Beyond Holy Writ, there has been one book which has helped form, edify, and nourish me spiritually. I have read it time and again. It is The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. By no means am I the only Christian soul to find refuge in its pages. Apparently, behind the Bible, it is one of the best-selling books of all time. It is thought to be the last book Pope John Paul I read when he died. So, it’s gotten around over the years—from popes to the average Joe.
But like all spiritual classics, you may have not read it yet. And that’s okay. I am going to introduce you to it.
Who’s the Author?
Thomas à Kempis was a German priest in the fifteenth century. More specifically, he was a canon of the Canons Regular. So he was part of a loose order of priests. He grew up with a love for books and was very handy at transcribing manuscripts. There is a portrait of his that bears this inscription: “Everywhere I have sought rest and found it nowhere, save in little nooks with little books.”
If there ever there was a patron saint of readers and book lovers, a great candidate would be Thomas à Kempis. Believe it or not, he is not canonized yet. The Imitation, his most famous work, is very far-reaching, but for whatever reason, à Kempis’ cult has not garnered enough attention. Which I think is a shame. Why? Because as you will find out in reading The Imitation, it will inspire you to be a saint. Indeed, I am friends with a good Catholic couple who have lovingly nick-named the book as “The Saint-Maker.”
Whether Thomas à Kempis gets raised to the altars officially in the Church Militant or not (though I’d encourage you to pray for it), his spiritual prose endures for all to benefit from. Thanks be to God for that.
Translations and Format
Which leads us to the book in question. There are many editions of The Imitation out there published by secular and Catholic organizations. I should say that the commonest translation you will find published will be the one by Aloysius Croft and Harold Bolton. That is the one I will be referencing in this article. However, I will give an honorable mention to Monsignor Ronald Knox’s translation which is enjoyable enough to read; though for American readers, be warned—it is very English in nature and verbiage. It should be quite easy to get your hands on this volume no matter the translation. You might even be able to find a public domain edition online to browse through or download for an e-reader (if that’s your thing, I’d rather stick to paper).
The book is generally broken up into four parts/books. They are:
- Thoughts Helpful in the Life of the Soul
This section is interwoven with the words of Christ and gives some very hard-hitting spiritual advice. Thomas à Kempis in this section could have been an understudy to the Sacred Writer in Proverbs. Prepare to be challenged spiritually.
- The Interior Life
Much like the first section, save it cuts deeper to the heart of things. Thomas à Kempis marches on with his intense spiritual bootcamp.
- Internal Consolation
Perhaps the most beautiful section of the book. A bit of reprieve after so much spiritual challenge in the first two sections. It is a back and forth between the soul and Christ Himself. So much that goes on in our souls in our daily struggle is made manifest in this section. This dialogue helps the reader be able to get a grasp on what true prayer looks like.
- An Invitation to Holy Communion
This is the most distinctly Roman Catholic of all the sections of the book because it is intensely Eucharistic. While still maintaining a dialogue between Christ and the soul, this part was originally intended to help form priests, especially those who felt unworthy to approach or celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar. Although it may be addressed to clerics first, by no means is a lay reader lacking spiritual benefit. One could get a pocket edition of The Imitation and read parts of this section to prepare the soul for Mass or offer a thanksgiving after having received Holy Communion.
There are many gems and quotable portions of this book. I will not fatigue the reader in indulging myself in a plethora of them. Instead, I will direct the reader to the beginning. It is one which helps keep us humble in our spiritual reading, no matter how many spiritual classics we may have read.
In the first chapter of The Imitation, à Kempis gets down to brass tacks:
The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all the advice of the saints, and he who has His spirit will find in it a hidden strength. Now, there are many who hear the Gospel often but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ. Yet whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try and pattern his whole life on that of Christ.
This passage truly helps focus our gaze on what matters. This is because it focuses not on a what, but a Who—Our Lord Jesus Christ. He, who says of Himself, and as The Imitation starts out quoting Him: “He who follows Me, walks not in darkness” (Jn 8:12).
Too often we illumine ourselves with our own darkness and try to be our own spiritual gurus or guides. This leads nowhere. If we want to be with Jesus in Heaven, we do not resort to some sort of self-help routine. No, we must follow Christ Jesus. For He is our Saviour—we do not save ourselves. He is the Captain of our souls in union with His Father and the Holy Spirit. It is useless to primarily rely on creatures for guidance.
Thomas à Kempis thus goes on:
What good does it do to speak learnedly of the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than to know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without the grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone.
The author here has alluded at the end of this quote to the Sacred Author in Ecclesiastes. It is proper and true. All is vain in our actions and motives if it is not fueled by and based on the principle of loving God and serving Him alone. No amount of reading, degrees, or letters after our name because of degrees will get us to Heaven. We cannot “read ourselves” into Heaven, as it were. Knowing definitions and how to explain the Faith without living out the Faith in our lives is futile.
As Our Lord says:
By their fruits you shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, and the evil tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can an evil tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit, shall be cut down, and shall be cast into the fire. Wherefore, by their fruits you shall know them (Mt 7: 16-20).
Sobering words. Our Lord knows if we are bluffing. Therefore, we must follow Him and everything we do must be in keeping with His Gospel. To return to à Kempis: The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all the advice of the saints, and he who has His spirit will find in it a hidden strength.
It is the teaching of Christ that The Imitation aims to guide us back toward, so we may have strength for the battle.
Conclusion and Next Up on the Roster
In this brief article I have only provided a sketch of what The Imitation is. Hopefully, I have piqued your interest in the book. I can only construct a springboard for you. Truthfully, you will have to do the hard but exciting work of reading this spiritual volume yourself. I hope that in reading this volume in its entirety as a result of reading my article, I will have whet your appetite for good spiritual literature that can feed your soul. For it is Christ’s Truth bleeding through it and Christ Himself Who will be feeding you. Any spiritual writer is just an instrument that Christ uses. The saints would be the first to tell you that. As I said in my first article in this series, we must all return to the Fountain—only Our Lord can refresh us with Himself.
Next up on the roster will be Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade. There is a principle of “the Sacrament of the Present Moment” I want to explore in this volume. Thanks for reading and staying with me on our literary journey!