Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Illustrated Insights from The Imitation of Christ—Thoughts Helpful in the Life of the Soul

The version I've loved and used for years of The Imitation of Christ has the plainest cover, perhaps because the subject is hard to do justice to, but pictured here are admirable attempts.

The Hendrickson Christian Classics Edition starts with an arresting history lesson: the "fire lit by Martin Luther in 1517. Of course, it was certainly not this humble teaching monk's goal to ignite a sweeping movement that would divide the church. Luther's intention was simply a discussion on the theology of indulgences.... How could such a small flint light such a great fire? Because people were ready. Before Luther posted his 95 Theses, there were men and women whose faithfulness prepared the way for spiritual reform.... One such person was Thomas à Kempis, a teacher and writer whose life was devoted to patterning his life after Jesus Christ.

"Thomas...was part of another reformation, one begun by a Dutch scholar named Geert Groote. Born to a privileged family in Deventer, Holland, Groot had a distinguished academic career.... He also lived a self-indulgent life, until his dramatic conversion in 1374.... To reorient his life to that of a follower of Jesus Christ, Groot joined the contemplative order of Carthusians, where he learned spiritual discipline through study and contemplation. After three years...he set out with their blessings as a traveling evangelist. Groot's great success in reaching thousands of people" led to the creation of an informal community known as the Brothers (and Sisters) of the Common Life, which "became the heart and driving force of a spiritual renewal in northern Europe called the Devotio Moderna or New Devotion." It observed the three traditional rules of monastic life: poverty, obedience, and chastity. "But they differed in that members were bound by no formal vows; they were free to quit and return to secular life if they wished." The community followed the Apostle Paul's "instruction to work with their own hands. These men and women devoted their lives to study and to educating the world, and they supported their community through book production: writing, copying manuscripts, binding and marketing books" and later operating their own printing press. 

Thomas Haemerken from Kempen near Dusseldorf in Germany became an active part of that community, recording their core teaching simply as  Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ around 1427. The first printed copies appeared 50 years later and it became "one of book printing's first bestsellers. Today, The Imitation of Christ is regarded as one of the most widely read books in the world next to the Bible." It is short and sweet. Thomas divided the material into 4 parts:
  1. Thoughts Helpful in the Life of the Soul
  2. The Interior Life
  3. Internal Consolation
  4. An Invitation to Holy Communion
This little book transcends time and place with its rare combination of simplicity and profundity. It "is not about a particular brand of Christian belief.... The reason for its power and... longevity ...the reason it still changes lives is this: The Imitation of Christ is searching, it is scriptural, and it is utterly Christ-centered." Here are timeless  highlights, with lively illustrations, from Thoughts Helpful in the Life of the Soul.

Thoughts Helpful in the Life of the Soul—at a glance:
 1. Imitating Christ and Despising All Vanities on Earth 
 2. Having a Humble Opinion of Self
 3. The Truth About Truth
 4. Prudence in Action
 5. Reading the Holy Scriptures
 6. Unbridled Passions
 7. Avoiding False Hope and Pride
 8. Shunning Over-Familiarity
 9. Obedience and Submission
10. Avoiding Idle Talk
11. Acquiring Both Peace and Zeal for Perfection
12. The Value of Adversity
13. Resisting Temptation
14. Avoiding Hasty Judgment
15. Works Done in Love
16. Bearing with the Faults of Others
17. Religious Communities
18. Our Godly Predecessors
19. Holy Service
20. The Love of Solitude and Silence
21. Sorrow of Heart
22. Thoughts on the Misery of Man
23. Thoughts on Death
24. Judgment and the Punishment of Sin
25. Zeal in Amending Our Lives
Part 1. Thoughts Helpful in the Life of the Soul

Insight 1. Imitating Christ and Despising All Vanities on Earth

Following the Pattern
"He who follows Me walks not in darkness," says the Lord (John 8:12). By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ. The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all advice, and he who has His Spirit will find therein hidden manna. There are many who hear the Gospel often but care little for it because they have not the Spirit of Christ. Whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.

What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? What would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart if we live without grace and the love of God? "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" (Ecclesiastes 1:2), except to love God and serve Him alone. It is vanity to seek and trust in riches that perish. It is vanity also to court honor and be puffed up with pride. It is vanity to follow the lusts of the body by desiring things for which severe punishment later must come. It is vanity to wish for long life yet care little about a well-spent life. It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and not make provision for things to come. It is vanity to love what passes quickly and not to look ahead where eternal joy abides. Often recall that "the eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing" (Ecclesiastes 1:8). Seek to turn your heart from the love of things visible and bring yourself to things invisible.

Insight 2. Having a Humble Opinion of Self

Every person naturally desires knowledge, but what good is knowledge without fear of God? Indeed, "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding" (Proverbs 9:10). He who knows himself well becomes small in his own eyes and is not happy when praised by others. If I "understand all mysteries and all knowledge...but have not love, I am nothing" (1 Corinthians 13:2). Shun too great a desire for knowledge, for in it there is much fretting and delusion. Intellectuals like to appear learned and be called wise, yet there are many things the knowledge of which does little or no good to the soul. 

Many words do not satisfy the soul but a good life eases the mind and a clean conscience inspires great trust in God. The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely you will be judged unless your life is also the more holy. Do not be proud, therefore, because of your learning or skill. Rather, fear because of the talent given you. If you think you know many things and understand them well enough, realize there is much you do not know. Rather than affecting wisdom, admit your ignorance. Why elevate yourself when many are more learned and cultured than you?

If you wish to learn and appreciate something worthwhile, then love to be unknown and considered as nothing. To think of oneself as nothing, and always to think well and highly of others is the best wisdom. "I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment" (Romans 12:3). If you see another sin openly or commit a serious crime, do not consider yourself better, for you do not know how long you can remain in good estate. So says Paul: "If a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted" (Galatians 6:1). All men are frail, but you must admit that none is more frail than yourself.

Insight 3. The Truth about Truth 

Happy is he to whom truth manifests itself, not in signs and words that fade, but as it actually is. Our opinions, our senses often deceive us and we discern very little. What good is much discussion of involved and obscure matters when our ignorance of them will not be held against us on Judgment Day? Neglect of things that are profitable and necessary, and undue concern with the irrelevant and harmful are great folly.
The more recollected a man is and the more simple of heart he becomes, the easier he understands sublime things, for he receives the light of knowledge from above. The pure, simple, and steadfast spirit is not distracted by many labors since he does them all for the honor of God. And since he enjoys interior peace, he seeks no selfish end in anything. What, indeed, gives more trouble and affliction than uncontrolled desires of the heart? A good and devout person arranges in her mind the things she has to do, not according to the whims of evil inclination, but according to the dictates of right reason. Who is forced to struggle more than she who tries to master herself? This ought to be our purpose, then: to conquer self, to become stronger each day, to advance in virtue.

Every perfection in this life has some imperfection mixed with it, and no learning of ours is without some darkness. Humble knowledge of self is a surer path to God than the ardent pursuit of learning—not that learning or knowledge of what is good in itself and so ordained by God is to be considered evil, but a clean conscience and virtuous life ought always to be preferred. Many often err and accomplish little or nothing because they try to become learned rather than to live well. If men used as much care in uprooting vices and implanting virtues as they do in discussing problems, there would not be so much evil and scandal in the world. On the Day of Judgment we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done, not how well we have spoken but how well we have lived.

Tell me, where now are all the teachers who were so famous for their learning and other  prominent people? Others have already taken their places. How quickly the glory of the world passes away! If only their lives had kept pace with their learning, then their study and reading would have been worthwhile. How many there are who perish because of vain worldly knowledge or other pursuits and too little care for serving God! He is truly wise who looks upon on all earthly things as folly that he may gain Christ. He who does God's will and renounces his own is truly learned.

Insight 4. Prudence in Action 

Do not yield to every impulse and suggestion but consider things carefully and patiently in the light of God's will as revealed in His Word. Very often, sad to say, we are so weak that we believe and speak evil of others rather than good. Those who are mature do not readily believe every talebearer because they know that human frailty is prone to evil and is likely to appear in speech. Not to act rashly or to cling stubbornly to one's opinion, not to believe everything people say or spread abroad the gossip one has heard is great wisdom. Take counsel with wise and conscientious people. Seek the advice of your betters in preference to following your own inclinations. A good life makes a man wise according to God and gives him experience in many things, for the more humble he is and the more subject to God, the wiser and the more at peace he will be in all things.

Insight 5: Reading the Holy Scriptures

Truth, not eloquence, is to be sought in reading the Holy Scriptures; and every part must be read in the spirit in which it was written. Likewise we ought to read simple and devout books as willingly as learned and profound ones. We ought not to be swayed by the authority of the writer, whether he be a great literary light or an insignificant person, but by the love of simple truth. We ought not to ask who is speaking, but mark what is said. Men pass away, but the truth of the Lord remains forever. If you would profit from the Holy Scriptures, read with humility, simplicity, and faith, and never seek a reputation for being learned. Seek willingly and listen attentively to the words of the godly who have gone before us; do not be displeased with the sayings of the ancients, for they were not made without purpose.

Insight 6: Unbridled Passions

When a man desires a thing too much, he at once becomes ill at ease. A proud and avaricious man never rests, whereas he who is poor and humble of heart lives in a world of peace. An undisciplined man is quickly tempted and overcome in small, trifling evils; his spirit is weak and inclined to sensual things. He can hardly abstain from earthly desires so it makes him sad to forgo them. He is quick to anger if reproved yet if he satisfies his desires, remorse of conscience overwhelms him because he followed his passions and they did not lead to the peace he sought. True peace of heart, then, is found in resisting passions, not is satisfying them. There is no peace in the man given to vain attractions, but there is peace in the fervent and spiritual man.

Insight 7: Avoiding False Hope and Pride

Do not be ashamed to serve others for the love of Jesus Christ, and to seem poor in this world. Do not be self-sufficient, but place your trust in God. Do what lies in your power and God will aid your good will. Put no trust in your own learning nor in the cunning of any man or woman, but rather in the grace of God, who helps the humble and humbles the proud. Vain is the man who puts his trust in created things.
If you have wealth, do not glory in it, nor in friends because they are powerful, but in God, who gives all things and who desires above all to give Himself. Do not boast of personal stature or physical beauty, qualities that are marred or destroyed by a little sickness. Do not take pride in your talent or ability lest you displease God, to whom belongs all the natural gifts that you have.
Do not think yourself better than others or you will be accounted worse before God, who knows what is in man. Do not take pride in your good deeds, for God's judgments differ from those of men, and what pleases them often displeases Him. If there is good in you, see more good in others so that you may remain humble. It does no harm to esteem yourself less than anyone else, but it is very harmful to think yourself better than even one. The humble live in continuous peace, while in the hearts of the proud are envy and frequent anger.

Insight 8: Shunning Over-Familiarity

Do not open your heart to every man, but discuss your affairs with one who is wise and who fears God. Do not keep long company with young people and strangers. Do not fawn upon the rich or be fond of mingling with the great. Associate with the humble and the simple, with the devout and virtuous, and with them speak of edifying things. Avoid intimacy with any woman, but generally commend all good women to God. Seek only the intimacy of God. We ought to have love for all, but familiarity with all is not expedient. Sometimes a person enjoys a good reputation among those who do not know him, but at the same time is held in slight regard by those who do. Frequently we think we are pleasing others by our presence, and we begin rather to displease them by the faults they find in us.

Insight 9: Obedience and Submission

It is a very great thing to obey, to live under a superior and not be one's own master, for it is much safer to be subject than it is to command. Many live in obedience more from necessity than from love. Such become discontented and dejected on the slightest pretext; they will never gain peace of mind unless they subject themselves wholeheartedly for the love of God. Go where you may, you will find no rest except in humble obedience to the rule of authority. Dreams of happiness expected from change and different places have deceived many.

Everyone wishes to do as she pleases and is attracted to those who agree with her. But if God is to be among us, we must at times give up our opinions for the blessings of peace. Who is so wise that she can have full knowledge of anything anyway? Do not trust too much in your own opinions but be willing to listen to those of others. It is safer to listen to advice and take it than to give it. While your opinion may be good, refusal to agree with others when reason and occasion demand it is a sure sign of stubbornness and pride.

Insight 10: Avoiding Idle Talk

Shun gossip as much as possible. Even the discussion of worldly affairs, though sincere, is a great distraction since we are quickly ensnared and captivated by vanity. Many times I have wished I held my peace and not associated with certain men because I seldom parted from them without a troubled conscience. We seek comfort from one another's conversation and wish to ease a mind wearied by diverse thoughts, so we talk of things we like very much or of things we dislike intensely. But, sad to say, we often talk vainly and to no purpose since this external pleasure effectively bars inward and divine consolation.

We must watch and pray to prevent time from passing by idly. When the right and opportune moment comes for speaking, say something that will edify. Bad habits and indifference to spiritual progress do much to remove one's guard from one's tongue. Devout conversation on spiritual matters is a great aid to spiritual progress, especially when persons of the same mind and spirit associate together in God.

Insight 11: Acquiring Both Peace and Zeal for Perfection

We should enjoy much peace if we did not concern ourselves with what others say and do, for these are no concern of ours. How can a person who meddles in affairs not his own, who seeks strange distractions, and who is little or seldom inwardly reflective, live long in peace? Blessed are the simple of heart, for they shall enjoy peace in abundance. Why were some of the most memorable Christians so given to contemplation? Because they focused on mortifying their earthly desires so they could attach themselves to God's priorities. We are too occupied with our own whims and fancies, too taken up with passing things.

Rarely do we completely conquer even one vice, and we are not inflamed with the desire to improve ourselves day by day; hence we remain cold and indifferent. Thus when we encounter some slight difficulty, we are too easily dejected and turn to human consolations. If we tried, however, to stand as brave men in battle, the help of the Lord from heaven would surely sustain us. Let us, then, lay the ax to the root so we may be freed from our passions and thus have peace of mind. If we were to uproot only one vice each year, we should soon become mature. The contrary, however, is often the casewe feel we were better and purer in the first fervor of our conversion than we are after many years in the practice of our faith. If we did a little violence to ourselves at the start, we should afterwards be able to do much with ease and joy. It is hard to break old habits, but harder still to go against our will. If you do not overcome small, trifling things, how will you overcome the more difficult? Resist temptations in the beginning and unlearn the evil habit lest it lead to a more evil one. If you consider what peace a good life will bring to yourself and what joy it will give to others, I think you will be more concerned about your spiritual progress.

Insight 12: The Value of Adversity

It is good for us to have trials and troubles at times since they remind us that we are on probation and ought not to hope in any worldly thing. It is good for us sometimes to suffer contradiction and  be misjudged even when we do good and mean well. Those things help us to be humble and shield us from vainglory. When to all outward appearances people give us no credit or do not think well of us, we are then more inclined to seek God, who sees our hearts. Therefore, a man ought to root himself so firmly in God that he will not need the consolations of others.

When a man of good will is afflicted, tempted, and tormented by evil thoughts, he realizes clearly that his greatest need is God, without whom he can do no good. Saddened by his miseries and sufferings, he laments and prays. He wearies of living longer and wishes to be with Christ. Then he understands fully that perfect security and complete peace cannot be found on earth. Understanding that helps us "run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith" (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Insight 13: Resisting Temptation

As long as we live in this world we cannot escape suffering and temptation. "The life of man upon earth is a warfare" says Job 7:1. Everyone, therefore, must guard against temptation and watch in prayer lest the devil, who never sleeps but goes about "seeking whom he may devour" (1 Peter 5:8) find occasion to deceive him. No one is so perfect or so holy but he is sometimes tempted, yet temptationsthough troublesome and severeare often useful to a man, for in them he is humbled, purified, and instructed. The redeemed all passed through many temptations and trials to profit by them, while those who could not resist became manifestly reprobate and fell away. We are never safe from from temptations as long as we live, for they come from within us—in sin we were born. When one temptation or trial passes, another comes because we have lost the state of original blessedness.

Many people try to escape temptations, only to fall more deeply. We cannot conquer simply by fleeing, but by patience and true humility we become stronger than all our enemies. The man or woman who only shuns temptations outwardly and does not uproot them will make little progress; indeed, they will quickly return, more violent than before. Little by little you will overcome them by the help of God rather than by severity and your own rash ways. Often take counsel when tempted and do not be harsh with others who are tempted, but console them as you yourself would wish to be consoled.

The beginning of all temptation lies in a wavering mind and little trust in God: as a rudderless ship is driven hither and yon by waves, so a careless and irresolute person is tempted in many ways. Fire tempers iron and temptation steels the just. Often we do not know what we can stand, but temptation shows us what we are. We must be especially alert against the beginnings of temptation since the enemy is more easily conquered if he is refused admittance to the mind. First a mere thought comes to mind, then strong imagination, followed by pleasure, evil delight, and consent. The longer a man delays in resisting, the weaker he becomes each day while the strength of the enemy grows against him.

Some suffer great temptations in the beginning of their conversion, others toward the end, while some are troubled almost constantly throughout their life. Others are tempted but lightly according to the wisdom and justice of Divine Providence, who prepares all for the salvation of His elect. We should not despair, therefore, when we are tempted, but pray to God the more fervently. According to the word of Paul,  God is faithful and will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make away of escape, that you may be able to bear it (1 Corinthians 10:13). Therefore humble yourself under the mighty hand of God so He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you (1 Peter 5:6-7).
In temptations and trials, the progress of a man or woman is measured: in them opportunity for merit and virtue is made more manifest. When a person is not troubled, it can be hard for him or her to be fervent and devout, but if they bear up patiently in time of adversity, there is hope for great progress. Some, guarded against great temptations, are frequently overcome by small ones so that, humbled by their weaknesses in small trials, they may not presume on their own strength in great ones.

Insight 14: Avoiding Hasty Judgment

Turn your attention upon yourself and beware of judging the deeds of others, for in judging others a man labors vainly, often makes mistakes, and easily sins. In judging and taking stock of himself, however, he does something that is always profitable. We frequently judge that things are as we wish them to be; through personal feelings, true perspective is easily lost. If God were the sole object of our desire, we should not be disturbed so easily by opposition to our opinions.

Many, unawares, seek themselves in the things they do. They seem even to enjoy peace of mind when things happen according to their liking, but if otherwise, they are soon disturbed and saddened. Differences of feeling and opinion often divide friends and acquaintances, even those who are devout. An old habit is hard to break, and no one is willing to be led farther than he can see. If you rely more upon your intelligence or industry than upon the virtue of submission to Jesus Christ, you will hardly, and in any case slowly, become an enlightened man or woman. God wants us to be completely subject to Him and, through ardent love, to rise above all human wisdom.

Insight 15: Works Done in Love

Never do evil for anything in the world or for the love of any man or woman. Without love, external work is of no value but anything done in love, be it ever so small and trivial, is entirely fruitful in that God weighs the love with which we act, rather than the deed itself. He does much who loves much. He does much who does a thing well. He does well who serves the common good rather than his own interests.
That which seems to be charity is often sensuality, for a man's own inclination, his own will, his hope of reward, and his self-interest, are motives seldom absent. To the contrary, she who has true and perfect charity seeks self in nothing, but searches all things for the glory of God. She ascribes to humankind nothing that is good, but attributes it wholly to God, from whom all things proceed as from a fountain and in whom all the blessed shall rest as their last end and fruition. If man had but a spark of true charity, he would surely sense that all the things of earth are full of vanity! (For a comprehensive treatment of this love, click here for an Illustrated Summary of The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis)

Insight 16: Bearing with the Faults of Others

A man ought to bear patiently whatever he cannot correct in himself and in others. If, after being admonished once or twice, a person does not amend, do not argue with him or her, but commit the whole matter to God: that His will and honor may be furthered, for God knows well how to turn evil to good. Be patient with the defects and infirmities of others, whatever they may be, because you also have many a fault that others must endure. If you cannot make yourself what you would wish to be, how can you bend others to your will? We want them to be perfect, yet we do not correct our own faults. Their great liberty displeases us, yet we would not be denied what we ask. How seldom we think of others as we do ourselves! God has ordained that we learn to bear with one another as well as support one another, console one another, and mutually help and advise one another. The measure of every man's virtue is best revealed in time of adversity—adversity that does not weaken a man but rather shows what he is.

Insight 17: Religious Communities

If you wish peace and concord with others, you must learn to break your will in many things. To live and work in religious communitieswhether for short- or long-term ministryto remain there without complaint, and to persevere faithfully is no small matter. You have come to serve, not to rule. You must understand, too, that you have been called to suffer and to work, not to idle and gossip away your time. Here men are tried as gold in a furnace. Here no man can remain unless he desires with all his heart to humble himself before God.

Insight 18: Our Godly Predecessors

Consider the lively examples set us by our godly predecessors and you will see how little, how nearly nothing, we do. Think of those who served the Lord in hunger and thirst, in cold and blistering heat, in work and fatigue, in prayers and holy meditations, in persecutions and many afflictions. How many and severe were the trials they sufferedthe Apostles, martyrs, hermits, confessors, virgins, and all the rest who willed to follow in the footsteps of Christ. What frequent and ardent prayers they offered to God! Even at work they did not cease from mental prayer. What pure and straightforward purpose they showed toward God! They used all their time profitably; every hour seemed to short for serving God. They renounced all riches, dignities, honors, friends, and associates. They desired nothing of the world. To themselves they seemed as nothing, and they were despised by the world, but in the eyes of God they were precious and beloved. They lived in true humility and simple obedience; they walked in charity and patience, making daily spiritual progress. 

They were given to us as examples and their power to stimulate us to maturity ought to be greater than that of the lukewarm to tempt us to laxity. The footsteps they leave behind still bear witness that they indeed were holy and mature saints who fought bravely and conquered the world. Today, merely he who is not a flagrant sinner or who carries out basic duties is considered great. Do not you, who have seen so many examples of the devout, fall asleep in the pursuit of virtue! 

Insight 19: Holy Service

Those who would serve God and others in His name—however formally or informally—ought to be much more within than appears on the outside, for He who sees within is God, whom we are to reverence most highly. Each day we ought to renew our resolutions to holy service, arousing ourselves to fervor in practicing every virtue, saying from the heart something like, "Help me, O Lord God, to begin this day perfectly, for thus far I've done nothing." As our intention is, so will be our progress; and he who desires perfection must be very diligent. If the strong-willed man fails frequently, what of the man who makes up his mind seldom or halfheartedly?

Mature men and women depend on the grace of God rather than on their own wisdom in keeping their resolutions. In Him they confide every undertaking, for man proposes but God disposes, and God's way is not man's. If a habitual exercise is sometimes omitted out of piety or in the interests of another, it can easily be resumed later. But if it be abandoned carelessly, through weariness or neglect, then the fault will prove hurtful. Much as we try, we still fail too easily in many things. Yet we must always have some fixed purpose, especially against things that beset us the most. Our outward and inward lives alike must be closely watched and well ordered. Learn to practice self-evaluation. In the morning, for example, make a resolution and in the evening evaluate yourself on what you have thought, said, and done that day, for perhaps you will discover ways you have often offended God and those about you.

Arm yourself like a man against the devil's assaults. Curb your appetite and you will more easily curb every inclination of the flesh. Never be completely unoccupied but read, write, pray, meditate, or do something for the common good. Devotions not common to all are not to be displayed in public, for such personal things are better performed in private, yet beware of indifference to community prayer through love of your own devotions. Not everyone can have the same devotion. One exactly suits this person, another that. Different devotions are suitable for different occasions: what helps during times of temptation will be different from what is best in days of rest and peace. Holy seasons such as Christmas and Easter are good times to remember to live as if we are soon to receive from God the reward of our labors. "Blessed is the servant," says Christ, "whom his Master finds watching for His return. Truly I say to you: He shall make that servant ruler over all His goods" (Luke 12:43-44).

 Insight 20: The Love of Solitude and Silence

Seek a suitable time for leisure and meditate often on the favors of God. Leave curiosities alone. If you withdraw yourself from unnecessary talking and idle running about, from listening to gossip and rumors, you will find enough time for holy meditation. Very many great saints avoided company when possible. "As often as I have been among men," said one writer, "I have returned less a man." We often find this to be true when we take part in long conversations. It is easier to be silent than not to speak too much. To stay at home is easier than to be sufficiently on guard while away. Anyone who seeks to live an inner spiritual life must go apart, with Jesus, from the crowd.

No man appears safety before the public eye unless he first relishes obscurity. No man is safe in speaking unless he loves to be silent. No man rules safely unless he is willing to be ruled. No man commands safely unless he has learned well how to obey. No man rejoices safely unless he has within him the testimony of a good conscience. More than this, the security of the saints was always enveloped in the fear of God, nor were they less cautious and humble because they were conspicuous for great virtues and graces. Never promise yourself security in this life, for it happens very often that people whom men esteem highly are more seriously endangered by their own excessive confidence. For most of us, therefore, it is better not to be free from temptations but often to be tried lest we become too secure, too filled with pride, and even too eager to fall back upon external comforts.

If only a woman would never seek passing joys or entangle herself with worldly affairs, what a good conscience she would have! What great peace and tranquility would be hers if she cut herself off from all empty cares and thought only of things divine, things helpful to her soul, and put all her trust in God! In silence and quiet the devout soul advances in virtue and learns the hidden truths of Scripture. There she finds a flood of tears with which to bathe and cleanse herself that she may become the more intimate with her Creator the farther she withdraws from all the tumult of the world.

Why wish to see what you are not permitted to have? "The world is passing away and its lusts, but the one who does the will of God lives forever" (1 John 2:17). Sensual craving sometimes entices you wander around, but when the moment is past, what do you bring back with you but a disturbed conscience and heavy heart? A happy going often leads to a sad return, a merry evening to a mournful dawn. Thus all carnal joy begins sweetly but ends in remorse and death. What can you see anywhere under the sun that will remain long? Leave vanity to the vain. Set yourself to the things God has commanded you to do. Close the door upon yourself and call to you Jesus, your Beloved. Remain with Him, for nowhere else will you find such peace. But since you love, sometimes, to hear news or satisfy idle curiosities, it is only right that you should suffer sorrow of heart from it.

Insight 21: Sorrow of Heart

If you wish to make progress in virtue, live in the fear of the Lord, do not look for too much freedom, discipline your senses, and shun inane silliness. Sorrow opens the door to many a blessing that dissoluteness usually destroys. Happy is the man who casts from him all that can stain or burden his conscience. Habit is overcome by habit. If you leave men alone, they will leave you alone to do what you have to do. Do not busy yourself about the affairs of others, and do not become entangled in the business of your superiors. Keep an eye primarily on yourself and admonish yourself instead of your friends.

If you do not enjoy the favor of men, do not let it sadden you—but consider it a serious matter if it's because you don't conduct yourself as well or as carefully as is becoming for a Christian. I don't doubt that you would correct yourself more earnestly if you would think more of an early death than of a long life. But since we resist allowing such thoughts to pierce us to the heart, we remain very cold and indifferent. Let us, therefore, pray humbly to the Lord to give us a spirit of contrition and a zeal for Christ-likeness.

 Insight 22: Thoughts on the Misery of Man

 Wherever you are, wherever you go, you are miserable unless you turn to God. So why be dismayed when things do not happen as you desire? Is there anyone who has everything as he wishes? There is no one in the world, be he Pope or king, who does not suffer trial and anguish. Who is better off then? Surely it is the man or woman who will suffer something for God, if He wills it. Many unstable and weak-minded people say, "See how well that man lives, how rich and great he is!" But you must lift up your eyes to the riches of heaven and realize that the material goods they speak of are nothing. Those things are uncertain and very burdensome because they are never possessed without anxiety and fear. Our Lord tells us, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed: a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Luke 12:15). How foolish and faithless of heart are those who are so engrossed in earthly things as to relish nothing but what is carnal! Miserable men indeed, for in the end they will see to their sorrow how cheap and worthless was the thing they loved.

The devout friends of Christ through the ages have not looked to what pleases the body nor to the things that are popular from time to time. Their whole hope and aim centered on the everlasting good. Their whole desire pointed upward to the lasting and invisible realm lest the love of what is visible drag them down to lower things. Do not lose heart then, my brother and sister, in pursuing your spiritual life; there is yet time and your hour is not past. Why delay your purpose? Arise! Begin at once and say: "Now is the time to act, now is the time to fight, now is the proper time to amend." Let's continually practice Christ-likeness in all we think, say, and do yet because of our human feebleness, let's also humble ourselves and never think anything great of ourselves. Through neglect we may quickly lose that which by God's grace we have acquired only through long, hard labor.

Editorial Note: When summarizing Insight 21 on Sorrow and Insight 22 on Misery, I came across two times in a row where Thomas à Kempis misquoted a Psalm and therefore drew a wrong conclusion from each citationthe kinds of conclusions that have led some readers to hastily label The Imitation of Christ as mere medieval monkishness. Those who do that, however, are neglecting diamonds merely because they are covered by bits of earth. I am sure Thomas did the best he could with the resources he had, but becoming aware of the poor translation of the Psalms he had to deal with made me grateful for the vast biblical resources we now have available, thanks in part to Thomas's successors in ministry, who used their new printing presses to print copies of the Holy Scriptures in their original languages so scholars could use them as a solid base for making reliable translations into a wide variety of languages. (To those of you who want details about the mistranslations of the Psalms, Thomas concludes Insight 21 on Sorrow like this: "Pray humbly to the Lord, therefore, that He may give you the spirit of contrition and say with the Prophet: 'Feed me, Lord, with the bread of mourning and give me to drink of tears in full measure' [Ps. 80:5]. The preceding verse, however, establishes a very different context. Verse 4, in a recent translation known for being especially faithful to the Hebrew text, reads: "O Lord God of hosts, How long will You be angry with the prayer of Your people?" Verse 5 is not something to pray for, like Thomas states, but is a sad statement of fact: "You have fed them with the bread of tears, and You have made them to drink tears in large measure." Psalm 80 concludes with this earnest prayer: "Revive us, and we will call upon Your name. O Lord God of hosts, restore us; cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved" (verses 18-19). In Insight 22 on Misery, Thomas cites Psalm 34:17 as, "From my necessities, O Lord, deliver me." It actually reads, "The righteous cry, and the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles." Poor Thomas and his contemporaries were left with the erroneous impression that the Bible teaches us to view our daily needs as burdens we are best rid of, and to seek sorrow. No wonder medieval Christianity has a reputation for being gloomy! Such is the power of a poor Bible translation.)

 Insight 23: Thoughts on Death

Very soon your life here will end; consider then what may be in store for you elsewhere. Today we live; tomorrow we die and are quickly forgotten. O the dullness of a heart that looks only to the present instead of preparing for that which is to come! As a remedy, therefore, think, speak, and act as though you were to die this very day. If you had a good conscience, you would not fear death much at all. It is better to avoid sin than to fear death. If you are not prepared today, how will you be prepared tomorrow? Tomorrow is an uncertain day: how do you know you will have a tomorrow?

What good is it to live a long life when we amend that life so little? Indeed, a long life does not always benefit us: often it merely adds to our guilt. Would that in this world we had lived well throughout one single day! Blessed is he who keeps the moment of death ever before his eyes and prepares for it every day. If you have ever seen a man or woman die, remember that you too must go the same way. In the morning consider that you may not life till evening, and when evening comes do not dare to promise yourself the dawn. "You must also be ready," said our Lord, "for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (Luke 12:40). However the last moment on earth arrives for you, what opinion do you think you will have of your life that is now past? Will you regret being careless and remiss?

How happy and prudent is she who tries now in life to be what she wants to be found in death! Perfect contempt of worldliness, a lively desire to advance in virtue, a love for discipline, readiness to obey, self-denial, and the endurance of every hardship for the love of Christthese will give the godly woman or man great expectations of a happy death. Do not waste any time: you can do many good works when in good health; what can you do when you are ill? Few are made better by sickness. Do not put your trust in friends and relatives, and do not put off the care of your soul until later, for men will forget you more quickly than you think. If you do not care for your own welfare now, who will care when you are gone?

The present is very precious: "Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians 6:2). The time will come when you will want just one day, just one hour in which to make amends, and do you know whether you will obtain it? See then, dearly beloved, the great danger from which you can free yourself if only you will always be wary and mindful of death. Learn to die to the world now that you may begin to live with Christ. As He Himself says, "Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home" (Luke 16:9). Gather for yourself the riches of immortality while you have time. Care only for the things of God. Keep yourself as a stranger here on earth, a pilgrim passing through whom its affairs very lightly concern. Keep your heart free and raise it up to God, for you have not here a lasting home.

 Insight 24: Judgment and the Punishment of Sin

In all things consider the end: how you shall stand before the strict Judge, from whom nothing is hidden and who will pronounce judgment in all justice, accepting neither bribes nor excuses. He who loves God with all his heart does not fear death or punishment or judgment or hell because perfect love assures access to God. It is no wonder that he who still delights in sin fears death and judgment. It is good, however, that even if love does not as yet restrain you from evil, at least the fear of hell does. The man who casts aside the fear of God cannot continue long in goodness, but will quickly fall into the snares of the devil. Editorial Note: Thomas  is not clear in explaining how the Gospel of Christ applies to his topic here of Judgment and the Punishment of Sin, and he alludes to the erroneous doctrine of Purgatory. Click here for An Illustrated Biblical Response to Purgatory, which does clearly explain the Good News of the Gospel

Insight 25: Zeal in Amending Our Lives

Be watchful and diligent in God's service. Labor a little now and soon you shall find great rest and eternal joy; if you continue faithful and diligent in doing, God will be faithful and generous in rewarding. One day a certain man who wavered often and anxiously between hope and fear, was struck with sadness and knelt in prayer, saying, "Oh, if I but knew whether I should persevere to the end!" Immediately into his mind came this question and direction: "If you knew this, what would you do? Do now what you would do then and you will be quite secure." Consoled and comforted, he resigned himself to the divine will and the anxious anxiety ceased. In other words, his curiosity no longer sought to know what the future held for him and he  became transformed by the renewing of his mind, so that he could determine "what the will of God is: that which is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2).

One thing that keeps many from zealously improving their lives is dread of the difficulty and toil of battle. Certainly those who try bravely to overcome the most difficult and unpleasant obstacles far outstrip others in the pursuit of virtue. Each person has his own difficulties to meet and conquer, but a diligent and sincere man will make greater progress even though he have more passions than one who is more even-tempered but less concerned about virtue.  Two things particularly further improvement:
  1. To withdraw oneself forcibly from those vices to which one's nature is viciously inclined.
  2. To work fervently for those graces that are most needed.
Study also to guard against and to overcome the faults that most displease you in others. Make the best of every opportunity so if you see or hear a good example, you may be moved to imitate it. How pleasant and sweet to behold brethren in Christ fervent and devout, well mannered and disciplined! How sad and painful to see them wandering, not practicing the things to which they are called and instead attending to what is not their purpose! Remember the purpose you have undertaken and keep in mind the image of the Crucified! Even though you may have walked for many years on the pathway to God, you may well be ashamed if with the image of Christ before you, you do not try to make yourself still more like Him. You need not seek for anything better than Jesus.

Always remember your end and do not forget that lost time never returns. Without care and diligence, you will never acquire virtue. When you begin to grow lukewarm, you are falling into the beginning of evil. If you give yourself to zeal with knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, you will find peace and experience less hardship because of God's grace and the love of virtue. A fervent and diligent man is ready for all things. It is greater work to resist vices and passions than to sweat in physical toil. He who does not overcome small faults shall fall little by little into greater ones. If you have spent the day profitably, you will always be happy in the evening. Watch over yourself, arouse yourself, warn yourself, and do not neglect yourself. The more zealous you are for Christ-likeness, the more progress you will make.

Part 2: The Interior Life: click here
Part 3: Internal Consolation
Part 4: An Invitation to Holy Communion
To Read, Ponder, and Imitate for Yourself!


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