Surveys of American religion reveal a vague “self-help” sense of spirituality that pervades the culture—an assessment that does not spare sizable swaths of the Church—and all of it designed to suit the desires of the self. Andrew Murray, addressing the Church more than a hundred years ago in language that resonates perhaps even more loudly today, grieved, “So little power, so little devotion or consecration to God, so little perception of the truth that a Christian is a man utterly surrendered to God’s will.” And because oft-diluted or otherwise confused spiritual sensibilities have little or no import in one’s daily life—or that of the Church, for that matter—many end up being, as playwright John van Druten put it, “…forced into a fatal dualism, trying to live on two planes at once, the material and the spiritual, both apparently equally real, yet without any understandable relation to each other—like a firm composed of two partners who are not on speaking terms.”
Likewise, Thomas à Kempis, writing in the devotional classic, The Imitation of Christ, sorrowfully observed, “Many indeed proclaim it with their mouth, but are far from it in their life.” Murray, further lamenting the point, adds, “God knows there are hundreds of hearts who have said it, and there are hundreds more who long to say it but hardly dare to do so. And there are hearts who have said it, but who have yet miserably failed, and who feel themselves condemned because they did not find the secret of the power to live that life.” Nowhere in this middle ground, it seems, is a man safe!
Indeed, where the self-life is concerned, the imitation of Christ is not safe. Yet neither does à Kempis strand his readers on the brink of despair: the object of our imitation is also good. “My friend,” à Kempis continues, “you cannot have perfect liberty unless you entirely deny yourself. All self-seekers and lovers of self; all covetous, anxious persons; and all who wander about and are ever in quest of ease and comfort, and not the things of Jesus Christ, are in bondage. Hold fast this short and summary saying: Forsake all, and you shall find all; leave your desires, and you shall find rest. Give your mind to this, and when you have put it into practice, you shall understand all things.”
Putting into practice, understanding all things—these are the objectives of The Imitation of Christ—the razor by which the faithful can slice through and peel away the layers of all that compromise, encumber, and hinder the desire to truly follow Christ and imitate His life—whatever that might mean for them. And that is nothing for Christians to fear. “Doctrines don’t restrict us,” Catholic apologist Robert Haddad reminds us. “They liberate us.”