The blurb on the back of my copy advertises The Imitation of Christ as "second only to the Bible as the source of religious instruction and inspiration." Whatever the historical merits of that claim, I can hardly contest it for myself. Alongside C.S. Lewis' "Till We Have Faces," this book was directly responsible for my spiritual rejuvenation in the summer of 2007, and has continued to inspire me ever since.
Originally published anonymously in 1418, De Imitatione Christi was written by Thomas à Kempis, subprior at the Augustinian monastery at Windesheim, in the Kingdom of Holland. It originally served as a manual for novices and junior "canons" under his charge, but it disseminated widely and became a classic in Christian devotional literature. Saint Ignatius of Loyola added it to the official index of "exercises" for the Jesuit order. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, cited it as a primary influence at his conversion. John Newton, the slave trader-turned-abolitionist who wrote "Amazing Grace," was reading the Bible and The Imitation of Christ when he committed his life to Christ. This is powerful stuff.
The Imitation was written in four books, translated in my edition as "Thoughts Helpful to the Life of the Soul," "The Interior Life," "Internal Consolation" and "Invitation to Holy Communion." The first book has been the most helpful for me. In organization it reads like Proverbs -- every sentence or verse being relatively self-standing, though organized as a coherent whole. In tone and content it reads like Ecclesiastes on steroids.
This is a Saturnine work. Written for monks and ascetics, its primary exhortation is to remember the relative worthlessness of things of this earth, and concentrate fully on the goodness of God. It urges us to pursue a serene life of contemplation, untroubled by the vanities of fame, riches, wisdom, or even human companionship.
In this sense, The Imitation of Christ is both beautiful and dangerous. In encouraging the contemplative life, this work pushes us further and deeper into God's Presence, but it also pushes us into the mystery and ineffability that we find there. We ought not lose our bearings, or forget the other virtues that we are called to balance against this. James 4:9 bids us to "Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom." Yet we are also to rejoice in the Lord, and remember His triumph. We ought to love God and not be troubled by things of this life; yet we are also love others and sacrifice ourselves for them.
The Imitation of Christ is an immensely valuable resource to those seeking to deepen their spiritual life. It is not Holy Writ, so each statement ought to be weighed carefully for its merit, but it still comes awfully close. The Imitation of Christ may have been written for Late Medieval Catholic monks, but it's still remarkably applicable to the spiritual walk of modern Protestants and Christians of all denominations.
This was cross-posted at Worthy of Note.