I thought I'd share a paper written for one of my classes, reflecting just a bit on Thomas a Kempis' The Imitation of Christ.
A couple of years ago I was given an old copy of The Imitation of Christ from an elderly friend, who was a retired minister. It’s a paperback from the 1950’s and includes some simple but rather beautiful artwork. I’ve looked forward to the opportunity to read it and was glad to see this book as an option for class. I found The Imitation of Christ to be the timeless spiritual classic that it promised to be. It is full of wisdom in bite-sized chunks that leads naturally to self-examination and reflection. A Kempis is concerned with how life is lived out for the earnest follower of Jesus and he addresses both external action and internal states of the heart. His writings each have a descriptive title, and each entry is short and to-the-point.
Reading a Kempis reminds me of reading the biblical book of Proverbs. It reads like wisdom literature and contains plenty of wise instruction. The Imitation of Christ is the kind of book that can be read over and over with new insights and applications each time. It is not, however, a book of sentimentality or easy advice. A Kempis calls his readers to follow Jesus as one who called his disciples to take up a cross. True imitators of Christ are much fewer than those who claim to believe in him. He writes, “Jesus hath many lovers of His kingdom of heaven, but He hath few bearers of his cross. Many desire His consolation, but few desire His tribulation. He findeth many fellows at eating and drinking, but He findeth few that will be with Him in His abstinence and fasting. All men would joy with Him, but few would anything suffer for Christ.”
A Kempis has broken down his writings into four books: Admonitions Useful for a Spiritual Life, Admonitions Tending to Things Internal, The Inward Speaking of Christ to a Faithful Soul, and Concerning the Sacrament. The breadth of his writing is part of what makes his work such a valuable and beloved classic. He tends to the state of the mind and the soul, and to gaining peace with God. He talks of judgment and of grace. He talks of discipleship and temptation and trust. I found that his words are as profound as they are brief in each small section, and that I could ponder even one short section for a long time.
While I hesitate to voice anything that could be construed as criticism of such a classic, I will comment on the places where I didn’t find The Imitation of Christ to be helpful. A Kempis has a strong sense of God’s judgment and a somewhat frightening view of who will come out on the worse side of it on that day. The paradox of God’s grace and judgment in the scripture is perhaps reflected in the paradox of his writing, but when he talks of judgment it is very strong. A Kempis also admonishes followers of Christ to keep their distance from “worldly-living people.” While I can understand the purpose of his intent, I also feel a sense of contradiction. How can one imitate Christ, who was always in trouble for spending time with “worldly-living people,” and also diligently avoid such people? His separatism almost rings of elitism and I find it a bit troubling.
I greatly appreciate A Kempis for not painting an easy path of discipleship and for reminding those who would follow Christ of the difficulties that calling entails. At the same time, I find him to be a bit ascetic, inviting hardship where it may not be necessary. I also realize that I make that observation from a life of ease and I recognize my own need to hear his challenge in that regard. I am not sure if I’ve met more than a few people in all of my life who have understood what it truly means to take up a cross and follow Jesus. I know that I have not truly begun to sacrifice anything for Christ, and I am surrounded by a Christianity that spiritualizes suffering and hardship, and knows little of the life of the cross that is tangible and gritty.
“At the day of judgment it shall not be asked of us what we have read, but what we have done: nor how well we have said, but how religiously we have lived.” With all great admonitions to live well there is the risk of somehow subtracting from God’s grace and making our own efforts at living central to the faith, rather than the work of Christ. Bonhoeffer struggled with this even after writing The Cost of Discipleship, recognizing the danger in his work but also the need of it. I sense that same tension with a Kempis, and I appreciate it. I think it is the tension that we live in following Christ, being both recipients of his grace and of his call to take up our cross.