Born in the German city of Kempten, Thomas à Kempis followed an elder brother to a religious center in the Netherlands, later entering a monastery where he lived for nearly seven decades. He entered the priesthood in 1413 and was made sub-prior of his monastery in 1425. He died after completing a chronicle of Mount Saint Agnes in his ninety-second year.
Thomas’s The Imitation of Christ, written by a monk for monks, is perhaps the most widely read religious book in history, outside the Bible itself. Gerard Groote (1340-1384), the subject of a biography that Thomas wrote, has sometimes been suggested as the author of this volume. While there is some question of who the actual author of the text was, readers seem to have had little trouble accepting the authenticity of its message.
The first of the four books in Thomas’s work is titled “Admonitions Useful for a Spiritual Life.” Thomas immediately establishes the need to imitate or follow Christ. Although he expresses a certain respect for learning, there is a clear caution in his opening remarks, especially in his famous sentence: “I would rather feel compunction of heart for my sins than merely know the definition of compunction.”
He then advises the reader to despise the world with all its snares that obstruct spiritual perfection. It is a good life that refreshes the mind, Thomas writes, and it is a clear conscience that allows for trust in God. The most profitable learning is in truthful knowledge and a full despising of the self. Nothing hinders growth in holiness more than our own regard for ourselves. On judgment day we will not be asked what we have read but how we have lived. It is vanity to put trust in any person or created thing. Overfamiliarity with others is to be avoided, while the virtue of obedience is to be cultivated.
We must not easily judge others but we can judge ourselves with great spiritual profit, Thomas continues. God is the sole judge of others and does so not according to the greatness of an act but according to the intention of the doer. It is important to break one’s own will if we would have peace and concord with others.
The purpose of good men depends not so much on themselves and their wisdom but on their Maker. “Man proposes, but God disposes,” Thomas writes. Humility and charity must be cultivated, and the key to controlling casual desire is found in the discipline against the tendency toward gluttony that many have. Each should develop, too, a love of solitude and of silence. Thomas warns against the perils to the spiritual life done by mingling with people. Security is not found with others but in God.
It is amazing, the author writes, how we can rejoice in this life if we merely consider how far we are in exile and what great danger our souls are constantly in. Meditation on death rather than on long life will cause us to work seriously to amend our lives. Each morning we should doubt that we will live until night; that will help us order our lives. It is foolish to think our lives will last long. The world’s business counts but little; we should regard ourselves as pilgrims and strangers on this earth.
A natural extension of contemplating death is in meditating on the last judgment and on the punishment to be meted out for sin. This will aid us to wish to change our lives and to concern ourselves with the state of our souls before all else. Two things explicitly, Thomas urges, are extremely helpful in the positive altering of one’s life: a withdrawal of the self from the things toward which the body most generally tends, and a dedicated effort to develop the virtues one most needs.
The first section concludes with the advice that one who lives a religious life and tries to do so without discipline is unlikely to achieve any good but rather fall into great ruin.
In “Admonitions Leading to the Inner Life,” the second book, Thomas states that because Christ has told us that the kingdom of God is within each of us, it behooves us therefore to turn inward and reject the basically wretched world. Peace and joy are found through the Holy Spirit and not through wicked people. We must prepare our hearts for Christ, the true Spouse, allowing him unencumbered entrance. This implies trust in God, which should motivate all that we do. God should be both our love and our fear above all else.
Thomas assures the reader that if one once enters the sacred wounds of Jesus and there tastes his love, one would care nothing for this world. To be free from all inordinate affections should be one’s great desire. This freedom will help one to acknowledge personal defects humbly. To be quiet and to...
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