I knew very little about the work when I picked it. What lured me was that it was a medieval work—and I wanted to diversify my reading periods—and that The Imitation of Christ comes with the designation of being the “most widely read devotional work next to the Bible.” How could I not want to read it?
However, I was warned that it was a dry (shall we say, boring?) work. I do have to admit it’s not my cup of tea as a devotional, and I think for two reasons. First the thematic development was extremely drawn out. For most of the time I was reading, I kept telling myself that this is all repetition and à Kempis never reaches any culmination. However, I have to say, that is not true. There is thematic development; it goes from internal consolation to acceptance of Christ, which is about as slow a movement as a glacier, but it is a movement. But it is drawn out and overly repetitive. However, this is a devotional, and devotionals are mostly static.
What really didn’t agree with me was that this was a work for those in monastic life. It’s a withdrawal from the world. He states in the Twenty-Fifth Chapter in Book One: “Be watchful and diligent in God’s service and often think of why you left the world and came here.” There are too many references to being a hermit and restricted to one’s cell. From the Twentieth Chapter of Book One: “Your cell will become dear to you if you remain in it, but if you do not, it will become wearisome. If in the beginning of your religious life, you live within your cell and keep to it, it will soon become a special friend and a very great comfort.”
Was Jesus a hermit? He had his moments of asceticism. He spent forty days in the desert, but He came out of the desert and lived with His apostles and was surrounded by thousands and dined with Pharisees and tax collectors and prostitutes and other sinners. I see Christ as an extrovert and gregarious. Perhaps I’m projecting in Him parts of my personality, but I don’t think so. He was a working man, and working men have to deal with the world.
Though The Imitation of Christ was written in the late medieval period, it really has an outlook of an early medieval period, when monasteries and hermitages were abundant. But from the twelfth century on, medieval life shifted from predominantly agrarian to urban towns, and so there was a shift from monastic religious orders to evangelizing orders, such as the Franciscans and Dominicans and, a few centuries later, the Jesuits. They engaged the populace, not retreated from it. Those are the types of religious orders I identify with, and if I had to pick one that fit my personality I would probably pick the Dominicans.
Nonetheless, The Imitation of Christ has wonderful passages. It is a great devotional. If you opened a page randomly you would find lots of wisdom. And here I’ll share a few.
From the Seventeenth Chapter of Book One:
He who seeks anything but God alone and the salvation of his soul will find only trouble and grief, and he who does not try to become the least, the servant of all, cannot remain at peace for long.
You have come to serve, not to rule. You must understand, too, that you have been called to suffer and to work, not to idle and gossip away your time. Here men are tried as gold in a furnace. Here no man can remain unless he desires with all his heart to humble himself before God.
In what can I hope, then, or in whom ought I trust, save only in the great mercy of God and the hope of the heavenly grace? For though I have with me good men, devout brethren, faithful friends, holy books, beautiful treatises, sweet songs and hymns, all these help and please but little when I am abandoned by grace and left to my poverty. At such times there is no better remedy than patience and resignation of self to the will of God.
In Books Three and Four, à Kempis creates a dialogue between “The Voice of Christ” and “The Disciple.”
From the Eleventh Chapter of Book Three:
The Voice of Christ: My child, it is necessary for you to learn many things which you have not yet learned well.
The Disciple: What are they Lord?
The Voice of Christ: That you conform your desires entirely according to My good pleasure, and be not a lover of self but an earnest doer of My will. Desires very often inflame you and drive you madly on, but consider whether you act for My honor, or for your own advantage. If I am the cause, you will be well content with whatever I ordain. If, on the other hand, any self-seeking lurk in you, it troubles you and weighs you down. Take care, then, that you do not rely too much on preconceived desire that has no reference to Me, lest you repent later on and be displeased with what at first pleased you and which you desired as being for the best. Not every desire which seems good should be followed immediately, nor, on the other hand, should every contrary affection be at once rejected.
From the Fifty-Second Chapter of Book Three, The Disciple:
What do you especially demand of a guilty and wretched sinner, except that he be contrite and humble himself for his sins? In true sorrow and humility of heart hope of forgiveness is born, the troubled conscience is reconciled, grace is found, man is preserved from the wrath to come, and God and the penitent meet with a holy kiss.
To You, O Lord, humble sorrow for sins is an acceptable sacrifice, a sacrifice far sweeter than the perfume of incense. This is also the pleasing ointment which You would have poured upon Your sacred feet, for a contrite and humble heart You have never despised. Here is a place of refuge from the force of the enemy's anger. Here is amended and washed away whatever defilement has been contracted elsewhere.
From the Seventh Chapter of Book Four, The Voice of Christ:
Lament and grieve because you are still so worldly, so carnal, so passionate and unmortified, so full of roving lust, so careless in guarding the external senses, so often occupied in many vain fancies, so inclined to exterior things and so heedless of what lies within, so prone to laughter and dissipation and so indisposed to sorrow and tears, so inclined to ease and the pleasures of the flesh and so cool to austerity and zeal, so curious to hear what is new and to see the beautiful and so slow to embrace humiliation and dejection, so covetous of abundance, so niggardly in giving and so tenacious in keeping, so inconsiderate in speech, so reluctant in silence, so undisciplined in character, so disordered in action, so greedy at meals, so deaf to the Word of God, so prompt to rest and so slow to labor, so awake to empty conversation, so sleepy in keeping sacred vigils and so eager to end them, so wandering in your attention, so careless in saying the office, so lukewarm in celebrating, so heartless in receiving, so quickly distracted, so seldom fully recollected, so quickly moved to anger, so apt to take offense at others, so prone to judge, so severe in condemning, so happy in prosperity and so weak in adversity, so often making good resolutions and carrying so few of them into action.
It was certainly worthy of a Lenten read, despite its dryness.