“I’m just like you, Daddy,” says my little boy Peter to me one day, looking up at me with luminous eyes, as if being like Daddy were the greatest achievement possible. I had just put on my tie for Mass, and Peter had too. We looked surprisingly similar, a fact that brought great happiness to his little heart.
As any parent knows, children are supreme imitators. They study your every word and action carefully, soaking up your way of life in the hopes of being just like you. If you hammer nails into the wall, they start banging too. If you tie your shoes, they do too, or at least pretend to. If you drink coffee, they pretend their milk is coffee too.
The imitation of children is born of admiration. Their innocent hearts really cannot imagine anyone more wonderful than Mommy or Daddy, and they see so no reason why they shouldn’t be just like these people they love so much. Of course, this can be a terrifying fact—one that prompts serious self-examination. Am I living in such a way that my children can safely imitate me? Am I treating others the way I want my children to treat them? Do I love God in the way I hope my children will?
So often parents have separate standards for themselves and their children. “Do as I say and not as I do,” they command, without realizing that it is exactly what they do that will form their children far more than what they say. Parents must live in the way that they want their children to live, for no amount of instruction is a substitute for the supreme catechesis of a life well lived.
Be Imitators of God…
Much of parenting, then, comes down to the example we set. But there is a deeper lesson to be learned from children, and that is the way of our own spiritual advancement.
Many times, we overcomplicate the spiritual life. We want a sophisticated program, involving perhaps copious study of theology and philosophy. We want to pray many prayers and read many books. But while these things are well and good in their place, they are not the essence of spiritual growth. In reality, the program of spiritual progress is very simple: It is carefully imitating God our Father with childlike simplicity.
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,” teaches St. Paul, for indeed, that is what we are—children of God. In a very real sense, we can call God, “Abba, Daddy.” By the grace of the Holy Spirit, we share his nature, the fulness of his life lives in our souls. And as his beloved sons and daughters, we should aspire to say, “I’m just like you, Daddy.”
The proud in heart reject this simple way of childlike imitation. They see the spiritual life as involving many complex and difficult requirements, as a way for only the strong, mature, and knowledgable. They have nothing but scorn for those who follow Christ in simplicity. They forget the words of Christ, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Our vocation is the imitation of Christ. We are to be living copies of Jesus Christ, little mirrors of his glory. But how are we to do this? After all, Jesus lived a long time ago, and it’s not like we can watch reruns of his life on television. How are we to know how he lived?
The answer is threefold. First, we must study the Gospels.It is in the Holy Gospels that we come to know Christ Jesus, the fullness of the revelation of God. Read a portion of one of the four Gospels each day. Read them again and again until the person of Jesus, his ways and words, are indelibly marked on your soul.
Second, we must study the holy examples of the saints. “Therefore I urge you to imitate me,” says St. Paul, “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord.” St. Paul’s life was a perfect imitation of Christ. St. Timothy in turn had been formed by Paul as a spiritual son, so much so that he had become a copy of him, and therefore a copy of Christ. Imitation is the fruit of observation, and we can learn much from holy examples, living or in heaven. Study the lives of the saints—their words and works—and strive to imitate their example.
Finally, we must pray. We cannot love or imitate one that we do not know, and the knowledge of God only comes through frequent and fervent prayer. This prayer need not be complex. We do not need to strive after mystical experiences or all night vigils. We should pray with childlike simplicity, even if that prayer is merely invoking the name of Jesus constantly.
Some wonder why the Rosary has remained so popular. Why this prayer and not others? There are many reasons, but one important one is its profound accessibility. It is not a prayer for the proud, it is a prayer for the simple. And without such uncomplicated, heartfelt prayer, we will never come to know our Father in heaven.
It is no longer I that live
When my little boy looks up with me and says, “I’m just like you, Daddy,” my heart is filled with love and joy. I want him to be like me. What father doesn’t? So to it is with the family of God. God our Father longs for us to be just like him, to radiate his image fully and completely. His fatherly heart greatly desires us to look up at him with love and say, “I’m just like you, Daddy.”
In sum, the Christian life, the Catholic life, is striving after conformity to Jesus Christ, our elder brother in the Divine family. We want to exchange our lives for his, to the point that he lives perfectly in and through us. We must imitate him in every thought, word, and deed, until we can say like St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”
This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at The Catholic Gentleman.