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