The Imitation of Christ is a spiritual classic. It is also one of the most read and influential spiritual books in the history of Christianity. Year after year I would attempt to sit down and read through this book. However, each page was filled with deep spiritual insights that required me to pause and think about. Finally, I decided to sit down and try to at least get through the entire book so I could understand its overall ideas. I am sure I will go back later and meditate on its deep insights. What is written below are my biggest takeaways from reading this book. I am sure there are holier and wiser people than I with more complete reflections.
Attributed to Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation is a guide to transforming your life into conformity to Jesus Himself. The key to spiritual progress is summed up here: “Two wings lift a person from earthly concerns: simplicity and purity.” (The Imitation of Christ, II.4) Throughout the book, Thomas brings these two themes to light in order to draw the person deeper into holiness. It reminds me of how sailors have to scrape the barnacles off the hull of a ship in order to reveal the vessel’s true form; and only then will the boat sail along as it should. Thomas attempts to bring the reader to a place where Christ can scrape the accumulated baggage of life and help the person’s soul sail towards God.
The Imitation is divided into four sections: “Useful Reminders of the Spiritual Life,” “Suggestions Drawing One toward the Inner Life,” “Of Inner Comfort,” and “The Book of the Sacrament.” In the first section, Thomas focuses on removing the distractions of the world in order to focus on God. He writes that even reading religious text in and of itself is not enough. “Endless reading and talk do not satisfy the soul, but a good life puts the mind at rest…” (I.2) The key to this is humility. “What good does it do, then to debate about the Trinity, if by a lack of humility you are displeasing to the Trinity?” (I.1) In other words, spiritual knowledge profits you nothing if it does not draw you closer to God. We must have a pure motive for our reading if we are to progress. I am reminded of my studies of King Henry VIII, who famously loved reading theology and debating religion, but he was not interested in personal sanctity.
Thomas tells us to simplify our lives by avoiding things like unnecessary chit-chat. He also recommends that we learn to love solitude: “No one is secure except the person who freely keeps to himself.” (I.20) There is a severe distrust of the idleness that can come from too much familiarity. I have heard it said that friendships can help us grow in virtue, but they can also be places that cultivate vice. Gossip can be the ruin of people and communities.
In this section, he also tells us to keep death on our minds, so that we can have a strong motivation to get our spiritual lives in order before we are judged. This is a common Catholic theme of memento mori. When we look at things from the eternal perspective, the worries and temptations of everyday life do not seem as overwhelming to us.
The second section continues on with the main themes of the first. He calls us to purify our conscience. “A good conscience is the best thing a person can have.” (II.6) With this, we can empty ourselves and take up the cross of Christ with love. This involves returning to that purity and simplicity, “Seldom do we find a person so spiritual that he lives stripped of everything.” (II.11)
In the third section, Thomas writes dialogues between Christ and the Disciple. Jesus calls us to “Let go of all passing things, and seek eternal ones.” (III.1) The entire section follows this theme where Christ draws the disciple to let go of sin and earthly desires so that their life is focused on heaven and their hearts are centered on Jesus. We are reminded that we should be humble and not think too highly of ourselves. In fact, we have to remember that the only good we have in us is good that comes from God. “There is no holiness, Lord, if you withdraw your hand…” (III.14) We can have peace if we remember to do four things: “Strive… to do another’s will rather than your own; always prefer less to more; always seek the lower place and be submissive in all things; always wish and pray that God’s will may be entirely fulfilled in you…” (III.23) The entire section has Jesus lead the disciple to a place where they place all of their hope and trust only in God Himself.
The final section focuses on encountering Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. He writes that we should receive Communion often and that we should yearn to be united with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
For me, the most helpful guidelines are the ones that focus on simplicity and purity. I am someone who loves many of the things of this world. I do not think that there is anything wrong with enjoying this physical world per se, but I can see very clearly how these things can distract me from focusing on God. While I do not like thinking about death, I can see Thomas’ point about how it brings your life into focus. I recall a night before I was to have surgery, I thought about how much time I wasted in my life that I could have spent on loving God and others. I was so heartened that Thomas gave such strong focus to the Blessed Sacrament. My relationship to the Eucharist has been one of the most important spiritual touchstones in my life and Thomas’ words helped me refocus on its centrality.
I discovered that I found much of what Thomas wrote distressing because I lack the single-heartedness of a saint. My desires are split between the things of God and things of the world. I do believe that you can be a mystic who can see God in the everyday world like GK Chesterton. But I do not think I have yet that spiritual maturity. I discovered how spiritually lazy I am. When Thomas writes, “Why should you be afraid of what others have to say?” (III.37) I am confronted with my people-pleasing nature and how wounded I am when people think less of me.
The Imitation of Christ reminds us that the spiritual life is one that draws you upward towards union with Christ. Anything that draws me away from that is something that must be dealt with: either I must find a way to incorporate that into my spiritual growth or I must be willing to let it go.
Copyright 2023, WL Grayson