It was easy to recognize greatness in Francis of Assisi. Art historians estimate that he is the subject of more religious art and iconography than any other person in history, except for Jesus Christ. Franciscans have referred to Francis as ‘the last Christian’ or as ‘the only Christian’. There can be no doubt that we latter-day saints would be hard-pressed to find a better example of Christian devotion in any era than we see in Francis.
John the Simple was a disciple of Francis of Assisi. Like everyone around him, John the Simple recognized the greatness in Francis. He was told that if he wanted to do the right things, he should do what he saw Francis do. He took the advice to heart—almost to the point of absurdity. John the Simple literally copied everything he saw Francis do. If Francis raised his hands, then John the Simple would raise his hands. If Francis sighed, John the Simple would sigh. If Francis spat, you could expect that in no time, John the Simple would spit as well. It was almost as if John was Francis’ shadow. It’s reminiscent a younger brother parroting back everything you said until it came to blows. That childhood recollection speaks further to the sainthood of Francis. Somehow, he didn’t lose it completely and come unglued on John the Simple.
Thomas of Celano was also a disciple of Francis, and knew him personally. In his history of Francis,* he recounts Francis asking John the Simple why he was copying his every gesture and movement. John the Simple’s reply was “I have promised to do all that thou doest; it is dangerous for me to leave anything out.” I’m not certain, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this was part the reason John the Simple came to be known as John the Simple.
Francis cherished John’s pure devotion, but gently forbade him to continue mimicking his every gesture. Interestingly enough, John the Simple passed away soon after this encounter. Francis always adored John the Simple’s memory, and subsequently referred to him as “Saint John”. Ironically, Francis frequently put forward John the Simple’s life for imitation of his other followers.
The story of John and Francis makes me think of the nuanced differences between imitation and emulation. Technically, the two words are interchangeable. But whereas imitation implies simple mimicry, emulation is more. To imitate someone is to copy them. You can imitate a truly great person or alternatively imitate a fool, or a thug, or ten thousand other examples of the worst that humanity has to offer. However emulation implies a more elevated form of imitation in which we try to equal or surpass another’s positive attributes. In other words, a thirteen-year-old girl imitates Miley Cyrus; John the Simple emulates Francis of Assisi.
At the end of the day, discipleship has always been a lot about mimicry. Jesus asked the rhetorical question “. . . what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am (3 Nephi 27:27).” But this is not all, in his Sermon on the Mount he enjoined his disciples to “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father, which is in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48; compare 3 Nephi 12:48).” He didn’t ask what manner of man ought ye to be like. He asked for full perfection—the complete package, not just clever mimicry. He wants us to emulate him, not just imitate him. As I understand it, it’s on being (or more correctly on becoming), not on being like.
It can be pretty disheartening to read the Sermon on the Mount, or the Sermon at the Temple and recognize the high standard we’ve been asked to emulate. Indeed, it is dangerous for us to leave anything out. Yet we are so predictably imperfect to not get that sinking feeling. But as important as it is for us to know the standard we must meet, it is equally important to recognize that the Lord didn’t expect perfect emulation of his life immediately. The Lord told the saints: “continue in patience until ye are perfected (D&C 67:13).” Thankfully he is perfectly patient. We must also work to emulate this as well.
* Thomas of Celano, The Lives of S. Francis of Assisi, p 319