It is a challenge to summarize Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis. Why? Primarily, two reasons: 1. His work contains 114 chapters (they read like lessons in wisdom) and; 2. As the title implies, the book instructs the reader in how and why to imitate Christ, which even on any single topic is quite the challenge, but Kempis offers us 114 separate, and often disparate, wisdom lessons for our reflection.

Kempis was for many years the master of novices at Mount Saint Agnes, monastery of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine in Zwolle, Netherlands.[1] This particular work of his, Imitation of Christ, is thought to be the most widely circulated book in Catholic history, second only to the Bible.[2] Kempis wrote the book to counter what he considered to be an over-emphasis on intellectualism and mysticism taking hold in the Church during 14th century. He wanted to offer people a simpler to understand, but no less effective or authentic, Catholic interpretation of theology that would unite them to Christ and the Trinity. In this regard, Imitation of Christ has been compared in style to the Book of Proverbs.[3]

Rather than list the title of every Kempis’ lessons in Imitation of Christ, I invite readers to survey the Table of Contents for the book (link below) and experience for themselves the wide diversity of lesson topics under discussion by Kempis:

http://www.worldinvisible.com/library/akempis/imitation/contents.htm

The book itself is not without criticism, but the criticism must be understood and taken in proper context. As you begin reading the Imitation of Christ, depending upon your background and vocational calling in life you might detect a certain tension surfaces and begins to percolate, a tension between your own opinions on a given chapter topic, and the advisements given by Kempis. Not that Kempis’ advisements are wrong, as the book has the Catholic Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat. So, if there is tension between the author and reader, what is the source?

Tension seeps in because it has been acknowledged that some books are written expressly for, or at least primarily for, those living the life of a professed religious vocation.[4] Note the vocation of a professed Catholic religious by definition (with a few special exceptions,) cannot to be lived as parents, as business executives, as politicians, as soldiers, etc. Professed religious have pledged their life to work in the vineyard of their Diocese or religious order, according to the directives of their Bishop or Superior. This difference in vocational calling, either lay or religious, is a distinction that makes certain differences in terms of the care and feeding of souls.

Indeed, in this regard the preamble to the, “INDEX OF LESSONS” taken from Imitation of Christ clearly acknowledges this audience composition distinction:

“FROM THE IMITATION OF CHRIST, SUITABLE TO THE DIFFERENT STATES OF LIFE AND SPIRITUAL NECESSITIES OF THE FAITHFUL [FOR PRIESTS AND SEMINARIANS] (emphasis added.)[5]

 

Here we clearly see an acknowledgment that some chapters contain content that is oriented towards those living a religious vocation. While both mature Christian laity and the religious should read Imitation of Christ when they are sufficiently mature in their faith, it remains the challenge of the lay reader to discern where the line is placed that delineates between the literal, and the allegorical, in each of Kempis’ lessons.

In this regard, I am particularly thinking of those who are called to work in the “business vineyard,” no less a vineyard than any traditionally designated ministry, and specifically to be founders of companies. Such a person is indispensable to society, but also ambitious by definition (an ambition which does not in itself diminish the motivation to be of service to others,) or they would not be founders.

But Kempis warns us that blind and unchecked ambition is what corrupts the soul. He states, “Control your least restrained appetite and you will make this discovery: all your bodily appetites will come under control.”[6] However, and this is where the tension arises between author and reader may arise, Kempis does not specifically explain in this same lesson how we are to reconcile his message to the daily lifestance issues faced by most laity. The reader must be on guard to piece Kempis’ messages together from other chapters and portions of the book, in a sort of Lego spirituality construction set, to form in their mind the complete intent of Kempis’ advisements in their own personal life.

To the casual outsider looking in it may initially appear that the founder of any business lacks humility because they give, for example, a robust, animated, self-confident investor presentation while attempting to raise capital to get their venture off the ground. Never mind that a less than robust presentation (which Kempis might applaud as sufficiently humble enough to be authentically imitating Christ,) fails to secure the requisite capital to start, for example, what later becomes Federal Express. If society wants jobs, then society needs job creators. Now notice the tension? However, Kempis would want us to nuance his message on self-control along the lines of, “Society needs moral job creators. Be robust in your presentation, but be robustly moral.”

What matters to some, and I would maintain incorrectly so, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what humility actually is because they have not harmonized Kempis’ message to suit a lay audience and the challenges of the layperson in a business world filled with non-believers. Readers must therefore find and walk for themselves that fine line that is distinguished by each of the cardinal virtues, but actually exists only in one’s conscience. This is key: no book, no matter how well written, can determine the distinction residing in one’s heart between true humility operating under the service of other considerations, such as the need to raise investment capital or to make payroll, and unbridled ambition for the sake of greed. The value of Imitation of Christ is akin to Google maps: it may show you the way, but only if you know how to read a map.

As a founder myself, but also a reader of the Imitation of Christ, I now have choices. As I read the book I can declare, “Kempis doesn’t get it!” and quit on the book, or I can declare, “Mike, you don’t get it. Better reread that chapter again until you can harmonize what Kempis is saying about living life as an Catholic Christian entrepreneur, because being an entrepreneur does not grant you a license to be an egocentric, obnoxious jerk in the name of raising capital, creating jobs, making payroll, etc. Figure out what you are supposed to take away from this Kempis lesson, and go live it.”

I read the Imitation of Christ through the lens of an entrepreneur, not someone of a religious vocation, yet fully acknowledge the book is written for everyone, laity and religious alike. My point is that this particular book requires all readers to drill down about themselves, their personal demons, motives, etc., and exercise prudent judgment when trying to apply Kempis’ call to humility to anyone but themselves.

For example, I have not walked in my parish Pastor’s shoes even one small step, nor I know has he walked a single step in mine. Although Imitation of Christ is a great work and favorite of many Saints, I would suggest allowing divine providence to guide someone to reading this work for the first time. It would take a strong nudge from the Holy Spirit for me to recommend or purchase this book for someone else, but for myself it was superior.

This book is meant for the mature Christian (and that is not to not to be read as “smart Christian” or “older Christian” but simply a Christian humble in their faith,) not a relative newcomer to their faith walk with Christ (I would suggest My Other Self by Clarence Enzler for someone just becoming acquainted with Christ. It is also a truly remarkable book.)

There is tremendous value in Imitation of Christ. The enemy of the world does not want you to read it, and if you start to read it, he wants you to become discouraged or disoriented and put the book down. Why? Because the enemy is afraid. This book has power because the Holy Spirit moves through it to teach the reader how to imitate Christ, and anyone who becomes better at imitating Christ, although not incorruptible, is certainly much tougher to corrupt. So long as you can detect when this book is speaking directly to you and your own faith walk, and at times speaking to someone else, all should read this book. Or in the words of Kempis:

“Every time I catch myself trying to figure out other people’s motives, I’ll stop and ask myself: “What did I say or do that prompted the action? Why did I react to it as I did? Does what happened make a major difference to me, or am I making something big out of a trifle?” Leave off that excessive desire of knowing; therein is found much distraction. There are many things the knowledge of which is of little or no profit to the soul.”[7]

 

 

{C}[1]{C} Fr. Jordan Aumann O.P., Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1985) p. 164

 

{C}[2]{C} Ibid. p. 164

 

{C}[3]{C} Donnell Kirchner. 2012. “The Imitation of Christ.” Priest 68, no. 9: 86-88. Religion and Philosophy Collection, EBSCOhost.

 

[4]  Albrecht Classen., Handbook of Medieval Studies: Terms, Methods, Trends. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost, p. 1794

 

{C}[5]{C} Thomas Kempis., Imitation of Christ, (TAN Books, charlotte, North Carolina, 2013) p. 246

 

{C}[6]{C} Ibid. Book 1, Chapter 19, no.4

 

{C}[7]{C} Ibid. Book 1, Chapter 2. No. 2