The Imitation of Christ | Thomas à Kempis

I first read the Imitation when I was feeling especially spiritual in high school. I went to my local Christian book store with a few dollars to spend and found an abridged paperback version of it in the reduced bin. What a disaster! I don’t usually put books down once I’ve started them, but after reading the first few chapters carefully, I skimmed the rest. Now, a couple decades past high school, with a nice hardback Everyman’s Library edition in hand, I decided to give Thomas another try. Rather than reading it like a normal book, I read it one or two chapters per morning during my devotions.

This book challenged me immensely. It has a poetic power that pierces the superficial skin of modern Christendom. I found myself praying Thomas’ prayers and confessing the things he was repenting. The most important message of the entire volume was the call to distrust your emotions. Divine consolations come and go. We often mature more when we don’t ‘feel’ God than when we do.

I do have some difficulties with the work that I think are more than just time-period misunderstandings. For all his insight into the human condition, Thomas has missed a lot of what it means to imitate Christ. Read through the gospels at the same time as the Imitation and you’ll see what I mean. All the talk of mortification can wear you down. A more balanced imitation of Christ would not downplay self-denial, but would also stress the freedom of living eternal life without worry for tomorrow.

The second issue is the individual nature of the work, which is a little odd, coming from the fifteenth century. Imitating Christ should drive us outward to love each other. This book, at times, makes it sound like the only thing that matters is the individual’s heart-condition.

The last issue I have is a bit of a logical inconsistency. The first three quarters of the work go into detail about the need to distrust your feelings and trust God whether or not there are any heavenly consolations. In the last quarter, he practically begs for those worthy feelings that he believes he should have to celebrate the Eucharist aright.

With all that said, this book is still one of the best books on spiritual formation I’ve ever encountered. It offers an almost offensive antidote for those people (like me) who are infected by the spirit of twenty-first century Western-style Christianity. Read it slowly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully at your own risk.

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