The Imitation of a Kempis

If I asked you to name the most widely read Christian book, second to the Bible, which would you go for? I did some digging. Goodreads puts Lewis’ Mere Christianity in first place, though the Bible is ranked sixth, disconcertingly. If pressed, I’d have gone for Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In fact, it’s a far older book, dating from around 1420. It is Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. It’s one of those works I’ve often come across but never read. My traditional suspicion was that it must surely be the polluted faeces of that horrid hydra- the medieval Roman Catholic Church. Yet it’s a book commended by John Wesley of all people, so I thought I’d best check it out for myself.

Although the beauty of a work’s language is as much dependent on the translator’s skill as the original author’s (Kempis wrote in Latin, naturally; I read Sherley-Price’s 1952 translation), much in this book impressed me. It offers short, practical chapters, sometimes only half a page long, such as Prudence in Action, and Control of Desires. Some of Kempis’ points are as valid now as they were then:

What can the world offer you without Jesus? 

Love all men for Jesus’ sake, but love Jesus for Himself.

When one is subject to others’ slander, he counsels, Consider yourself worse than they imagine. Do not let your peace depend upon what people say of you.

Amen, Brother. Some of his advice is a little dated, and the product of his monastic isolation:

We sometimes imagine our own company is pleasing, when often we offend others by our ill behaviour. We must therefore live in charity with all men, but familiarity with them is not desirable.

“Be seldom with young people”, is his archaic counterweight to the contemporary cult of youth.

There is some evangelical flavour to his work. Unusually for a Catholic, he talks of his and his readers’ ‘conversions’. His liberal quoting of scripture is a clear consequence of his thorough reading of God’s word at a time when few churchmen bothered, much less the bloke in the field. He even senses the spiritual dearth of his era: “O the carelessness and coldness of this present time”. He makes passing reference to God’s election and focuses on Jesus throughout, not Mary, nor Peter nor the Pope.

Yet concurrently, he is the child of his time, a son of his age. He refers to the prayers of the saints and has an entire section on the sacrament of Holy Communion, conncerning the wafer of which, he laments:

Alas, why does my heart not burn within me at your adorable presence?…This high and venerable sacrament in the health of soul and body, the cure of every spiritual malady.

He believes in earthly priests, which is at odds with the biblical priesthood of all believers:

A priest clothed in sacred vestments occupies the place of Christ that he may humbly intercede with God for himself and all men.

This challenges Christ’s final sacrifice atop Calvary and His heavenly ministry by the Father’s side. So what do I make of the man and the books? Like Boris Johnson writing his two letters ahead of the EU referendum, I have a couple of options:

He was a genuine born-again Christian at a time of great darkness. Living before the Reformation, he used what little light he had; his soul was saved, not by the Church of which he was part, but in spite of it. He was not totally pure doctrinally, as few of us are, and still carried about some unnecessary baggage, the discarding of which might have served him better. Still, salvation is not for the doctrinally sound, but the repentant sinner who calls on the name of the Lord. The book is wonderfully helpful in places, but requires untangling from the thorns and briars among which it was written.

Or: He was a deeply spiritual man with much insight. Yet is it not possible to have a form of godliness and deny the power thereof? Sincerity and wisdom are not enough. He was a part of a corrupt counterfeit Christianity. Had he listened a little more to the likes of Jan Huss and John Wycliffe, he might have left Babylon altogether, but he did not. Just as some Mormons and Hindus have a spiritual depth to their words, so this man wrote well but was little better than a scribe and pharisee. The book is therefore ultimately unhelpful, its platitudes located in other works but without the Roman leaven.

Thankfully, discerning the state of men’s souls is neither my prerogative nor skill. This I leave to Him who sees all, and discerns the innerworkings of the heart. Only He knows the lintels to which His own blood is applied, the lives which death’s angel cannot touch. I enjoyed the book, actually. I suspect I’ll meet the author one day.

Book 3, chapter 48, is one of his dialogues between ‘the Disciple’ and Christ. Says the former to the Saviour:

I am left poor and exiled in a hostile land, where every day sees wars and very great misfortunes. Console my banishment, assuage my sorrow. My whole desire is for You. Whatever solace this world offers is a burden to me. I desire to enjoy You intimately, but I cannot attain to it. I wish to cling fast to heavenly things, but temporal affairs and unmortified passions bear me down. I wish in mind to be above all things, but I am forced by the flesh to be unwillingly subject to them. Thus, I fight with myself, unhappy that I am, and am become a burden to myself, while my spirit seeks to rise upward and my flesh to sink downward. Oh, what inward suffering I undergo when I consider heavenly things; when I pray, a multitude of carnal thoughts rush upon me!

Comes the reply:

I know your longings and I have heard your frequent sighs. Already you wish to be in the liberty of the glory of the sons of God. Already you desire the delights of the eternal home, the heavenly land that is full of joy. But that hour is not yet come. There remains yet another hour, a time of war, of labour, and of trial. You long to be filled with the highest good, but you cannot attain it now. I am that sovereign Good. Await Me, until the kingdom of God shall come.


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