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


Hayden said...

Loved your review of this book, Suzannah! I had many of the same thoughts while reading it, though my background knowledge of the historical events surrounding it was not so extensive. I rather wished I had highlighted some passages, so I could go back over my favorite parts. Despite some problems with some of its theology (as you mentioned) it's one of the most convicting and thought-provoking pieces of Christian literature that I've read.

Suzannah said...

So glad you enjoyed the review, Hayden! Despite mixed feelings, remembering that it was written for the ordinary man at a time when the ordinary man wasn't supposed to have much of a relationship with Christ puts it in a very different light!

Joseph J said...

I was beginning to think that your previous post should have been titled 'The Last Chronicle of Rowntree'. Which actually sounds like a cool fantasy novel. Called it.

Interesting, I never knew about the background history of Imitation. My edition uses classic 1950s Catholic devotional art and a translation of high archaic english full of thees and thous typical of 18th-19th century piety, so I never ever thought of the Imitation as a Medieval book! Even now I still can't quite see it, which may hint at the source of its enduring appeal.

I've never been able to finish the book for two reasons. One, its so pithy that I always get caught up trying to extract the juice from each sentence, much like the Bible, and so quickly tire myself out. Nearly every sentence is an epigram that I would love to quote Yoda-style at appropriate moments - "Thou wilt soon be deceived if thou only regard the outward show of men, hmm?" The second reason is, as you pointed out, its rather extreme asceticism. I find it rather a downer after a bit, and as a melancholic the last thing I need is to feel guilty for enjoying the good things of life. But it is a bracing and refreshing wake-up call in smaller, manageable doses. In fairness, according to Wikipedia the book was primarily intended for priests and religious, who are called to set apart from the world in a unique way. It seems more appropriate in a monastic rather then domestic environment.

Wikipedia also has a great quote by the great theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar that basically states your criticism: "It rejects and eliminates every speculative element not only of scholasticism but also of mysticism, and yet, at the same time, it abstracts from the colourful multiplicity of the Bible and — since it is written for those who have turned from the world — disregards the world, in all its richness, as a field for Christian activity... In place of the openhearted readiness of a Catherine of Siena, a subdued and melancholy resignation runs through the book... there is an excess of warnings about the world, the illusions of egoism, the dangers of speculation and of the active apostolate. In this way, even the idea of the imitation of Christ does not become the dominant perspective. There is no mention of the mediation of the God-man, of access through Christ, in the Holy Spirit, to the Father. The mystery of the Church, therefore, does not come into view either. The individual is unaware that his love of God can only be fulfilled if it expands into love of neighbor and into the apostolate. All [that] remains is a flight from the world, a world that has not been brought home in Christ".

On the plus side St. Therese of Lisieux apparently got a lot out if the book (in her teens she could already quote passages from memory - nice), and also Nietzsche said that the Imitation was "one of those books which I cannot hold in my hand without a physiological reaction: it exudes a perfume of the Eternal-Feminine which is strictly for Frenchmen — or Wagnerians". So two very sound endorsements there.

I just read Agatha Christie's very enjoyable autobiography, and discovered that her mother, a devout High Churcher, had instilled in her the habit of reading the Imitation. Christie said that all her life the book has been by her bedside!

Jamie W. said...

Not directly relevant, but since you mentioned Never Send to Know -- I was wondering if you had ever considered selling a collection of the Fairy Tales Retold novellas in print format. I expect it's cost-prohibitive to sell them individually in print format due to their length, but would a collection of four or (at some future time) maybe five novellas be under the same limitations? Because I would buy that.

(OK, OK, I buy the ebooks too.)

Suzannah said...

Joseph - Never fear, I didn't leave a hiatus announcement (was already a couple of week into my hiatus before I realised it was happening XD) but Vintage Novels will not fall off its perch without fair warning, I can tell you!

Laughing so hard at the idea of Thomas a Kempis being quoted in Yoda-voice. It's a terrific book, though I do recommend not tackling it without a corrective like Joe Rigney's book.

Jamie - :D Well, many people have begged for print versions of the fairytale novellas, and I have definitely been listening. Look out for an announcement about this soon!

Anonymous said...

I love this book, but one thing I find amusing is how the Eastern Orthodox church claims it was written in a spirit of prelest. Basically spiritual deception in attributing a type of righteousness where it doesn't exist. In one particular article I read, it says:

"Prof. A.I. Osipov says that deviations in the Roman Catholic Church started from such things that are rather subtle and not easy to understand for everyone, even for the person who knows the basics of the spiritual life. A.I. Osipov gives an example of his personal misunderstanding. He speaks in one of his lectures[85] about the time when he studied in the Moscow Theologial Seminary in 1950-60s. He knew about the book "Imitation of Jesus Christ" by Thomas à Kempis – in Ignatius Brianchaninov’s writings, there is a case when a landlord saw his daughter with this book, took it out of her hand and said: "Stop flirting with God." And A.I. Osipov took and read the book and did not see anything bad: "Why do they criticize it? It is true, we must imitate Jesus Christ." When he looked into this book again after a long time – he saw prelest everywhere: rapture, exaltation, false love. A.I. Osipov adds: "I did not understand, imagine that! I did not see. The people who just knew it and felt it – they understood. They saw where the falseness is."

Also Prof. A.I. Osipov says that, in his opinion, this is the key to the separation between the Eastern and Western Churches - not filioque or papal supremacy - these are only consequences visible to everyone. The beginning was in the spiritual deviation of the people who turned from the path of fight with passions to the path of false love to God."


"But there is another more common, less spectacular form of spiritual deception, which offers to its victims not great visions but just exalted "religious feelings." This occurs, as Bishop Ignatius has written, "when the heart desires and strives for the enjoyment of holy and divine feelings while it is still completely unfit for them. Everyone who does not have a contrite spirit, who recognizes any kind of merit or worth in himself, who does not hold unwaveringly the teaching of the Orthodox Church but on some tradition or other has thought out his own arbitrary judgment or has followed a non-Orthodox teaching - is in this state of deception." The Roman Catholic Church has whole spiritual manuals written by people in this state; such is Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ. Bishop Ignatius says of it: "There reigns in this book and breathes from its pages the unction of the evil spirit, flattering the reader, intoxicating him... The book conducts the reader directly to communion with God, without previous purification by repentance... From it carnal people enter into rapture from a delight and intoxication attained without difficulty, without self-renunciation, without repentance, without crucifixion of the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal. 5:24), with flattery of their fallen state." And the result, as I.M. Kontzevitch, the great transmitter of patristic teaching, has written,11 is that "the ascetic, striving to kindle in his heart love for God while neglecting repentance, exerts himself to attain a feeling of delight, of ecstasy, and as a result he attains precisely the opposite: 'he enters into communion with Satan and becomes infected with hatred for the Holy Spirit' (Bishop Ignatius)."

Suzannah said...

Ha. Well, seeing that the Eastern Orthodox apparently officially believe they are the only true church (as do the Roman Catholics, if I am correctly informed), it's not surprising they take this view. :D


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...