I’m the youngest of six siblings. I vividly remember one of my brothers, five years my senior, being seriously annoyed that I was copying his every activity. He would be constructing a house of cards, for example, and I’d attempt to do likewise. He would sing a particular song, and I’d soon be humming it too. He’d disdainfully chant, “Copy cat, copy cat!” My mother tried to convince him that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but he’d have none of it.
I can also remember imitating my mother: how she walked with a dignified step; the hat and gloves she wore to go downtown; how she composed her features in a ladylike way.
Other family habits and traits also influenced me – some, indeed, that I needed to shed later on, but others stood me in good stead: how the older sibs would retreat to their rooms after supper to spend a couple of hours on their homework. They never had to be sent there either. No wonder they did so well at school!
Copying others is how all of us learn, right from infancy. Our babbling baby talk is our elementary effort that ultimately leads (we hope) to conversations of substance.
If we were blessed to have constant good example, it was natural and even easy to copy it. Of course, the same thing is true for those subjected daily to bad examples.
And so it is in our spiritual life.
We who were blessed with a parochial school upbringing, were routinely presented with the examples of saints of every personality and walk of life. I can remember being very excited hearing about their lives: such remarkable people! If the story told of a missionary, I wanted to become a missionary too. If it was about a founder of a teaching order, I wanted to join. Even learning about a cloistered contemplative like Thérèse moved me to desire that life, though I had no idea what “contemplative” meant.
Sometimes I think that the best way to teach youngsters about our faith is not through the various dogmas and beliefs (head), but first through the passionate idealism of saints (heart). The rest could follow as necessary.
Jesus drew people to himself by teaching them about his Father’s attributes, especially his infinite love and forgiveness. Imitating these gives us happiness and entry into the Kingdom of God.
Look, this is what your Father does: when one of his children goes off course, leaves home, squanders his youth and fortune on prostitutes and drunken companions, the father simply watches for him every day, patiently waiting to welcome him home with a party and new clothes to replace his rags.
Look, this is what your Father does: if a stranger or even an enemy is injured, he picks him up, tends his wounds, and sees him through to a total recovery.
Look, this is what your Father does: he doesn’t hate those who hate and disrespect him, but loves them no matter what; he loves sinners into holiness.
“For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?”
Ultimately, Christ pointed to himself for us to imitate:
Love one another as I have loved you . . .
By copying Jesus, we grow into his very likeness and show ourselves to be true children of the Father, as he is.
“. . . I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good. So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5)
And twice blessed are we if we’re given a human face of goodness to see, study, love and imitate.