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The Imitation of Christ: Spiritual Formation Book 2

"This is my hope, my only consolation, to flee unto thee in every tribulation, to trust in thee, to call upon thee from my heart, and to wait patiently for thy consolation."


The second of my four books for spiritual formation is The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis.  The introduction to my copy starts off by saying that 21st century readers may wonder why they are bothering, which hardly seems like a recommendation!  I have to admit I finished it with a certain sense of relief, but there were some hidden gems along the way.  It's rather like reading the book of Proverbs.  There's no story or explanation of a theme, but there are astute observations, honest prayers, the occasional flash of humour, and quite a lot of repetition.

Thomas à Kempis was a priest in an Augustinian monastery in the 1400s.  Presumably his life conditions favoured the silence and solitude that he advocates for in The Imitation of Christ, but also gave him opportunities to observe conflict in the community, which he writes about too.  His deep love for Jesus shines through the book, but so do his constant worry about his own spiritual condition, and his grief at the state of the world.

The Imitation of Christ is divided into four books, with numbered chapters within each book, so I will refer to Book 3, chapter 24 as 3:24, for example.

What are the main themes of this book?

"Love Jesus above all else, despising yourself and not clinging to others or anything in the world.  Suffering and temptation will always be with you, but God gives you these things for your good.  Aim for wisdom, obedience, simplicity, humility and holiness."

That's my best attempt at summarising à Kempis' view of life - I wonder if he would agree?

Unlike The Normal Christian Life, which focuses on what Jesus has done, The Imitation of Christ has a strong emphasis on what we need to do: "Remember always thy end, and how that time lost never returns.  Without care and diligence thou shalt never grow in virtue."(1:25)  However, I think the two authors would agree on the impossibility of living a perfect Christian life.

What did you like about the book?

I like the realistic nature of à Kempis' advice.  He is pretty clear that you are not always going to feel super-spiritual, and that one minute you may be "rapt on high" and the next minute wrestling with "the accustomed vanities of thy heart" (3:6).  He sees this as a normal part of the Christian life, a way in which you grow and learn to rely on God more.  Sometimes the message we get from church these days, implicitly or explicitly, is that if we are properly following God we will always have all the feelings, and if we don't, something is wrong.

Likewise, his take on spiritual exercises almost seems more up-to-date than you'd expect.  "All can not use one kind of spiritual exercise, but one is more useful for this person, another for that... Some we practice when we are pensive, and others when we rejoice in the Lord." (1:19) No one-size-fits-all here! The same with temptation, where he remarks that some people are tempted more when they are new Christians, some later on, and some poor souls just struggle the whole way through.

He even acknowledges that sometimes, we're just too weary to summon up any devotion at all, in which case he recommends "refresh[ing] thyself with good actions" - that is, don't fuss about having the perfect prayer life if you're exhausted; just do what you can and wait for God.

Finally, the observations about getting on with other people usually raised a wry smile.  These were the kind of gems which kept me reading:

If thou canst not make thyself such a one as thou wouldest, how canst thou expect to have another fashioned to thy liking? (1:16)

Be careful also to avoid with great diligence those things in thyself, which do commonly displease thee in others. (1:25)

Grant that I may prudently avoid him who flatters me, and patiently suffer him who contradicts me. (3:27)

What did you find difficult?

Oh my goodness, he goes on and on about how awful he is!  It really gets quite wearing, and by the end I wondered if he had some psychological problem.  I mean, I'm quite willing to admit that Thomas à Kempis was orders of magnitude more holy than I am, but even so, when a person writes: "Be fiercely angry against thyself... show thyself so humble and small that all may tread thee down as the mire of the streets," (3:13) I do start wondering about his mental health.  Are we really required to think so poorly of ourselves?

There is, of course, a long tradition of that kind of sentiment in the Christian faith.  Part of me wonders if the modern narrative of "love yourself; believe in yourself" is a reaction against it.  It's a difficult one - I can kind of get to grips with the idea that the closer you get to God, the more you realise that you aren't holy; but that seems like a different sort of thing to the idea that you have to believe yourself to be worse than the mud on someone's shoe in order to be holy at all.  It reminds me of a quote from Mister God This is Anna where Anna says that all her discoveries about the world make Mister God bigger, but that other people try to keep God the same size.  When Fynn asks how that works, she says, "That's easy, they just make themselves smaller".

Did you learn something new?

One particular chapter (1:9) gave me food for thought - a short section about whether to hold to your own opinion, or to give it up for the sake of peace.  I was recently in a situation where I had a different opinion on an issue to almost everyone else in a group, so I read this with interest.  

Thomas à Kempis starts by saying that everyone prefers to do things to their own taste, and be with those who agree with them.  But then he says, sometimes you have to give up your own opinion for the sake of peace.  After all, are you so wise that you are sure you're not wrong?  Even if you are right, but you give up your own opinion for God, it may be better for you, as you are living out of humility and not pride.

I think the key here is that you are giving up your right to be right, out of love.  Otherwise, I can see how it can lead to compulsion to keep quiet, not cause a fuss, and so on.  But in a world where we often feel like we have to hang on to our truth (or possibly even The Truth) at all costs, I found à Kempis' words quite liberating.

Elsewhere he says, "For God weigheth more with how much love a man worketh, than how much he doeth." (1:15) Definitely.  On the issue I mentioned, I still think I'm right.  But I also think that, if I went up to Jesus and said, "Well?  Was I right?" he would give me that look - you know, the has this person known me so long and she still doesn't get the point look - and say, "Well?  Did it make you love more or did it just make you feel smug? Were you right in a way that helped people find me, or were you right in a way that put barriers in their path?"  At which point I probably wouldn't be feeling so right after all...

Will you do something differently since reading this book?

One thing I'd like to do is copy out some of the beautiful prayers from this book, so that I have them all together.  Here are some examples:

O merciful Jesus, enlighten thou me with a clear shining inward light, and drive away all darkness from dwelling in my heart. (3:23)

O thou Everlasting Light, surpassing all created lights, dart the beams of thy brightness from above which may pierce all the most inward recesses of my heart.  Purify, rejoice, enlighten, and enliven my spirit, with all the powers thereof, that I may cleave unto thee with abundance of joy and triumph. (3:34)

Have mercy, O Lord, have mercy on those that crave thy mercy, give grace unto them that stand in need thereof, and make us such as that we may be counted worthy to enjoy thy grace and go forward to life eternal.  Amen. (4:9)

What is one thing you will remember?

Chapter 23 of Book 3 is headed Of Four Things That Bring Much Inward Peace.  The four things are:

  1. Endeavour rather to do the will of another than thine own.
  2. Choose always to have less rather than more.
  3. Seek always the lowest place, and to be inferior to every one.
  4. Wish always, and pray, that the will of God may be wholly fulfilled in thee.

I summed that up as Obedience, Simplicity, Humility, Holiness.  It certainly sounds like a way of life that would bring much inward peace.  I would like to remember that.

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