First published anonymously in 1418, Thomas à Kempis's The Imitation of Christ is a classic Christian devotional work that has been read through the ages by such notable figures as Sir Thomas More, John Wesley, and Pope John Paul I. A meditation on spiritual life, it offers instructions for renouncing worldly vanity and discovering eternal truths with the goal of living out the teachings of Jesus by taking inspiration from his life. More widely read and more influential than any spiritual work except the Bible, The Imitation of Christ has offered guidance and solace to people of all faiths since its publication and retains its power today. This edition is the translation by the Reverend William Benham.
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Amazing empathetic, even to modern readers living in a highly digital and consumer-driven world. Take, for example, this passage from iii.39: “A man often goes in eager pursuit of something he wants; when he has got it, he doesn’t feel the same about it. Man’s affections are unstable, and are apt to drive him from one desirable object to the next, so that even in trivial matters it is well worth renouncing oneself.” Is he not describing what we commonly call “buyer’s remorse” and the trials of a consumer-driven society? The work is filled with timeless insights such as this, where à Kempis proves that to someone who knows that the world around may change, but the human heart does not, speaking effectively across time is possible—in fact profitable. With his focus on human depravity and the sureness of God’s good grace, à Kempis shows how humility is the path we must be set upon to find any hope of rest or comfort.
The dialog format in the second half of the book (between Christ and the learner) can be jarring at times as the voice continuously changes, but you get used to it. Great prayers are interspersed throughout the work, preventing the reader’s experience from becoming too intellectualized.
Translations matter. I had tried another translation at first and struggled. The translation by Ronald Knox was immediately engrossing.
This book challenged me immensely. It has a poetic power that pierces the superficial skin of modern Christendom. I found myself praying Thomas’ prayers and confessing the things he was repenting. The most important message of the entire volume was the call to distrust your emotions. Divine consolations come and go. We often mature more when we don’t ‘feel’ God than when we do.
I do have some difficulties with the work that I think are more than just time-period misunderstandings. For all his insight into the human condition, Thomas has missed a lot of what it means to imitate Christ. Read through the gospels at the same time as the Imitation and you’ll see what I mean. All the talk of mortification can wear you down. A more balanced imitation of Christ would not downplay self-denial, but would also stress the freedom of living eternal life without worry for tomorrow.
The second issue is the individual nature of the work, which is a little odd, coming from the fifteenth century. Imitating Christ should drive us outward to love each other. This book, at times, makes it sound like the only thing that matters is the individual’s heart-condition.
The last issue I have is a bit of a logical inconsistency. The first three quarters of the work go into detail about the need to distrust your feelings and trust God whether or not there are any heavenly consolations. In the last quarter, he practically begs for those worthy feelings that he believes he should have to celebrate the Eucharist aright.
With all that said, this book is still one of the best books on spiritual formation I’ve ever encountered. It offers an almost offensive antidote for those people (like me) who are infected by the spirit of twenty-first century Western-style Christianity. Read it slowly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully at your own risk.
Thomas A Kempis himself isn’t much better:
“Everyone naturally desires knowledge, but of what use is knowledge itself without the fear of God?”
“We are born with an inclination towards evil.”
“all those others who strove to follow in the footsteps of Christ … all hated their lives in this world, that they might keep them to life eternal.”
“And were you to ponder in your mind on the pains of Hell and Purgatory, you would readily endure toil and sorrow, and would shrink from no kind of hardship.”
The messages of humility and simplicity in other parts of the text quickly get lost for me. Man is a worm. God is great. Don’t you dare think of pleasure, or you’ll burn in Hell forever. Ugh.
Read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations instead. Somehow these two have been linked by many, and they shouldn’t be at all. Marcus the pagan was far, far more enlightened.
I treated this binding with Obenauf's Heavy Duty Leather Preservative, let dry, and
Creasy's translation allows the modern reader to really get into and understand the premises of The Imitation of Christ. It is highly recommended.
The work itself is a masterpiece of devotional literature: even though
The author's goal is to increase devotion to Christ and writes compellingly to that end. He uncovers a lot of the difficulties and challenges under which we live and directs us in every respect to Christ. It is a work worth going over time and again.
The author lived in medieval Catholicism and the work reflects this at times, but the language and concepts are easily accommodated.
**--galley received as part of early review program
"The Imitation of Christ" is best read as a daily devotional. I recommend reading one chapter in the morning and one in the evening. It can be read over and over again, gaining continual spiritual benefit.
As to a Kempis’ own spiritual condition the Protestant reader is left unsure. A Kempis is repentant, there is no doubt about that, but does he trust in the work of Christ alone to save him or does he place his own contrition, good works and place in the church as his grounds for salvation. This remains the mystery of A Kempis, his work is evidently and obviously devotional, yet he lacks a Biblical precision in terms of the way to salvation.
A Kempis often mentions spiritual zeal and humility, but rarely faith, and never faith alone. Yet, he comes close at times, “Cling, therefore to Jesus, in life and death; trust yourself to the glory of him who alone can help you when all others fail.”(c. 7) He does medicate on the crucifixion of Christ, he claims to love and have an “intimate friendship with Jesus,”
Flirting with self-atonement and purgatory, he misunderstands the gospel and the nature of Christ’s saving work. In one disturbing passage he writes, “It is better to atone for sin now and to cut away vices then to keep them for purgation in the hereafter. In truth, we deceive ourselves by our ill-advised love of the flesh. What will that fire feed upon but our sins? The more we spare ourselves now and the more we satisfy the flesh, the harder will the reckoning be and the more we keep for the burning.”(c. 24) Self abasement is good, even necessary but it must be within the parameters and context of the absolute graciousness of God and the substitutionary work of his only Son. A Kempis’ statement about atonement and purgation completely miss the central New Testament teaching on justification.
The reader can also see that A Kempis knew the scriptures, entwined in his writing are biblical metaphors, direct quotations and allusions. At times he is theologically troubling, the church of his time was doctrinally murky, theologically vague and ecclesiastically mysterious. Major theological ground had been and was being lost in his time and a much needed reformation was on the horizon. His knowledge of the scriptures lacks the precision that would be gained a few centuries later in the Reformation, but he is to be commended for his writing and prayer exude a knowledge and affinity for God’s word.
To have a Kempis’ resolve and determination to mortify sin is sorely lacking in Christianity today, his devotion to Christ is commendable, his obvious affection for divinity is inspirational, his hatred for sin is convicting, but his understanding of justification is shady, and it is on this single doctrine that all Christian hope must stand. After the Bible, The Imitation of Christ is the most widely read book in the world, its value as a devotional classic is weighty, but its theological value is questionable, thus infringing on its quality as a devotional piece. There remain some keen insights into the aspects of pride, and fighting fleshly desires. But the means to fight sin must be rooted in the grace of God, for it is only by his grace that we can do battle against sin. Spiritual devotion, no matter how resolute must be empowered, motivated and practiced in light of the grace of God. He is the one who receives the credit and glory for the Christian life.
The book was written in Latin
It tells us how we should imitate Christ if we are to be enlightened:
“’He that followeth Me, walketh not in darkness’, saith the Lord. The author states that learning is not to be blamed, it being good in itself, and ordained by God, “but a good conscience and a virtuous life is always to be preferred before it”.
“Truly, at the day of judgment we shall not be examined what we have read, but what we have done; not how well we have spoken, but how religiously we have lived.”
The book is filled with wisdom. There are edifying chapters on the profit of adversity, resisting temptation, bearing with the defects of others, the examples of the holy Fathers, spiritual exercises, the love of solitude and silence, meditation on death, etc, etc.
“He that seeketh anything else but merely God, and the salvation of his soul, shall find nothing but tribulation and sorrow. … Thou camest to serve, not to rule (good to remember). Know that thou wast called to suffer and to labour, not to be idle, or to spend thy time in talk.”
Regarding death, “To-day the man is here, tomorrow he is gone. And when he is out of sight, quickly also is he out of mind. … Think on nothing but the salvation of thy soul, care for nothing but the things of God.”
However, I have no wish to become a Catholic priest, like Thomas Merton did, and I did not feel I got enough out of the book to read it in its entirety, though it is indeed a classic. Though perfectly comprehensible, it is also slightly hard reading.
Author: Thomas A. Kempis; edited by James N. Watson
Publisher: Worthy Inspired
My rating is 5 stars.
Thomas A. Kempis wrote a very serious and compelling even convicting devotional to use in personal quiet time
While it is true that it isn’t inspired and without error like the Bible, I can say I now understand the draw to many people. Originally written in Latin this new edition is in today’s language, making the compelling words easier to understand and apply to our lives. In the edition put together by James N. Watson, the writings are compiled by topic making the devotions easier to find when searching by topic.
A couple of the devotions I really marked up because they spoke to my heart by exhorting, pruning or sheering my spirit to imitate the Savior in my life. For example, here is part of a devotion I marked so I can return to it to contemplate it often: “In the cross is health, in the cross is life, in the cross is protection from enemies, in the cross I heavenly delight, in the cross is strength of mind, in the cross is joy of the spirit, in the cross is the height of good deeds, in the cross is holy living.” (pg. 19). What do you think of the quote or better yet what do you sense in your heart as the Spirit speaks to you?
There are devotions that are underneath topic headings such as trust, loving, wisdom or obedience. While this is not the complete list at least I hope it gives you enough to really consider obtaining a copy. Then sit before the Lord with your Bible, journal or notebook, writing utensils and this devotional. I promise it won’t take long before you just sit there in awe of God along with coming away from quiet time with a challenge if you really think about the pearls of wisdom within the book.
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Book One – Thoughts Helpful in the Life of the Soul
Book One covered many topics including the doctrine of truth, prudence
Book Two – The Interior Life
Ὰ Kempis wrote about how to build one’s interior life through the dedication to Jesus Christ. In this book there was a great deal of emphasis on taking up Christ’s cross. In these meditations suffering like Christ was key requirement. This was how a believer would claim victory. It was stated that those who suffered should expect to do so. They were considered the followers of the risen Christ in the truest sense of the word. It was even explained that if a believer came to the point of enjoying such suffering he or she would be experiencing heaven on earth.
Book Three – Internal Consolation
This book was itself as a conversation between Christ and a disciple. It was clear that the disciple’s attitude had to be humble and unassuming. He or she shouldn’t think much of their life in the eyes of God. They should realize that all blessings come from his Divine Providence. So no one should endeavor to be puffed up, think highly about themselves, or act as though they are happy by the things of this world. From the dialogue it was clear that all earthly gifts would soon pass away, and that believers would be disappointed if their faith wasn’t in God alone.
Book Four – An Invitation to Holy Communion
In Book Four the conversation between the voice of Christ and the disciple continued. The disciple is told how to prepare for Holy Communion. It was good to receive this sacrament in the right frame of mind, and with a clear conscience. Communicants have to make sure that they were on good terms with other believers. They should ask for forgiveness of all their sins, and approach the altar with repentant hearts. It was the Lord who knows their hearts and is always willing to forgive them. This voice of Christ stated was the correct way before communicants should partake of the bread and wine.