Kempis, in The Imitation Of Christ, directs the reader onto the path of spiritually rich devotion and the celebration of God. The book can thus be seen as a guide to help those in need stay on the path of faith, and keep them from coming off of it.
Kempis, in The Imitation Of Christ, directs the reader onto the path of spiritually rich devotion and the celebration of God. The book can thus be seen as a guide to help those in need stay on the path of faith, and keep them from coming off of it. On the part of Kempis, the book is split into sections on the spiritual life, the inner life, and the sacrament, structured as a treatise, and supported by his own opinions and assessments derived from passages from Scripture. Throughout the book, Kempis examines and presents his own views on understanding human nature from the context of faith, systematically backing his own statements up, and providing acute details that, far from merely presenting information; actually question the reader’s own ideas on the subject. Background reading, through pre-textbook reading, especially related to peoples and dates, is wholly unnecessary; the book is a treatise, not a fact-based work. If Kempis’s work were to be viewed from the standpoint of a purely independent study, the reader would find the work wholly understandable and thorough.
By the age of the Reformation, everyone educated in Europe knew that something had to be done about the deep-seated, deplorable state of the Church, in which people truly believed “that all [their] sins [could be] washed away with a little paper, a sealed parchment, with the gift of a little money or some wax images, with a little pilgrimage” (Chadwick 39). In such an era of moral depravity and false religion, someone with moral and religious ideal was needed. Such a person was found in Thomas Kempis, a devout priest who truly believed that through purity of heart and simplicity of purpose, man [could be] raised and cleansed (Kempis 72). It was clear to those at the time that, “the old values inherited from the past were in conflict with the material and intellectual strivings of the present” (Chadwick 18). Yet the argument still had to be made. It is thus that Kempis wrote The Imitation of Christ to remind all Christians of Christ’s original blessed example, for “if Popes, the vicars of Christ, tried to imitate his life – that is his poverty, labour, doctrine, cross, and contempt of this world...would they be like the Popes who nowadays buy their See with money and defend it with sword and poison?” (Chadwick 19). Since they did not, they are nothing, nothing compared to “the glowing examples of the holy Fathers [of old], in whom shone true religion and perfection” (Kempis 46).
As Kempis said, “whoever desires to understand and take delight in the words of Christ must strive to conform his whole life to Him” (Kempis 27). Only by following the humility and purity of his life will one truly be a proper Christian. To set oneself upon such a path is difficult, but shall be rewarded by freedom from all blindness of heart. A life of good deeds is more important than mere idle words, for as Kempis states, “lofty words do not make a man just or holy; but a good life makes him dear to God” (Kempis 27). When Kempis speaks of good deeds he refers to good works towards those in need, not personal triumphs in life. At the same time, however, he cautions one to “not be proud of your good deeds, for God does not judge as men; and what delights men often displeases God” (Kempis 35). One should be careful with this as well, for in the eyes God, good deeds are not sufficient alone. The motive, according to Kempis, is the most important consideration. As he writes, “God regards the greatness of love that prompts a man, rather than the greatness of his achievement” (Kempis 43). This prompts a clarification, which Kempis resolves in his work. Doing good deeds with a good heart is certainly on the path in following Christ, but one “should rightly be far more inward goodness than appears outwardly, for God Himself searches all hearts” (Kempis 48). Being inwardly good, and at peace with oneself, is to be considered even more important than outward goodness, such as doing good deeds. Apart from this purity of the heart, Kempis also values simplicity as a way to follow in the path of Christ. Such simplicity is simplicity of all aspects of life, such as a place and presence in society, material possession, and position of rank. This is supported when he says that, “he is truly great, who is humble in mind, and regards earth’s highest honours as nothing” (Kempis 32). One must be wary of the world and society in general, as Kempis believes, “whoever is resolved to live an inward and spiritual life must, with Jesus, withdraw from the crowd...no man can live in the public eye without risk to his soul” (Kempis 50). The monastic life is something that should be strived for. Kempis thus determines that the devout must “avoid public gatherings as much as possible” (Kempis 36). For one must know, “if you wish to achieve stability and grow in grace, [you must] remember that you are an exile and pilgrim on this earth” (Kempis 45). He later rephrases this tenet when he cites the example of the Saints, and states that, “the greatest Saints used to avoid the company of men whenever they were able, and chose rather to serve God in solitude” (Kempis 50). By living the “solitary life” one “may preserve a humble mind and a clean conscience” (Kempis 167). Only by seeking Christ alone, and without the distractions of the world, can one truly find the peace that comes with religion. This is supported when Kempis says that, “a pure, simple, and stable man, however busy and occupied, does not become distracted thereby, for he does all things to the glory of God, and strives to preserve himself free from all self-seeking” (Kempis 31).
Apart from following the path of Christ spiritually, one must also follow it with the right state of mind and body. This requires much self-discipline and inner tribulations, but must be mastered. Though it be hard, if one cultivates one’s own mind by being patient, peaceful, pure in mind, and knowing oneself, as well as following scripture, such a mastery of the inner life would be possible – and “all things would [then] turn to your good and advantage” (Kempis 69). As Kempis writes, “Christ will come to you, and impart his consolations to you, if you prepare a worthy dwelling for Him in your heart” (Kempis 67). The first thing to do to set oneself on this path, according to Kempis, is to “be peaceful to yourself” (Kempis 70). It is better to be a man of peace, than to be a man of learning. Knowledge is something worldly and corrupt, according to Kempis. Kempis had stated this earlier when he warned to “not trust in your own knowledge, nor in the cleverness of any man living, but rather in the grace of God” (Kempis 34). The same applies to knowing oneself, according to Kempis – it is better to know oneself and be further along the path of the inner self, than be a man of learning. This is supported when he says that, “a humble knowledge of oneself [no matter how incomplete] is a surer road to God than a deep searching of the sciences” (Kempis 31). This is again supported when he says that, one must “never study in order to appear wise and learned; study rather to overcome your besetting sins, for this will profit you more than will the grasp of intricate problems” (Kempis 149). Keeping a good, or a clean, conscience is also in line with maintaining the right state of mind and body. As Kempis states, “the man who has a clean conscience rests easily content, and is at peace” (Kempis 75). Cultivating such a manner within oneself raises man above earthly things, and thus, brings one closer to God.
Once one is able to follow the path of Christ both in heart and in mind, one can then take stock of one’s reliance on God and truly channel it into a pure life of faith. One must heed “[His] words” of “spirit and life,” for He “[did] not cease to speak to all men today; but many are hardened, and deaf to [His] voice” (Kempis 93). One would then be able to “enter deeply into inner things, and daily prepare [oneself] to receive the secrets of heaven” (Kempis 91). It is important to reiterate that the prerequisite to this is having followed the path of Christ in hear and in mind. God’s words, by themselves, are mere words and are incomprehensible to, and thus ignored by, all who have never set foot on the path of Christ. By following Christ’s path one acquires the means to truly understanding them. Patience was mentioned earlier as an important virtue for a pure mind, but it is now brought up that patience alone is not enough for a pure life of faith. Following the example of Thomas Kempis himself, it is necessary to constantly test the virtues that one picks up along the path of Christ. Kempis states that, it is Christ’s “Will that [one] does not try to find a place free from temptations and troubles...rather seek a peace that endures even when you are beset by various temptations and tried by much adversity” (Kempis 108). This is tenet is again reiterated when Kempis states that, one should “be of good heart, and steel [oneself] to endure greater trials” (Kempis 176). Christ himself followed such a creed. Did he not take upon Himself man’s “sorrows, not because [he should have], but out of pure love, that you might learn patience, and bear without complaint all the troubles of this world?” (Kempis 116). Even when the going gets tough, one must “be courageous and patient, and help will come in due time” (Kempis 132). The way to the Kingdom of Heaven is opened only by the trials through which one must go through. Such trials test the true faith in a man, which is pleasing to God to witness, for as Kempis states, “patience and humility in adversity are more pleasing to [Him] than great devotion and comfort in times of ease” (Kempis 175). This adversity is not something to be frightened of or anxious about, for “so long as [one] remains in God’s grace, and carry His Will in [one’s] heart, one will more easily endure” (Kempis 150). For then, “none will oppose you, none complain of you, obstruct or thwart you” (Kempis 161). To those who follow this path and thus understand God’s words, all is open and nothing can be lost. If one does not heed these words, and instead follows one’s own hopes for material power and wealth, “the humble gates of Heaven will not open to them” (Kempis 180). Such is the fates of many a man, especially the profaning and blasphemous Popes of old who, instead of leading their people in prayer and deeds, indulged in excesses to an unbelievable degree and were rewarded greatly for it (Chadwick 17).
In conclusion, Kempis accomplished his goal of outlining the path of the truly devout and the futility of selfishness in all forms in the eyes of God. Though the text, like practically all works, has a few minor problems, it still remains clear, albeit sometimes a bit dry, in its explanations. What makes Kempis’s book a masterpiece is the thoroughness with which he attempts to demonstrate the individual’s reliance on God and the purity that comes from it. Kempis’s message, though largely unheeded at the time of its writing, heralded the oncoming storm of the Reformation by calling for the return of the “golden age,” a time of “devotion, fervour, religion, holy priests, [and] purity of heart” through the practice of the seemingly lost, original pure faith of Christianity.