As a matter of fact, he was actually the man from Kempen, but the author of the world’s most cherished Christian devotional would not have cared whether we knew the details of his life. Instead, Thomas à Kempis made it his chief endeavor to direct all attention to Christ. The constant theme of The Imitation of Christ is the joy that is to be found in loosening the ego’s grip on heart and mind and returning both to God. This is, ultimately, the work that every believer ought to take up, and The Imitation is an invaluable tool for any Christian ready to begin.
Thomas’s challenge would be a hard one in any age, and it is genuinely countercultural in this one. In our egotistical times, it is easy—even for believers—to forget that we are created for purposes that we do not have the power to define or to decide. Of course, those who believe that they are created should, upon reflection, realize that true self-fulfillment can only exist in reference to the Creator, and Grace does awaken a recognition of this need for a return to God. But to do it is no easy task when sin’s curse stains our desires, our reasoning, and our very wills. Even after receiving the gift of faith, we find that the flesh is still weak. Virtue is only gained by hard practice and abundant Grace, and humility, pride’s opposite, may very well be the virtue least congenial to sinful nature and the hardest one to train.
Yet, for nearly six centuries, countless Christians have found that studying Thomas’s little book is a very good way to start trying. Every one of the work’s 114 short chapters is an expert lesson—from a wise and well-versed monk—on the process of beginning to allow God to clear out the spiritual clutter of the soul and to make way for his presence.
Thomas had ample time to train for a selfless commitment to Christ during his seventy years of devotion, communal living, and laborious immersion in Christian writing (he was among the last generations of hand-copyists). It is just such a “nobody” that is best-equipped for guiding pilgrims toward a genuine effort to imitate Christ. That journey is harder to undertake for one burdened by the cares of the world and the jealous demands of pride. Monks are in a very good position to make meditation upon the life of Jesus Christ their chief endeavor, and Thomas proves to be an excellent guide across the spiritual landscape which separates us from the goal. A savvy traveler after long and constant journeying, he is able to map out the terrain in plain terms and guide his readers around many of the Devil’s snares.
One can spend years reading the Imitation daily and yet feel that he has never encountered the personality of the writer whose book he is reading. The language is exceptionally plain and concise. Thomas never indulges in accounts of his own experiences or in sharing the conclusions he has privately formed about any worldly thing. We receive from him only instructions for growing in faith and piety, and these are saturated throughout with references to Scripture. Whatever experiences led to his impressive knowledge of Scripture and human nature are no doubt interesting, but Thomas comes to us as one with a message infinitely more important than his own story.
This message is divided into four books. Three treat topics of prayer and devotion. The last treats Holy Communion. Most often he speaks directly to the reader. At other times he invites us to pray with him, and still other times he speaks from the perspective of God consoling or exhorting man in his struggle with sin. A brief sample from the 21st chapter of Book One:
If thou wilt make any progress in godliness, keep thyself in the fear of God, and desire not too much liberty. Restrain all they senses under the severity of discipline. . . Give thyself to compunction of heart, and thou shalt gain much devotion thereby.
Strange and refreshing advice for modern ears.
It is, perhaps, not very strange that we hear little about this book today even among Christian circles (though it was once the most widely read book in Christendom after the Bible, according to my copy’s introduction). Chesterton, Lewis, and many capable, contemporary apologists seem to address more urgent questions for the faithful in the modern world. And it is good that thoughtful Christians spend time considering the answers raised by these supremely eloquent believers against the challenges of those besieging the fortress of Faith. But we must not be content only to assure ourselves that the faith is still intelligible. If our faith is true, then it must necessarily—by its own terms—be the most important thing of all. It ought to govern even more than our intellects and our moral reasoning, though that is a tall order already; it ought to govern our very identities and desires. We are promised that, by the grace of God, it can. Our apologists would no doubt agree that the faith they defend calls us to give our whole selves inwardly to the imitation of Christ. The Imitation is a fine motivator and guide for the task.Thomas dares us, though there be no security from temptation in this life, to trust in God’s promise to save and to sanctify. The Imitation is an invitation to begin asking so that we may be given, to begin seeking so that we may find, and to begin knocking that the way might be opened. In so doing, we prepare ourselves to become eager vessels for Grace and so to say with John the Baptist, “this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease.” There is no better time than the Lenten season to begin.
Matt Michaloski studies law at Indiana University.