A Survey of On the Imitation of Christ 
Books I - III
 

Eucharistic Theory, Practice and Devotion
of the Brethren of the Common Life
Jackson Snyder, December 3, 1990

 

Part 7

Brethren Index
Essays Index
 

     Thomas Hammerlein (Hamerken or Hemerken), known as Thomas à Kempis, was born in 1379 or 80 in Kempen, Prussia.  He is best known for his Of The Imitation Of Christ, a journal of his quest to discover Jesus Christ.  Imitation is composed of four books, originally in Latin, concerned with the spiritual life, the inner life, inward consolation, and Holy Communion.  This essay aims to survey the first three of these in order to reconstruct his lifestyle, theology, and doctrine.

The Solitary Life  

     Thomas spent perhaps as many as seventy years in the monastery of the Brothers of the Common Life (Augustinian) at Mt. St. Agnes near Deventer, Netherlands.  Cloistered and alone, he gave his life to the study of scripture and contemplation, writing whatever the Spirit would say to him.  It was his desire to meet and fellowship with Jesus Christ personally.  He believed that "...if thou wouldest learn to put away from thee every created thing, Jesus would freely take up his abode with thee."  (II,VII)  He believed that the testament of the words of Christ as recorded in the Gospels was not the final word of his Savior, but that Christ was indeed alive and continued to speak to those who would devote their lives to hearing.  "Let not Moses speak to me nor any prophet but rather Thou, O Lord, who did inspire and illuminate all the prophets." (III,I)  After all, what better teacher than the Author of Life?   

But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teaches you of all things. (I John 2:27)   

      In order to be worthy of the honor of divine visitation, he believed that humankind must strive to imitate the poverty, devotion, and humility of Christ, thus the title of the book, which he begins with a statement of purpose:  

'He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness,' saith the Lord.  These are the words of Christ; and they teach us how far we must imitate his life and character, if we seek true illumination, and deliverance from all blindness of heart."  (I,I)   

Essential to such dedicated devotion was solitude, for "as often as I go among men, so oft have I returned less a man." (I,XVIII) 

Grace  

     To Thomas, the grace of God provided by the atonement was a free gift for all who would receive.  

As iron cast into the fire loseth rust and is made altogether glowing, so the man who turneth himself altogether unto God is freed from slothfulness and changed into a new man. (II,IV)   

Furthermore, grace is a commodity to be earned, a reward for self-abasement and mortification of the flesh.  "Do what lieth in thy power, and God will help thy good intent." (I,VII)  From his viewpoint, acts of resisting temptation, self-abasement and mortification, and battles with a world of devils provide opportunities for God to look to the heart's intention with approval and award the disciple's action with grace in appropriate amounts.  

A man profiteth most and meriteth greater grace where he most overcometh himself and mortifieth himself in spirit. (I,XXV)  He shall be the more acceptable to God, the more and the heavier burdens he is able to bear for His sake.  This is not the virtue of man, but the grace of Christ. (II,XII)   

Gratitude for perceived awards of grace may be the prerequisite for receiving more.   

The gifts of grace are not able to flow unto us, because we are ungrateful to the Author of them, and return them not wholly to the Fountain whence they flow. (II,X)   

Through works, then, especially mortification of the flesh and victory over the world, one may receive more and more grace culminating, if all goes well, in perfection of soul and, nearly, of body.  

Perfection  

     The flesh cannot be perfect, for it is flawed through the "sin of one man."  "All perfection hath some imperfection joined to it in this life, and all power of sight is not without some darkness." (I,III)  Though the flesh may never be perfect, it may be perfected, not only through willpower infused with grace, but through punishment and trials.  Slothfulness and worldliness lead to chastisement.   

The more thou sparest thyself and followest the flesh, the more heavy shall thy punishment be.  (I,XXIV)  Behold of a surety thou art not able to have two Paradises, to take thy fill or delight here in this world, and to reign with Christ hereafter.  (I,XXIV)   

The pursuit of worldly knowledge, especially the attempts by contemporaneous theologians to prove the existence of God by using pagan philosophies (such as Aristotlian logic), was considered by Thomas to be a purely worldly vocation, thus contrary to the will of God.  "And because many seek knowledge rather than good living, therefore they go astray, and bear little or no fruit." (I,III)  He suggests an alternate path for Christian philosophers and those seeking education and knowledge in general:  

O if they would give that diligence to the rooting out of vice and the planting of virtue which they give unto vain questionings: there had not been so many evil doings and stumbling-blocks among the laity, nor such ill living among houses of religion. Tell me, where now are all those masters and teachers thou knewest well, while they were yet with you, and flourished in learning?  There stalls are now filled with others, who perhaps never have one thought concerning them.  Whilst they lived they seemed to be somewhat, but now no one speaks of them.  O how quickly passeth the glory of the world away!  He is the truly wise man, who counteth all things as dung that he may win Christ.  (I,III)  

     The road to perfection is strewn by diverse trials, temptations, and testings: all these being essential to the growth of the disciple since more grace might be acquired through them.  Therefore Thomas advises that the lives of persecuted saints be venerated and imitated.  Complete imitation will surely result in persecution, even bodily injury.   

O how many grievous tribulations did the Apostles, martyrs, confessors, and virgins endure; and all others who would walk in the footsteps of Christ.  (I,XVIII)   

(This may be an allusion to Hebrews 11:34-35, "They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, they were tempted, they were slain by the sword…”.)  On the other hand, the path to destruction is wide and attractive -- the journey being by stages:   

First cometh to the mind the simple suggestion, then the strong imagination, afterwards pleasure, evil affection, assent.  And so little by little the enemy entereth in altogether. (I,XIII)   

Thomas offers a proverb for those on their way to perdition:  "A merry evening maketh a sad morning?   Yet, a merry going forth bringeth often a sorrowful return."  (I,XX) 

Book III  

Still, ah me! the old man liveth in me: he is not yet all crucified, not yet quite dead; still he lusteth fiercely against the spirit, wageth inward wars, nor suffereth the soul's kingdom to be in peace. (III,XXXIV)   

Although Thomas à Kempis may never have reached his perfection, he did receive his heart's desire: to meet Jesus and speak to him directly.  Book III of Imitation is a dialogue with Christ throughout, as is the Book IV.  Thomas records the sayings of Jesus in first person.  Jesus confirms Thomas' doctrine and theology for the most part, and exhorts him to greater acts of self-mortification, though in a most loving way.   

One story that was told about Thomas is that in the years of his writing this book, he would see visitors but very seldom.  When he did agree to an interview, he would often cut it short, making the excuse that "I have someone waiting for me in my quarters."  That someone was the Christ that became his, may we write, “lover,” throughout his solitude.  The recorded sayings of Jesus include proverbs, such as: "The prudent lover considereth not the gift of the lover so much as the love of the giver," and promises: "Refrain from thy appetite. Delight thou in the Lord and He shall give thee thy heart's desire."   

Mostly there is encouragement toward one’s self-improvement:   

Sometimes, indeed, it is needful to use violence, and manfully to strive against the sensual appetite, and not to consider what the flesh may or not will; but rather to strive after this, that it may become subject, however unwillingly, to the spirit.  And for so long it ought to be chastised and compelled to undergo slavery, even until it be ready for all things, and learn to be contented with little, to be delighted with things simple, and never to murmur at any inconvenience. (III,XI) 

Other Features  

     The books are seasoned throughout with quotes from the Vulgate.  There are Psalms, for example:  

I bless thee, O Heavenly Father, Father of my Lord Jesus Christ, for thou hast vouchsafed to think of me, poor that I am.  O, Father of mercies and God of all comfort, I give thanks unto thee, who refreshest me sometimes with thine own comfort when I am unworthy of any comfort. (III,V)   

Formal prayers are occasionally found:  

A Prayer for the Enlightenment of the Mind: Enlighten me, Blessed Jesus, with the brightness of thy inner light, and cast forth all darkness from the habitation of my heart.   Join me to thyself with the inseparable bond of love, for Thou alone art sufficient to him that loveth Thee, and without Thee all things are vain toys. (III,XXIII)  

One may also encounter parables and an exorcism formula (see I,XXV).  

     Thomas lived in a world of men, only speaking of women in general in a few places. But the following is good advice for women and any other seeker of katharsis:  

Be not familiar with any woman, but commend all good women alike unto God.  In silence and quiet the devout soul goeth forward and learneth the hidden things of the Scriptures.  Therein findeth she a fountain of tears, wherein to wash and cleanse herself each night, that she may grow the more dear to her maker as she dwelleth the further from all wordly distractions.  (I,VIII)  

Perhaps the most striking passage of all is his contemplation of love; here is an excerpt (compare with I Corinthians 13):  

He who loveth flyeth, runneth, and is glad; he is free and not hindered.  He giveth all things for all things, and hath all things in all things, because he resteth in one who is high above all. He looketh not for gifts, but turneth himself to the giver above all things.  Love of times knoweth no measure, but breaketh out above all measure; Love feeleth no burden, reckoneth not labors, striveth not after more than it is able to do, pleadeth not impossibility, because it judgeth all things which are lawful for it to be possible.  (III,V)  

Personal Note  

I discovered Imitation of Christ as a teenager 20 (now 30) years ago.  I have used it as a devotional, a diviner, and a measuring rod.  I have also made use of Book IV in Communion liturgies.  It has helped me a great deal to understand the thought of the thinker and God.  The book has helped to teach me the necessity for God in my life, for the saying is true, that "when a man who feareth God is afflicted or tried or oppressed with evil thoughts, then he seeth that God is the more necessary unto him, since without God he can do no good thing." (I,XII)

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