Thursday, May 7, 2009

"Imitate Me"

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but the sincerity is in the witness to the other, obvious, still often unspoken, goal: to become like the one we imitate. Children are good at it; we adults find it harder: "I want to be like you."

Of course, imitation does not imply wholesale duplication--one may imitate this or that footwork or approach without imitating any of the number of inevitable flaws the imitated one possesses. Yet even here, an intentional orientation or response to limitation and failure might be found imitable by some (e.g. the ability to seek out forgiveness).

I think what I find most compelling (and sincere) about human imitation in particular is the irrationality of it all. For example, I don't necessarily imitate you because I understand you; most of the time I imitate you as a means of understanding. This means that the sort of intentional imitation of which I'm speaking requires a trust most often founded on love--the child-like desire to "become just like you", again. I remember especially a priest from my time as an undergraduate student who, in the course of administering the blessed bread and wine at Communion, knelt to eye level when he blessed a small child. Every small child. Deeply admiring the priest for the faith I knew in him from elsewhere, I instinctively trusted the action and longed to see what he saw from that crouched vantage point. Now sharing that vantage, I find myself shaped.

The particular thing that has me returning to the phenomenon of imitation today is a baby bird, found last night, next to dead, by our porch--and my wife's unmovable compassion for said baby bird. I wasn't as stirred, but out of obedience to (and love for) my wife, began sharing some of her bird-tending duties (dropping small beads of water onto the bird's beak from the end of a spoon). I still don't see the bird in the same way--with the same love--she does, but I'm closer than I was before I raised the spoon.

A million thoughts just now from a seminary class on Imitation and Paul, led by Susan Eastman (a summary of her theological take on imitation can be found here ), as well as so many from Hauerwas and Wells and the shaping role of the liturgy and, most importantly, the centrality of moving, understanding, and learning from within the embodied faith--the People of God. It is frustratingly simple to most that the best way to understand a thing is to put your feet in the fresh imprints of others. That kind of trust is much harder to learn.

I remember a near-senile priest who filled-in at my college church one Sunday. He didn't say much that made sense to us (acolytes) before the service, but just prior to beginning, he looked at me with every seriousness and asked, "What do you think--am I ready for the dance?" He checked the mirror, smiled approvingly, and we were off--off and dancing the living dance of the Triune God. I pray I never forget the unexpected joy of just that moment--and that I never grow too old to trust the lead of the saints of God.

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