The Imitation of Christ

When Lawrence Welk musical programs were on TV in the 1960s, I thought that they were old fashioned, out of style, his music out of step with current sounds. Now I catch myself watching reruns on Public Television, enjoying them in a way I never imagined before. 

At the same time, Vatican II was in progress. There was also a different spirit in the air that generated a reaction against using The Imitation of Christ as a devotional. Out of date. Out of step. Poor theology. Not with the new, renewed Church. Lately, however, I have been catching myself revisiting it, finding lots of wisdom and insights in its pages. 

Composed and organized around 1425 by Thomas à Kempis, a Dutch monk, this book has exercised great influence on western spirituality, second only to the Bible according to my experts, inspiring readers from Thomas More and St. Ignatius Loyola to Thomas Merton and Pope John Paul I. 

The Imitation of Christ was not so much an original work, but a collection of sayings from medieval mystics who reflected upon the Scriptures and the writings of the Church Fathers. Wesleyan author Donald E. Demaray says that The Imitation “shines with penetrating light into the recesses of our hearts.” 

Protestant theologian Shailer Mathews wrote that The Imitation presents an accurate description of the Christ of the Gospels, and gives an unbiased reading of the words of Jesus. He wrote, “For centuries men have found in it inspiration to sacrifice and humility, and to severest self-examination. . . .He who has never come under its influence has missed something that would have made him more humble and more ambitious for purity of life.” 

Thomas à Kempis discovered many insights into human nature, how easy it is to fool or deceive oneself. What makes this seemingly out-of-date text practical and useful for the busy pastor today is that when one has only about 90 seconds to spare for a quick meditation or to grab a thought for the day, The Imitation offers short, quick, pithy sayings to nourish us as we move on to other activities. I compare it to the Book of Proverbs. 

Try placing a copy near your favorite easy chair, next to the remote control, making it readily available. You can even download it onto your i-Pad. 

Distractions. For instance, in book one, chapter 6, we find under the topic of inordinate affections, “The man who is not yet wholly dead to self, is soon tempted, and is overcome in small and trifling matters. It is hard for him who is weak in spirit, and still in part carnal and inclined to the pleasures of sense, to withdraw himself altogether from earthly desires.” 

I am a fan of Gaudium et Spes, with all its joy and upbeat messages about engagement with the modern world, yet The Imitation reminds me that in current-day America, there are lots of creature comforts that can separate me from the love of Jesus Christ (c.f., Rom 8:35ff). Pleasure in food or drink, a nice car or computer, that 45-inch HD TV screen or my next vacation can easily fill my life with distractions — distractions that end up taking over and controlling my life. 

Listening. In book one, chapter 7, no. 2, we are reminded to “not trust too much in your own opinion, but be ready also to hear the opinions of others.” I guess that is why the Lord gave me two ears, but only one mouth. Many people want to hear spiritual messages from us, but are we equipped to hear those messages to which we need to pay attention? To be challenged? To grow? 

Temptations. In book one, chapter 13, no. 2, this eternal truth alerts us: “Temptations can really profit us, even though they test us and weigh heavily. Temptations humble, purify, instruct. . . .No community is so holy, no place so isolated from the world that temptations and adversities disappear.” 

We all face our demons. No Church position, title or activity keeps us immune from some types of sinful inclinations, whether it be lust, anger, laziness, jealousy, pride, etc. Instead of only being annoyed or disturbed, the Scripture says that the finest gold is purified in the hottest fires. Those trying moments strengthen and transform us into the men of God we were meant to be. As Thomas à Kempis wisely says, “If we could depend on ourselves to make God the pure object of our desires — then we would not cloud our critical faculties by carnal thinking” (book 1, chapter 14, no. 1). 

Patience. Like the Serenity Prayer attributed to St. Augustine, in book 1, chapter 16, no. 1, we are reminded that “what you cannot change in yourself or others, you must put up with patiently until God make changes possible. Such trials develop patience, without which all your good deeds have little worth. When you pray about your stubborn impediments, ask God to help you.” 

In what parish are there no conflicts, no messy relationships, no unpleasant situations? Who does not need to practice patience? 

Self-correction. How often do we avoid or overlook what needs to be taken care of in our own personal lives? “We want others severely corrected, but we ourselves refuse correction” (book 1, chapter 17, no. 3). Reminds me of St. Philip Neri who is supposed to have said while observing a prostitute, “There go I but for the grace of God.” “Unless you discipline yourself, don’t expect to conquer sin” (book 1, chapter 22, no. 5). 

Self-control. “Control your least restrained appetite and you will make this discovery: all your bodily appetites will come under control” (book 1, chapter 19, no. 4). Having visited dozens of rectories in the past few years all over the United States, I see that most refrigerators and pantries have few foods, nothing too fancy, yet Americans, clergy not excluded, are getting fatter and even obese. Lack of exercise? Eating the wrong types of foods? Eating too much? What to do? Fasting is supposed to create a hunger for the Lord, not just help to lose weight. He who gains mastery over little things, does well in matters of greater importance. 

Self-denial. “Our happiness rests not in the abundance of possessions; a modest number of possessions suits us better. Earth has a way of bringing us unhappiness” (book 1, chapter 22, no. 2). If we are honest, we will never say to ourselves that we now possess enough. Our fallen nature will always ask for more, to our great spiritual detriment and distraction. How much of our energy and attention have we allowed to be directed that way, leaving us far away from the Lord? “Unless you discipline yourself, don’t expect to conquer sin. For so long as we live in these bodies, we meet sin, weariness and sorrow” (book 1, chapter 22, no. 5). 

Praying. As we face the many challenges and demands of daily parish life, we may find consolation from this phrase: “If you cannot manage frequent devotional periods, rest content with what you can do. Surely you can mediate twice a day: in the morning plot your day; in the evening review your day, how you have behaved in word, deed, thought” (book 1, chapter 19, no. 4). This minimal effort will guarantee that our spiritual GPS keeps us in contact with the Lord. 

“Find a convenient and unhurried time for meditation on God’s love. Don’t meddle in matters beyond you, but read materials that move head and heart to spiritual sensitivity” (book 1, chapter 20, no. 1). Our first pastoral concern should be to pray for our people; in the time left over, go forth and work for their salvation. 

We all know that harboring anger or resentments, refusing to pardon or forgive, being addicted to a certain vice, spending too much time with television or on the computer can lead to those situations which make it hard for us to pray. Get rid of the junk in your life. 

Examination of Conscience. “Notice your weakness. Observe your bent to evil. Today you confess your sins; tomorrow you commit the very same sins. . . before long you behave as if you never examined yourself at all” (book 1, chapter 22, no. 6). “Face truth! We deceive ourselves by pampering our bodily desires” (book 1, chapter 24, no. 2). Or “Do not over trust yourself. You don’t possess that much grace or understanding. You possess limited light…you detect little problems in others, but overlook big problems in yourself” (book 2, chapter 5, no. 1). 

Nothing like stopping and checking out what is going on around us and in us. A good examination of conscience keeps up always on the correct course. Reflecting and pausing not only make good sense spiritually, but also for good health of the body. It reduces stress, heart attacks and anxiety! 

Good Deeds. “You shall find more comfort because you have prayed more devoutly than you have lived luxuriously…good works appear larger than good words” (book 1, chapter 24, no. 6). The only thing we take into eternity is our good works. Even something good done for the wrong reason builds up the kingdom of God. 

Fears. “One factor draws many back from spiritual progress: fear of how hard it is; in other words, hard work in battle” (book 1, chapter 25, no. 3). St. Teresa of Avila used to comment that the Lord has so few friends because of the demands and sufferings He asks of those who follow Him. Do we run the same risk of being afraid that the Lord might ask too much from us, requesting that we give up and renounce pet sins, enjoyable faults, easy going habits? 

Loving Jesus. “Happy the one who understands what loving Jesus means, what despising self means for His sake. Give up all other loves for the one love — Jesus…love Jesus; keep Jesus as your friend. When other friends go away, He sticks by you” (book 2, chapter 7, no. 1). 

“Listen, then, to the Good News: die with Him so that you will live with Him…in the Cross lies all true meaning: (book 2, chapter 12, nos. 2, 3). Or in book 1, chapter 23, no. 2, “What does it profit to live long, when we amend so little?” 

The Cross. “Only in the cross do you have healing for the whole person…Jesus shouldered His cross so that you could carry your own cross…in the cross lies all true meaning” (book 2, chapter 12, nos. 2, 3). St. Alphonsus would says centuries later that “We should not consider so much what Jesus did and suffered for us, but rather see the love with which He did all this; it should inspire in us a response of love.” The cross is the visible and concrete manifestation of love that God uses to gain our love. Everything that Jesus wanted to accomplish is concentrated in this act. 

Upon Receiving Holy Communion “Lord, I want to find You only; I want my heart open to You; I want You to satisfy me totally…so I will speak to You as one speaks to a lover, as friends talk at dinner” (book 4, chapter 13, no. 1). Do you plan time for a thanksgiving after saying Mass, or rush off to one more commitment? Easier said than done, but I learned in the Cursillos that time is a question of preference. 

Talking With Jesus at Communion Time. This is a powerful one. “You, Lord, sweet and loving, I want right now; I want to receive You with all devotion. You know my weaknesses and the necessities I live with; You know my sins and the evils I’m involved with; You know how often I’m weighed down, tempted, troubled, dirtied. 

“To You I come for therapy, consolation, support. I want to talk to You because You know everything; You know my thoughts; You know how to comfort me; You know how to help me; You know the good I need; You know how poor I am in goodness” (book 4, chapter 16, no. 1). 

Fervent Love to Receive Jesus. “O Lord, my God, my Creator, my Redeemer, I want to receive You today with Affection, Reverence, Praise, Honor, Gratitude, Credibility, Love, Faith, Hope and Purity. Mary received you like this; she desired You like this when the angel told her the good news of the Incarnation…(saying, Lk 1:38) I am the Lord’s maid; I am ready for what you say” (book 4, chapter 17, no. 2). 

So dust off that old copy of The Imitation of Christ. Download it. Have a copy nearby. Try it. I guarantee you are going to like what you see. TP

FATHER KIRCHNER, C.SS.R., was ordained a priest in 1966, spent 39 years in the Amazon, has been a pastor many times and also did formation work. He received a degree in moral theology in Rome, teaches courses in parishes, and currently works and lives in Liguori, Mo.