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The Imitation of Christ: Book Summary and Review
This spiritual classic has created wonders for readers throughout the ages. It has been more than 500 years since it is written, but still this work is timeless and profound. Thomas a Kempis has indeed poured out his spiritual experience, devotion and meditation with Christ on these four books. He didn't try to argue about the things stated, for his sayings looks like statements and advices for those who want to imitate Christ in a monastic life. It is a deep reflection of spiritual experience that not many are able to depict so beautifully as Kempis. The emphasis is upon Christ as the highest and most exalted life that every Christian should imitate in order to gain life to the fullest. Christ is the ultimate example of Christian's spiritual lifestyle.
This book is about advices and fruits of meditation for the life of the soul. Mainly it involves the development of virtues and the abandoning of vices. It is a call for total commitment and love towards God as the object of our desire. Kempis is definitely a doctor of soul, for he knew best the anatomy of our soul in relation to our God. His writing style takes an interesting role as father or even God talking to his own son in dealing with daily matters and spiritual struggle that most Christian will face in this life. It is not a manual book that we should follow, but it is an exhortation, advice, call for discipleship and unabridged love for God. Unlike most theological books that try to impart knowledge upon us, this book exhorts us to perform a surgery on our soul, examining our spiritual life and love towards God. He exalted experiential knowledge above that of curiosity, for example in the case of sacrament.1 Love is exalted as taking the highest place and faith is fundamental to the spiritual life. The whole point of this book is to make an active involvement on our side, to repair and develop our spiritual life and meditate on God as the source of everything. It is not just to be understood, but also to be lived in our daily life.
Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471) was a late medieval monk that underwent a monastic life. He spent his entire monastic life in the monastery of Mount St. Agnes at Zwolle. Of course we recognize a division between scholasticism and monasticism that pertains throughout the Christian history including his era. His claims could be said to be one sided: "At the Day of Judgement we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done."2 Indeed, what Christians need are not only knowledge, but also spiritual experience. However, it may not be prudent to despise knowledge with all it is. One must be both knowledgeable and spiritual in order to gain life to its fullest. He may be influenced by the widespread neoplatonism during that time, which tries to accomplish the search for God by the practice of virtue. Ascetic life is preferred, for what is from the body is sinful, whereas those that comes from spirit is not. This, of course are not true for God has created all things and declared them as good. Although Kempis' work was majestic, some doctrines are unorthodox.
First of all, he puts an emphasis on unworthiness. Humans are deemed as worthless in God's eye. This is true to some extent, but not until we depreciate ourselves. Jesus honors the dishonored and accept the rejected. He spoke to the outcasts, prostitutes, Samaritans, to the poor and to the sick. Jesus puts a value to our humanity. His sacrifice for us in the cross is the ultimate proof for his love and value towards us. Despite this, Kempis puts our humanity to almost no value. “Consider yourself unworthy of divine solace and deserving rather of much tribulation.“3 We are “...an unworthy sinner who am but dust and ashes, ...”4 Granted, human beings are unworthy to receive the grace of our Lord, but to despise ourselves whenever God has given to us is not prudent. On the other hand, to over-honour ourselves is also foolish, for this is pride, the mother of all vices. It is best to be in the middle and not on the extreme ends. Wouldn't it displease God that we dishonor ourselves whenever God wants us to know that he honors us so much that he died for us? If we deemed ourselves as vile animals that deserves punishments although God has forgiven us, isn't that despising and undermining God's grace as insufficient for us?
Secondly, Kempis suggests an extreme self-denial and mortification of the flesh in response to Jesus' call for discipleship. Indeed, Jesus taught us the “extreme” way of discipleship, even apparently we are called to denounce riches, family, etc (Luke 9:38-62). However, to interpret the Scripture this way would contradict the goodness that God has imparted towards his creation. Nothing is bad on itself, for everything is created as good (Genesis 1:27-31). Something becomes bad when we use it to distant ourselves from God. However, this does not mean that we should deny ourselves all the time regardless of our situation. To denounce our family and all our riches for becoming Jesus' disciple would be a stumbling block towards others, especially our own family. No, Jesus didn't call us to denounce our parents, for it would contradict the Ten Commandments. What he requires for the cost of discipleship is to place our heart on God above all other things, even above our family and wealth. Our commitment and focus on following Jesus should not be divided, for it is no longer placing Christ above all other matters. “A man makes the most progress and merits the most grace precisely in those matters wherein he gains the greatest victories over self and most mortifies his will.”5 The goal of self-denial is not to have perfect self-mortification, but to imitate the person and work of Jesus Christ. True spiritual progress is not found in self-denial, but in filling ourselves with the spirit of God.
Thirdly, we should ask ourselves what is the life as a disciple of Christ. Did Jesus taught his disciple to hide and meditate in the cave or desert to find God? Did the disciple of Christ keep hiding in the upper room of Jerusalem after the Pentecost? No, they preached the gospel with such an amazing zeal. This is the call for a discipleship: to will what God wills, and God's will is for the disciples to preach the gospel to the nations (Matthew 28:16-20). The good news that Christ has brought forth in this earth must be spread out to the whole world, for this is what God wills, that many will be saved. God calls us to be light and salt of the earth, and our life should reflect Christ in our works (Matthew 5:13-16). The salt has lost its taste and the light has lost its shine if we just denounce the world. In fact, Jesus pray for the disciples that will be sent to the world,
“My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.“6
In fact, we should ask whether monasticism itself produced true disciples of Christ that will preach the Word to the world as God has commissioned to the believers. Of course, this does not mean that monastic life is not commendable. On the other hand, monastic life as depicted by Kempis should open our eyes not only to preach the Word without having relationship with the Word himself. Both element are of paramount importance and should walk hand in hand. Separate this one unity and you'll get an imbalance. Preaching the Word without relationship with Him is as dry as desert and tiresome. Communion with the Word without preaching the Word is a selfish love.
All these points may be unconsciously reflected by Kempis in his deep meditation with God, for this is just part of spirituality and not spirituality as a whole. Indeed, Christian should seek for a holistic spirituality in this life, both monasticism and also scholasticism. Christian in this era should be open-minded towards the middle ages spirituality. Yes, we are separated for more than 5 centuries with Kempis, and the difference in spirituality should made us more aware and knowledgeable. Although the life of imitation of Christ portrayed by Kempis is not readily feasible in this 21st century, we should draw out the principles behind it, which is the deep commitment and thought to imitate the life of Christ through spiritual practices and discipline. In contrast to the middle ages, it would be much more difficult in this era to retreat from our daily business even just for 1 day. However, the spiritual life of Kempis should motivate us not to be immersed completely in our daily job, but also to spare our time to meditate on God.
His meditation on the spiritual life reflects a clear instruction to renounce worldly vanities and pursuing virtuous truths. Kempis puts an emphasis solely about Jesus Christ, on putting him as the center of spiritual life of every believer. To understand what he is writing, intellectual study is not the appropriate tool. It is a book that should be understood and lived by our heart. This book is indeed an aid to Christian's spiritual growth. It is an invitation for us to investigate our interior life in the eyes of Christ, to get an internal consolation when we are facing with problems, and ultimately an invitation to the Holy Communion, the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Kempis has poured out his best understanding that he obtained in his monastic life. This is an immense treasure that every Christian, especially Christian in the postmodern era, should read to open up his/her eyes. It will truly benefit the Christian community in all times. The moral values and teachings on spirituality taught by Kempis will not expire with time, for relationship with God is eternal. Despite the lack of intellectual and theological substance in his meditation, the Imitation of Christ has changed the life of many people. Indeed, combining his meditation with theological substance would be the true imitation of Christ. This is the progress that all Christian should pursue in imitating our Lord Jesus Christ.
- Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Book IV, Ch. 18.
- Kempis, Book I, ch. 3.
- Kempis, Book I, Ch. 21.
- Kempis, Book IV, Ch. 4.
- Kempis, Book I, Ch. 25.
- John 17:15-18 (NIV)