The Imitation of Christ first appeared 1418. It was published anonymously but spread quickly around Europe. A Latin manuscript from 1441 exists, but there was a German translation as early as 1434. A French translation appeared in 1447, a Spanish edition in 1482, and an Italian one in 1488. The first English translation appeared in 1503, which was just Book 4, but the other three books followed in the same year and a complete translation appeared in 1556. In 1663, an Arabic edition was printed in Rome, and in 1837, a Hebrew version printed in Frankfurt.
It has since been translated into many languages, and has won for itself a variety of celebrity admirers. John Wesley and John Newton were men of the Evangelical wing of the Church yet both named this Catholic manual as important in their conversion, while General Gordon took it into battle with him. Thomas More, St Francis Xavier and Dr Johnson were other famous devotees.
The work is comprised of four books, though they are not all found in all manuscripts, and neither are they always in the same order. This makes little practical difference to the reader, however. This manual of devotion is pitched at a challenging level of Christian experience, but does not offer an ordered journey. Like a merry-go-round, the same themes are visited again and again throughout the books; Thomas is a teacher who believes in repetition.
Book 4 is unique in that it has a specific subject, the Eucharist, and explores our attitudes towards the bread and wine. But even here, the author weaves in themes familiar from the other three books: human worthlessness, the need for humility, advice on temptation and adversity, disdain for the attractions of the world, contempt for scholarship, sorrow for sin, forgiveness of perceived injustice, submission to God in all things and ardour for union with the life of Jesus in his death and resurrection.
There is a manic-depressive feel to much of the writing, which can be disturbing for the modern reader. Although Thomas calls Christians to an equanimity that is neither too happy when things go well or too sad when things go badly, the author’s own mood tends to be either one of extreme despair and self-hate or an ecstatic happiness at the sweetness of God and the joy to be found in him. To an extent, this mirrors the character of the God he describes who both loves us unendingly whilst also preparing eternal punishment for the unfaithful. Kempis offers no resolution to this paradox; but sensed in all he writes is the fire of personal dismantlement through which humans must walk in the cause of their spiritual development. Here is a radical and disturbing self-help book, penned for the 14th century monk.
Thomas writes as a monk for monks, but clearly his passion and insights spill well beyond the cloistered world of the monastery. One writer called it ‘The diary of a soul on its way to perfection,’ which captures well the author’s spiritual ambition both for himself and others. As he himself says in the second book, ‘Disdain that which is superficial, dedicate yourself to your inner being and you shall see that the Kingdom of God grows inside you.’
St Augustine was patron of Thomas’ monastery and it was he who famously said, ‘Oh God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their place in you.’ The restless Thomas à Kempis could not have agreed more.
About the author
The life of Thomas à Kempis was not outwardly remarkable. He was born in 1380 in the Lower Rhine region of Kempen, from where he gained his name. (His paternal name was Hemerken which meant ‘little hammer’.) In 1392 he went to Deventer, and as we’ve heard, encountered the ‘Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life’. Deventer was the centre for the New Devotion and it was the saintly Florentius Radewijns who looked after Thomas during his time there. On leaving school, he went to the monastery at Zwolle where he stayed for the rest of his life - apart from a brief interlude when a papal interdict forced them to move out from the monastery for a couple of years.
He undertook various duties within the cloister walls. He was ordained priest in 1413; was made sub-prior in 1429, and was also responsible for the instruction of the novices. Apart from his prolific copying of scripture, he wrote other works of a devotional nature, including meditations on the incarnation of Jesus and a life of St. Lydewigis, a Christian woman who remained steadfast in the face of great suffering. But nothing he wrote caught the world’s attention in manner of The Imitation of Christ – the name given to it from the first heading of Book One.
In person, Thomas is described by his biographer as a man of medium height, dark complexion with a wide forehead and piercing eyes. He had the reputation of being kind and friendly to everyone in the community, especially those who were troubled or sad. Thomas was a fine writer, with a gift for expressing things well and memorably. He appears also to have been a modest man and one who tended to solitude both by nature and conviction. As he said of himself, silence is my friend; work, my companion and prayer my aid.
He apparently found it difficult to express an opinion on worldly matters but spoke eloquently and with passion if ever the subject turned to God or the soul. When tiring of company, he would sometimes excuse himself with the words: ‘I must leave you, my brothers. Someone is waiting to speak with me in my cell.’
Apart from these things, there is little to record of a life lived away from the public gaze. From the outside, his passing years would have appeared uneventful; but this would not have been Thomas’ understanding. Thomas à Kempis passed away in 1471.
Introduction to Book One
The famous 12th century monk Peter Abelard was a man with a spirit of enquiry. ‘Through doubt we are led to enquire,’ he said, ‘and through enquiry, we come to the truth.’ The writings of Aristotle, and in particular his elevation of reason, had just reached Europe and were causing shockwaves in the Christian world. Scholasticism, which declared all matters up for discussion, was Christianity’s response, with the Dominican Thomas Aquinas leading the way.
This was not the spirit which guided Thomas a Kempis, however. He was trained in the New Devotion, which regarded the life of Christ as the highest possible study. He was suspicious of enquiry and scholarship that pursued knowledge away from this central calling. He believed that it’s not what you know that matters, but who you are. ‘At the Day of Judgment,’ he said, ‘we shall not be asked what we read but what we have done.’
For Thomas, scripture was to be read through the eyes of simplicity not learning. Scripture was a vehicle for truth which would be discovered by the reader themselves. Meister Eckhart, whose thought pervades much of Thomas’ work and who hailed from the same German district, also read into scripture, rather than from it. He would attach truth to a story which the story did not necessarily speak for itself. Both these mystics were moving away from scholasticism into the territory of personal spiritual experience. But Thomas marks a break from the more speculative mysticism of Eckhart, staying focused always on Jesus the man – and particularly, on his suffering and his death.
He encourages us to look to ourselves if we are to be found holy on the Day of Judgment. ‘In that day, my friend, persevering patience will count for more than all the power in this world; simple obedience will be exalted above all worldly cleverness; a good and clean conscience will gladden the heart far more than the philosophy of the learned; and contempt for riches will be of more value than every treasure on earth.’
‘Those who follow me, do not walk in darkness,” says the Lord (John 8:12). By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate his life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from blindness of heart. Therefore let our main aim be to study the life of Jesus Christ.
The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all the advice of the saints, and he who has Christ’s spirit within will find in it a hidden strength. Now, there are many who hear the gospel often but remain indifferent to it because they do not possess the spirit of Christ. Yet whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Jesus must try to pattern his life on that of Christ.
What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed, it is not learning that makes a person holy and just; instead, God is pleased by a good life. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers, if we live without grace and the love of God? All things are a waste off time, except to love God and serve him alone.
This is the supreme wisdom—to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt for what the world offers. It is vanity, therefore, to seek and trust in riches that perish; and also vanity to seek honor and to be puffed up with pride. It is vanity to follow the lusts of the body and to desire things which will be punished severely in times to come. It is vanity to wish for long life yet to care little about a well-spent life. It is vanity to be concerned with the present alone and not to make provision for things to come; and it is vanity to love what passes quickly and to refuse to look forward to where eternal joy abides.
Recall often the proverb: “The eye is never satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing.” (Eccles.1:8.)
Try, moreover, to turn your heart from the love of visible things and attend to things invisible. For they who follow their own evil passions stain their consciences and lose the grace of God.
On acquiring humility
Everyone naturally desires knowledge, but what good is knowledge without the fear of God? Indeed a humble peasant who serves God is better than a proud intellectual who neglects their soul to study the course of the stars. Those who know themselves well become suitably worthless in their own eyes and are not happy when praised by others.
If I knew all things in the world and had not charity, what would it profit me before God who will judge me by my deeds?
Shun also a consuming desire for knowledge, for in it there is much fretting and delusion. Intellectuals like to appear learned and to be called wise. Yet there are many areas of knowledge which do little or no good to the soul, and the one who concerns themselves with things other than those which lead to salvation, is foolish.
Many words do not satisfy the soul; but a good life refreshes the mind and a clean conscience inspires great trust in God.
The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely will you be judged unless your life also is more holy. Do not be proud, therefore, because of your learning or skill; rather, fear because of the talent given you. If you think you know many things and understand them well enough, realize at the same time that there is much you do not know. So do not pretend wisdom, but admit your ignorance. Why rate yourself more highly than anyone else when many are more learned and more cultured than you? If you wish to learn and appreciate something valuable, enjoy being unknown and considered as nothing.
Truly to understand and maintain a humble estimate of your self is the best and most perfect advice. To think of oneself as nothing, and always to think well and highly of others is the best and most perfect wisdom. So if you see another sin openly or commit a serious crime, do not consider yourself better, for you do not know how long you can remain well. All of us are frail, but consider no one frailer than your own self.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published November 2010
Size: 140 x 216 mm