Thursday, December 19, 2013

Illustrated Insights from The Imitation of Christ—The Interior Life

Thomas à Kempis presented The Imitation of Christ around 1427. The first printed copies of appeared 50 years later and 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 four parts:
  1. Thoughts Helpful in the Life of the Soul
  2. The Interior Life
  3. Internal Consolation
  4. An Invitation to Holy Communion
This pre-Reformation classic remains fresh and relevant. The reason for its power and longevity is The Imitation of Christ is probing, scriptural, and utterly Christ-centered. Here are timeless  highlights, with lively illustrations, from The Interior Life.
The Interior Life—at a glance:
 1. Meditation
 2. Humility
 3. Inner Peace and Goodness
 4. Purity and Simplicity
 5. Wisdom Regarding Ourselves
 6. The Joy of a Good Conscience
 7. Loving Jesus Above All Things
 8. Intimate Friendship with Jesus
 9. The Comfort That Comes and Goes
10. Appreciating God's Grace
11. Few Love the Cross of Jesus
12. The Royal Road of the Holy Cross

Part 1. Thoughts Helpful in the Life of the Soul: click here

Part 2. The Interior Life

Insight 1. Meditation

"The Kingdom of God is within you," says the Lord (Luke 17:21). Turn, then, to God with all your heart. Learn to forsake the external things of this world and to devote yourself to those that are within, for "the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17). These gifts of the Spirit are not given to the impious. Christ will come to you, offering His consolation, if you prepare a fit dwelling for Him in your heart. He Himself says, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My Word, and My Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home with him" (John 14:23). His visits with the inward man are frequent, His communion sweet and full of consolation, His peace great, and His intimacy wonderful indeed!

Give place, then, to Christ but deny entrance to all others, for when you have Christ, you are rich, and He is sufficient for you. He will provide for you. He will supply your every want so that you need not trust in frail, changeable men. Christ remains forever, standing firmly with us to the end. Do not place much confidence in weak and mortal man, helpful and friendly though he may be, and do not grieve too much if he sometimes opposes and contradicts you. Those who are with us today may be against us tomorrow and vice versa, for men change with the wind. Place all your trust in God; let Him be your fear and your love. He will do what is best for you.

You have here no lasting home. You are a stranger and a pilgrim wherever you may be, and you shall have no rest until you are wholly united with Christ. Dwell upon heaven and give but a passing glance to all earthly things. They all pass away and you together with them. Take care, then, that you do not cling to them lest you be entrapped and perish. Fix your mind on the Most High and pray unceasingly to Christ. If you do not know how to meditate on heavenly things, start by directing your thoughts to Christ's sufferings on the cross. You will find great comfort in suffering and will mind but little the scorn of men and their slanderous talk, for He was despised by men. He had enemies and defamers; do you want everyone to be your friend? How can your patience be rewarded if no adversity tests it? How can you be a friend of Christ if you are not willing to suffer any hardship? Suffer with Christ and for Christ if you wish to reign with Him.

He who tastes life as it really is, not as men say or think it is, is indeed wise with the wisdom of God rather than of men. He who learns to live the interior life and to take little account of outward things adjusts himself to things as they happen. He whose disposition is well ordered cares little about the strange, perverse behavior of others, for a man is upset and distracted only in proportion as he engrosses himself in externals. Since none of us are entirely dead to self or free from all earthly affections, there is much that often displeases and disturbs us. Nothing so mars and defiles the heart as inordinate attachment to created things. But if you refuse such external consolations, you will be able to contemplate heavenly things and often experience interior joy.

 Insight 2. Humility

Do not be troubled by those who are with you or against you, but take great care that God be with you in everything you do. Keep your conscience clear, and God will protect you, for the malice of man cannot harm one whom God wishes to help. If you know how to suffer in silence, you will undoubtedly experience God's help. He knows how and when to deliver you, so place yourself in His hands.

It is often good for us to have others know our faults and rebuke them, for it gives us greater humility. When a man humbles himself because of his faults, he easily placates those about him and readily appeases those who are angry with him. It is the humble man or woman whom God protects and liberates; it is the humble whom He loves and consoles. To the humble He turns, and upon them He bestows great grace that after their humiliation, He may raise them up to glory. He reveals His secrets to the humble, and with kind invitation bids them come to Him. Thus the humble man enjoys peace in the midst of many vexations because his trust is in God, not in the world. 

Insight 3. Inner Peace and Goodness

First keep peace with yourself, then you will be able to bring peace to others. A passionate man turns even good to evil and is quick to believe evil, but the peaceful man, being good himself, influences everything around him toward good. The woman who is at perfect ease is never suspicious, but the disturbed and discontented spirit is upset by many a suspicion. She neither rests herself nor permits other to do so. She often says what ought not to be said and leaves undone what ought to be done. She is concerned with the duties of others but neglects her own.

Peace Amid Chaos
Direct your zeal, therefore, first upon yourself; then you may with justice exercise it upon those about you. You are well versed in coloring your own actions with excuses that you will not accept from others, though it would be more just to accuse yourself and excuse your brother. If you wish others to bear with you, you must bear with them. It is no great thing to associate with the good and gentle, for such association is naturally pleasing. Everyone enjoys a peaceful life and prefers persons of congenial habits. But to be able to live at peace with harsh and perverse men, or with the undisciplined and those who otherwise irritate us, is a great grace: a praiseworthy and manly thing. Some people live at peace with themselves and others, but most are never at peace with themselves nor do they bring it to anyone else. These latter are a burden to everyone but mostly to themselves. He who knows best how to humbly endure suffering will enjoy the greater peace because he is the conqueror of himself, the master of the world, a friend of Christ, and an heir of heaven.

Insight 4. Purity and Simplicity

A man or woman is raised up from the earth by two wings: simplicity and purity. There must  be simplicity of intention and purity of desire. Simplicity leads to God; purity embraces and enjoys Him. If your heart is free from ill-ordered affections, no good deed will be difficult for you. If you aim at and seek after nothing but the pleasure of God and the welfare of your neighbor, you will enjoy freedom within. When your heart is right, every created thing is a mirror of life for you and a book of holy teaching, for there is no creature so small and worthless that it does not show forth the goodness of God as revealed in His Word. If inwardly you were good and pure, you would see all things clearly and understand them rightly, for a pure heart penetrates to heaven and hell, and as a man is within, so he judges what is without.

As iron cast into fire loses its rust and becomes glowing white, so he who turns completely to God is stripped of his sluggishness and changed into a new man. When a man begins to grow lax, he fears a little toil and welcomes external comfort, but when he begins to conquer himself and walk bravely in the ways of God, he thinks those things less difficult that he thought so hard before.

Insight 5. Wisdom Regarding Ourselves

Two-Way Sulky
We must not rely too much upon ourselves, for grace and understanding are often lacking in us. Often we are not aware that we are so blind in heart. Meanwhile, we do wrong and then do worse in excusing it. At times we are moved by passion and we think it zeal. We take others to task for small mistakes and overlook greater ones in ourselves. We are quick enough to feel and brood over the things we suffer from others, but we think nothing of how much others suffer from us. If a man would weigh his own deeds fully and rightly, he would find little cause to pass severe judgment on others.

He who attends to himself carefully does not find it hard to hold his tongue about others. You will never be devout of heart unless you tend to be silent about the affairs of others, and pay particular attention to yourself. If you attend wholly to God and yourself, you will be little disturbed by what you see about you. Consider nothing great, nothing high, nothing pleasing, nothing acceptable except God Himself or that which is of God. God alone, the eternal and infinite, satisfies all, bringing comfort to the soul and true joy to the body.

Insight 6. The Joy of a Good Conscience

The glory of a good man is the testimony of a good conscience. A good conscience can bear great hardships and bring joy even in the midst of adversity, but an evil conscience is always restless and fearful. Sweet shall be your rest if your heart does not reproach you. Do not rejoice unless you have done well. Sinners never experience true interior joy or peace since "there is no peace for the wicked," says the Lord (Isaiah 48:22). Even if they say, "We are at peace; no evil shall befall us and no one dares to hurt us," do not believe them. The wrath of God will arise quickly: their deeds will be brought to nothing and their thoughts will perish.

To be joyful in adversity is not hard for the man or woman who loves Christ, for this is to glory in the cross of the Lord, but the glory given or received of mere men is short-lived and the glory of the world is always accompanied by sorrow. The joy of the just is in God and from God; their gladness is founded on truth.

The digital and breathing worlds "are filled with needless and unearned praise."
The man who longs for the true, eternal glory does not care for that of time. He who seeks passing fame cares little for the glory of heaven. She who minds neither praise nor blame possesses great peace of heart and, if her conscience is good, will easily remain contented and at peace. Praise adds nothing to your holiness, nor does blame take anything from it. You are what you are and cannot be said to be better than you are in God's sight. If you consider well what you are within, you will not care what men say about you. They look to appearances, but God looks to the heart. They consider the deed but God weighs the motive. It is a mark of great purity and deep faith to look for no consolation in created things. The man who desires no justification from himself or others has clearly entrusted himself to God: "For not he who commends himself is approved," says Paul, "but he whom God commends" (2 Corinthians 10:18).

Insight 7. Loving Jesus Above All Things

Blessed is he or she who appreciates what it is to love Jesus. Affection for creatures is deceitful and inconstant, but the love of Jesus is true and enduring. He who clings to a creature will fall with its frailty, but he who gives himself or herself to Jesus will ever be strengthened. Love Him then; keep Him as a friend. He will not leave you as others do. Sometimes, whether you will or not, you will have to part with everything. Cling to Jesus in life and death: trust yourself to the glory of Him who alone can help you when all others fail.

Your Beloved is such that He will not accept what belongs to another: He wants your heart, to be enthroned therein as King in His own right. You will find, apart from Him, that nearly all the trust you place in men is a total loss. Therefore, neither confide in nor depend upon a wind-shaken reed, for "all flesh is grass" (Isaiah 40:6) and all its glory, like the flower of grass, will fade away. You will quickly be deceived if you look only to the outward appearance of men, and you will often be disappointed if you seek comfort and gain in them. If, however, you seek Jesus in all things, you will surely find Him. Likewise, if you seek yourself, you will find yourselfto your own ruin. The man who does not seek Jesus does himself much greater harm than the whole world and all his enemies could ever do.
Insight 8. Intimate Friendship with Jesus

When Jesus is near, all is well and nothing seems difficult. When He is absent, all is hard. Did not Mary Magdalen rise at once from her weeping when Martha said to her, "The Master is here and is calling for you" (John 11:28)? Happy is the hour when Jesus calls one from tears to joy of spirit. How dry and hard you are without Jesus! How foolish and vain if you desire anything but Him: what, without Jesus, can the world give you? Life without Him is a relentless hell, but living with Him is a sweet paradise. If Jesus be with you, no enemy can harm you. He who finds Jesus finds a rare treasure, indeed, a good above every good, whereas he who loses Him loses more than the whole world.

It is a great art to know how to converse with Jesus and great wisdom to know how to keep Him. Be humble and peaceful, and Jesus will be with you. Be devout and calm, and He will remain with you. You may quickly drive Him away if you turn back to the outside world. And if you drive Him away and lose Him, to whom will you go and whom will you then seek as a friend? You cannot live well without a friend, and if Jesus is not your friend above all else, you will be very sad and desolate. Choose the opposition of the whole world rather than offend Jesus. Of all those who are dear to you, let Him be your special love. Let all be loved for the sake of Jesus, but Jesus for His own sake.

Jesus Christ must be loved alone with a special love for He alone, of all friends, is good and faithful. For Him and in Him you must love friends and foes alike, and pray to Him that all may come to know and love Him. Never wish that anyone's affection be centered in you, nor let yourself be completely taken up with the love of anyone. You must bring to God a clean and open heart if you wish to see how sweet the Lord is. If you are feeling poor and weak, abandoned perhaps to affliction, do not become dejected or despair. Calmly await the will of God and bear whatever befalls you in praise of Christ, for after winter comes summer, after night, the day, and after the storm, a great calm.

Insight 9. The Comfort That Comes and Goes

When spiritual comfort is given by God, receive it gratefully but understand that it is His gift and not your meriting. Do not exult, do not be overjoyed, do not be presumptuous but be humble and grateful for the gift, more careful and wary in your actions, for this hour will pass and temptation will come in its wake. When your comfort is taken away, do not  despair but wait humbly and patiently for the heavenly visit since God can restore to you more abundant solace.

This is neither new nor strange to one who knows God's ways, for such change of fortune often visited the great saints and prophets. Thus there was one who, when grace was with him, declared, "In my prosperity I said, 'I shall never be moved.'" But when grace was taken away, he tells us what he experienced in himself: "You, Lord, did hide Your face from me and I was troubled." Meanwhile he didn't despair but rather prayed more earnestly to the Lord, saying, "To You, O Lord, will I cry and I will make supplication to my God." At length he experienced the fruit of his prayers, testifying, "The Lord had heard and has had mercy on me; the Lord has become my helper." And how was he helped? "You have turned," he says, "my mourning into joy and have surrounded me with gladness" (Psalm 30:6-11).

Since this is the case with the great saints, we who are weak and poor ought not to despair because we are fervent at times and at other times cold, for comfort from God comes and goes according to His will. In what can I hope, then, or in whom ought I trust, save only in the great mercy of God and the hope of heavenly grace? For though I have with me good men, devout brethren, faithful friends, holy books, sweet songs and hymns, all these help and please but little when I am abandoned by grace and left to my poverty. At such times there is no better remedy than patience and resignation of self to the will of God. I have never met a man or woman so devout that he or she has not experienced at some times a withdrawal of grace, and felt a lessening of fervor. No saint was so sublimely rapt and enlightened as not to be tempted before and after. Temptation is usually the sign preceding the consolation that is to follow, and heavenly comfort is promised to all those proved by temptation: "To him who overcomes," says the risen Christ, "I will give to eat of the Tree of Life" (Revelation 2:7).

Divine comfort, then, is given to make a man braver in enduring adversity, and temptation follows that he not pride himself on the good he has done. The devil does not sleep, nor is the flesh yet dead; therefore, you must never cease your preparation for battle because on the right and on the left are enemies who never rest.

Insight 10. Appreciating God's Grace

Why do you look for rest when you were born to work? Resign yourself to patience rather than comfort. Since the moment of temptation is always near, since false freedom of mind and overconfidence are serious obstacles to heavenly comfort, a man can never enjoy that comfort just as he wishes. God does well in giving the grace of divine consolation, but man does evil in not returning everything gratefully to God. The gifts of grace cannot flow in us when we are ungrateful to the Giver: when we do not return them to the Fountainhead. Grace is always given to him or her who is appropriately grateful, and what God is disposed to give to the humble He takes away from the proud.

I do not desire any comfort that robs me of contrition and repentance where needed, nor do I care for contemplation that leads to pride. Not all that is high is holy, nor all that is sweet good, nor every desire pure, nor all that is dear to us pleasing to God. I accept willingly the grace whereby I become more humble and contrite, more willing to renounce self. Give to God what is God's and ascribe to yourself what is yours: give Him thanks for His grace, but place upon yourself alone the blame and punishment your fault deserves.

Humble, Glorious Saints
Always take the lowest place, and the highest will be given you, for the highest cannot exist apart from the lowest. The saints who are greatest before God are those who consider themselves the least, and the more humble they are within themselves, so much the more glorious they are. Since they do not desire vainglory, they are full of truth and heavenly glory. Being established and strengthened in God, they can by no means be proud: they attribute to God whatever good they have received, and seek no glory from one another but only that which comes from God alone. They desire above all things that He be praised in themselves and in all His people—this is their constant purpose.

Be grateful, therefore, for the least gift, and you will be worthy to receive a greater. Consider the least gift as the greatest, the simplest as something special. If you but look to the dignity of the Giver, no gift will appear too small or worthless. Even though He sometimes gives discipline and adversity, accept them because He acts for our welfare in whatever He allows to befall us. He who desires to keep the grace of God ought to be grateful when it is given, and patient when it is withdrawn. Let him pray that it return; let him be cautious and humble to avoid losing it.

Insight 11. Few Love the Cross of Christ

Jesus has always many who love His heavenly Kingdom, but few who bear His cross. He finds many to share His table, but few to take part in His fasting. All desire to be happy with Him; few wish to suffer anything for Him. Many revere His miracles; few approach the shame of the cross. Many love Him as long as they encounter no hardship; many praise and bless Him as long as they receive some comfort from Him. But if Jesus hides Himself and leaves them for awhile, they fall either into complaints or into deep dejection. Those, on the contrary, who love Him for His own sake and not for any comfort of their own, bless Him in all trial and anguish of heart as well as in the bliss of consolation. Even if He should never give them comfort, yet they would continue to praise Him and wish always to give Him thanks. What power there is in pure love for Jesus—love that is free from all self-interest and self-love!

Do not those who always seek consolation deserve to be called mercenaries? Do not those who always think of their own profit and gain prove that they love themselves rather than Christ? Where can a man be found who desires to serve God for nothing? Rarely indeed is a man so spiritual as to strip himself of all things. And who shall find a man so truly poor in spirit as to be free from every creature? His value is like that of things brought from the most distant lands.

If a man gives all his wealth, it is nothing; if he gains all knowledge, he is still far afield; if he has great virtue and much ardent devotion, he still lacks a great deal—especially the one thing most necessary to him. What is this one thing? That leaving all, he forsake himself, completely renounce himself, and give up all private affections. Then, when he has done all that he knows ought to be done, let him consider it as nothing. Let him make little of what may be considered great; let him in all honesty call himself an unprofitable slave. Why? Because Truth Himself has said, "When you have done all these things that are commanded you, say, 'We are unprofitable slaves'" (Luke 17:10).

Insight 12. The Royal Road of the Holy Cross

To many the saying, "Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me" (Matthew 16:24), seems hard, but it will be much harder to hear this final word from Christ: "Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into everlasting fire" (Matthew 25:41). Those who hear the word of the cross and follow it willingly now need not fear they will hear of eternal damnation on the Day of Judgment. The sign of the cross will be in the heavens when our Lord returns to judge. Then all the servants of the cross, who during life made them themselves one with the Crucified, will draw near with great trust to Christ, the Judge.

Why, then, do you fear to take up the cross when through it you can win a Kingdom? In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life, in the cross is protection from enemies, in the cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness, in the cross is strength of mind, in the cross is joy of spirit, in the cross is highest virtue, in the cross is perfect holiness. There is no salvation of soul nor hope of everlasting life but in the cross. Take up your cross, therefore, and follow Jesus, and you shall enter eternal life. He Himself opened the way before you in carrying His cross and upon it He died for you. If you die with Him, you shall also live with Him, and if you share His suffering, you shall also share His glory. 

The View from the Cross
In the cross is everything. There is no other way to eternal life and true inward peace than the way of the holy cross and daily mortification of sin. Go where you will, seek what you will, you will not find a higher way, nor a less exalted but safer way, than the way of the holy cross. Arrange everything to suit your will and judgment, and still you will find that some suffering must always be borne, willingly or unwillingly, and thus you will always find the cross. Either you will experience bodily pain or you will undergo tribulation of spirit. At times you will feel forsaken by God, at times troubled by those about you, and—what is worse—you will often grow weary of yourself. You cannot escape, you cannot be relieved by any remedy or comfort but must bear with it as long as God wills. He wishes you to learn to bear trials without consolation, to submit yourself wholly to Him that you may become more humble through suffering. No one understands the passion of Christ so thoroughly or heartily as the man or woman who suffers in some way like He did.

Here Is the Royal Way of the Cross: Faith lights our way to it...
The cross, therefore, is always ready; it awaits you everywhere. No matter where you go, you cannot escape it, for wherever you go, you take yourself. Turn where you will—above, below, without, or within —you will find a cross in everything, and everywhere you must have patience if you would have internal peace and eternal reward. If you carry the cross willingly, it will carry you to the desired goal, where indeed there will be no more suffering, but here there will be. If you carry it unwillingly, you create a burden for yourself and increase the load, though still you have to bear it.  If you cast away one cross, you will find another and perhaps a heavier one. Do you expect to escape what no mortal man or woman can ever avoid? Which of the saints was without a cross or trial on this side of life? Not even Jesus Christ, our Lord, for "it was necessary for the Christ to suffer, and to rise again from the dead...and so enter His glory...that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations" (Luke 24:46-47, 26). How is it that you look for another way than this: the royal way of the holy cross?

The more spiritual progress a person makes, the heavier he frequently will find the cross because, as his love increases, the pain of his exile also increases. Set yourself, then, like a good and faithful servant of Christ by bearing bravely the cross of your Lord, who out of love was crucified for you. Be ready to suffer many adversities, leaving any consolation to God; let Him do as most pleases Him. On your part, be ready to endure trials, realizing that the sufferings of this life are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come (Romans 8:18, 2 Corinthians 4:17-18). When you come to the point where suffering is sweet and acceptable for the sake of Christ, then consider yourself fortunate, for you have found paradise on earth. But as long as suffering irks you and you seek to escape, so long will you be unfortunate, and the tribulation you seek to evade will follow you everywhere. If you would put your mind to the things you ought to consider, you would soon be in a better state and find peace. If, like the Apostle Paul, you were taken to the third heaven, you would not be insured against suffering. The risen Christ said of him, "I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name's sake" (Acts 9:16). To suffer, then, remains your lot—if you seriously mean to love Jesus and serve Him forever.

If you were to suffer something for the name of Christ, what great glory would be in store for you, what great joy to all the saints of God, what great edification to those about you! For all men praise patience, though there are few who wish to practice it. With good reason, therefore, ought you be willing to suffer a little for Christ since many suffer much more for worldly things. Realize that you must lead a dying life: the more a man dies to himself, the more he begins to live for God. No man or woman is fit to enjoy heaven unless first resigned to suffer hardship for Christ. Nothing is more acceptable to God, nothing more helpful for you on this earth than to suffer willingly for Christ. If you had to make a choice, you ought wish rather to suffer for Christ than to enjoy many comforts, for thus you would be more like Christ Himself. If indeed there were anything better or more useful for man's salvation than suffering, Christ would have shown it by word and example. But He clearly exhorts all  who wish to follow Him, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me" (Luke 9:23). When, therefore, we have read and searched all that has been written, let this be the final conclusion: "through much suffering we must enter into the Kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22; Revelation 1:9).

To Read, Ponder, and Imitate for Yourself!

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