Thomas à Kempis, C.R.S.A. (Thomas van Kempen or Thomas Hemerken or Haemerken, litt. "Hammerkin" (small hammer); c. 1380 – 25 July 1471) was a Dutch canon regular of the late medieval period and the author of The Imitation of Christ, one of the most popular and best known Christian books on devotion. His name means Thomas "of Kempen", his hometown, and in German he is known as Thomas von Kempen. He also is known by various spellings of his family name: Thomas Haemerken; Thomas Hammerlein; Thomas Hemerken and Thomas Hämerken. (wikipedia.org)
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About the Author
Thomas à Kempis (ca. 1380-1471) was an Augustinian monk in the Netherlands during the pre-Reformation period.
Carl Anderson is the Supreme Knight and chief executive officer of the Knights of Columbus, the world's largest Catholic fraternal service organization with more than 1.7 million members. He is the author of Called to Love, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the New York Times bestseller A Civilization of Love: What Every Catholic Can Do to Transform the World.
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THE IMITATION OF CHRIST AND CONTEMPT FOR THE VANITIES OF THE WORLD
"Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness," says the Lord. These are Christ's own words by which He exhorts us to imitate His life and His ways, if we truly desire to be enlightened and free of all blindness of heart. Let it then be our main concern to meditate on the life of Jesus Christ.
2. Christ's teaching surpasses that of all the saints, and whoever has His spirit will find in His teaching hidden manna. But it happens that many are little affected, even after a frequent hearing of His Gospel. This is because they do not have the spirit of Christ. If you want to understand Christ's words and relish them fully, you must strive to conform your entire life to His.
3. What good does it do you to be able to give a learned discourse on the Trinity, while you are without humility and, thus, are displeasing to the Trinity? Esoteric words neither make us holy nor righteous; only a virtuous life makes us beloved of God. I would rather experience repentance in my soul than know how to define it.
If you knew the entire Bible inside out and all the maxims of the philosophers, what good would it do you if you were, at the same time, without God's love and grace? Vanity of vanities! All is vanity, except our loving God and serving only Him. This is the highest wisdom: to despise the world and seek the kingdom of heaven.
4. It is vanity to seek riches that are sure to perish and to put your hope in them.
It is vanity to pursue honors and to set yourself up on a pedestal.
It is vanity to follow the desires of the flesh and to crave the thingswhich will eventually bring you heavy punishment.
It is vanity to wish for a long life and to care little about leading a good life.
It is vanity to give thought only to this present life and not to think of the one that is to come.
It is vanity to love what is transitory and not to hasten to where everlasting joy abides.
5. Keep this proverb often in mind: The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. Therefore, withdraw your heart from the love of things visible and turn yourself to things invisible. Those who yield to their sensual nature dishonor their conscience and forfeit God's grace.
HAVING A HUMBLE OPINION OF ONE 'S SELF
Everyone has a natural desire for knowledge but what good is knowledge without the fear of God? Surely a humble peasant who serves God is better than the proud astronomer who knows how to chart the heavens' stars but lacks all knowledge of himself.
If I truly knew myself I would look upon myself as insignificant and would not find joy in hearing others praise me. If I knew everything in the world and were still without charity, what advantage would I have in the eyes of God who is to judge me according to my deeds?
2. Curb all undue desire for knowledge, for in it you will find many distractions and much delusion. Those who are learned strive to give the appearance of being wise and desire to be recognized as such; but there is much knowledge that is of little or no benefit to the soul.
Whoever sets his mind on anything other than what serves his salvation is a senseless fool. A barrage of words does not make the soul happy, but a good life gladdens the mind and a pure conscience generates a bountiful confidence in God.
3. The more things you know and the better you know them, the more severe will your judgment be, unless you have also lived a holier life. Do not boast about the learning and skills that are yours; rather, be cautious since you do possess such knowledge.
4. If it seems to you that you know many things and thoroughly understand them all, realize that there are countless other things of which you are ignorant. Be not haughty, but admit your ignorance. Why should you prefer yourself to another, when there are many who are more learned and better trained in God's law than you are? If you are looking for knowledge and a learning that is useful to you, then love to be unknown and be esteemed as nothing.
5. This is the most important and most salutary lesson: to know and to despise ourselves. It is great wisdom and perfection to consider ourselves as nothing and always to judge well and highly of others. If you should see someone commit a sin or some grievous wrong, do not think of yourself as someone better, for you know not how long you will remain in your good state.
We are all frail; but think of yourself as one who is more frail than others.
THE TEACHING OF TRUTH
Happy is the individual whom Truth instructs, not by means of obscure figures and fleeting words, but as it truly is in itself.
Our way of thinking and perceiving often misleads us and teaches us very little. What good is there in arguing about obscure and recondite matters, when our ignorance of such things will not be in question on the Day of Judgment? It is utter absurdity for us to neglect the things that are useful and necessary, and needlessly occupy ourselves with those that are merely curious and perhaps harmful. We have eyes, but we do not see.
2. Why should we concern ourselves with such philosophical words as genera and species? He whom the eternal Word teaches is set free from a multitude of theories. From this one Word all things come into being; all things speak this one Word, and this Word, who is the beginning, also speaks to us. Without this Word no one can understand or judge correctly. He for whom all things are in the One, and who refers all things to the One, and sees all things in the One, can remain steadfast in heart and abide in God's peace.
O God my Truth, make me one with You in eternal love. Often I become weary with reading and hearing many things. You are all that I want and desire. Let all teachers be mute and all creation keep silence before You. Speak to me, You, and You alone.
3. The more we are united to You and become inwardly simple, the more we can, and effortlessly too, understand sublime things about You, for we receive light and understanding from above.
He who has a pure, simple, and constant spirit is not distracted by the many things he does, because he does all for the honor of God and endeavors to remain inwardly free of all seeking of himself. What greater hindrance or annoyance is there than our heart's uncontrolled passions?
The good and devout person first inwardly plans the works that he will outwardly do, and does not allow himself to be drawn by any unworthy inclination, but, on the contrary, he accomplishes these works in accordance with the dictates of right reason.
No one undergoes a stronger struggle than the man who tries to subdue himself. This should be our chief employment: strive to overcome ourselves and gain such a mastery that we daily grow stronger and better.
4. All perfection in this life has some imperfection mixed with it, and all speculative thought involves a certain amount of fuzziness. A humble knowledge of yourself is a surer way to God than any deep scientific inquiry.
Neither learning in general nor knowledge of even simple things ought to be condemned, since they are something good in themselves and ordained by God; but a good conscience and a virtuous life are always to be preferred. Because many people spend more time and effort in becoming educated than in living properly, it happens that many, therefore, go astray and bear little or no fruit.
5. If we were as diligent in uprooting vices and planting virtues as we are in debating abstruse questions, there would not be so many evils or scandals among us nor such laxity in monastic communities. Certainly, when Judgment Day comes we shall not be asked what books we have read, but what deeds we have done; we shall not be asked how well we have debated, but how devoutly we have lived.
Tell me, where now are all those professors and doctors with whom you were once so well acquainted when they were alive, and who were famous for their learning? Others hold their positions today and I wonder whether these ever think of their predecessors. While they were alive they appeared to be men of influence, but today no one even mentions their names.
6. O, how quickly the glory of the world evanesces! Would that their living had been equal to their learning; then they would have studied and lectured to good purpose.
How many perish in the world because of useless learning and for caring little about the service of God! Because they prefer to be famous rather than humble, they lose themselves in intellectual acrobatics and come to nothing.
He is truly great who has abundant charity. He is truly great who is unimportant in his own eyes and considers the greatest of honors a mere nothing. He is truly wise who esteems all earthly things as dung so that he may gain Christ. Finally, he who does God's will and abandons his own is truly the most learned.
PRUDENCE IN OUR ACTIONS
We ought not to be too ready to believe every word or item of gossip, but we ought to weigh each carefully and unhurriedly before God. Alas! Our weakness is such that we are often more readily inclined to believe and speak ill of someone than that which is good. But those who are perfect do not easily give credence to every tale they hear, for they know that human nature is prone to evil and that the human tongue can be treacherous.
2. It is a mark of great wisdom neither to be hasty in our actions nor stubbornly maintain our private opinions. It is also a part of wisdom neither to believe everything we hear, nor to pour it immediately into another's ear.
Seek counsel from one who is wise and honest and ask instruction from one you esteem; do not follow your own devices. A good life makes us wise in the eyes of God and makes us knowledgeable in many things. The more humble you are in heart and the more you submit yourself to God, the wiser will you be in everything, and greater peace will be yours.
READING THE HOLY SCRIPTURES
In Holy Scripture we seek truth and not eloquence. All Sacred Scripture should be read in the spirit with which it was written.
We should search the Scriptures for what is to our profit, rather than for niceties of language. You should read the simple and devout books as eagerly as those that are lofty and profound. The authority of the author, whether he be of great or little learning, ought not to influence you, but let the love of pure truth draw you to read them. Do not inquire about who is the one saying this, but pay attention to what he is saying.
2. Men enter and pass out of this world, but the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. God speaks to all of us in a variety of ways and is no respecter of persons. Our curiosity proves a hindrance to us, for while reading the Scriptures we sometimes want to stop to debate and discuss, when we should simply read on.
If you wish to derive profit from your reading of Scripture, do it with humility, simplicity, and faith; at no time use it to gain a reputation for being one who is learned. Eagerly ask yourself questions and listen in silence to the words of the saints, and do not let the riddles of the ancients baffle you. They were written down for a definite purpose.
Whenever you desire anything inordinately, you immediately find that you grow dissatisfied with yourself. Those who are proud and avaricious never arrive at contentment; it is the poor and the humble in spirit who live in great peace.
Anyone who is not totally dead to himself will soon find that he is tempted and overcome by piddling and frivolous things. Whoever is weak in spirit, given to the flesh, and inclined to sensual things can, but only with great difficulty, drag himself away from his earthly desires. Therefore, he is often gloomy and sad when he is trying to pull himself from them and easily gives in to anger should someone attempt to oppose him.
2. If he has given in to his inclinations and has yielded to his passions, he is then immediately afflicted with a guilty conscience. In no way do such yieldings help him to find the peace he seeks. It is by resisting our passions and not by being slaves to them that true peace of heart is to be found.
There is no peace, therefore, in the heart of the man who is given to the flesh, nor in the man who is attached to worldly things. Peace is found only in one who is fervent and spiritual.
AVOIDING VAIN HOPE AND SELF-CONCEIT
A fool is he who puts his trust in men or created things. Do not be ashamed to serve others for the love of Jesus Christ and to be reckoned as a poor man in this world.
Do not rely on yourself, but place your trust in God. Do whatever lies in your power and God will assist your good intentions. Trust neither in your own knowledge nor in the cleverness of any human being; rather, trust in God's grace, for it is He who supports the humble and humbles the overconfident.
2. Glory neither in wealth, if you have any, nor in friends, if they are powerful, but boast in God, the giver of all good things, who desires, above all, to bestow Himself on you.
Do not boast about your good looks nor your body's strength, which a slight illness can mar and disfigure. Do not take pride in your skills and talents lest you offend God, to whom you owe these very gifts and endowments.
3. Do not esteem yourself as someone better than others lest, perhaps, you be accounted for worse in the eyes of God, who knows what is in men's hearts. Take no pride in your good accomplishments for God judges differently than men and it often happens that what is pleasing to men is actually displeasing to God.
Table of Contents
Useful Admonitions for a Spiritual Life
Following Christ 3
A Humble Sentiment 4
The Doctrine of Truth 6
Prudence in Our Doings 8
The Holy Scriptures 9
Inordinate Affections 10
Flying Vain Hope and Pride 11
Shunning Familiarity 12
Obedience and Subjection 13
Avoiding Superfluity of Words 14
Acquiring Peace and Zeal 15
Advantage of Adversity 17
Resisting Temptation 18
Avoiding Judgment 20
Works of Charity 21
Bearing the Defects of Others 22
A Monastic Life 24
Examples of the Holy Fathers 25
Excercises of a Religious Man 27
Love of Solitude and Silence 30
Compunction of Heart 33
The Misery of Man 35
The Thoughts of Death 38
Punishment of Sins 42
Amendment of Our Lives 45
Admonitions Concerning Interior Things
Interior Conversation 53
Of Humble Submission 56
Of a Good Peaceable Man 57
Of a Pure Mind 58
Consideration of One's Self 60
Joy of a Good Conscience 61
Love of Jesus 63
Of Friendship with Jesus 64
Want of All Comfort 66
The Grace of God 69
Lovers of the Cross 72
Highway of the Cross 74
Of Internal Consolation
Christ to a Faithful Soul 83
Christ Speaks within Us 84
The Word of God 85
Walking in God's Presence 88
Effects of Divine Love 90
Proof of a True Lover 93
Grace and Humility 95
Our Unworthiness 98
All Things to be Referred to God 99
The Service of God 100
Moderation of Our Desires 103
On Learning Patience 104
On Obedience 106
The Judgments of God 108
Our Dispositions and Desires 109
Comfort is to be Sought in God 111
Casting our Care on God 112
The Example of Jesus Christ 114
On Supporting Injuries 115
Our Infirmities and Miseries 117
Resting in God 119
The Benefits of God 122
Things which Bring Peace 124
Peace and Progress 128
The Eminence of a Free Mind 130
Self Love 131
On Detraction 133
The Time of Tribulation 134
The Divine Assistance 135
Disregard of All Things Created 137
Renouncing Cupidity 140
Inconstancy of Our Heart 141
The Love of God 142
Insecurity Against Temptation 144
Vain Judgments 146
Resignation of Ourselves 147
Government of Ourselves 149
Eagerness in Worldly Affairs 150
Man Cannot Glory in Anything 151
Contempt for Temporal Honour 153
Peace is Not to be Placed in Men 153
Against Vain Learning 155
Deadness to Exterior Things 156
Men Are Prone to Offend 157
Confidence in God 160
Things to be Endured 162
Of the Day of Eternity 164
Desire of Eternal Life 167
An Offering to God 170
Practice of Humble Works 174
Man Unworthy of Consolation 175
The Grace of God 177
Nature and Grace 178
The Corruption of Nature 182
On Self Denial 185
Evils of Dejection 187
Searching into High Matters 189
All Our Hope in God 193
Of the Blessed Sacrament
How Christ is to be Received 199
The Great Goodness of God 204
On Frequent Communion 207
Benefits to Devout Communicants 209
Dignity of the Sacrament 212
A Petition Before Communion 214
Resolution of Amendment 214
The Oblation of Christ 216
An Offering to God 218
The Holy Communion 220
The Body of Christ 223
Preparation for Communion 226
Desires of a Devout Soul 228
Desire to Receive Jesus 230
Humility and Self-Denial 231
Laying Open Our Necessities 233
Desire to Serve Christ 234
That a Man Follow Christ 236
Reading Group Guide
"God is our home but many of us have strayed from our native land. The venerable authors of these Spiritual Classics are expert guides--may we follow their directions home."--Archbishop Desmond TutuThe Vintage Spiritual Classics present the testimony of writers across the centuries who have pondered the mysterious ways, unfathomable mercies, and deep consolations afforded by God to those who call upon Him from out of the depths of their lives. These writers are our companions, even our champions, in a common effort to discern the meaning of God in personal experience.The questions, discussion topics, and background information that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of the six works that make up the first series in Vintage Spiritual Classics. We hope they will provide you with a variety of ways of thinking and talking about these ancient and important texts.We offer this word about the act of reading these spiritual classics. From the very earliest accounts of monastic practice--dating back to the fourth century--it is evident that a form of reading called lectio divina ("divine" or "spiritual" reading) was essential to any deliberate spiritual life. This kind of reading is quite different from that of scanning a text for useful facts and bits of information, or advancing along an exciting plot line to a climax in the action. It is, rather, a meditative approach, by which the reader seeks to taste and savor the beauty and truth of every phrase and passage. There are four steps in lectio divina: first, to read, next to meditate, then to rest in the sense of God's nearness, and, ultimately, to resolve to govern one's actions in the light of new understanding. This kindof reading is itself an act of prayer. And, indeed, it is in prayer that God manifests His Presence to us.
1. Like the three previous classics of monastic literature, The Imitation of Christ is a guide to changing our lives and learning to grow closer to Christ in spirit and in deeds. The book opens with a quote and an exhortation: "'Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness'--.These are Christ's own words by which He exhorts us to imitate His life and His ways" [p. 3]. What does it mean to "follow" Christ in your life? How does Thomas à Kempis approach this task differently from the Desert Fathers, Benedict, and Saint Francis?
2. The injunction that one should "have a humble opinion of one's self" and "love to be unknown and be esteemed as nothing" [pp. 4-5] is quite at odds with the culture of ambition, striving, and success in which we live. What mental and practical conflicts arise when we attempt to live according to this rule? What does Thomas mean when he writes, "He is truly great who is unimportant in his own eyes and considers the greatest of honors a mere nothing"? Is it at all possible to reconcile such teachings with worldly success?
3. Thomas wrote his Imitation for his fellow monks and it is based on the monastic life. How can we who are not living in monasteries, but rather very much in the world, use his precepts to grow closer to God and to attain inner peace? Which of the principles here are easiest to adapt to the busy lives we lead at the end of the 20th century, which most difficult?
4. Like Benedict, Thomas encourages the practice of silence and the setting aside of time for prayer and deep personal reflection [pp. 26-29]. What are the parallels in our contemporary lives to "listening to idle news and gossip" [p. 27]? What time-wasting activities can we learn to do without, in order to make time for solitude and meditation? How does the Christian monastic practice of silence and meditation compare with that of Eastern religions like Buddhism? If you are familiar with "mindfulness meditation" or meditation as practiced by Buddhists, what is similar and what is different between these Asian-based approaches and the Christian monastic approach?
5. Thomas addresses the most difficult question of all, perhaps: that of having the resolve and making the commitment to change our lives: "Come now, and begin this very moment and say to yourself: 'Now is the time to do it--.Now is the right time to amend my life'" [p. 32]. How do you respond to such a radical challenge? Do you feel, like Augustine, the desire to be changed, but "not yet" [Confessions, Book VIII]?
6. How can Thomas's advice on living in community and "Bearing with One Another's Failings" [pp. 20-21] be used to better our relationships with those with whom we live and work? What particular insights into human intimacy did you find most useful?
Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) or Thomas Hammerken was born at a place called Kempen, near Dusseldorf, Germany. His parents were people from the artisan class; their family name Haemerken (or Haemerlein) is derived from "little hammer." Thomas left home at the age of thirteen and traveled to Deventer, in the Netherlands, where Geert Groote had established the schools of the Brethren of the Common Life (1376). His service among the Brethren provided both the impetus and the shape for this, his most famous work. It was penned or compiled as a result of the years Thomas spent as a teacher and "Master of Novices" among the Brethren. For this reason, then, The Imitation of Christ, which was born in the practical piety of its author and his movement, breathes that same spirit into the reader. Surviving personal recollections of Thomas à Kempis are few indeed; but those that are extant demonstrate this deep inner connection between the man and his work. The Carthusian Prior at N&uulm;rnberg, for example, remembered Thomas as a "most wise, most sweet and most religious man." Thomas’s earliest biographer could detect no gap or distinction between his writing and à Kempis’ living witness: "As he taught others, so he lived; he fulfilled in very deed, or verified in himself what he recommended in his discourses should be done."
In 1406 Thomas professed a call to religious life, and in 1413 he entered the priesthood, at the age of thirty-three. He spent the balance of his life as a Canon of St. Augustine (member of the Augustinian Order), at the monastery of St. Agnes in Zwolle. À Kempis seems to reflect upon his monastic life in the Imitation; for example, addressing God, he wrote: "You have given grace and friendship beyond all my deserts. What return can I make to You for this grace? For it is not granted to all men to forsake everything, to renounce the world, and to enter the life of religion."(Bk. III: 10). Among Thomas’ duties were those typical of a monastic priest: preaching, study, writing, giving spiritual counsel, and copying manuscripts. Primary among his responsibilities, however, was the cultivation of his own spiritual life and Christian discipleship and if we were are to judge the success of this later responsibility by the power and popularity of his literary work Imitation of Christ we would be forced to conclude that à Kempis wrote from a deep well spring of spiritual practice and practical insight.
In the late-medieval period popular spirituality seemed to be at low ebb. For much of the populace Christianity had degenerated into a sort of "arithmetical piety" that sought to add up enough "good deeds" to counter balance one’s sins; it attached greater significance to rote repetition of prayers and sacraments than to introspection or personal reflection. In his classic text, R.W. Southern observed: "The vast majority of people remained firmly attached to the religious aids offered by the institutional church. To put it bluntly, Europe had sunk too much intellectual, emotional, and material capital in these aids to resign them lightly. Masses and prayers for the dead, indulgences, good works, and pious donations for the remission of purgatorial pains, have never been so widely and even wildly popular as they were in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries." Yet there was also a sparkling resurgence of lay-spirituality towards the end of the fifteenth century that was linked to the emergence of lay brother and sisterhoods (confraternities) as well as with the popularity of lay devotional aids like The Imitation of Christ.
Springing from the efforts of Master Geert Groote (1340-84) of Deventer, Holland, the Brethren or "the New Devout" formed themselves into "houses" or communities of priests and laymen who resolved to renounce worldliness to live in the world by the power of God. The congregations of the New Devout were formed, in part, in reaction against the growing wealth and power of the established religious orders. Unlike their contemporaries they neither begged for alms nor collected rents; rather, like the tent-maker Saint Paul and ancient monks of the desert, the Brethren sustained themselves by working with their hands. Since they did not intend to found a new religious order, the Brethren took no formal vows that bound them to the movement. They sought to live, as described by the title of one of Master Groote’s founding documents, by Resolutions and Intentions, But Not Vows. In it he wrote: "I intend to order my life to the glory, honor, and service of God and to the salvation of my soul; to put no temporal good of body, position, fortune, or learning ahead of my soul’s salvation; and to pursue the imitation of God in every way consonant with learning and discernment and with my own body, and estate, which predispose certain forms of imitation." They intended to be devout, but not "religious" in the technical sense in which the late Middle Ages reserved that term for members of the established religious orders.
The spirituality of the Brethren of the Common Life was strongly Christocentric. It intended, as suggested by the title of this -- the most significant work that comes from this movement -- to imitate Jesus Christ; that is to say, they intended to live according to the injunctions and examples of Christ, and in so doing they intended to live "in Christ" and to have Christ live in them. To this end, the reverent reading of Holy Scripture especially the gospels -- formed a critical portion of their pious regimen. Their interest in the Bible had an ethical edge to it, since the Brethren were studying it to cultivate moral sanctity. And, finally, the imitation of Christ affected the inner person, and the New Devout were concerned about the "training of the heart" so that one’s fallen nature might be subdued and purged out and replaced by a renewing, affectionate devotion to Christ.
Scholars have debated whether Thomas à Kempis actually wrote The Imitation of Christ, though there is ample evidence to suggest that he did. But Thomas probably did not create the teaching contained in the book; it is more likely that he complied, organized, and set the Deventer devotional tradition into a fixed form. There seems to be a strong correlation between the authorship of the book and Thomas’ work as "Master of the Novices," a post he held from 1425 until his death in 1471.
The Imitation comprises four subsections, or "Books:" (1) Counsels on the Spiritual Life, (2) Counsel on the Inner Life, (3) On Inward Consolation, and (4) On the Blessed Sacrament. Each section is made up of a series of short meditations that lead the novice deeper and deeper into union with Christ. Unity with Christ was to be realized not only through contemplation, but also through inward and outward imitation of Christ, as well as sacramental oneness with him. These four books circulated separately prior to being circulated as a unified work. The sequela Christi (following, imitating Christ) is the unifying theme of the entire work; but this is not a merely external or ethical modeling reminiscent of the recent "What Would Jesus Do?" slogan and jewelry. À Kempis aims at utter transformation of the reader’s inner person. By meditating upon Christ’s life and teaching, the author intends that we would make Christ’s virtues our own and that we would conform our inner attitudes to His.
The aims of this work strongly dictated its shape and the resources used to develop it. The chapters amount to short meditations offered in a length entirely suitable for a morning or evening devotional reading; yet, the meditations are seasoned with nuggets of spiritual wisdom that are worth pondering over the course of a long life. While there is an occasional quote from classical Greek or Roman writers, or a passing allusion to a familiar saying from one of the Church Fathers, the preponderance of sources applied by our author are — by far — drawn from the Bible. Fr. Bernard Sappen has given this matter careful study and concluded: "The books most often quoted are the Psalms (140 times, notably the Penitential Psalms), the Wisdom books (60 times), the Prophets (42 times), Job (24 times), and etc. In the New Testament Saint Paul is utilized more than the four Evangelists (120 times against 100). Hence, Walter Elwell rightly observed: "the power of the Scripture surges through its pages."
The work does not fall neatly into any of the categories of classical Christian Spirituality, rather it represents a composite approach that includes the purgative (purging out), illuminative (receiving wisdom) and unitive ways (union with God through Christ). These three approaches receive successive emphasis in the first three books of the Imitation.
Numerous themes drawn from classical Christian Spirituality are intertwined in the book. Among these are: (1) Union with Christ: "Christ will come to you, and impart his consolations to you, if you prepare a worthy dwelling for Him in your heart. All true glory and beauty is within, and there He delights to dwell. He often visits the spiritual man, and holds sweet discourse with him, granting him refreshing grace, great peace, and friendship exceeding all expectation" (Bk. II: 1). Hence, "...you will never know peace until you become inwardly united to Christ." (2) Self-negation and humility: "Had you but once entered perfectly into the Heart of Jesus, and tasted something of His burning love, you would care nothing for your own gain or loss; for the love of Jesus causes a man to regard himself very humbly" (Bk. II: 1). (3) Purity or simplicity of heart: "There are two wings that raise a man above earthly things — simplicity and purity. Simplicity must inspire his purpose, and purity his affection. Simplicity reaches out after God; purity discovers and enjoys Him" (Bk. II: 4). (4) Divine Illumination and consolation through Christian wisdom: "Were you inwardly good and pure, you would see and understand all things clearly and without difficulty. A pure heart penetrates both heaven and hell. As each man is in himself, so does he judge outward things. If there is any joy to be had in this world, the pure in heart most surely possess it; and if there is trouble and distress anywhere, the evil conscience most readily experiences it. Just as iron, when plunged into fire, loses its rust and becomes bright and glowing, so the man who turns himself wholly to God loses his sloth and becomes transformed into a new creature" (Bk. II: 4). (5) Liberation through Detachment: "Keep yourself free from all worldly entanglement, and you will make good progress; but if you set great value on any worldly things, it will prove a great obstacle. Let nothing be great, pleasant, or desirable to you save God alone, and whatever comes from God" (Bk. II: 5). (6) Cultivation of true humility: "Set yourself always in the lowest place, and you shall be awarded the highest, for the highest cannot stand without the lowest. The Saints stand highest in God’s eyes who are lowest in their own; and the more glorious they are, the more humble is their spirit" (Bk. II: 10). (7) The Way of the Cross: "Jesus has many who love His Kingdom in Heaven, but few who bear His Cross. He has many who desire comfort, but few who desire suffering. He finds many to share His feast, but few His fasting. All desire to rejoice with Him, but few are willing to suffer for His sake" (Bk. II: 11).
The piety of the New Devout paved the way for the Sixteenth Century Reformations; Protestant and Roman Catholic alike. Martin Luther encountered it in the Brethren’s school at Magdeberg and through his acquaintance with the Theologica Germanica. John Calvin, Desiderius Erasmus, and Ignatius of Loyola each lived in the Brethren’s house in Paris, though at different times, and each bore the imprint of the practical piety found in the Imitation of Christ. The Anabaptists embraced the theme of imitation of Christ, whether or not they embraced à Kempis’ book. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was deeply affected by the book; both before and after his "Aldersgate experience," of May 1738, he read the work of "pious Kempis" with great appreciation. Wesley wrote: "one day I light on Thomas à Kempis. The more I read, the more I liked it. I bought one of the books, and read it over and over. I was more convinced of sin that ever, and had more power against it."
The artist Vincent van Gogh was also influenced by reading The Imitation. As Kathleen Erickson noted: "Vincent took from the Imitation of Christ the notion that the earthly life is one of trial and ordeal, a kind of journey through perils and pitfalls of earthy existence to the ultimate of glorious reunion with the Lord in heaven." This influence is discernable in van Gogh’s masterpiece entitled "Starry Night."
Former Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, was known the world over as a just, fair, and deeply spiritual man. What was less well known about Hammar-skjold was the significant role that Imitation of Christ played in his own spiritual pilgrimage. Henry P. Van Dusen recalls seeing a French language copy of the Imitation at the bedside of the General Secretary’s New York apartment; the same book was found next to his bed, in Leopoldville, Congo, where Hammarskjold spent his last fateful night in 1963. Tucked inside the Imitation, written on an index card, was the General Secretary’s oath of office. The Imitation of Christ and the opportunity to serve the world merged to form an indissoluble whole in the life of the man who cherished them both. Hammarskjold’s devotional journal was published under the title V&aulm;gm&aulm;rken (Markings, 1964) soon after his death. It is clear from Markings that Hammarskjold turned to The Imitation of Christ at crucial periods of his life for spiritual reflection and direction. One such entry appeared in 1953 when, at the peak of his career as a Swedish diplomat, he had just been elected General Secretary of the U.N. Amidst phone calls, telegrams, and cables of congratulations Hammarskjold turned to the words of Thomas à Kempis as he wrote in his journal: "‘Not I, but God in me. ... I am the vessel.’ The drink is God’s. And God is the thirsty One."
John R. Tyson is professor of Theology at Houghton College in Houghton, NY, and professor of Church History at United Theological Seminary in West Seneca, NY. He earned a Ph.D. in Theological and Religious Studies at Drew University and is the author and editor of several books and numerous articles on topics in Church History and Christian Spirituality.