WWMD: Of Jeeves, Thomas à Kempis, and the Imitation of Mary

24 Apr

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

The whole life of the Church is indeed the imitation of the life of Jesus Christ, but it is not a copy of that life.
~ Louis Bouyer,
The Paschal Mystery

It is a science to know how to regard a model; it is an art to be able to reproduce it.
~ Albin de Cigala,
The Imitation of Mary

Spring semester is always more stressful for me than fall. For one thing, “spring” semester begins in January, and January ‘round these parts (namely South Bend) is no treat. Plus, spring is when I transition with my sophomore nursing students from their previous semester’s clinical experiences in a nursing home to much more advanced clinicals in a hospital – where the pace is often frantic and the student nurse learning curve significantly steeper.

That being the case, it’s spring semester that often prompts me to pick up P.G. Wodehouse for respite and refreshment – and he’s never failed me yet. Wodehouse’s fluid prose and arresting images draw me into his idyllic Victorian cosmos, and his humorous plots and sympathetic characters are like a literary balm. In fact, I keep a copy of Wodehouse’s The World of Jeeves permanently reserved at my bedside – the very copy my mom gave me decades ago as a Christmas gift. When I return home from a rough night at the medical center – weary and worn out, but too frazzled to sleep – I’ll frequently turn to that volume for solace. It works like a charm, and within a story or two, I’m snoozing – much better (and safer) than Benadryl or booze.

At some point this past January as I stumbled late into bed, I grabbed the volume and settled on “Scoring Off Jeeves.” I won’t try to summarize the entire convoluted plot for you, but it involves Bertie Wooster’s attempt to avoid marriage to Honoria Glossop by re-directing her attentions to love-struck Bingo Little. Normally, he’d depend on the ingenious Jeeves, his valet, to solve such conundrums, but in this story, Bertie tries to go it alone. Here’s how Bertie put it to his hapless friend:

‘Bingo,’ I said, ‘what would Jeeves have done?’

‘How do you mean, what would Jeeves have done?’

‘I mean what would he have advised in a case like yours?’

Then, it dawned on me: Here is the original WWJD! Of course, Wodehouse used a slightly different form of the conditional tense, but it’s the same idea, and it predated the “What Would Jesus Do” craze by several decades. I’m thinking Wodehouse could’ve made a killing selling “WWJHD” wrist bands and t-shirts!

jw13Note the similarity in philosophy as well. Both forms are grounded in two assumptions: First, that one can predict how a superior being would act under a variety of circumstances, and, second, that one both could and ought to do likewise. Yet, in Bertie Wooster’s case, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Not only did he fail to anticipate how Jeeves would’ve handled the Honoria Glossop/Bingo Little predicament, Bertie’s own solution resulted in a huge mess that Jeeves ended up having to disentangle anyway.

Why? For Wodehouse fans, it’s painfully obvious: Bertie Wooster is no Jeeves, and he never will be. There’s no question Bertie has good will and generosity in spades, and his loyalty and forbearance are legendary, but he’s not exactly a front runner when it comes to mental acuity and finesse (much to the delight of Wodehouse’s readers, I assure you). The bottom line though is that, despite his best efforts, there simply wasn’t a high degree of likelihood that Bertie could ever know “What Jeeves Would Have Done,” and, even if he could, he was even less likely to have pulled off the same course of action himself.

That’s how I always felt about the more recent WWJD movement: Given my own mental and moral limitations, how was I to figure out “what Jesus would do” in the conflicts and problems I confront every day? It’s the same sentiment that I heard my friend Fr. Rich Simon express on his Relevant Radio broadcast around the same time I read the Wodehouse story. “All those bracelets that say ‘What would Jesus do?’ I don’t care what Jesus would do,” Fr. Simon flatly stated. “He was the only begotten Son of God by nature. I will never be that.”

Louis Bouyer said as much in his book, The Paschal Mystery:

Rightly understood, the imitation of Jesus Christ is the very essence of the Christian life…. This, of course, does not meant that we fallen human beings are to copy clumsily the God-Man. The whole matter is a mystery signifying that we are to be grafted upon Him so that the same life which was in Him and which He has come to give us may develop in us as in Him and produce in us the same fruits of sanctity and love that it produced in Him.

Still, we could use some guidance – and that’s where the saints come in, particularly Mary. Here’s Fr. Simon again: “Mary is what I can be,” he explained. “Mary is just a human being. Her holiness is the holiness to which you and I aspire.” Yes, she was conceived immaculately and born without any trace of original sin, sure enough, but she’s still human, with a totally and exclusively human nature like yours and mine, so she is the Christian template par excellence!

Even Thomas à Kempis, author of the WWJD-esque Imitation of Christ, arguably the most popular work of Christian piety ever, might’ve been inclined to agree – at least if we trust the word of Albin de Cigala who assembled The Imitation of Mary from Thomas’s voluminous writings. Kempis died in 1471 before completing The Imitation of Christ, and later editors were content to publish just the four chapters he’d put together. Cigala detected in Kempis’s other writings that a final, fifth chapter on Mary might’ve been in the works, and his Imitation of Mary fills the bill. Rooted in Thomas’s vision, Cigala wrote that the “Christian soul” who encounters Mary “exalts itself to the practice of the virtues which it admires in her who is, at the same time, a sublime model and an admirable mistress, an example and a mother.” A direct imitation of Christ might be too daunting or even forbidding for most of us, as Fr. Simon suggested, but imitating Him indirectly by imitating Mary seems right up our alley.

It comes down to this then: WWMD – What Would Mary Do? That seems like a much more reasonable and even achievable goal for us to “clumsily copy,” in Bouyer’s words. And just what does Mary do? We’ll let St. Luke and St. John be our guides.

  1. She spoke up: Mary was in her teens when she became the Mother of God, but she had pluck beyond her years. An Archangel appears and announces the impossible, and she asks, “How?” He fills her in a bit, and she responds, “Let it be so.” Later, sharing this spectacular news with her cousin Elizabeth, she bursts into song: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Lk 1.46-47). Unlike Joseph, her silent husbanGerard_David_-_The_Marriage_at_Cana_-_WGA6020d, Mary is depicted in the Gospels as someone always ready to speak her mind – particularly when it concerned her Son and savior. “They have no wine,” she tells him at Cana, and then to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2.3, 5).
  2. She acted: The Blessed Mother not only spoke up, but also followed up her words with deeds. As I mentioned, as soon as Gabriel brought her the time-shattering news of the Incarnation, she hightailed it over to her cousin’s house – for camaraderie and companionship, no doubt, for mutual support as they both navigated extraordinary pregnancies (Lk 1.39). At the end of Jesus’ life, we also see her attending him at the Cross and receiving the Apostle John as her surrogate son (Jn 19.25-27), and then participating in that unprecedented outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost which equipped her and the Apostles for their evangelistic task (Acts 1.14, 2.1).
  3. She pondered: As Gabriel announced Mary’s divinely appointed role as the vessel of the world’s salvation, Mary didn’t panic or bolt – she pondered (Lk 1.29). Then, after the birth of her man-God Son, as the angel-inspired shepherds proclaimed God’s praise, she pondered again – “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Lk 2.19). Mary readily spoke up and acted, but she seemed inclined to process events internally – a prerogative that Jesus himself took full advantage of by leaving the crowds with their needs and going off to pray to the Father in quiet and solitude from time to time (Lk 5.16).

So, WWMD? She’d give voice to truth when required, embody that truth in action without hesitation, and yet withdraw into hidden places with the Lord whenever possible. It’s the pattern the early church followed after the Pentecost Paraclete infusion: preaching boldly, traveling and ministering everywhere, even pondering from time to time – like in Acts 15 where the Apostles gather for the first ecumenical council in Jerusalem.

It’s this last point that is especially important for us moderns to consider – we who presume that “to be” is “to do.” Mary’s example should serve to remind us that the best thing we can do sometimes is stop talking and doing, and just listen…and wait on God.
____________________________

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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2 Responses to “WWMD: Of Jeeves, Thomas à Kempis, and the Imitation of Mary”

  1. Maria April 27, 2016 at 6:05 pm #

    I think we have also to learn that the most important thing about Mary is that many many many times she was in silence. Not in an useless silence, but always praying. Lk 2,16-21

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  1. WWMD: Of Jeeves, Thomas à Kempis, and the Imitation of Mary | One Thousand Words a Week - April 24, 2016

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