Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Thomas à Kempis and the Imitation of Christ

Today is the feast day of the blessed Thomas à Kempis, priest and ascetical writer (c. 1380 – 1471).

His work The Imitation of Christ, which was published around the year 1418, “has been translated into more languages than any other book except the Holy Scriptures” [Lesser Feasts and Fasts 1997 (Church Publishing, 1998), p. 298].

In the Introduction to the Vintage Spiritual Classics Edition of this work, Joseph N. Tylenda, S.J., writes:

The Imitation has been the favorite reading of philosophers and poets, saints and statesmen. St. Thomas More (1478-1535), England’s Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII, listed it as one of the three books that should find their way into everyone’s hands, and St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), who read a chapter each day of his life, was in the habit of offering it as a gift to acquaintances. St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), Cardinal of the Roman Church, repeatedly returned to it, and as often as he read it he always found new fruit. The German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) considered The Imitation the most excellent treatise ever written, and John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of Methodism, judged it the best summary of Christian life and translated it for his own followers. Pierre Corneille (1606-1684), France’s greatest dramatist, put its noble thoughts into verse, and Ireland’s patriot Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) used it for daily mediation. Thomas Merton (1915-1968), America’s most popular ascetic writer, acknowledged that it was one of the first rays of light that led to his conversion, and Pope John Paul I (1912-1978) was reading the book when death unexpectedly called him on the night of September 28, 1978, after only thirty-three short days as Roman Pontiff [pp. xxvii-xxviii].

Here are some excerpts from The Imitation of Christ [Revised Edition, translated by Joseph N. Tylenda, S.J. (Vintage, 1998)]:

“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.

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 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.

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.


In Holy Scripture we seek truth and not eloquence. All Sacred Scripture should be read in the spirit with which it was written.


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.


Keep your eyes on yourself and avoid judging the actions of others. In judging others we accomplish nothing, are often in error, and readily fall into sin; but we always gain by self-examination and self-criticism.


Blessed is he who understands what it is to love Jesus and to despise himself for Jesus’ sake. Jesus wants to be your only love and to be loved above all else; therefore, you must abandon all other beloveds for your one Beloved. The love of a creature is fickle and deceitful, while the love of Jesus is faithful and enduring. He who clings to a creature will fall when that creature fades away, but he who embraces Jesus shall stand firm forever.

When Jesus is present all is well and nothing seems arduous, but when He is absent everything becomes difficult.

It is a great art to know how to live with Jesus, and to know how to keep His friendship demands great wisdom. Be humble and peace-loving and Jesus will be with you. Be devout and calm and Jesus will abide with you.

Love everyone else for the sake of Jesus and love Jesus for His own sake.


Jesus today has many lovers of His heavenly kingdom, but few of them carry His cross. He has many friends who ask for consolation, but few who pray for affliction. He has many companions to share His meals, but few to share his abstinence.

We all want to rejoice with Him, but few of us are willing to suffer anything for His sake. Many follow Jesus up to the breaking of the bread, but few go on to the drinking of the chalice of His passion. Many admire His miracles, but few follow in the ignominy of His cross.

In the cross we have salvation; in the cross we have life; in the cross we have protection from our enemies.

Everything is founded on the cross and everything depends on our dying on the cross. There is no other way to life and interior peace except the holy way of the cross and our daily dying to self.



You can read The Imitation of Christ on-line here.

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