I played the trombone as a teenager and attended the local High School for the Performing Arts. The music director was an old master known for his exacting standards. He was also skilled at bringing out the best in a young musician. In addition to theory, lessons and unending practice, the old man knew a secret. When seating young students in the orchestra and band, he placed inexperienced musicians next to advanced ones. He knew that no amount of education could surpass the power of imitating a master.
In his book The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis wrote
Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone.
Christ came to save us but He also came to teach us by example. When we tire of continuously wasting our days with poor lifestyle choices, all we have to do is examine the master’s example.
We should look more like Jesus at the end of the day than we were at its beginning.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them; for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. For this reason it says, “Awake, sleeper, And arise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you.”
Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.
D I G D E E P E R
The Imitation of Christ
Thomas à Kempis
(c. 1380–1471), ascetical writer. Thomas Hemerken, acc. to the usual and most probable tradition the author of the ‘*Imitation of Christ’ (q.v.), was born at Kempen, nr. Krefeld, of poor parents. After education at Deventer at the school of the *Brethren of the Common Life, he entered in 1399 the house of the *Canons Regular at the Agnietenberg, nr. Zwolle (one of the daughter-houses of *Windesheim), of which his elder brother, John, was co-founder and prior, and in 1406 took the habit. Here he lived for almost the whole of the rest of his life, writing, preaching, and copying MSS, and widely sought after as a spiritual adviser. His writings, though of many different kinds—ascetical, homiletic, poetical, biographical, etc.—are all pervaded by the devotional spirit which finds its classic expression in the ‘Imitation’. They include Orationes et Meditationes de Vita Christi, Vallis Liliorum, and Soliloquium Animae. Feast day in the American BCP (1979), 24 July.
Sir Thomas More, England’s famous lord chancellor under Henry VIII (and subject of the film A Man for All Seasons) said it was one of the three books everybody ought to own. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, read a chapter a day from it and regularly gave away copies as gifts. Methodist founder John Wesley said it was the best summary of the Christian life he had ever read.
They were talking about Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, the devotional classic that has been translated into over 50 languages, in editions too numerous for scholars to keep track of (by 1779 there were already 1,800 editions).
Little is known of Thomas himself, and he is known for little else—although this one contribution to history seems to be enough.
Called the “calamitous century,” the fourteenth century into which Thomas Hemerken was born felt the shadow of the apocalypse. Constant wars and repeated bouts of the Black Plague drove population down. The Great Schism tore the church apart, seating one pope in Rome and another in Avignon. In rural areas, roving marauders knew no restraints, and peasant revolts kept urban centers reeling with confusion.
Early on Thomas gave himself to a Dutch Augustinian monastery associated with a group called The Brethren of the Common Life. There he became the prior’s assistant, charged with instructing novices in the spiritual life. In that capacity, he wrote four booklets between 1420 and 1427; they were collected and named after the title of the first booklet: The Imitation of Christ.
In The Imitation, Thomas combines a painfully accurate analysis of the soul with a clear vision of the fullness of the divine life. He does not describe the spiritual life in a linear way, as if one step precedes another, but instead repeats and embellishes themes, like a symphonic composer.
In the first treatise, “Useful reminders for the spiritual life,” Thomas lays out the primary requirement for the spiritually serious: “We must imitate Christ’s life and his ways if we are to be truly enlightened and set free from the darkness of our own hearts. Let it be the most important thing we do, then, to reflect on the life of Jesus Christ.”
The highest virtue, from which all other virtues stem, is humility. Thomas bids all to let go of the illusion of superiority. “If you want to learn something that will really help you, learn to see yourself as God sees you and not as you see yourself in the distorted mirror of your own self-importance,” he writes. “This is the greatest and most useful lesson we can learn: to know ourselves for what we truly are, to admit freely our weaknesses and failings, and to hold a humble opinion of ourselves because of them.”
Furthermore, humility leads us to embrace the path of suffering: “Plan as you like and arrange everything as best you can, yet you will always encounter some suffering whether you want to or not. Go wherever you will, you will always find the cross.… God wants you to learn to endure troubles without comfort, to submit yourself totally to him, and to become more humble through adversity.”
Trust not yourself
Thomas goes on to tell his novices how to handle criticism, failures, sensual desires, and the difficulties of obedience—always with an eye to the paradoxes of the deeper Christian life. For example, in chapter 20 of the first book, he writes, “If you aim at a fervent spiritual life, then you too must turn your back on the crowds as Jesus did. The only man who can safely appear in public is the one who wishes he were at home. He alone can safely speak who prefers to be silent. Only he can safely govern who prefers to live in submission, and only he can safely command who prefers to obey.”
The first two treatises are written as sermons or reflections. In the third treatise, “Of Inner Comfort,” Jesus and the Disciple talk together about the spiritual life, and in the fourth treatise, “The Book on the Sacrament,” Thomas discusses how the Eucharist can help the faithful draw nearer to Christ.
Throughout the book, Thomas’s advice is consistent: Do not trust yourself, do not indulge yourself, do not put yourself forward; instead put your full trust in God and, out of love for God’s will, yield to all the circumstances of life into which God places you.
The Imitation was published in Latin, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and English by the end of the fifteenth century, and it remains one of the most popular devotional guides to this day.
Opera et Libri Vite Fratris Thome a Kempis by H. Rosweyden [ed. P. Danhausser] (Nuremberg, 1494); rev. edn. by H. Sommalius, SJ, (Antwerp, 1601); crit. edn. by M. J. Pohl (7 vols., Freiburg i.B., 1902–22; vol. 8 wanting). Eng. tr. from edn. by M. J. Pohl of Prayers and Meditations on the Life of Christ by W. Duthoit (London, 1904); of The Founders of the New Devotion by J. P. Arthur (ibid., 1905); of The Chronicle of the Canons Regular of Mount St Agnes by id. (ibid., 1906); of Sermons to the Novices Regular by V. Scully, CRL (ibid., 1907); and of Meditations and Sermons on the Incarnation, Life and Passion of Our Lord by id. (ibid., 1907). S. Kettlewell, Thomas à Kempis and the Brothers of the Common Life (2 vols., 1882). Thomas von Kempen: Beiträge zum 500. Todesjahr 1471–1971 … Herausgegeben von der Stadt Kempen (Kempen and Niederrhein, 1971). E. Iserloh, Thomas von Kempen und die Kirchenreform im Spätmittelalter (ibid., 1971). R. T. M. van Dijk in Dict. Sp. 15 (1991), cols. 817–26, s.v. ‘Thomas (16) Hemerken’; P. van Geest and others in Verfasser-lexikon (2nd edn.), 9 (1995), cols. 862–82, s.v. ‘Thomas Hemerken von Kempen’. See further bibl. to IMITATION OF CHRIST, more esp. works of those authors who accept the attribution to Thomas à Kempis.
Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, “Introduction,” 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 262–264.
F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1629.