“The Road to Emmaus” (1516) by Altobello Melone via The Google Art Project. Wikimedia Commons

‘The Imitation of Christ’ by Thomas à Kempis

A review of the spiritual classic

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By the time “The Imitation of Christ” (Noll Library, OSV, $29.95) appeared bearing the name of its author, Thomas à Kempis (one estimate places it between 1418-27), the diaconate had all but disappeared as a permanent order in the Catholic Church. Written primarily for contemplative men and women, it would have also served as a devotional guide for novices at the Mount St. Agnes Priory (near Zwolle, Netherlands) where Thomas served as novice master. Given these particularly unique circumstances, how then has “The Imitation” endured as the most published Christian work after the Bible, and what relevance does it have for the order of permanent deacons, absent at the time of its writing and only recently restored at the Second Vatican Council?

In educational parlance, one thinks of “imitation” as replicating in the student the mind of the teacher. For Thomas à Kempis, the same would hold true in the biblical context. The Greek word for “student” is “disciple,” the term used to identify those intent on learning from Jesus, the Nazarene. For them, he was “rabbi,” or “master,” both synonymous with “teacher.” Following him for three years, they learned by his word and example. At the Last Supper, his closest circle of disciples witnessed arguably the greatest teachable moment of all time, when Jesus tied a cloth to his belt and one by one washed their feet. Upon finishing this task of a slave, he returned to his place at the table and, like a classroom teacher checking for understanding, said: “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. … I have given you a model to follow so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:12-15).

The task of the teacher is also the purpose of “The Imitation” — to bring the student out of the darkness of ignorance and into the light of truth, acquiring all the teacher has modeled.

Instruction Begins

The opening words of “The Imitation” set the course of study for one who has been called to walk in the light of Christ: “‘He who follows me will not walk in darkness,’ says the Lord (Jn 8:12)” (p. 3). Elaborating, à Kempis writes, “Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.” With Christ as both teacher and curriculum, “The Imitation” aims to supply the student with a sure study guide toward progress in the spiritual life. The book consists of four parts, or “Books,” each flowing from and building upon the one before. Yet the invitation to read, once accepted, does not guarantee fruitful study. As all good teachers know, successful imitation begins with the learner’s readiness to learn. The first book, entitled “Thoughts Helpful in the Life of the Soul,” begins there: with the obstacles one brings to spiritual progress.

The Problem of Self

One may simply refer to those obstacles as the problem of self. The goal in the spiritual life is not to become more learned, insists the author, but to overcome the greatest obstacle that hinders true knowledge of self — namely, pride. “Turn your attention upon yourself” (p. 16), à Kempis writes. This imperative, and others like it, compel the reader to turn their gaze inward. That reorientation toward the inmost place of one’s being allows one to find his mark. Only by starting from there — in truth and honesty — can one begin the spiritual journey.

The antidote to pride is always humility. Throughout Book I, à Kempis pulls back one veil after another, showing the reader to himself, leaving no remote corner of his heart in obscurity. The reader also notes the directness of his tone. He often writes with imperatives and most often in the second person singular, like this: “Shun too great a desire for knowledge, for in it there is much fretting and delusion” (p. 4). Sometimes, he adopts the first person plural: “Let us, then, lay the axe to the root that we may be freed from our passions and thus have peace of mind” (p. 12). Add to these a good dose of negative imperatives, and you might expect the overall effect to be off-putting if they did not also ring true. And so, he writes, “Do not think yourself better than others lest, perhaps, you be accounted worse before God, who knows what is in man” (p. 9). The author’s intent, it seems, is not so much to compel one to annihilate the self as it is to shake it from its utter complacency. By the end of Book 1, à Kempis makes a claim both bold and simple, “The more violence you do to yourself, the more progress you will make” (p. 36).

The Inward Man

The opening sentence of Book II doubles down on this claim. Here à Kempis quotes Luke 17:21: “The kingdom of God is within you” (p. 39). Letting go of the self, the person now must become “the inward man,” one who puts “the care of himself before all other concerns” (p. 44). In this “state,” he becomes “free from any external affection” for he has now begun “to walk with God interiorly” (p. 46). The imitation of Christ requires the intent on the part of the disciple to walk willingly with the teacher.

Though necessary, the walk with the Lord marks only the journey, not the destination. Obstacles persist and frustrate as long as the heart is divided, for one does not easily give up his attachments. In a beautifully concise meditation on divine love, à Kempis presents the desire of the beloved who “is such that he will not accept what belongs to another — he wants your heart for himself alone” (pp. 46-47). It is the work of the disciple to bring in return “a clean and open heart” (48). These words remind the thoughtful reader of a passage in the Gospel of Matthew in which the Lord says, “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Mt 6:21).

Dying with Christ Diaconal-ly

The true disciple who sets his heart on the treasure of Christ and Christ alone embraces also “the whole life of Christ[, which] was a cross and a martyrdom” (p. 56). To be a disciple of Christ means, therefore, imitating — that is, participating in — the humble servitude of the master. The disciple who understands this will also come to realize that “there is no salvation of soul nor hope in everlasting life but in the cross” (p. 54). Alongside his beloved, he sets his sights on Calvary, for only there can he also share in the ultimate expression of sacrificial love. “Behold,” à Kempis writes, “in the cross is everything, and upon your dying on the cross everything depends” (p. 55). Lest the slow or distracted student fails to grasp this, the author (as is his style) reinforces the earlier statement with pointed elaboration: “If, indeed, there were anything better or more useful for man’s salvation than suffering, Christ would have shown it by word and example. But he clearly exhorts the disciples who follow him and all who wish to follow him to carry the cross, saying, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’ (Lk 9:23)” (p. 58).

The narrative voice of “The Imitation” changes in Books III and IV, replaced now by a dialogue between “The Voice of Christ” and the “Disciple.” This conceit, like the account of the Road to Emmaus, presents a dialogic accompaniment between Christ and the disciple. The risen Lord’s instruction lights the path ahead, forewarning the disciple of the spiritual battles that await him, but not without hope. “I am accustomed to visit my elect in two ways,” the Voice of Christ reveals, “by temptation and by consolation” (p. 64). Should the Disciple underestimate the threat to his soul, the Voice also exhorts, “You dwell among enemies. You are subject to attack from the right and the left” (p. 105). And the Voice warns, “If you do not steadily set your heart on me, with a firm will to suffer everything for my sake, you will not be able to bear the heat of this battle or to win the crown of the blessed” (pp. 105-106).

Victorious in the Eucharist

In Book IV, the dialogue intensifies as if all that preceded served only as preparation and prelude to the greatest of events, the “reception of this life-giving sacrament” (p. 156). Whether the Eucharist be understood as both sacrifice and gain, manna and feast, or “source and summit,” the words à Kempis channels into the Voice of Christ resound with such love and intimacy that they rightly belong with all that has ever been said or could be said about the mystery of the Blessed Sacrament. The Disciple hears the Voice of Christ say to him, “I seek not your gift but you” (p. 161).

If he can but endure to the end, the Disciple ultimately realizes that every part of his spiritual journey — his call to discipleship, his emptying of self, the heaviness of his cross and his battles with the devil — has only ever been about God’s desire for him. And yet, even this comes not earned, but as a gift from the Beloved. The Voice of Christ whispers, “I am he to whom you should give yourself entirely, that from now on you may live, not in yourself, but in me, with all cares cast away” (p. 169). Knowing this, still incapable of leaping into the arms of the Beloved, but able to receive the Eucharist, the humble Disciple says, “I beg your mercy and ask that special grace be given me, that I may be wholly dissolved in you and filled with your love” (p. 155).

“The Imitation of Christ” has been the faithful reading companion of both canonized saints and those on the way ever since it first became more readily available in paper and ink. With the invention of the printing press, which à Kempis, himself, lived to see, the book has become the most widely read Christian devotional besides the Bible, and its popularity continues to this day. As men called to imitate Christ the Servant, it has particular relevance. At this time of Eucharistic revival in the Church, the following imperative will serve as the invitation the deacon hears to read this spiritual gem. To the ordained minister of the cup, à Kempis writes, “Drink the chalice of the Lord with affection if you wish to be his friend and to have part with him” (p. 57).

DEACON ANTHONY J. CLISHEM, Ed.D., serves as the Office of Catechetical Formation leader for the Diocese of Joliet, in Illinois.

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