Friday, June 24, 2016

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis

I'm afraid I rather dropped off the radar for the last few weeks: Life became a little frantic, first helping with a friend's wedding and then spending a few weeks in Tasmania with some very dear friends. Along the way, I did manage to get the second draft of Never Send To Know/Death Be Not Proud written (hooray!), and I've been working on a few other exciting projects - like storyboarding and co-directing this short promotional video for an artists' festival in Tasmania.

Today I'm reviewing the perennially popular medieval devotional classic The Imitation of Christ. I decided I had to read this book after hearing George Grant's history lecture on the fourteenth century (from the brilliant Christendom lecture series).

Historical Background

Apparently, the 1300s were a pretty dark time. They kicked off with the loss of the Holy Land to the Turks in 1291 and the ruthless and cynical suppression of the Templars in 1304. They continued with the breakdown of scholastic philosophy, scandalous rifts opening within the Roman church with the removal of the papacy to Avignon, the Hundred Years' War, the end of the Medieval Warming Period which had seen unprecedented population growth and health (which just goes to show that global warming is a good thing), and just when everyone thought the world couldn't get any more terrifying or incomprehensible...the Black Death, in multiple bouts that wiped out a massive chunk of the world's population.

Many thought it was the end of the world. Religion, discredited both as an ideal and as a philosophy through the breakdown of scholasticism and through increasing schism and irreligion in the church herself, could do little to help. In the looming darkness, a few bright lights pricked out in the darkness - reformers like John Wycliffe, or precursors to more reformers, like Geert Groote.

Groote was born around 1340, just in time for the first wave of the Black Death, which swept away both his parents. Groote survived, and after making his mark at the world's finest university (Paris), launched upon a brilliant church career as a wealthy playboy bibliophile and diplomat, drawing stipends from three different churches he'd never preached at. From this lifestyle he was suddenly and dramatically converted in 1373. He immediately withdrew again to the town of his birth in the Netherlands, where his new devotion to the basics of Christian faith became the foundation for a whole new movement, the Devotio Moderna, or the Modern Devotion. This layman's movement stressed the primacy of the Scriptures in every area of life; the ordinary means of grace (the Word and Sacraments) as against byzantine religious practices; the gradual sanctification of the Christian through the imitation of Christ; and discipling others into a devout life.

In 1374, the Black Death returned and killed three-quarters of the population in Groote's area. Apparently, it was out of his care for the orphans left by the plague that Groote's first schools emerged - schools that welcomed girls as well as boys. The church authorities did not take kindly to Groote's efforts, anymore than they smiled upon Wycliffe or the Gottesfreundes or Augustinians who had conceived it as their mission to preach to the common people. They forbade him to preach and put his schools under the ban. Thus affairs stood in 1384, when the Black Death struck again. This time, it took Geert Groote with it.

But Groote's work continued. Schools and monasteries based on the model he'd pioneered to help plague orphans sprang up all over Europe: their name was the Brethren of the Common Life. Over the next century and a half, Brethren of the Common Life schools educated and empowered an extraordinary number of their world's greatest men: Nicholas of Cusa, the physician Vesalius, Desiderius Erasmus; popes and cardinals, but others too. Names with which we should all be familiar: Martin Bucer, Philip Melancthon, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther all attended Brethren of Common Life schools, and at least one of their communities went over bodily to the Reformation once it got really underway.

So why is all this important to today's review? The answer is that Thomas a Kempis, the author of the Imitation of Christ, was one of Groote's disciples, and there's a pretty good historical case that this little book may be--in whole or part--a collection of Geert Groote's sayings and meditations. Even if that isn't the case, The Imitation of Christ was the primary written expression of the whole Brethren of Common Life movement.

In a century when Death on his pale horse was a recurring artistic motif, in a century when the foundations of belief were being destroyed, in a century so terrible than many believed the end was near, the movement that birthed and was formed by The Imitation of Christ shone as a light of real faith and real devotion. That was why I had to read this book.

Culture Shock

The Imitation of Christ is a very slim book, but it's divided into four Books and 114 chapters, which I found so pithy and thought-provoking that I was happy to read it at the rate of just one chapter per day. "Whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ." "The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely will you be judged, unless your life is also the more holy." "Do not keep company with young people and strangers." "It is good for us sometimes to suffer contradiction, to be misjudged by men even though we do well and mean well." One of the first sensations I experienced upon dipping into this very practical and blunt handbook on the Christian life was culture shock. This is an extremely medieval book.

In many ways, this is a good thing, because it forced me to take a second look at many things I take for granted. Like learning. We may take it as read that a scholarly movement that birthed giants like Cusa, Erasmus, or Melancthon was not an anti-intellectual movement, but a Kempis warns us repeatedly against loving knowledge for the sake of knowledge, encouraging us rather to seek humbly for truth.

Or like independence and equality. The medievals were not egalitarians, and one wonders what the average modern egalitarian would think of passages like this one:
It is a very great thing to obey, to live under a superior and not to be one's own master, for it is much safer to be subject than it is to command. Many live in obedience more from necessity than from love. Such become discontented and dejected on the slightest pretext; they will never gain peace of mind unless they subject themselves whole-heartedly for the love of God.
Go where you may, you will find no rest except in humble obedience to the rule of authority. Dreams of happiness expected from change and different places have deceived many.
Everyone, it is true, wishes to do as he pleases and is attracted to those who agree with him. But if God be among us, we must at times give up our opinions for the blessings of peace.
Furthermore, who is so wise that he can have full knowledge of everything? Do not trust too much in your own opinions, but be willing to listen to those of others. If, though your own be good, you accept another's opinion for love of God, you will gain much more merit; for I have often heard that it is safer to listen to advice and take it than to give it. It may happen, too, that while one's own opinion may be good, refusal to agree with others when reason and occasion demand it, is a sign of pride and obstinacy.
I loved this passage so much I had to run out and buy copies of the book at once. You would never read something like this in a modern devotional; but it is such a pithy and powerful statement of some Scriptural principles that no one would ever pay attention to today. We put such a high price on independence, on equality, on leadership, and on individuality that we ignore the principles that encourage us to be under authority as well as in authority, that urge us to submit to one another in love, that warn us of the high price paid by those who would teach. To ignore these things is to risk the sin of pride. And to ride roughshod over the created order given in Scripture--servants (read: employees) submitting to masters (read: bosses), parishioners submitting to elders, citizens submitting to kings, children submitting to fathers and mothers, wives submitting to husbands--is to despise the Creator himself.

As a Kempis points out so clearly, submitting to someone doesn't mean you or your opinions are not as good as him. In many cases it may even make you the better person.

Some reservations

As I said, this was a very medieval book and a lot of the time, I loved that about it. However, a lot of the time, I also had reservations. Sometimes the Brethren of the Common Life are described as a pietist movement, and there's a good bit of that in this book, mixed in with some typical medieval attitudes regarding asceticism and a denial of the physical world. Some of this is rather Roman Catholic in tone--especially bits of the final section, on communion. But some of it is well and truly alive and well in the contemporary Protestant church.

The overwhelming emphasis of The Imitation of Christ is on the soul's personal and intangible relationship with Christ. This was, in many ways, intensely nourishing to me. Christ is--or should be--our all-in-all, and it was very sweet to spend so much time meditating on this fact. However, there was a somewhat dualistic tone to much of the book, and the advocacy of asceticism was disappointing. I found myself very thankful that I'd read Joe Rigney's marvellous book The Things of Earth before reading this one, because it acted as a much-needed corrective. In The Things of Earth, Rigney takes a very un-pietistic approach to the Christian's relationship with the physical world, explaining that they are good gifts which may in fact help us to love God better. In The Imitation of Christ, the overwhelming message is that the things of earth distract us from the love of God. And certainly, as Rigney points out, there are times when we are asked to give up created goods. Indeed, giving up a created good for the love of God can be a comfort to the believer; it can sometimes give assurance of salvation--or it can make it clear to us that we have allowed a created good to distract us from the love of God.

I found The Imitation of Christ unbalanced in this area. There was occasionally an acknowledgement of the fact that created things are given to us for our good and God's glory. But the overwhelming slant of the emphasis was on renunciation of all these things.


I came away from The Imitation of Christ understanding why it ranks as one of the greatest Christian bestsellers of all time. In places it is magnificent; in places it is ...well, not. I strongly recommend fortifying yourself with The Things of Earth before tackling The Imitation of Christ; but despite the book's shortcomings, it has my respect. It was written, and it made its mark, during a time of great spiritual thirst; and despite its asceticism, despite its understandably Romanist slant, I can see how it, and the Brethren of Common Life, came to foster the great Reformation. In this book, the layman is told that he can know Christ for himself. In this book, the common-born man is told he can approach the High King of Heaven without fear. Perhaps, in the midst of the upheaval and schism of the late middle ages, this was the most dangerous possible idea.

Find The Imitation of Christ on Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Don't forget to snag The Things of Earth while you're at it! Find it on Amazon or The Book Depository, or read my review on Goodreads


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