Thomas a Kempis. The Imitation of Christ. New York: Dover Publications, 2003.
According to the translators in the Foreword, the most popular view regarding this book’s origin is that it was written by a few members of the Brethren of the Common Life, a group of priests, in the Netherlands during the second half of the fourteenth century. The priest Thomas, a member of the Brethren, translated it into Latin.
Here are some of my thoughts about the book:
A. What surprised me was what was lacking in the book. When we think of WWJD (“What would Jesus do?”), what enters a lot of Christians mind is love and service towards others. There are statements about that in this book, here and there, but it is not the book’s focus. How, then, do we imitate Christ, according to the book? We accept suffering, as Christ did, placing God’s desires above our own in so doing. Some of this suffering comes from life’s events. Yet, the book also has a strong ascetic focus. When Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell all that he has and give it to the poor, this book seems to regard that as more normative than a lot of Christians do.
B. The book resembles Buddhism in its belief that Christians should detach themselves from worldly things, such as money and a desire for success. It even believes that Christians should try to avoid looking to people for consolation and should instead turn to God for that: God may take God’s time to console us, the book acknowledges, but keep on waiting! The reason that I say that the book is like Buddhism in its emphasis on detachment is that it maintains that attachment leads to suffering: our desires will be disappointed in this life, so we are happier when we are detached. But the book also holds that even those who do get what they want are either suffering, or their possessions are standing in the way of their intimacy with God and the spiritual rapture that can come from that.
C. While I understood the book’s argument that attachment leads to suffering, I did not know what its rationale was for asceticism. Okay, sure, this world will not last, but why not enjoy it when we still can? And cannot enjoying the pleasures of life enhance our appreciation for God, as we give God thanks? I think of I Timothy 4:3, in which the author criticizes those who command people “to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth” (KJV). Asceticism sounds rather Gnostic to me. The Gnostics believed that the material world was bad because it was created by a sinister or an inferior sub-deity to trap people and estrange them from spirituality. Their asceticism is understandable, in light of this view. The Imitation of Christ does not believe that, though, for it holds that the creator of the material world was a good God. Yet, for some reason, it seemed to denigrate the material world and enjoyment thereof.
D. There is a lot of emphasis in evangelical Christianity on socializing: you need to be in DEEP community! You cannot be a lone-ranger Christian! This book, by contrast, stressed solitude: it is good to get away from people and seek consolation from God! At times, the book treats chatting as foolishness to be avoided. On one occasion, though, the book did say that people should not allow their private prayers to take them away from public prayer, a rather communitarian sentiment, but that sentiment was rare in this book. As an introvert, I appreciated the book’s emphasis on solitude. Still, I thought that the book went too far in that direction. Does not Galatians 6:2 exhort Christians to bear one another’s burdens? And, since the book was putting words into the mouth of Jesus, would not one expect Jesus to say more about loving other people?
E. The book did exhort people to avoid negative feelings about others, but it tended to avoid the cheery “reach out to people” sentiments of modern evangelicalism. Rather, it said that we should try to minimize our annoyance with others, since we ourselves have flaws that may annoy people. Overall, though, the book had a rather dim view of life and of people, as if it regarded life as a drag, with temptations and desires that drag people down. It looked to God, for consolation in this life and in the life hereafter.
F. Humility was a theme that recurred frequently in this book. We should be intellectually humble: intellect should lead to a virtuous life and not simply be for the sake of knowing things! Part of the book’s stress on humility was its conviction that priests should submit to their superiors. The book also emphasized that we are sinners. We will interact with that more in the next item!
G. A problem that I have long had with elements of conservative Christianity is this: we are supposed to believe that we are sinners, yet we are also supposed to look for internal signs that we are saved, and such signs include the fruit of the Spirit: are we loving? Do we have joy? I am not saying that all of Christianity is like this, but I believe that the elements of Christianity that do have this sort of stance place people in a Catch-22. Am I supposed to see myself as bad? Am I supposed to see myself as good, as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work? Which way do I go?
In light of that, the way that this book interacted with such issues intrigued me. On the one hand, it believed that God’s judgment was a reality that even Christians should fear: in one poignant passage, it said that many of us are afraid when people are upset with us, so what makes us think we will be so brazen at God’s judgment seat? That definitely spoke to me: I can be quite timid around other people, and yet, for some reason, I can envision myself telling God off at the last judgment! In addition, the book seemed to regard its exhortations as a heaven or hell issue: those who surrender to God’s will and give up attachment will be the ones who will be saved. One can get the impression that, as far as the book is concerned, we need to have all our ducks in a row to be saved!
On the other hand, the book was honest about human flaws. The authors confess their imperfections. If there is good within them, they believe it is on account of the Holy Spirit, and, even then, they often do not feel God’s consolations and sense the depths of their own shortcomings. Sometimes, the book makes concessions: if you cannot bear suffering cheerfully, at least do so with patience! If you cannot partake of the Eucharist with enthusiasm, then you can put off doing so, as long as you do not make that a habit. The book also emphasized God’s mercy. The book did not embrace any concept of “Once Saved Always Saved,” as far as I could see, and yet it was comforting, in its own way, since it was honest about human fallibility and encouraged people to persevere, trusting in a merciful God.