‘The Imitation of Christ’ – a spiritual classic
Posted on 05 October 2011, 19:02
I recently worked on a modern version of The Imitation of Christ, which is reckoned to be the second best selling spiritual book after the bible.
It first appeared 1418, 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 author was Thomas a Kempis, a German monk, who 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.
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 these apparently opposing ideas; 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.’
Here are two brief extracts on the themes of humility and over-familiarity
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.
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.
DO not open your heart to just anyone, but discuss your affairs with one who is wise and who fears God. Do not keep regular company with young people and strangers. Do not fawn upon the rich and equally, do not grow attached to the company of the great. Associate with the humble and the simple, with the devout and virtuous; and with them speak of edifying things. Do not be intimate with any woman, but generally commend all good women to God. Seek only the intimacy of God and of his angels, and avoid the notice of others.
We ought to have charity for all people but familiarity with all is not helpful. Sometimes it happens that a person enjoys a good reputation among those who do not know them, but at the same time is held in slight regard by those who do. Frequently we think we are pleasing others by our presence but in fact we may displease them by the faults they find in us.
Thomas on reading
At the Day of Judgment, we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done.
Thomas on forgiveness
Be assured that if you knew all, you would pardon all.
The Imitation of Christ: A Revised 2011 Edition is Available from White Crow Books.