June 18, 2018—At the very beginning of the 15th Century, the German, Thomas a Kempis, became a monk in an Augustinian monastery in the Netherlands. This monastery was comprised of priests who were members of the Brethren of Common Life, a semi-monastic order. He would spend the rest of his life there. Thomas a Kempis devoted his life to practicing spiritual perfection and copying books for schools. Several of his brother monks composed spiritual diaries. Thomas compiled and edited them to create The Imitation of Christ.
This period was the Renaissance; a time of strong kings; the black plague; the beginning of universities, and new thinking, and exploration; when old practices of faith did not seem so important. The world was breaking away from the middle ages and exploring new thoughts, practices, and economies. In this world of chaos, in which people felt little sense of control, Thomas a Kempis suggested that there are many areas of life still under an individual’s control. Indeed, that the areas which might be controlled are more important than the external world. Thomas sought to restore the importance of piety and personal devotion by presenting an understandable format for focusing people’s thoughts and efforts on the struggle against the chaos of the times. Because impulses existed for reformation, both Protestants and Catholics found the book helpful. The book became popular with lay people as well as monastics.
The goal of the book is to increase the piety of its readers and further their ability to struggle against sin and be accepted by God. There is a struggle against self. The enemy influences us in our daily walk and actions, through our minds and by our desires. We are distracted by the attractions in the physical world. Desires begin the process by which sin gains a foothold in our lives. The technique given in Imitation is to focus on the internal, spiritual life, rather than the external physical life. Confession, Eucharist, and humiliation are used as basic tools to move oneself from the attractions of the physical world. There is a peace offered by God, when people submit to obedience. In the long term only God can satisfy our deepest longings.
The book particularly deals with human temptations and the tools with which Christians can battle the temptations they experience. Thomas suggested that, we can never be free of temptations. But they may be useful to our life. Through temptations and pain, we are made humble. Humility is a primary characteristic for those who seek to journey in a faithful life. This includes not only humility before God, but extreme humility where one always thinks of themselves in a worst light than of all others. This humility causes one to feel contempt for earthly possessions and honors, which provide false confidence and a lack of trust in God. Serious self-deprecation is promoted. Though we deserve judgment by God, if we struggle to defeat the evil habits of the world, we are assured of our acceptance by God. Ultimately Thomas a Kempis explains that suffering and death are desirable, as a transition from the earthly to the spiritual.
The book is comprised of four sections. The first section guides the reader to separate themselves from the care and concerns of life in the world. The second section promotes inner peace through purity, submission to God, and humility. The third section is written as an imagined dialogue with Christ, in which he promises a more excellent life for those who trust him. The final section promotes the Eucharist for the strengthening of the soul.
The 1940 translators suggest that Imitation is the second most read book in the world, behind the Bible. Imitation was one of the first books printed with a printing press. Other critics agree that it ranks second to the Bible in terms of impact on the Christian Community.
I found the book very useful, although, I found it difficult to read straight through. It seems to me that the 116 sections are relatively short and lend themselves to use as a daily devotional. Thomas a Kempis’ teachings are all based on biblical teachings with specific examples used to reinforce his points. It reminded me of the book of Ecclesiastes, with its own redirection from the vanity, search for wealth, struggle with evil, and futility of life in the world. It also promotes and lifts up the practices and teachings of the church. There are also numerous repetitions of themes and virtues, which seem to support one another.
While the evil world professes gain, power, and riches, piety is often missing. Imitation points people in a different direction, to the alternative of a spiritual life of simplicity, good, and devotion to God. While the world is demanding obedience and daily struggle, Imitation is pointing to obedience to God and a yoke which is light. Thomas suggested that rather than avoiding suffering, one can enjoy suffering, because it teaches us to live in anticipation of Christ’s acceptance and eternal life with him. Imitation leads ultimately to the expulsion of the worldly ways and priorities, in order to be filled with God’s will and peace.
The book certainly provides a useful text for examining one’s life in comparison to the life of Jesus.
Kempis, Thomas a’. The Imitation of Christ. Edited by Paul Negri. Translated by Aloysius Croft and Harold Bolton. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications Inc., 2003.
Rev. Paul Sherwood is pastor of the Oakmont Presbyterian Church, Hoover AL and a DMin candidate at Columbia Theological Seminary.
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