Imagine a poet awake all night, watching and waiting for the right words to come. Hour after hour he or she sits or paces up and down, now in high spirits, now in low, gloating at times or moaning, now very quiet and then agitated, biting the end of a pencil or filling the waste-paper basket with crumpled paper.... Slowly (or suddenly) the words are there, shining in the mind and on the page. How was it done? Is success the result of effort? Could I do it if I put in the work? If I spent a night imitating that poet - pacing up and down, sighing so many times a minute, biting a certain number of pencils and filling a basket, etc. - would I also produce a poem in the small hours? No. Work will not do it. But neither will leisure. At another time those or better words might have come without effort or pain, yet if the poet were to rely on such moments of grace and refuse to work and suffer, those moments would probably never come. Sweat and tears are necessary, yet poetry is the result of inspiration, not of sweat and tears.
In the place of poets put saints. Now what happens? All the religious people of the world begin to imitate them: the things they did and said, the feelings they are supposed to have had, sometimes even the way they dressed. But, you say, didn't St Paul write, "I urge you...be imitators of me" (1 Cor 4:16)? Yes, and you could add 1 Cor 11:1; Phil 3:17 and 1 Thess 1:6, where he said something similar. But he also wrote in Eph 5: 1, "Be imitators of God." This is nearer to what Matthew reports of Jesus (5:48) who said, "You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." How are we to think about imitation in the spiritual life? I once heard an honest man say that all imitation is external and monkey-like. Is that the only honest view? Let's call a witness: Meister Eckhart, the 14th-century German mystic.
He wrote, "People may become anxious and distressed because the lives of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the saints were so harsh and laborious, and one may not be able to imitate them in this.... Take heed of how you ought to follow God. You ought to know and to take heed of what it is that God is requiring most of you; for not everyone is called to come along the same way to God, as St Paul says. [Probably a reference to 1 Cor 12] It is not possible for everyone to live alike, for all to follow one single way of life, or for one person to adopt what another or everyone else is doing.... One ought indeed to imitate our Lord, but still not in everything he did. We are told he fasted forty days. But no one ought to undertake to imitate this. Many of his works Christ performed with the intention that we should imitate him spiritually, not physically. And so we ought to do our best to be able to imitate him with our reason, for he values our love more than our works. Each of us ought to imitate him in our own way."
This sounds like sensible advice. We are not to imitate anyone slavishly, not even Christ; we are to imitate "spiritually" and "with our reason." If we imitate slavishly we are slaves. Our Father's house is not a place of slavery, nor is it a place of neglect; it is a house of love. We are not imprisoned, nor are we cast on the seas without a compass. We have freedom to be who God made us to be, yet we are never abandoned. Eckhart catches the balance of it perfectly in the arresting phrase, "Each of us ought to imitate him in our own way." It seems a contradiction: if it is imitation it is not our own way, and if it is our own way it is not imitation. But by instinct you know exactly what he means; and if you don't, the best one to tell you is a successful father or mother.
A poet's imagination finds body in words; a Christian is inspired by the Holy Spirit to give body to the Word of God. The cases have something in common. We know the labour and the suffering that fidelity to that Word requires; and still it is entirely a grace. External imitation may show desire and good will (and these are essential of course), or it may show insecurity and fear. But real inspiration is "spiritual" and "with our reason." There have always been people who tried to impose faith on us as an external conformity, playing on our fears and insecurities. But just as love drives out fear, fear drives out love. There are probably many poets who have remained anonymous even to themselves because they feared they could never write anything of value; they never had the courage of their gift. It is the same with faith: it takes courage - also called 'fortitude', and it is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.