Cliffs Notes on ‘The Imitation of Christ’

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis is an absolute classic. The wisdom this powerful devotional contains is more valuable now than ever as our culture is engulfed in the stormy seas of selfishness and relativism–which is saying a lot considering this book was published in 1418! Speaking for myself, the Croft & Bolton translation of this text has done a lot for the formation of my interior life, and my approach to the Mass and reception of the Eucharist.

statue_of_monk_thomas_a_kempis
Kempis

But, forget about me, this book has helped more people grow closer to Christ than nearly any other book…literally. Even Wikipedia touts the fact that this book is “perhaps the most widely read devotional work next to the Bible” alone, going on to explain that “apart from the Bible, no book has been translated into more languages”. This book is guaranteed to help properly form one’s general disposition in relation to the excessive worldliness that seeks to consume us on a daily basis. It powerfully emphasizes humility, healthy detachment, and trust in Christ in a way that forces one to reflect on their own passions, attachments, and forms of consolation.

Kempis, a German priest, uses his knowledge of both Scripture and Tradition to make a sort of conversation between the Disciple and Christ. Some may consider Imitation to be a bit high-minded, lofty, even rigid, and certainly some parts are directed towards those living the monastic life, but I think it’s exactly the message many need. It’s also a message of the endless mercy and tender forgiveness of God when we cannot live up to the many points contained within. The text is split up into four smaller books: THOUGHTS HELPFUL IN THE LIFE OF THE SOUL, THE INTERIOR LIFE, INTERNAL CONSOLATION, and AN INVITATION TO HOLY COMMUNION. The last two books take on the “conversational” style mentioned above.

Not quite a “Cliffs Notes”, this post is more or less some of, what I think are, the best quotes to ponder. All emphases are mine:

Book One: Thoughts Helpful in the Life of the Soul

(2) If I knew all things in the world and had no charity, what would it profit me before God Who will judge me by my deeds?

Wherefore, if you see another sin openly or commit a serious crime, do not consider yourself better, for you do not know how long you can remain good. All men are frail, but you must admit that none is more frail than yourself.

(3) What, indeed, gives more trouble and affliction than uncontrolled desires of the heart? […] This ought to be our purpose, then: to conquer self, to become stronger each day, to advance in virtue.

(6) True peace of heart, then, is found in resisting passions, not in satisfying them. There is no peace in the carnal man…but there is peace in the fervent and spiritual man.

(11) The greatest obstacle, indeed, the only obstacle, is that we are not free from passions and lusts, that we do not try to follow the perfect way of the saints. […] If we tried, however, to stand as brave men in battle, the help of the Lord from heaven would surely sustain us.

(13) The man who only shuns temptations outwardly and does not uproot them will make little progress; indeed they will quickly return, more violent than before.

(14) …for in judging others a man labors vainly, often makes mistakes, and easily sins; whereas, in judging and taking stock of himself he does something that is always profitable.

Personally, I could use (14) in poster form for my office.

(16) Until God ordains otherwise, a man ought to bear patiently whatever he cannot correct in himself and in others. Consider it better thus–perhaps to try your patience and to test you, for without such patience and trial your merits are of little account. Nevertheless, under such difficulties you should pray that God will consent to help you bear them calmly. […]

Try to bear patiently with the defects and infirmities of others, whatever they may be, because you also have many a fault which others must endure.

Okay, make that two posters…

(20) Seek a suitable time for leisure and meditate often on the favors of God. […] If you withdraw yourself from unnecessary talking and idle running about, from listening to gossip and rumors, you will find enough time that is suitable for holy mediation.

Frequent realizations of gratitude for everything has proven to be life-changing for me.

“Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder” – GK Chesterton

(21) FIGHT LIKE A MAN. HABIT IS OVERCOME BY HABIT.

I consider this to be one of the best quotes ever.

[…] Do not busy yourself about the affairs of others and do not become entangled in the business of your superiors. Keep an eye primarily on yourself and admonish yourself instead of your friends.

(23) Therefore, in every deed and every thought, act as though you were to die this very day. If you had a good conscience you would not fear death very much. It is better to avoid sin than to fear death.

What good is it to live a long life when we amend that life so little?

Many count up the years they have spent in religion but find their lies made little holier.

Try to live now in such a manner that at the moment of death you may be glad rather than fearful.

The chapter 23 quotes are powerful thoughts to ponder, no?

(24) Learn, then, to suffer little things now that you may not have to suffer greater ones in eternity.

(25) Labor a little now, and soon you shall find great rest, in truth, eternal joy; for if you continue faithful and diligent in doing, God will undoubtedly be faithful and generous in rewarding.

He who does not overcome small faults, shall fall little by little into greater ones.

Book Two: The Interior Life

(1) Place all your trust in God; let Him be your fear and your love. He will answer for you; He will do what is best for you.
You have here no lasting home. You are a stranger and a pilgrim wherever you may be, and you shall have no rest until you are wholly united with Christ.

How can you be a friend of Christ if you are not willing to suffer any hardship?

(2) Keep your conscience clear and God will protect you, for the malice of man cannot harm one whom God wishes to help.

(3) It is no great thing to associate with the good and gentle, for such association is naturally pleasing. Everyone enjoys a peaceful life and prefers persons of congenial habits. But to be able to live at peace with harsh and perverse men, or with the undisciplined and those who irritate us, is a great grace, a praiseworthy and manly thing.

(5) We take others to task for small mistakes and overlook the greater ones in ourselves. We are quick enough to feel and brood over the things we suffer from others, but we think nothing of how much others suffer from us. If a man would weigh his own deeds fully and rightly, he would find little cause to pass sever judgement on others.

(9) The devil does not sleep, nor is the flesh yet dead; therefore, you must never cease your preparation for battle, because on the right and on the left are enemies who never rest.

(11) Many love Him as long as they encounter no hardship; many praise and bless Him as long as they receive some comfort from Him.

Book Three: Internal Consolation

(3) Voice of Christ (☩): Most Men listen more willingly to the world than to God…The world, which promises small and passing things, is served with great eagerness: I promise great and eternal things and the hearts of men grow dull.

(13) ☩ : There is no more troublesome, no worse enemy of the soul than you yourself.

(19) ☩ : The better you dispose yourself to suffer, the more wisely you act and the greater the reward promised to you.

☩ : Without struggle you cannot obtain the crown of patience, and if you refuse to suffer you are refusing the crown. But if you desire to be crowned, fight manfully and bear up patiently. Without labor there is no rest, and without fighting, no victory.

(25) ☩ : All men desire peace but all do not care for the things that go to make true peace.

☩ : Do not be rash in judging the deeds and words of others, and do not entangle yourself in affairs that are not your own.

(35) ☩ : For love of God you should undergo all things cheerfully, necessities, injuries, slanders, rebukes, humiliations, confusions, corrections, and contempt. For these are helps to virtue…These form the heavenly crown.

☩ : Wait for the Lord, act manfully, and have courage. Do not lose trust. Do not turn back but devote your body and soul constantly to God’s glory.

(36) ☩ : Do not fiar the judgement of men when concience tells you that you are upright and innocent.

(46) ☩ : He who does not keep his heart within him, and who does not have God before his eyes is easily moved by a word of disparagement. He who trusts in Me, on the other hand, and who has no desire to stand by his own judgement, will be free form the fear of men.

(47) ☩ : My child, do not let the labors which you have taken up for My sake break you, and do not let troubles, from whatever source, cast you down; but in everything let My promise strengthen and console you . I am able to reward you beyond all means and measure.

☩ : What you do, do well. Work faithfully in My vineyard. I will be your reward. Write, read, sing, mourn, keep silence, pray, and bear hardships like a man. Eternal life is well worth all these and greater battles.

(49) ☩ : Consider the fruit of these labors, how soon they will end and how greatly they will be rewarded, and you will not be saddened by them, but your patience will receive the strongest consolation. For instead of the little will that you now readily give up, you shall always have your will in heaven. There, indeed, you shall find all that you could desire. There you shall have possession of every good without fear of losing it…There no one shall oppose you, no one shall complain to you, no one hinder you, and nothing stand in your way. All that you desire will be present there, replenishing your affection and satisfying it to the full.

☩ : Bow humbly, therefore, under the will of all, and do not heed who said this or commanded that. Bet let it be your special care when something is commanded, or even hinted at, whether by a superior or an inferior or an equal, that you take it in good part and try honestly to perform it.

(53) ☩ : If you completely conquer yourself, you will more easily subdue all other things. The perfect victory is to triumph over self.

☩ : Now if you wish to climb to this high position you must begin like a man, and lay the ax to the root, in order to tear out and destroy any hidden unruly love of self or of earthly goods.

(57) ☩ : Patience and humility in adversity are more pleasing than much consolation and devotion when things are going well.
Why are you saddened by some little thing said against you? Even if it had been more you ought not to have been affected.

☩ : Bear it patiently at least, if you cannot bear it cheerfully. Even though you bear it unwillingly…restrain yourself and let no ill-ordered words pass your lips at which the weak might be scandalized.

(58) ☩ : Beware of discussing high matters and God’s hidden judgments–why this person is so forsaken and why that one is favored with so great a grace, or why on man is so afflicted and another so highly exalted. Such things are beyond all human ken and no reason or disputation can fathom the judgments of God.

☩ : In like manner, do no inquire or dispute about the merits of the saints, as to which is more holy, or which shall be greater in the kingdom of heaven. Such things often breed strife and useless contentions. They nourish pride and vainglory, whence arise envy and quarrels…It displeases the saints, because I am the God, not of dissension but of peace-of that peace which consists in true humility rather than in self-exaltation.

This is an interesting and important point, a point I haven’t seen made elsewhere. Who are we to discuss the merits of the saints who are perfected in heaven? I’ve heard debates from people questioning canonizations, or remarks on the canonization of Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Saint John XXIII being held on the same day (questioning political reasons for this). It all amounts to us bickering as fallen men. Continuing Book Three, Chapter 58…

☩ : Be careful, then, of treating matters beyond your knowledge out of curiosity. Let it rather be your business and aim to be found, even though the least, in the kingdom of God.

☩ : The Man who thinks of the greatness of his own sins and the littleness of his virtues, and of the distance between himself and the perfection of the saints, acts much more acceptably to God than the one who argues about who is greater or who is less.

☩ : Woe to those who distain to humble themselves willingly with the littel children, for the low gate of the heavenly kingdom will not permit them to enter. Woe also to the rich who have their consolations here, for when the poor enter into God’s kingdom, they will stand outside lamenting. Rejoice, you humble, and exult, you poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.

Jesus indeed mentions the difficulty of entering heaven (Mt 19:23) and we see this repeated above, but it’s important one takes note of the clear qualifier: “who have their consolations here”. Jesus does not say it is impossible, he’s just saying that riches have the ability to destroy the necessary virtue of humility. I’d argue that this is why the faith and liturgy is suffering so in some of the rich western nations compared to the relatively poorer countries worldwide. We also (more often than not) see this contrast between the more affluent suburbs and the more economically diverse downtown areas. Wealth can blind people to what really matters is the point. The rich man who uses his wealth for good and who isn’t attached or consoled by his earthly wealth shouldn’t fret. Now, back to Christ…

Book Four: An Invitation to Holy Communion

☩ Come to Me, all you that labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you. The bread which I will give is My Flesh, for the life of the world.☩

(1) Voice of the Disciple (D): Alas, how little is all that I do! How short the time I spend in preparing for Communion! I am seldom wholly recollected, and very seldom, indeed, entirely free from distraction…for I am about to receive as my guest, not an angel, but the very Lord of angels.

This is a constant struggle. How often are you wholly recollected and in a state of proper humility, disposition, and reverence to receive God? It’s too easy to be distracted at Mass (especially the ordinary form of the Rite). How often are you paying attention to someone in front of you? How often is your mind on what kind of wacky things your children are doing? We all fail at this, but we can work harder to amend this as much as possible. Look at the elevated host and quote St. Thomas, “my Lord and my God!”.  Instead of looking at the people around you (which can prove incredibly difficult!) fix your eyes on Jesus on the cross as you approach the altar. When you return to your pew, close your eyes (if you can) and pray during this very important moment, a moment ripe for abundant grace! Continuing from this chapter…

D : Many people travel far to honor the relics of saints, marveling at their wonderful deeds and at the building of magnificent shrines…and behold, You are here present before me on the altar, my God, Saint of saints, Creator of men, and Lord of angels!

D : Oh, the blindness and the hardness of the heart of man that does not show more regard for so wonderful a gift, but rather falls into carelessness from its daily use!

(3) D : It is indeed necessary for me, who fall and sin so often, who so quickly become lax and weak, to renew, cleanse, and inflame myself through frequent prayer, confession, and the holy reception of Your Body.

(4) D : O Lord, I come to You at Your command in simplicity of heart, in good, firm faith, with hope and reverence, and I truly believe that You are present here in this Sacrament, God and man. It is Your will that I receive You and unite myself to You in love…In it my defects are remedied, my passions restrained, and temptations overcome or allayed.

(5 – Speaking to priests) ☩ : For priests alone, rightly ordained in the Church, have power to celebrate Mass and consecrate the Body of Christ.

☩ : Behold,  you have been made a priest, consecrated to celebrate Mass! See to it now that you offer sacrifice to God faithfully and devoutly at proper times, and that you conduct yourself blamelessly. You have not made your burden lighter. Instead, you are not bound by stricter discipline and held to more perfect sanctity.

(7) ☩ : If a man does what he can and is truly penitent, however often he comes to Me for grace and pardon, “As I live, saith the Lord God, I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ez 33:11); I will no longer remember his sins, but all will be forgiven him.

(10) ☩ : You must often return to [communion] if you wish to be free from passion and vice…The enemy, knowing the great good and the healing power of Holy Communion, tries as much as he can by every manner and means to [keep people away].

☩ : Often, too great solicitude for devotion and anxiety about confession hinder a person. Do as wise men do. Cast off anxiety and scruple, for it impedes the grace of God and destroys devotion of the mind.
Do not remain away from Holy Communion because of a small trouble or vexation but go at once to confession and willingly forgive all others their offenses. If you have offended anyone, humbly seek pardon and God will readily forgive you.

(15) ☩ : At times He grands at the end what He has denied from the beginning of prayer. If grace were always given at once, or were present at our beck and call, it would not be well taken by weak humankind. Therefore, with good hope and humble patience await the grace of devotion.

(18) ☩ : For Satan does not tempt unbelievers and sinners whom he already holds securely, but in many ways he does tempt and trouble the faithful servant.
Go forward with sincere and unflinching faith, and with humble reverence approach this Sacrament.

If you wish to read the whole book, or some of the many parts not included in this very brief synopsis of what Thomas à Kempis masterfully wrote over 600 years ago, they are only $2.50 on Amazon! Buy a few and give them to your friends while you’re at it.

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