The spiritual classic by à Kempis, the second most widely read spiritual book after the Bible, has had an astonishing impact on the spiritual lives of countless saints, peasants, and popes for centuries. Even today, the soul-searching words of the fifteenth-century cleric Thomas à Kempis continue to resonate, unbounded by time or geography. Drawing on the Bible, the Fathers of the early Church and medieval mysticism, his four-part treatise shrugs off the allure of the material world, blending beauty and bluntness in a supremely spiritual call-to-arms.
This beautiful translation by Ronald Knox and Michael Oakley is considered by many teachers, writers, and readers to be the best English translation ever, and one that greatly enhances the life-changing insights of Thomas à Kempis.Illustrated.
"If we could construct a composite picture of all great ChristiansCatholic or non-Catholicof the last five hundred years who found The Imitation substantially beneficial, enlightening, and inspiring, we would need no further proof that familiarity with this great classic is an integral part of a mature spiritual life and even a path to holiness."
Father Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R.,Author,Arise From Darkness
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About the Author
Thomas à Kempis was born at Kempen, Germany, circa 1380. After joining the monastery of Mount St. Agnes in 1406, he received Holy Orders seven years later and busied himself with prolific writing and copying work. His books include the well-known Imitation of Christ, Life of Geert Groote, and Life of Liduina of Schiedam, the latter of which he epitomized. He also possessed an earnest love for the poor and Holy Scripture. Thomas a Kempis died on the twenty-fifth of July, 1471.
Read an Excerpt
The Imitation of Christ
By THOMAS KEMPIS
MOODY PUBLISHERSCopyright © 2007 Moody Bible Institute
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOf the Imitation of Christ, and Contempt of All the Vanities of the World
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"He that followeth me, walketh not in darkness," saith the Lord. These are the words of Christ, by which we are taught, how we ought to imitate his life and manners, if we will be truly enlightened, and be delivered from all blindness of heart.
Let therefore our chief endeavor be, to meditate upon the life of Jesus Christ.
2. The doctrine of Christ exceedeth all the doctrines of holy men; and he that hath the Spirit, will find therein a hidden manna.
But it falleth out, that many who often hear the gospel of Christ, are yet but little affected, because they lack the spirit of Christ.
But whosoever would fully and feelingly understand the words of Christ, must endeavor to conform his life wholly to the life of Christ.
3. What will it avail thee to dispute profoundly of the Trinity, if thou be lacking in humility, and art thereby displeasing to the Trinity?
Surely high words do not make a man holy and just; but a virtuous life makes him dear to God.
I had rather feel compunction than understand the definition thereof.
If thou didst know the whole Bible by heart, and the sayings of all the philosophers, what would all that profit thee without the love of God, and without grace?
Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity, except to love God, and to serve him only.
This is the highest wisdom, by contempt of the world to tend toward the kingdom of heaven.
4. Vanity therefore it is, to seek after perishing riches, and to trust in them.
It is also vanity to hunt after honors, and to climb to high degree.
It is vanity to follow the desires of the flesh, and to labor for that for which thou must afterward suffer more grievous punishment.
Vanity it is, to wish to live long, and to be careless to live well.
It is vanity to mind only this present life, and not to foresee those things which are to come.
It is vanity to set thy love on that which speedily passes away, and not to hasten thither where everlasting joy abides.
5. Call often to mind that proverb that, "The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing."
Endeavor therefore to withdraw thy heart from the love of visible things, and to turn thyself to the invisible.
For they that follow their lusts, do stain their own consciences, and lose the favor of God.
Chapter TwoOf Thinking Humbly of Ourselves
* * *
All men naturally desire to know; but what does knowledge avail without the fear of God?
Surely an humble husbandman that serveth God is better than a proud philosopher that, neglecting himself, laboreth to understand the course of the heavens.
Whoso knoweth himself well, is lowly in his own sight and delighteth not in the praises of men.
If I understood all things in the world, and were not charitable, what would that help me in the sight of God, who will judge me according to my deeds?
2. Cease from an inordinate desire of knowing, for therein is much distraction and deceit.
The learned are well-pleased to seem so to others, and to be accounted wise.
There are many things, which to know is of little or no profit to the soul:
And he is very unwise, that is intent upon other things than those that may serve for his salvation.
Many words do not satisfy the soul; but a good life comforteth the mind, and a pure conscience giveth great assurance in the sight of God.
3. How much the more thou knowest, and how much the better thou understandest, so much the more severely shalt thou therefore be judged, unless thy life be also more holy.
Be not therefore extolled in thine own mind for any art or science which thou knowest, but rather let the knowledge given thee make thee more humble and cautious.
If thou thinkest that thou understandest and knowest much; know also that there be many things more which thou knowest not.
Do not seem to be overwise, but rather acknowledge, thine own ignorance.
Why wilt thou prefer thyself before others, since there be many more learned, and more skillful in the Scripture than thou art?
If thou wilt know or learn anything profitably, desire to be unknown, and to be little esteemed by man.
4. The highest and most profitable reading is the true knowledge and consideration of ourselves.
It is great wisdom and perfection to esteem ourselves as nothing, and to think always well and highly of others.
If thou shouldest see another openly sin, or commit some heinous offence, yet oughtest thou not to esteem the better of thyself; for thou knowest not how long thou shah be able to remain in good estate.
We are all frail, but thou oughtest to hold none more frail than thyself.
Chapter ThreeOf the Doctrine of Truth
* * *
Happy is he whom truth by itself doth teach, not by figures and words that pass away; but as it is in itself.
Our own opinion and our own sense do often deceive us, and they discern but little.
What availeth it to make a great dispute about dark and hidden things; whereas for being ignorant of them we shall not be so much as reproved at the day of judgment?
It is a great folly to neglect the things that are profitable and necessary, and give our minds to that which is curious and hurtful: we have eyes and see not.
2. And what have we to do with genus and species?
He to whom the Eternal Word speaketh, is delivered from a world of unneccessary conceptions.
From that one Word are all things, and all speak that one; and this is the beginning, which also speaketh unto us.
No man without that Word understandeth or judgeth rightly.
He to whom all things are one, he who reduceth all things to one, and seeth all things in one; may enjoy a quiet mind, and remain peaceable in God.
O God, who art the truth, make me one with thee in everlasting charity.
It is tedious to me often to read and hear many things: in thee is all that I would have and can desire.
Let all doctors hold their peace; let all creatures be silent in thy sight; speak thou alone unto me.
3. The more a man is united within himself, and becometh inwardly simple, so much the more and higher things doth he understand without labor; for that he receiveth intellectual light from above.
A pure, sincere, and stable spirit is not distracted, though it be employed in many works; because it works all to the honor of God, and inwardly being still and quiet, seeks not itself in anything it doeth.
Who hinders and troubles thee more than the unmortified affections of thine own heart?
A good and godly man arranges within himself beforehand those things which he is outwardly to act;
Neither do they draw him according to the desires of an evil inclination, but he ordereth them according to the direction of right reason.
Who hath a greater combat than he that laboreth to overcome himself?
This ought to be our endeavor, to conquer ourselves, and daily to wax stronger and to make a further growth in holiness.
4. All perfection in this life hath some imperfection mixed with it; and no knowledge of ours is without some darkness.
An humble knowledge of thyself is a surer way to God than a deep search after learning;
Yet learning is not to be blamed, nor the mere knowledge of anything whatsoever to be disliked, it being good in itself, and ordained by God; but a good conscience and a virtuous life is always to be preferred before it.
But because many endeavor rather to get knowledge than to live well; therefore they are often deceived, and reap either none, or very slender profit.
5. Oh, if men bestowed as much labor in the rooting out of vices, and planting of virtues, as they do in moving of questions, neither would there be so much hurt done, nor so great scandal be given in the world, nor so much looseness be practiced in monasteries.
Truly, at the day of judgment we shall not be examined what we have read, but what we have done; not how well we have spoken, but how virtuously we have lived.
Tell me now, where are all those doctors and masters, with whom thou wert well acquainted, while they lived and flourished in learning?
Now others possess their livings and perhaps do scarce ever think of them. In their lifetime they seemed something, but now they are not spoken of.
6. Oh, how quickly doth the glory of the world pass away! Oh, that their life had been answerable to their learning! then had their study and reading been to good purpose.
How many perish by reason of vain learning in this world, who take little care of the serving of God:
And because they rather choose to be great than humble, therefore they become vain in their imaginations.
He is truly great, that is great in charity.
He is truly great that is little in himself, and that maketh no account of any height of honor.
He is truly wise, that accounteth all earthly things as dung, that he may gain Christ.
And he is truly learned, that doeth the will of God, and forsaketh his own will.
Chapter FourOf Wisdom and Forethought in Our Actions
* * *
We must not give car to every saying or suggestion, but ought with caution and patience to ponder things according to the will of God.
But alas! such is our weakness, that we often rather believe and speak evil of others than good.
Those that are perfect men do not easily give credit to everything one tells them; for they know that human frailty is prone to evil, and likely to fail in words.
2. It is great wisdom not to be rash in thy proceedings, nor to stand stiffly in throe own opinions;
As also not to believe everything which thou hearest, nor presently to relate again to others what thou hast heard or dost believe.
Consult with him that is wise and conscientious and seek to be instructed by a better than thyself, rather than to follow thine own inventions.
A good life maketh a man wise before God, and giveth him experience in many things.
The more humble a man is in himself, and the more subject unto God; so much the more prudent shall he be in all his affairs, and enjoy greater peace and quiet of heart.
Chapter FiveOf the Reading of Holy Scriptures
* * *
Truth, not eloquence, is to be sought for in Holy Scripture.
Each part of the Scripture is to be read with the same spirit in which it was written.
We should rather search after our spiritual profit in the Scriptures, than subtilty of speech.
We ought to read plain and devout books as willingly as high sounding and profound ones.
Let not the authority of the writer offend thee, whether he be of great or small learning; but let the love of pure truth draw thee to read.
Search not who spoke this or that, but mark what is spoken.
2. Men pass away, but the truth of the Lord remaineth for ever. God speaks unto us in different ways, without respect of persons.
Our own curiosity often hindereth us in reading of the Scriptures, when as we will examine and discuss that which we should rather pass over without more attention.
If thou desire to reap profit, read with humility, simplicity, and faithfulness; nor ever desire the reputation of learning.
Inquire willingly, and hear with silence the words of holy men; dislike not the parables of the elders, for they are not recounted without cause.
Chapter SixOf Inordinate Affections
* * *
Whensoever a man desireth anything inordinately, he becomes restless in himself.
The proud and covetous call never rest. The poor and humble in spirit live together in all peace.
The man that is not yet perfectly dead to himself, is quickly tempted and overcome in small and trifling things.
The weak in spirit, and he that is yet in a manner carnal and delights in the pleasures of the senses, can hardly withdraw himself altogether from earthly desires:
And therefore he is often afflicted, when he withdraws himself from them, and easily falleth into anger, when any opposition is made against him.
2. And if he hath followed therein his inclination, he is presently disquieted with remorse of conscience; because he yielded to his passion, which profiteth him nothing in obtaining the peace he sought for.
True quietness of heart therefore is gotten by resisting our passions, not by obeying them.
There is then no peace in the heart of a carnal man, nor in him that is addicted to outward things, but in the spiritual and devout man.
CH7[ Of Fleeing From Vain Hope and Pride
* * *
He is vain that putteth his trust in man, or creatures.
Be not ashamed to serve others for the love of Jesus Christ; nor to be esteemed poor in this world.
Presume not upon thyself, but place thy hope in God.
Do what lieth in thy power, and God will assist thy good intention.
Trust not in thine own know edge, nor in the subtilty of any living creature; but rather in the grace of God, who helpeth the humble, and humbleth those that are proud.
2. Glory not in wealth if thou have it, nor in friends, who are powerful; but in God who giveth all things, and above all desireth to give thee himself.
Extol not thyself for the height of thy stature or beauty of thy person, which may be disfigured and destroyed with a little sickness.
Take not pleasure in thy natural gifts, or intelligence, lest thereby thou displease God, to whom belongs all the good whatsoever thou hast by nature.
3. Esteem not thyself hotter than others, lest perhaps in the sight of God, who knoweth what is in man, thou be accounted worse than they.
Be not proud of well-doing; for the judgment of God is far different from the judgment of men, and that often offendeth him which pleaseth them.
If there be any good in thee, believe that there is much more in others, that so thou mayest preserve humility within thee.
It is not harmful unto thee to debase thyself under all men; but it is very injurious to thee to prefer thyself before any one man.
The humble enjoy continual peace, but in the heart of the proud is envy, and frequent indignation. ]CH7
CH8[ That Too Much Familiarity Is to Be Shunned
* * *
Lay not thy heart open to every one; but discuss thy affairs with the wise and such as fear God.
Converse not much with young people and strangers.
Flatter not the rich: neither do thou appear willingly before great personages.
Keep company with the humble and plain ones, with the devout and virtuous; and confer with them of those things that may edify. Be not familiar with any woman; but in general commend all good women to God.
Desire to be familiar with God alone and his angels, and avoid the acquaintance of men.
2. We must have charity toward all, but familiarity is not expedient.
Sometimes it happens, that a person unknown to us is much esteemed, from the good report given of him by others; whose presence nevertheless is not pleasing to the eyes of the beholders.
We think sometimes to please others by our company, and we rather offend them with those bad qualities which they discover in us. ]CH8
CH9[ Of Obedience and Subjection
* * *
It is a great thing to live in obedience, to be under a superior, and not to be our own judges.
It is much safer to obey than to govern.
Many live under obedience, rather for necessity than for love; such are discontented, and do easily suffer. Neither can they attain to freedom of mind, unless they willingly and heartily put themselves under obedience for the love of God.
Go whither thou wilt, thou shalt find no rest, but in humble subjection under the government of a superior. The imagination and change of places have deceived many.
2. True it is, that every one willingly cloth that which agreeth with his own tastes; and is apt to esteem those most that are of his own mind;
But if God be among us, we must sometimes cease to adhere to our own opinion for the sake of peace.
Who is so wise that he can fully know all things?
Be not therefore too confident in thine own opinion; but be willing to hear the judgment of others.
It that which thou thinkest is good, and yet thou partest with it for God, and followest the opinion of another, it shall be better for thee.
Excerpted from The Imitation of Christ by THOMAS KEMPIS Copyright © 2007 by Moody Bible Institute. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Useful Admonitions for a Spiritual Life
Following Christ 3
A Humble Sentiment 4
The Doctrine of Truth 6
Prudence in Our Doings 8
The Holy Scriptures 9
Inordinate Affections 10
Flying Vain Hope and Pride 11
Shunning Familiarity 12
Obedience and Subjection 13
Avoiding Superfluity of Words 14
Acquiring Peace and Zeal 15
Advantage of Adversity 17
Resisting Temptation 18
Avoiding Judgment 20
Works of Charity 21
Bearing the Defects of Others 22
A Monastic Life 24
Examples of the Holy Fathers 25
Excercises of a Religious Man 27
Love of Solitude and Silence 30
Compunction of Heart 33
The Misery of Man 35
The Thoughts of Death 38
Punishment of Sins 42
Amendment of Our Lives 45
Admonitions Concerning Interior Things
Interior Conversation 53
Of Humble Submission 56
Of a Good Peaceable Man 57
Of a Pure Mind 58
Consideration of One's Self 60
Joy of a Good Conscience 61
Love of Jesus 63
Of Friendship with Jesus 64
Want of All Comfort 66
The Grace of God 69
Lovers of the Cross 72
Highway of the Cross 74
Of Internal Consolation
Christ to a Faithful Soul 83
Christ Speaks within Us 84
The Word of God 85
Walking in God's Presence 88
Effects of Divine Love 90
Proof of a True Lover 93
Grace and Humility 95
Our Unworthiness 98
All Things to be Referred to God 99
The Service of God 100
Moderation of Our Desires 103
On Learning Patience 104
On Obedience 106
The Judgments of God 108
Our Dispositions and Desires 109
Comfort is to be Sought in God 111
Casting our Care on God 112
The Example of Jesus Christ 114
On Supporting Injuries 115
Our Infirmities and Miseries 117
Resting in God 119
The Benefits of God 122
Things which Bring Peace 124
Peace and Progress 128
The Eminence of a Free Mind 130
Self Love 131
On Detraction 133
The Time of Tribulation 134
The Divine Assistance 135
Disregard of All Things Created 137
Renouncing Cupidity 140
Inconstancy of Our Heart 141
The Love of God 142
Insecurity Against Temptation 144
Vain Judgments 146
Resignation of Ourselves 147
Government of Ourselves 149
Eagerness in Worldly Affairs 150
Man Cannot Glory in Anything 151
Contempt for Temporal Honour 153
Peace is Not to be Placed in Men 153
Against Vain Learning 155
Deadness to Exterior Things 156
Men Are Prone to Offend 157
Confidence in God 160
Things to be Endured 162
Of the Day of Eternity 164
Desire of Eternal Life 167
An Offering to God 170
Practice of Humble Works 174
Man Unworthy of Consolation 175
The Grace of God 177
Nature and Grace 178
The Corruption of Nature 182
On Self Denial 185
Evils of Dejection 187
Searching into High Matters 189
All Our Hope in God 193
Of the Blessed Sacrament
How Christ is to be Received 199
The Great Goodness of God 204
On Frequent Communion 207
Benefits to Devout Communicants 209
Dignity of the Sacrament 212
A Petition Before Communion 214
Resolution of Amendment 214
The Oblation of Christ 216
An Offering to God 218
The Holy Communion 220
The Body of Christ 223
Preparation for Communion 226
Desires of a Devout Soul 228
Desire to Receive Jesus 230
Humility and Self-Denial 231
Laying Open Our Necessities 233
Desire to Serve Christ 234
That a Man Follow Christ 236
Reading Group Guide
"God is our home but many of us have strayed from our native land. The venerable authors of these Spiritual Classics are expert guides--may we follow their directions home."--Archbishop Desmond TutuThe Vintage Spiritual Classics present the testimony of writers across the centuries who have pondered the mysterious ways, unfathomable mercies, and deep consolations afforded by God to those who call upon Him from out of the depths of their lives. These writers are our companions, even our champions, in a common effort to discern the meaning of God in personal experience.The questions, discussion topics, and background information that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of the six works that make up the first series in Vintage Spiritual Classics. We hope they will provide you with a variety of ways of thinking and talking about these ancient and important texts.We offer this word about the act of reading these spiritual classics. From the very earliest accounts of monastic practice--dating back to the fourth century--it is evident that a form of reading called lectio divina ("divine" or "spiritual" reading) was essential to any deliberate spiritual life. This kind of reading is quite different from that of scanning a text for useful facts and bits of information, or advancing along an exciting plot line to a climax in the action. It is, rather, a meditative approach, by which the reader seeks to taste and savor the beauty and truth of every phrase and passage. There are four steps in lectio divina: first, to read, next to meditate, then to rest in the sense of God's nearness, and, ultimately, to resolve to govern one's actions in the light of new understanding. This kindof reading is itself an act of prayer. And, indeed, it is in prayer that God manifests His Presence to us.
1. Like the three previous classics of monastic literature, The Imitation of Christ is a guide to changing our lives and learning to grow closer to Christ in spirit and in deeds. The book opens with a quote and an exhortation: "'Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness'--.These are Christ's own words by which He exhorts us to imitate His life and His ways" [p. 3]. What does it mean to "follow" Christ in your life? How does Thomas à Kempis approach this task differently from the Desert Fathers, Benedict, and Saint Francis?
2. The injunction that one should "have a humble opinion of one's self" and "love to be unknown and be esteemed as nothing" [pp. 4-5] is quite at odds with the culture of ambition, striving, and success in which we live. What mental and practical conflicts arise when we attempt to live according to this rule? What does Thomas mean when he writes, "He is truly great who is unimportant in his own eyes and considers the greatest of honors a mere nothing"? Is it at all possible to reconcile such teachings with worldly success?
3. Thomas wrote his Imitation for his fellow monks and it is based on the monastic life. How can we who are not living in monasteries, but rather very much in the world, use his precepts to grow closer to God and to attain inner peace? Which of the principles here are easiest to adapt to the busy lives we lead at the end of the 20th century, which most difficult?
4. Like Benedict, Thomas encourages the practice of silence and the setting aside of time for prayer and deep personal reflection [pp. 26-29]. What are the parallels in our contemporary lives to "listening to idle news and gossip" [p. 27]? What time-wasting activities can we learn to do without, in order to make time for solitude and meditation? How does the Christian monastic practice of silence and meditation compare with that of Eastern religions like Buddhism? If you are familiar with "mindfulness meditation" or meditation as practiced by Buddhists, what is similar and what is different between these Asian-based approaches and the Christian monastic approach?
5. Thomas addresses the most difficult question of all, perhaps: that of having the resolve and making the commitment to change our lives: "Come now, and begin this very moment and say to yourself: 'Now is the time to do it--.Now is the right time to amend my life'" [p. 32]. How do you respond to such a radical challenge? Do you feel, like Augustine, the desire to be changed, but "not yet" [Confessions, Book VIII]?
6. How can Thomas's advice on living in community and "Bearing with One Another's Failings" [pp. 20-21] be used to better our relationships with those with whom we live and work? What particular insights into human intimacy did you find most useful?
Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) or Thomas Hammerken was born at a place called Kempen, near Dusseldorf, Germany. His parents were people from the artisan class; their family name Haemerken (or Haemerlein) is derived from "little hammer." Thomas left home at the age of thirteen and traveled to Deventer, in the Netherlands, where Geert Groote had established the schools of the Brethren of the Common Life (1376). His service among the Brethren provided both the impetus and the shape for this, his most famous work. It was penned or compiled as a result of the years Thomas spent as a teacher and "Master of Novices" among the Brethren. For this reason, then, The Imitation of Christ, which was born in the practical piety of its author and his movement, breathes that same spirit into the reader. Surviving personal recollections of Thomas à Kempis are few indeed; but those that are extant demonstrate this deep inner connection between the man and his work. The Carthusian Prior at N&uulm;rnberg, for example, remembered Thomas as a "most wise, most sweet and most religious man." Thomas’s earliest biographer could detect no gap or distinction between his writing and à Kempis’ living witness: "As he taught others, so he lived; he fulfilled in very deed, or verified in himself what he recommended in his discourses should be done."
In 1406 Thomas professed a call to religious life, and in 1413 he entered the priesthood, at the age of thirty-three. He spent the balance of his life as a Canon of St. Augustine (member of the Augustinian Order), at the monastery of St. Agnes in Zwolle. À Kempis seems to reflect upon his monastic life in the Imitation; for example, addressing God, he wrote: "You have given grace and friendship beyond all my deserts. What return can I make to You for this grace? For it is not granted to all men to forsake everything, to renounce the world, and to enter the life of religion."(Bk. III: 10). Among Thomas’ duties were those typical of a monastic priest: preaching, study, writing, giving spiritual counsel, and copying manuscripts. Primary among his responsibilities, however, was the cultivation of his own spiritual life and Christian discipleship and if we were are to judge the success of this later responsibility by the power and popularity of his literary work Imitation of Christ we would be forced to conclude that à Kempis wrote from a deep well spring of spiritual practice and practical insight.
In the late-medieval period popular spirituality seemed to be at low ebb. For much of the populace Christianity had degenerated into a sort of "arithmetical piety" that sought to add up enough "good deeds" to counter balance one’s sins; it attached greater significance to rote repetition of prayers and sacraments than to introspection or personal reflection. In his classic text, R.W. Southern observed: "The vast majority of people remained firmly attached to the religious aids offered by the institutional church. To put it bluntly, Europe had sunk too much intellectual, emotional, and material capital in these aids to resign them lightly. Masses and prayers for the dead, indulgences, good works, and pious donations for the remission of purgatorial pains, have never been so widely and even wildly popular as they were in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries." Yet there was also a sparkling resurgence of lay-spirituality towards the end of the fifteenth century that was linked to the emergence of lay brother and sisterhoods (confraternities) as well as with the popularity of lay devotional aids like The Imitation of Christ.
Springing from the efforts of Master Geert Groote (1340-84) of Deventer, Holland, the Brethren or "the New Devout" formed themselves into "houses" or communities of priests and laymen who resolved to renounce worldliness to live in the world by the power of God. The congregations of the New Devout were formed, in part, in reaction against the growing wealth and power of the established religious orders. Unlike their contemporaries they neither begged for alms nor collected rents; rather, like the tent-maker Saint Paul and ancient monks of the desert, the Brethren sustained themselves by working with their hands. Since they did not intend to found a new religious order, the Brethren took no formal vows that bound them to the movement. They sought to live, as described by the title of one of Master Groote’s founding documents, by Resolutions and Intentions, But Not Vows. In it he wrote: "I intend to order my life to the glory, honor, and service of God and to the salvation of my soul; to put no temporal good of body, position, fortune, or learning ahead of my soul’s salvation; and to pursue the imitation of God in every way consonant with learning and discernment and with my own body, and estate, which predispose certain forms of imitation." They intended to be devout, but not "religious" in the technical sense in which the late Middle Ages reserved that term for members of the established religious orders.
The spirituality of the Brethren of the Common Life was strongly Christocentric. It intended, as suggested by the title of this -- the most significant work that comes from this movement -- to imitate Jesus Christ; that is to say, they intended to live according to the injunctions and examples of Christ, and in so doing they intended to live "in Christ" and to have Christ live in them. To this end, the reverent reading of Holy Scripture especially the gospels -- formed a critical portion of their pious regimen. Their interest in the Bible had an ethical edge to it, since the Brethren were studying it to cultivate moral sanctity. And, finally, the imitation of Christ affected the inner person, and the New Devout were concerned about the "training of the heart" so that one’s fallen nature might be subdued and purged out and replaced by a renewing, affectionate devotion to Christ.
Scholars have debated whether Thomas à Kempis actually wrote The Imitation of Christ, though there is ample evidence to suggest that he did. But Thomas probably did not create the teaching contained in the book; it is more likely that he complied, organized, and set the Deventer devotional tradition into a fixed form. There seems to be a strong correlation between the authorship of the book and Thomas’ work as "Master of the Novices," a post he held from 1425 until his death in 1471.
The Imitation comprises four subsections, or "Books:" (1) Counsels on the Spiritual Life, (2) Counsel on the Inner Life, (3) On Inward Consolation, and (4) On the Blessed Sacrament. Each section is made up of a series of short meditations that lead the novice deeper and deeper into union with Christ. Unity with Christ was to be realized not only through contemplation, but also through inward and outward imitation of Christ, as well as sacramental oneness with him. These four books circulated separately prior to being circulated as a unified work. The sequela Christi (following, imitating Christ) is the unifying theme of the entire work; but this is not a merely external or ethical modeling reminiscent of the recent "What Would Jesus Do?" slogan and jewelry. À Kempis aims at utter transformation of the reader’s inner person. By meditating upon Christ’s life and teaching, the author intends that we would make Christ’s virtues our own and that we would conform our inner attitudes to His.
The aims of this work strongly dictated its shape and the resources used to develop it. The chapters amount to short meditations offered in a length entirely suitable for a morning or evening devotional reading; yet, the meditations are seasoned with nuggets of spiritual wisdom that are worth pondering over the course of a long life. While there is an occasional quote from classical Greek or Roman writers, or a passing allusion to a familiar saying from one of the Church Fathers, the preponderance of sources applied by our author are — by far — drawn from the Bible. Fr. Bernard Sappen has given this matter careful study and concluded: "The books most often quoted are the Psalms (140 times, notably the Penitential Psalms), the Wisdom books (60 times), the Prophets (42 times), Job (24 times), and etc. In the New Testament Saint Paul is utilized more than the four Evangelists (120 times against 100). Hence, Walter Elwell rightly observed: "the power of the Scripture surges through its pages."
The work does not fall neatly into any of the categories of classical Christian Spirituality, rather it represents a composite approach that includes the purgative (purging out), illuminative (receiving wisdom) and unitive ways (union with God through Christ). These three approaches receive successive emphasis in the first three books of the Imitation.
Numerous themes drawn from classical Christian Spirituality are intertwined in the book. Among these are: (1) Union with Christ: "Christ will come to you, and impart his consolations to you, if you prepare a worthy dwelling for Him in your heart. All true glory and beauty is within, and there He delights to dwell. He often visits the spiritual man, and holds sweet discourse with him, granting him refreshing grace, great peace, and friendship exceeding all expectation" (Bk. II: 1). Hence, "...you will never know peace until you become inwardly united to Christ." (2) Self-negation and humility: "Had you but once entered perfectly into the Heart of Jesus, and tasted something of His burning love, you would care nothing for your own gain or loss; for the love of Jesus causes a man to regard himself very humbly" (Bk. II: 1). (3) Purity or simplicity of heart: "There are two wings that raise a man above earthly things — simplicity and purity. Simplicity must inspire his purpose, and purity his affection. Simplicity reaches out after God; purity discovers and enjoys Him" (Bk. II: 4). (4) Divine Illumination and consolation through Christian wisdom: "Were you inwardly good and pure, you would see and understand all things clearly and without difficulty. A pure heart penetrates both heaven and hell. As each man is in himself, so does he judge outward things. If there is any joy to be had in this world, the pure in heart most surely possess it; and if there is trouble and distress anywhere, the evil conscience most readily experiences it. Just as iron, when plunged into fire, loses its rust and becomes bright and glowing, so the man who turns himself wholly to God loses his sloth and becomes transformed into a new creature" (Bk. II: 4). (5) Liberation through Detachment: "Keep yourself free from all worldly entanglement, and you will make good progress; but if you set great value on any worldly things, it will prove a great obstacle. Let nothing be great, pleasant, or desirable to you save God alone, and whatever comes from God" (Bk. II: 5). (6) Cultivation of true humility: "Set yourself always in the lowest place, and you shall be awarded the highest, for the highest cannot stand without the lowest. The Saints stand highest in God’s eyes who are lowest in their own; and the more glorious they are, the more humble is their spirit" (Bk. II: 10). (7) The Way of the Cross: "Jesus has many who love His Kingdom in Heaven, but few who bear His Cross. He has many who desire comfort, but few who desire suffering. He finds many to share His feast, but few His fasting. All desire to rejoice with Him, but few are willing to suffer for His sake" (Bk. II: 11).
The piety of the New Devout paved the way for the Sixteenth Century Reformations; Protestant and Roman Catholic alike. Martin Luther encountered it in the Brethren’s school at Magdeberg and through his acquaintance with the Theologica Germanica. John Calvin, Desiderius Erasmus, and Ignatius of Loyola each lived in the Brethren’s house in Paris, though at different times, and each bore the imprint of the practical piety found in the Imitation of Christ. The Anabaptists embraced the theme of imitation of Christ, whether or not they embraced à Kempis’ book. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was deeply affected by the book; both before and after his "Aldersgate experience," of May 1738, he read the work of "pious Kempis" with great appreciation. Wesley wrote: "one day I light on Thomas à Kempis. The more I read, the more I liked it. I bought one of the books, and read it over and over. I was more convinced of sin that ever, and had more power against it."
The artist Vincent van Gogh was also influenced by reading The Imitation. As Kathleen Erickson noted: "Vincent took from the Imitation of Christ the notion that the earthly life is one of trial and ordeal, a kind of journey through perils and pitfalls of earthy existence to the ultimate of glorious reunion with the Lord in heaven." This influence is discernable in van Gogh’s masterpiece entitled "Starry Night."
Former Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, was known the world over as a just, fair, and deeply spiritual man. What was less well known about Hammar-skjold was the significant role that Imitation of Christ played in his own spiritual pilgrimage. Henry P. Van Dusen recalls seeing a French language copy of the Imitation at the bedside of the General Secretary’s New York apartment; the same book was found next to his bed, in Leopoldville, Congo, where Hammarskjold spent his last fateful night in 1963. Tucked inside the Imitation, written on an index card, was the General Secretary’s oath of office. The Imitation of Christ and the opportunity to serve the world merged to form an indissoluble whole in the life of the man who cherished them both. Hammarskjold’s devotional journal was published under the title V&aulm;gm&aulm;rken (Markings, 1964) soon after his death. It is clear from Markings that Hammarskjold turned to The Imitation of Christ at crucial periods of his life for spiritual reflection and direction. One such entry appeared in 1953 when, at the peak of his career as a Swedish diplomat, he had just been elected General Secretary of the U.N. Amidst phone calls, telegrams, and cables of congratulations Hammarskjold turned to the words of Thomas à Kempis as he wrote in his journal: "‘Not I, but God in me. ... I am the vessel.’ The drink is God’s. And God is the thirsty One."
John R. Tyson is professor of Theology at Houghton College in Houghton, NY, and professor of Church History at United Theological Seminary in West Seneca, NY. He earned a Ph.D. in Theological and Religious Studies at Drew University and is the author and editor of several books and numerous articles on topics in Church History and Christian Spirituality.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A very readable translation of a book that is second only to the Bible. Highly recommended!