The Imitation of Christ
By Thomas à Kempis. Translated by William C. Creasy
Publisher: Notre Dame, IL: Ave Maria Press, 2004.
Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471) wrote The Imitation of Christ for his fellow monks in a small, newly formed monastery outside the town of Zwolle in the Netherlands. Perhaps he never imagined that its appeal would reach far beyond the monastery walls. Today The Imitation of Christ is said to be the most widely published work of Christian spirituality after the Bible. In it Thomas covers all aspects of life and death: joy, dignity, dejection, confidence, loneliness, arrogance, peace, love, desire, guilt, hope and understanding. He offers guidance and deep inspiration for any student of spirituality, regardless of religious background.
The Imitation of Christ is a collection of four separate writings that have been compiled under one title. In Book 1, “Useful Reminders for the Spiritual Life,” Thomas discusses the foundational work necessary for a serious spiritual seeker. He asks the spiritual aspirant not only to strive but also to be brutally honest with himself: “the greatest and most useful lesson we can learn: to know ourselves for what we truly are, to admit freely our weaknesses and failings and to hold a humble opinion of ourselves because of them.”
He pinpoints our human failings, but also recognizes our normal human feelings. He understands the struggle. The titles of chapters give us a glimpse of his astuteness: Of Confused Feelings, Of Resisting Temptations, Of Avoiding Empty Hopes and Self-Praise, Of Heartfelt Remorse. He discusses, for example, our tendency to be drawn out into the world by unnecessary talk. “I wonder why are we so eager to chatter and gossip with each other since we seldom return to the quiet of our own hearts without a damaged conscience. The reason is that by idle chit-chat we seek comfort from one another and we hope to lighten our distracted hearts.” The real devastation caused by this “chatter and gossip” is the loss of feeling the divine presence. “What a mistake! This outside comfort is no small detriment to the inner comfort that comes from God.”
Thomas confirms that life can be challenging. “Truly, life can be a great trial! The more one wishes to be spiritual, the more difficult the present life can seem, for as one progresses in the spiritual life, his flawed nature becomes more and more apparent.” However, he suggests that our so-called difficulties have great value.
Sometimes it is good for us to have troubles and hardships, for they often call us back to our own hearts. Once there, we know ourselves to be strangers in this world, and we know that we may not believe in anything that it has to offer. Sometimes it is good that we put up with people speaking against us, and sometimes it is good that we be thought of as bad and flawed, even when we do good things and have good intentions. Such troubles are often aids to humility, and they protect us from pride.
In fact, he says, we are only troubled by events because we want things to work out according to our wishes. He asks: “Why are you troubled because things do not work out the way you would like? Is there anyone who has everything he wants? I don’t. You don’t. No one on Earth does. There is no one in the world without some trouble or uncertainty.”
His message is positive. He gives deep and abiding encouragement: “My dear friend, do not lose confidence in progressing in the spiritual life; you still have time and opportunity. Get up and begin at once and say, ‘Now is the time to act. Now is the time to fight.’” Stressing the importance of making use of the present moment, he reminds us of death: “The present time is very precious. Now is the acceptable time. The time will come when you will wish for one day or one hour for changing your ways …” If this is not enough to rouse us into action, he asks: “If you are not prepared today, how will you be ready tomorrow?”
Book 2 is called “Suggestions Drawing One toward the Inner Life.” Thomas’s role in the monastery was to mentor the novices. It is perhaps because he worked with those new to the devotional life that his advice is so practical. Rather than expound abstract theory about ideals like love or humility, he writes: “See how far you still are from true love and humility? A truly loving and humble person does not know how to feel anger or indignation toward others, and if he does, he recognizes such feelings as his own weakness.” He writes, “we frequently do wrong, and to make matters worse, we make excuses about it!” He stresses being honest with oneself and non-judgmental toward others: “We are quick enough to feel it when others hurt us – and we even harbour those feelings, but we do not notice how much we hurt others. A person who honestly examines his own behaviour would never judge other people harshly.”
Thomas explains that great effort must be exerted until we begin to depend only on God. “We must each wage a long and fierce inner struggle before we learn to master ourselves fully and to focus all of our love on God.” He also addresses the common misconception that once one is on the spiritual path life should be all bliss. He calls such an attitude mercenary. “Can we not call all those people mercenaries who are constantly seeking spiritual comfort? Do they, who are forever thinking of their own comfort and gain, not prove that they love themselves more than they love [God]?” Rather, Thomas states, “if He should send you pain and sorrow, you ought to be thankful … for whatever he permits He does for our own good.”
Book 3, “Of Inner Comfort,” is written in the form of a conversation between Lord Christ and the Disciple. In one passage, the Disciple is reminded to quiet himself so that he can better hear. “Blessed are the ears that are attuned to the soft whisper of God’s voice and that ignore the buzzing of the world … be silent, and visit the quiet recesses of your own heart. It is there that you will hear God’s voice.” Christ advises the Disciple to acquire the virtue of humility, saying, “you are easily overcome, easily upset, easily weakened. Of yourself, you have nothing to be proud of, but many things ought to humble you, for you are weaker than you know.” However, he also talks about the sweetness that the spiritual aspirant experiences and the proper attitude towards those experiences. “Sometimes you may be suddenly seized by intense spiritual feelings and seem to soar toward heaven, and then, just as quickly, you may drop back to earth, back to your own foolish thoughts. Such feelings are not illusions. Enjoy them when you feel them, and be thankful for them, but do not seek them out.” He explains that spiritual experiences are a gift from God and that we must “maintain a spiritual calm.”
In the end, all the advice given and lessons learned are only to acquire love. “Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger, nothing more sublime, nothing more expansive, nothing more joyful, nothing more abundant or better in heaven or on earth. Love is born of God …”
Book 4, “The Book on the Sacrament,” discusses the Catholic Church’s practice of Communion. Even those who do not engage in this practice may benefit from Thomas’s advice about the attitude to take toward a spiritual exercise.
The Imitation of Christ is a treasure-trove of spiritual guidance and uplift. As the writings do not have a linear structure, the reader can find gems of wisdom in each chapter. There are many very good translations of The Imitation of Christ, and the reader will find wonderful inspiration in any of them. Several are available free on the Internet. This translator, William C. Creasy, presents a translation that is very accessible to the modern ear.
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