Christian Devotional Classics: The Imitation of Christ

All men commend patience, although few are willing to practice it. – Thomas ‘a Kempis

Thomas à Kempis

Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380 – 1471). The Imitation of Christ (ca.1418-1427). Source: wikipedia via www.ccel.org/ccel/kempis.

Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380 – 1471) lived in the midst of the crisis of the late medieval period. Although there had been relative stability and population growth in the High Middle Ages (1000-1299), the Late Middle Ages (1300-1500) began with the challenge of “The Great Famine” (1315-1317). The Great Famine led to crime, disease, and millions dead including children abandoned by parents and elderly letting themselves die of starvation. “The Black Death” (1348-1350) resulted to the loss of 75 – 200 million people, about a third of the European population. There were mass burials of plague victims. It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover.

With blame having to placed somewhere, Roman Catholicism lost its strong authority due to being unable to end the crises. In some places, Jewish communities were attributed with the epidemic. In 1349, Jewish communities in Cologne were exterminated.

“Papes, Palais des”. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 17 Aug. 2013.

During this cultural instability and the weakening of the Roman Catholic Church, there was a split in the Roman Catholic Church termed the “Western Schism” (1378-1417). At this time there were rival claimants to the papacy, one in Avignon, France, and another in Rome, Italy. This was after the papacy had resided in Avignon between 1309 – 1378, due to a conflict between Pope Boniface VIII and Philip IV of France as to who had more “secular” authority. The “Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy” was resolved by Pope Gregory XI leaving Avignon in 1376. Subsequent Avignon popes who challenged the Roman Papacy were considered illegitimate and the schism, which became more complicated with two rival popes the the one in Rome, ended at the Council of Constance (1417). With our current communication technology, it is hard to imagine the results of such a controversy in our current context. Likewise, it is not surprising how word of such controversies were some of the seeds of the Reformation.

Thomas à Kempis’ father, John, was a blacksmith. In 1392, Thomas attended a Latin school in Deventer. He was educated by the Brethren of the Common Life, his first exposure to a religious order. His brother Jan became the prior of the Monastery of Mount St. Agnes, which was part of the Canons Regular. The Canons Regular are a community of priests referred to as the Augustinian Cannons because they follow the Rule of Augustine. The Rule of Augustine includes vows of chastity, poverty, obedience stability, common property. To distinguish between monks and canons, Pope Urban II (1088-1099) likened monks to Mary and canons to her sister Martha.

In 1406, Thomas joined the community overseen by his brother, but he was not ordained as a priest for many years. He lived quietly, copying texts, spending time in devotion to God, and writing. He copied the Bible at least four times. Only the Bible has been translated into more languages than Thomas’ The Imitation of Christ (ca.1418-1427). And only recently has it been surpassed by The Purpose Driven Life (Rick Warren, Zondervan Press, 2002) as the most widely read devotional. In 1429, the same year Joan of Arc played a pivotal role in ending the siege of Orleans, Thomas became a sub-prior. Although Joan of Arc may have been big news in the popular culture, Thomas’ significant endeavors received little notice even by those in his community. In 1471, he died at the age of 91 at a time when the average lifespan was in the mid-30’s.

Acknowledgement: Thank-you to Ken for his excellent presentation in Christian Devotional Classics (Evangelical Seminary), inspiring me to write this in paragraph instead of outline form. I may move this direction with some of the other posts now that they are outlined. Please let me know if you have a preference on the form.

What does The Imitation of Christ (c.1418-1427) have to say to us today?

The Imitation of Christ (c.1418-1427) by Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380 – 1471). Source: ccel.org/ccel/kempis/imitation.html.

Daily Reflections for the course of a week from which you pick up this post. The material is drawn from drafts I posted on the Emerging Scholars Network Facebook Wall as part of a class on Christian Devotional Classics at Evangelical Seminary. Click here for a free copy of The Imitation of Christ via the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Please email me if you use the second section to stimulate campus discussion (e.g., brown bag lunch discussion group). I am particularly interested in suggestions on revisions for use in that context.

1. “It may perhaps appear strange that a book [The Imitation of Christ] written by one [Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471)] who spent nearly the whole of his long life in the cloister [for the most part at the Monastery of Mount St. Agnes, Zwolle, Netherlands], and who intended his works primarily for his fellow-religious, should have such power to guide and inspire hundreds who have little knowledge of monastic life: but the writer’s deep and burning love of God, his deep humility, his profound knowledge of the Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers, coupled with his understanding of human nature and its needs, make him a wise and trustworthy counsellor to all who seek to know and fulfil the true purpose of human life — ‘to praise, love and serve God their Lord, and by doing these things, to save their souls’. Accordingly while Thomas à Kempis writes in the first place for his fellow-religious, an ascetic for ascetics, a mystics for those who aspire to mystical union with God through the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, yet his counsels are a proved guide and inspiration to men and women of every age and nation.

The secret of the amazing influence and converting power of this little book is the secret of the lives of all the Saints — their nearness to God, and the reflection of His love in their lives and writings.” — Leo Sherley-Price in “Introduction: The Character of ‘The Imitation.’ Thomas à Kempis. “The Imitation of Christ. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. London: Penguin Group, 1952, 11.

For Deeper Reflection: What books have you opened and after reading The Table of Contents realized that each chapter may be worth engaging in meditation, reflection, sharing, and dialogue? When encountering a book which remains such for over 500 years, one has truly come across a classic. Thomas à Kempis had no intention of writing a classic. Do you? What from our day, in your discipline (or more widely) do think will become a classic? Are classics concentrated in particular disciplines and if so, which ones?

2. “Modest and retiring both by nature and conviction, Thomas sought no office or fame; as he mentions in his ‘Exercises,’ silence was his friend, work his companion, and prayer his aid, and he was well content to work unknown” (22).

For Deeper Reflection: How many of us long for a life so “modest and retiring” that the authorship of our greatest work may been questioned (not that I’ll have a “great work,” let alone a “classic”)? Remember that to do such, Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) lived a life separated from the world in a poor monastery. The Monastery of Mount St. Agnes, Zwolle, Netherlands, began under the leadership of his older brother (John, b.1365) and sustained itself through the “continuous” copying of manuscripts. 

Thomas largely kept to himself, not only enjoying copying, but also generating a number of his own pieces focused upon “love, mercy, and holiness of God, and the empty futility of life lived apart from its only source of true Life and Light” (11). Having attended a school of the Brethren/Congregation of the Common Life the seven years prior to entering the monastery, Thomas was greatly influenced by the passionate devotion to the Lord encountered in and evidenced by this semi-monastic community founded by Gerard Groote (1340-1384), http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/encyc03/Page_172.html. Note: Thomas wrote the biographies of several members of the “New Devotion” movement.

Today, can we live the life of a secluded mystic and scholar, sustained by investment in a community of common life in the United States? Do any of us desire such institutions of learning and/or cooperatives of living? 

Confession: I do, but I have been surprised by the joy of campus life and family. I find myself in a semi-monastic model in the midst of extended family who are Christ-followers. Is such a model sustainable across generations of family by birth or a unique moment in time?

3. “‘He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness,’ says Our Lord. . . . Of what use is a long life, if we amend so little? Alas, a long life often adds to our sins rather than to our virtue! Would to God that we might spend a single day really well! Many recount the years since their conversion, but their lives show little sign of improvement. If it is dreadful to die, it is perhaps more dangerous to live long. Blessed is the man who keeps the hour of his death always in mind, and daily prepares himself to die. If you have ever seen anyone die, remember that you, too, must travel the same road. . . .

Keep yourself a stranger and pilgrim upon earth, to whom the affairs of this world are of no concern. Keep your heart free and lifted up to God, for here you have no abiding city. Daily direct your prayers and longings to heaven, that at your death your soul may merit to pass joyfully into the presence of God” (27, 58, 60).

For Deeper Reflection: Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) was born on the heals of the crisis of the late Middle Ages. After a period of population growth and relative stability, Europe endured the Great Famine (1315-1317) and the Black Death (1348-1350). In the midst of the crime, disease, and the millions who died (including those suspected of causing ill, e.g., Jews and those with any spots on their flesh), the Western Church appeared to be without the power of God in prayer. Issues with leadership in the church came to a head with the Western Schism (1378-1417), i.e., the Avignon Papacy.

Although the average lifespan at the time was 35 years of age, Thomas lived 91 years. As part of the Augustinian Cannons at the Monastery of Mount St. Agnes, Thomas tirelessly copied — the Bible at least four times! — and wrote texts. What a privilege it must have been to dwell in the Scriptures page after page, day after day knowing that the Lord was with Him as he kept the hour of his death always in mind. No doubt this along with the regular Scriptural liturgical order, lead to the Scriptural richness of The Imitation of Christ — which is thought to be most the widely read Christian devotional and only second to the Bible (and I just heard “The Purpose Drive Life”) in number of languages in which it has been translated. To God be the glory!

Do you as Thomas à Kempis keep the hour of your death always in mind, daily preparing yourself to die . . . keeping yourself a stranger and pilgrim upon earth, to whom the affairs of this world are of no concern? Today join me in looking forward to the heavenly city more than the earthly city, i.e., looking more to earthly (and worldly) death than earthly (and worldly) life. May we spend today really well, as an offering to the Lord!

PS. Do we agree with Thomas à Kempis in his strong rejection of the earthly and worldly life? Feel free to comment before I get there :)

4. “On Humility. Everyone naturally desires knowledge, but of what use is knowledge itself without the fear of God? A humble countryman who serves God is more pleasing to Him than a conceited intellectual who knows the course of the stars, but neglects his own soul. A man who truly knows himself realizes his own worthlessness, and takes no pleasure in the praises of men. Did I possess all knowledge in the world, but had no love, how would this help me before God, who will judge me by my deeds?

Restrain an inordinate desire for knowledge, in which is found much anxiety and deception. Learned men always wish to appear so, and desire recognition of their wisdom. But there are many matters, knowledge of which brings little or no advantage to the soul. Indeed, a man is unwise if he occupies himself with any things save those that further his salvation. A spate of words does nothing to satisfy the soul, but a good life refreshes the mind, and a clean conscience brings great confidence in God” (28-29. Note: Book I, Chapter 2).

For Deeper Reflection: Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) strikes at the core of the “conceited intellectual.” After the above quote his warns, “The more complete and excellent your knowledge, the more severe will be God’s judgement on you unless your life be the more holy. Therefore, do not be conceited of any skill or knowledge you may possess, but respect the knowledge that is entrusted to you. If it seems to you that you know a great deal and have wide experience in many fields, yet remember that there are many matters of which you are ignorant . . . If you desire to know or learn anything to your advantage, then take delight in being unknown and unregarded” (29). Ever been impressed by how little an expert in one field knows about another? Let us humbly respect the knowledge that has been entrusted to us and bless others in whatever manner God grants us opportunity. To God be the glory!

5. “O Christ, who rules the power of the sea and quells its raging waves, come near and help me! Scatter the nations that delight in war, and overcome them in Your strength. Display Your mighty power, I pray, and throw Yourself glorious in might; I have no hope nor refuge but in You, O Lord my God” (140. Note: Book III, Chapter 34).

For Deeper Reflection: In turbulent times such as the “World Wars,” the Battle of Gettysburg, the American Revolution, the Reformation, the Black Death, Genghis Khan, Muhammad, Constantine, Jesus, Alexander the Great, the Han Dynasty, Gautama Buddha, Daniel, David, Moses, Joseph, Abraham, and it’s hard to place a stop to the list . . . to whom do people turn? 

Join me in praying the first part of Thomas’ prayer, “O Light everlasting, surpassing all created light! Pour forth from Heaven the glorious rays of Your light, and pierce the very depths of my heart! Purify, gladden, light, and quicken the powers of my spirit, that it may hold to You with joy unspeakable. Oh, when shall come that blessed and longed for hour, when You fill me with Your presence, and be to me All in all. Until You grant this, I can know no fullness of joy. As yet, alas, my lower nature is strong within me; it is not yet wholly crucified, nor entirely dead. It still fights strongly against the spirit, stirring up conflicts within me, and will not allow the kingdom of the soul to remain at peace” (140). . . . The second part, given above . . . and lastly in praying for friends in and connected with Egypt. Note: During the summer we rejoiced in a good report from those serving on an InterVarsity Global Project in the garbage village just outside of Cairo. Later they left without injury. To God be the glory!

6. “On The Teaching of Truth. . . . Truly, ‘we have eyes and see not’: for what concern to us are such things as genera and species. . . .

A pure, simple, and stable man, however busy and occupied, does not become distracted thereby, for he does all things to the glory of God, and strives to preserve himself free from all self-seeking. . . .

A humble knowledge of oneself is a surer road to God than a deep searching of the sciences. Yet learning itself is not to be blamed, nor is the simple knowledge of anything whatsoever to be despised, for true learning is good in itself and ordained by God; but a good conscience and a holy life are always to be preferred. . . . At the Day of Judgement, we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done not how eloquently we have spoken, but how holily we have lived. Tell me, where are now all those Masters and Doctors whom you knew so well in their lifetime in the flower of their learning? Other men now sit in their seats, and they are hardly ever called to mind. In their lifetime they seemed of great account, but now no one speaks of them.

Oh, how swiftly the glory of the world passes away! If only the lives of these men had been as admirable as their learning, their study and reading would have been to good purpose! But how many in this world care little for the service of God, and perish in their vain learning. Because they chose to be great rather than humble in mind, and regards earth’s highest honours as nothing. He is truly wise who counts all earthly things as dung, in order that he may win Christ. And he is truly learned, who renounces his own will for the will of God” (30-32. Note: Book I, Chapter 3).

For Deeper Reflection: As noted in “‘He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness . . .”,* Thomas à Kempis has a strong rejection of the earthly and worldly life while at the same time acknowledging God’s call to steward one’s good gifts in a manner which blesses others and the creation. I think that this is significant struggle for “the devout”, found throughout “The Christian Devotional Classics.”

A strong part of my draw to InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network is a theology which rejoices in the opportunity to engage in the creation/cultural mandate found in Genesis 1:28 AND yes, that includes the value of genera and species (see my developing piece Loving God in the Flesh in the Real World)! I take away from Thomas’s back-and-forth that we must truly be part of a community of learners which keeps us humble in our labors — even challenging us in what manner our work fulfills the creation/cultural mandate. Let us engage in such examination/dialogue as part of campus life, http://blog.emergingscholars.org/tag/vinoth-ramachandra/.

7. “How we should Approach Christ’s Sacrament Humbly, Submitting Reason to Holy Faith. . . . All reason and natural research must follow faith, but not precede or encroach on it. For in this most holy and excellent Sacrament faith and love precede all else, working in ways unknowable to man. The eternal God, transcendent and infinite in power, works mightily and unsearchably both in heaven and earth, nor can there be any searching out of His wonders. For were the works of God readily understandable by human reason, they would be neither wonderful nor unspeakable” (216-217. Note: Book III, Chapter 18).

For Deeper Reflection: With this reflection Thomas à Kempis concludes The Imitation of Christ. Do you concur, “All reason and natural research must follow faith, but not precede or encroach on it”? How do you approach the Sacraments? Do you desire to have “the works of God readily understandable by human reason”?

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Tom Grosh IV

Enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa, four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he hosts the Christian Scholar Series), on campus as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry (serving fellowships such as the Christian Medical Society/CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine), online as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network, in the culture at large, and in God's creation.

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