They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And they (whoever they are?) are right.
The truth is mimicking behavior we see starts from our earliest days. Infants get to know the face of their parents and start to try to copy the facial expressions they see. It’s how we learn to react, talk, move, and behave. We learn to live by doing what we see others doing.
And that is both comforting and kind of scary when you think about it. My children are going to learn how to behave and live by watching and copying me! Poor kids.
But think about it. We were created in the image of God to be made into His likeness. I know I’ve said this before, but it is such a foundational truth that it simply can’t be overemphasized.
God knows Himself as Persons in Communion. He is One God and He is Three Persons. And these Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is (used on purpose) in eternal Communion. So, it is little wonder that, no matter how far we as a human race drift from our loving Creator, we still, at the very foundation of our being, somehow manage to never escape from this need to be connected to another.
And one of the many manifestations of this foundational reality of our common human nature is this reality of following the example of those who go before us. Why it’s the very reason that psychology and therapy start by exploring your relationships with your parents. If you can tease out the mysteries of a person’s relationships, you will begin to discover the real person and their reasons for their actions and choices. Your relationships reveal AND shape your self.
No wonder St. Paul writes to the Thessalonians and says things like “we command you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, we did not eat any one’s bread without paying, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you. It was not because we have not that right, but to give you in our conduct an example to imitate.” And then he writes ” Brethren, do not be weary in well-doing. If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” See 2 Thessalonians 3:6-18
Our Orthodox Christian faith isn’t a mere set of religious doctrines or philosophical insights about God. It is an actual way of life prescribed to us and for us based on an actual and living tradition that is lived out in a community of people. And, that, my friends, is always hard work. Always.
In fact, I’ll go so far as to say if your experience of real community isn’t hard work for you, well, you ain’t doing it right!
Learning to live together in community means the hard work internally of staying awake to your own behavior, words, attitudes, and actions because you set the example on how to live in front of others. You may respond “O father, not me. I’m a nobody. No one watches me as an example.” And my response would be, well, actually I think I’d just stare at you in unbelief. You do set an example for someone, and I bet you’d be surprised how many folks watch and learn from your life.
This work also is absolutely invaluable for your own spiritual growth. Because it teaches you about yourself. Do you see the genius of our Creator in making us for communion? So much important work is done through the hard work of learning how to get along with so many different people!
AND we don’t have to start from scratch! Foundationally, we have the example of the Holy Trinity to begin our learning. But if that seems to be too much of a reach, then look at the lives of the saints. And if that is still too much for you, look around you and notice the folks in your parish that seem to be an example of love and peace.
St. Paul told the Corinthians “Follow me as I follow Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1) We were meant to be imitators of Jesus and the only way we can do this is to imitators of those examples of Jesus we see around us. Doing this brings a sense of equilibrium and constancy in our lives. It brings peace and calmness even in the middle of tough times. It brings consistency and dependability to us. Doesn’t that sound wonderful in this world of bad examples and chaos?
Today, you are the example of how to live for somebody, and somebody is your example on how to live. Make it Christ-like and everybody concerned will be the better for it!