“He that follows Me shall not walk in darkness,” says the Lord. These are the words of Christ, by which we are reminded that we must copy His life and conduct if we wish to be truly enlightened and to be delivered from all blindness of heart. To meditate on the life of Jesus should therefore be our chief study.
Thus begins the great work known, loved, and venerated for six centuries as The Imitation of Christ, first published in 1418 by the German-Dutch monk and scribe, Thomas Hemerken of Kempen, better known as Thomas à Kempis (1380 – 25 July 1471).
“The Imitation” became, and has remained, after the Bible, the most widely read and translated book in the world, and certainly the most influential of Christian devotional writings. Widely praised across centuries and continents, a preface to an 1873 edition of the book reads, “The Imitation of Christ has received the unqualified approbation of every learned and pious ornament of the Church; it is still held in as high estimation by people of every denomination as it was at any time since it came from the pen of Thomas à Kempis.” A century prior, French author Fontenelle described it as, “The most excellent production that ever yet issued from the hand of man.”
Indeed, through writing pitched in the highest key of Christian experience, it reveals an exquisite sense of the beauty and wisdom of the Divine will, urging all believers to humbly—and happily—submit with their whole being.
While many assume the work to have been intended primarily for monastics and ascetics, its exhortations derive directly from the very bedrock of the Christian life: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Here, then, is the dividing line, the hinge upon which all else in the Christian life swings, and the core principle that informs our vision to magnify this simple and most fundamental aspect of the Gospel message.
The full Thomas à Kempis text comprised four books, the first three of which make up a new illuminated special edition (Sophia Institute Press), translated from the original Latin by Bishop Richard Challoner (who also revised the Douay-Rheims Bible in the 1740s). Together they present the fundamental principles of the spiritual life. For, as à Kempis expressed it, “Without the Way, you cannot go; without the Truth, you cannot know; without the Life, you cannot live.”
Challoner’s translation is, in our opinion, simply the most beautiful and edifying available. While numerous other English language translations exist—including modern language versions—none can match Challoner’s poetic expression and music. The language and phrasing are simply sublime, amplifying the power of the work. The following overview provides a flavor of the readings:
Book I: Useful Admonitions for a Spiritual Life
The first treatise shows us how to despise the vanities of the world, avoid pride, and appreciate the advantages of obedience, adversity, and solitude. Its object is to raise us above the world and lead us to Jesus, Himself. Early in the first chapter, we find:
His teaching surpasses all that the Saints have taught, and he who has the Spirit will find in it “the hidden manna.” But it happens that many, who often hear the Gospel, experience but little desire for it, because they do not possess the Spirit of Christ. For if you would completely, and with delight, enter into the meaning of Christ’s words, you must take pains to bring your life into entire conformity with His.
Book II: Admonitions Concerning Interior Things
The second book focuses on the life to be led by a follower of Christ, with the reminder that no one is richer, more powerful, or freer than he who can renounce all and set himself in the lowest place.” It opens with the following:
“The kingdom of God is within you,” saith the Lord. Turn you with your whole heart unto the Lord, and forsake this miserable world, and your soul shall find rest. Learn to despise outward things, and to give yourself to inward, and you shall feel the Kingdom of God arise within you. For the Kingdom of God is joy and peace in the Holy Ghost; and this is not given to the wicked. Christ will come to you and reveal to you His consolation, provided that you prepare for Him a worthy dwelling within you. All His glory and beauty are from within, and there He delights Himself. Many visits He makes to the inner man, and holds sweet colloquies with the soul, soothing it, filling it with peace, and admitting it to an exceedingly wonderful familiarity with Him.
Book III: Of Internal Consolation
The third book of the Imitation highlights the contrast between the natural man and the man influenced by the grace of God. It begins:
I will hearken what the Lord God will speak in me. Blessed is the soul which hears within the Lord speaking, and receives from His mouth the Word of consolation. Blessed are the ears which catch the breathings of the Divine whisper, and pay no heed to the whispers of the world. Blessed indeed are the ears which listen not for the voice which sounds from without, but to the inner voice of truth. Blessed are the eyes which are closed to outward objects, but intent upon inward. Blessed are they who dive into things internal, and strive day by day through spiritual exercises to gain a deeper capacity for receiving heavenly secrets. Blessed are they who are glad to devote their time to God, and break away from all worldly hindrances.
To spend a bit of time daily with The Imitation is to be spiritually transported, comforted, and encouraged. On every illuminated page you find that its wise counsel, soulful prayers, and moving colloquies engender a calming center of devotion, liberation, and hope. Just what the world needs today!
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