senator from a state of the old Confederacy at an African-American Democrat’s inauguration, quoting a writer who had also been a biographer of Malcolm X and introducing the nation’s first Latina Supreme Court Justice.
What especially caught my attention was not so much the scene itself but rather the six quoted words or, more precisely, the senator’s statement that Haley “lived by them.” He was saying, in other words, that these words were for Haley a sort of personal motto, a unique distillation of wisdom, based on lived experience no doubt, but also representing an ideal to aspire to. A motto, after all, is not the statement of a physical law like gravity. It is often a rule that we violate flagrantly and frequently, all the while persisting in holding it up as our goal. (In Haley’s own case, his eagerness to “find the good” extended to what a Federal judge later concluded convincingly was massive plagiarism in his most famous work, something Haley admitted to and for which he agreed to pay a hefty out-of-court settlement.)
Crafting a set of personal ideals, even if we live them imperfectly at present, is nevertheless an indispensable undertaking for anyone interested in spiritual progress. Meditation and other contemplative practices help draw these personal ideals into the light of consciousness where they can be examined and refined. These ideals, in their turn, then help focus our inner work.
Here at Georgetown we’re familiar with some of the Jesuit methods – notably the Ignatian examen – of linking contemplative techniques and ethical principles to review one’s own behavior. The Benedictine stream of practice within Christianity, older by a thousand years than the Jesuits, is equally (if not more) committed to this practice, where it is known as conversatio morum – roughly, “being familiar with, and having recourse to, a rule of life.”
The mother of all rules, in Benedictine culture, is the one written in the sixth century by St. Benedict himself. He stated flatly, however, that his text was just a starter, and the custom of “commenting” on the Rule – that is, extending it, adapting it to circumstances, interpreting it in the light of lived experience – began almost immediately and has continued ever since. It has persisted through the centuries as a sort of minor subgenre of spiritual writing. (You need look no further than next week’s John Main Lecture – see below – for evidence that this tradition of commentary on the Rule is alive and well.)
Still, it may appear a bit cheeky to suggest that we should write our own rule of life when some excellent and long-standing ones, hallowed by centuries of use, are ready at hand. What’s wrong with, say, the Ten Commandments?
Nothing. In fact, when I heard Alex Haley’s motto I recognized in it a restatement (under low-light conditions, as it were) of the first law of Moses: “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole soul…” Find the good and praise it.
This is exactly what we must all do, if we are serious about the interior life: connect with the wisdom of the ages, but restate this wisdom in language not only of our own time and generation, but also in words and images that resonate with us personally.
When you hit upon a good formulation of your own rule of life, write it down. For you, this is scripture. It’s a sacred text. Treat it that way: with reverence and respect. You’ll be in the company of that Pulitzer Prize winner, Alex Haley, and that other guy, Moses.