Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis

I kept thinking about etiquette books while reading this book, sort of "Rules for Proper Behavior Befitting Monks in the Middle Ages."  Not in the "You shan't pick up your salad fork until the abbot tastes the dressing" sort of way.  But more in the sense that it is exhortations and encouragements on how a Christian ought to live, where their mind ought to be focused, and the fruit to look for from said behavior.  It is an exposition on proper human deportment in light of the Gospel.  In spite of the vastly different age in which it was written, I felt that most of the lessons translate well to modern times.

As a quick side note, these 2011 eyes are continually surprised and delighted by Dr. Eliot's painstaking attention to cultivating the moral fiber of the readers of this series.  In an age where testing, results, and a dermatillomaniacal attention to one's own navel have become the focus of Western education, I find this educational view inclining toward the goal of producing a society whose reigns are held by good human beings a refreshing view.  Although refreshing like Frank Capra films, which always leave me melancholic over how far reality is from the optimism of what's flashing across the screen.

I would hasten to add that I feel that this book may not be for everyone.  It was originally written for his fellow monastics in the early 15th century or thereabouts.  There are a few passages, for instance instructions on giving the Eucharist, which will not apply to most of the blessed, contemporary, literate, chosen few.  There are also passages which I found astonishingly Catholic (we are 1400 years into the evolution of the religion at this point.)  Specifically, Purgatory makes a palpable appearance and the Eucharist is hinted at having spiritually meritorious effects.  It was not exactly meant for the laity and certainly not for the Non-Christian.  Not that I feel that it is any less of a great book.  I am just uncertain that the book would have much practical application for those outside of the sphere of Christian belief.  It is, after all, mainly a treatise on the effects of Christian doctrine on the thoughts and behaviors of the believer.

Indeed, much like Socrates (right down to phrases like "If you think that you know many things and have great learning, then know for certain that there are many more things you do not know"), some of the super-objective of the book seems to be an exploration on what exactly is a good life, that is to say a life well-lived. 

Humility, anti-materialism, enduring temptations, immovable truth, refraining from judging others, choosing poverty, finding peace within as an act of peace toward the external world, patience, and even a rather Eastern argument for letting go of all desire in order to find enlightenment, are all covered.  I look over that list and I think about so many contemporary issues we hear about daily at this particular junction in space-time.  Corrupt and unfettered bankers leading directly to peaceful, angelic youths being pepper-sprayed.  Foreclosures, unemployment, rampant debt, while the cake-eaters come into our homes through our standard-issue lighted squawk-boxes to make millions off of 72 day long marriages and tell people frantic about not being able to get a job to "get a job."  A culture of polarization, the decay of civility, the death of compromise, all heralding economic collapse.  Rage over the disproportions in the distribution of wealth.  All of which I feel could be addressed by some of the service based (read: Slave Morality) behavior encouraged in this book.  The message is not "there'll be pie in the sky when you die" but rather "love one another" and, perhaps more to the point, "If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps."

I would also like to say that I found the voice of the author to be pleasant and humble.  I liked Thomas à Kempis quite a bit.  He lived a very quiet life and it shows in his writing. 

Upon reflection, I may dial back my earlier statement about recommended audiences.  I would recommend that every Christian run, not walk, to the nearest location of a copy of this book accessible to them if they haven't had the pleasure of reading it yet.  Every Christian ought to read this book.  But I also feel like the book will, at the very least, provide occasion for a great deal of thought and self-assessment for anyone.  I also put forth without reservation that the life outlined in this book is "the good life."


  1. This is the most-read book after the Bible. I find it to be a strong mortification of the flesh whenever I've read it.

  2. are you doing a Dr. Browne and just inventing words here with dermatillomaniac ? but i agree with the view. I think it was a year now since I encountered your enthusiastic review of 'Religio Medici' Paul, but I'm also a big fan of Kempis and Burton too. Have you ever tried reading Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love, Paul ?

    O and by the way I'm sure you will love the new Tom Waits album when you hear it, there's more than the odd sharp spiritual insight line in his lyrics too, 'You're the same kind of bad as me' indeed !