Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Imitation of Christ - the perfect book for the soul!

‘The Imitation of Christ’ by Thomas a Kempis may be the best selling book in the world next to the Bible but it’s surprising how many Catholics either have not read it or, even, heard of it.

This is a shame as, in my view, it is quite one of the most inspirational books you will ever find. Open it at any page and you will find a passage that is appropriate to your circumstances.
It is simple to absorb and fascinating to follow as it maps out the path of a follower of Christ with all its turns and dead ends, its peaks and its troughs, triumphant always, in humility, love and faith.

Thomas a Kempis was born in 1379 to John and Gertrude Haemerken of Kempen, a small town close to Cologne. Leaving home he went to join his brother, Jan at a school in Deventer but, upon arrival, he found that Jan had left to found a congregation of Canons Regular at Windesheim. Thomas immediately travelled to Windesheim to see his brother and, upon his recommendation, returned to Deventer to enter the community of Brothers of the Common Life. This order required no vows of its followers, merely an adherence to an inner life, a disregard for income and a desire to work within the community, either physically, or more often, teaching and carrying out pastoral duties.

His early priestly life is described in this extract from New Advent

At Deventer Thomas proved an apt pupil, already noted for his neatness and skill in transcribing manuscripts. This was a life-long labour of love with him; in addition to his own compositions he copied numerous treatises from the Fathers, especially St. Bernard, a Missal for the use of his community, and the whole Bible in four large volumes still extant. After completing his humanities at Deventer, in the autumn of 1399, with the commendation of his superior, Florentius Radewyn, Thomas sought admission among the Canons Regular of Windesheim at Mount St. Agnes, near Zwolle, of which monastery his brother John was then prior. The house had been established only the previous year, and as yet there was no claustral buildings, no garden, no benefactors, no funds. During his term of office, which lasted nine years, John à Kempis built the priory and commenced the church. In these circumstances we find the explanation of the fact that Thomas was not clothed as a novice until 1406, at which date the cloister was just completed, nor ordained priest until 1413, the year after the church was consecrated. The point is worth noting, as some writers in their eagerness to discredit the claims of à Kempis to the authorship of the "Imitation" have actually fastened upon the length of this period of probation to insinuate that he was a dullard or worse. Thomas was himself, to within a few months of his death, the chronicler of Agnetenberg. The story which he tells of the earthly struggles of the priory on the mount, its steady progress, and eventual prosperity is full of charm and edification ("The Chronicle of the Canons Regular of Mount St. Agnes", London, 1906). These records reveal to us the simplicity and holiness of his religious brethren. He was twice elected subprior, and once he was made procurator. The reason assigned by an ancient biographer for the latter appointment is one that does honour both to Thomas and his brethren, his love for the poor. However, we can scarcely imagine the author of the "Imitation" a good business manager, and after a time his preference for retirement, literary work, and contemplation prevailed with the Canons to relieve him of the burden. The experience thus gained he made use of in a spiritual treatise, "De fideli dispensatore".

Thomas a Kempis - yet to be made a saint

The Imitation of Christ is really a dialogue between Christ and us. We are told not to take the good things in our life for granted; our health, our family and friends, our careers and temporal luxuries. All belong to Christ, we have no rights over any of them, therefore, it is not our due to mourn their loss. We are  rather like a thief who, having robbed a rich haul of goods, then has them whipped away from him by another hand. He has no right to feel a sense of loss.

But then, swiftly we are told that we only have to call on the name of the Lord to have restitution, albeit a spiritual restitution.
Trying to pick on a particular chapter as an example is a fruitless task; all are so apt, all are so profound. If you have a bereavement, lost a friend, contracted an illness, been thrown on life’s scrapheap…look in this book and you will be revived and refreshed. Rejuvenated, even.

Here are one or two passages that reflect the spirit of this most precious book:-


The Voice of the Beloved: I freely surrender myself to God the Father for your sins, with my hands spread out on the cross and my body stripped. I kept nothing back, but let all be transformed into a sacrifice to appease the divine anger. And every day in the Mass, you too of your own free will should offer yourself to Me as a pure and holy offering with all your powers and affections, from the very depths of your heart.
I ask nothing more of you except that you should want to surrender yourself entirely to Me. I do not care what you give Me besides yourself, because I do not want your gifts, but you.
If you possessed everything except Me, you would not find satisfaction. In the same way, nothing you can give Me can please Me if you do not give yourself.
Give yourself to Me. Offer yourself wholly for God’s sake, and your offerings will be accepted. Think of this – I offered Myself wholly to the Father for your sake. I even gave My whole Body and My Blood to feed you, so that I should be entirely yours, and you should be kept Mine…..



….I am still living, says the Lord, and I am ready to help you and comfort you more than you have ever known, if you trust Me and call on Me devoutly.
Take things more calmly, and brace yourself to endure things better. Everything is not ruined if you often find yourself in difficulty and facing strong temptation.
You are man not God. You are a mortal creature, not an angel. How could you possibly maintain an unchanging state of virtue when it proved impossible for the Angels in Heaven and for Adam in Paradise? It is mine to comfort the mourner with new hope, and it is those that know their own weakness that I raise to my divinity……

If you do not posses a copy of the ‘Imitation of Christ’ I recommend that you buy a copy…not one from pre 1960 or post 1980 as the language used in both is less easy on the eye and less beautiful even.
It will be the best purchase you will have made in a long time.

Posted by Richard Collins – Linen on the Hedgerow


  1. I once spent a very plesant afternoon on retreat at Worth Abbey sitting at the back looking out on a field of Sheep and Lambs and reading that book. I will admit though that as the sunlight and lunch took their toll I may have been doing more dozing than reading at one point.

    A very good book, especially to read a section over breakfast instead of a morning paper.

  2. Thank you for this. Which edition is it you are quoting? It differs from mine, and is much lovelier.

  3. Fr Frank - it is the Fontana paperback 1974 edition. Only 35 pence!


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