For five hundred years, this gentle book, filled with the spirit of the love of God, has brought understanding and comfort to millions of readers in over fifty languages, and provided them with a source of heart-felt personal prayer. These meditations on the life and teachings of Jesus, written in times even more troubled and dangerous than our own, have become second only to the Bible as a guide and inspiration.
* * * He that followeth Me, walketh not in darkness, saith the Lord. These are the words of Christ, by which we can be admonished, how we ought to imitate His life and manners, if we would truly be enlightened and delivered from all blindness of heart. . . .
Thus the monk Thomas Haemerken, known as Thomas a Kempis, began his work of meditation and devotion. Drawing on his knowledge of the Bible and his vision of Christ in man, he created a beacon of spiritual insight and inspiration which has cast its warm light down half a thousand years.
OF THE IMITATION OF CHRIST
Thomas ˆ Kempis Introduction In 1392, when Thomas Haemerken was twelve years old, the Church was wracked by dissension and corruption. Popes and anti-Popes wrangled about the papal chair. Entire nations squabbled about who was the rightful spiritual leader. The faithful were confused if not thoroughly disillusioned.
The Hundred Years War was still being waged. The horror of the Black Death was recent history and would never be forgotten. Peasant revolts against rising taxes were spreading in terrifying proportions.
But then, as now, a few rays of hope glimmered through the darkness of unrest, rebellion, disillusion and corruption. A few years earlier, a Dutch street preacher named Gerhard Groote called the people in Deventer, Holland, back to God and the Bible. He was not a priest, but as he trudged through the streets and preached, the townspeople let their meals get cold to run out and listen. "Turn away from sin, live like Jesus, read God's Word," he told them.
Some of his followers joined together to study the Bible and to copy it for others. Soon they became known as the Brothers of the Common Life. Humble people, they patterned their lives after the early Christians and especially after Jesus Himself.
In despair with the state of the world, the parents of Thomas Haemerken decided to send their boy to live with the Brothers in Deventer. The blacksmith father and schoolteacher mother had raised Thomas to be a pious boy, to struggle with sin, and they were concerned for his future.
At first, Thomas ˆ Kempis (so called because he came from Kempen), thought that the new life style of the Brotherhood would bring him salvation, but soon he learned that it was of no help to copy a pattern of good works. He must trust in Christ alone for his salvation.
He seemed to hear Jesus say to him, "Let the worthless one draw near to Me, that he may be made worthy, the wicked one that he may be converted, the imperfect one that he may be made perfect, let all draw near to Me, and taste the living waters of salvation .... "
When a monastery was begun at Zwolle by those associated with the Brotherhood, Thomas ˆ Kempis went there to live as a monk. It is not know exactly when Of the Imitation of Christ was written. Some scholars even question whether Thomas ˆ Kempis wrote it, since the earliest copies are unsigned. But most believe that he did write it, in the 1420's, during some of the most agonizing experiences of his life.
Angry citizenry had evicted the monks from the monastery after the Pope had forbidden the sacraments to the people. In the wake of the violence, Thomas ˆ Kempis had to stand by and watch, as his brother, also a monk, slowly wasted away and died.
Of the Imitation of Christ has been described as "the most influential book in Christian literature." It has been translated into more than fifty languages. Few books have found such universal acceptance among both Protestants and Catholics. Perhaps because its language is very simple and forcefully direct. Or because Scripture is woven so intricately into every page. One scholar claims that more than a thousand Bible passages are alluded to in the text.
Or it may be so popular because of such quotations as "God takes into account not so much the thing we do as the love that went to the doing of it." At any rate, this powerful little book has become part of the lives of millions who refer to it constantly for guidance, consolation, spiritual strength and inspiration.
--WILLIAM J. PETERSEN
The First Book
Admonitions, Useful for a Spiritual Life
Of the Imitation of Christ, and Contempt of all the vanities of the World 'HE that followeth Me, walketh not in darkness,'1 saith the Lord. These are the words of Christ, by which we are admonished how we ought to imitate His life and manners, if we will be truly enlightened, and be delivered from all blindness of heart.
Let therefore our chiefest endeavour be, to meditate upon the life of Jesus Christ.
2. The doctrine of Christ exceedeth all the doctrines of holy men; and he that hath the Spirit, will find therein an hidden manna.
But it falleth out, that many who often hear the Gospel of Christ, are yet but little affected, because they are void of the Spirit of Christ.
But whosoever would fully and feelingly understand the words of Christ, must endeavour to conform his life wholly to the life of Christ.
3. What will it avail thee to dispute profoundly of the Trinity, if thou be void of humility, and art thereby displeasing to the Trinity?
Surely high words do not make a man holy and just; but a virtuous life maketh him dear to God.
I had rather feel compunction, than understand the definition thereof.
If thou didst know the whole Bible by heart, and the sayings of all the philosophers, what would all that profit thee without the love of God2 and without grace?
Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity,3 except to love God, and to serve Him only.
This is the highest wisdom, by contempt of the world to tend towards the kingdom of Heaven.
4. Vanity therefore it is to seek after perishing riches, and to trust in them.
It is also vanity to hunt after honours, and to climb to high degree.
It is vanity to follow the desires of the flesh, and to labour for that for which thou must afterwards suffer grievous punishment.
Vanity it is, to wish to live long, and to be careless to live well.
It is vanity to mind only this present life, and not to foresee those things which are to come.
It is vanity to set thy love on that which speedily passeth away, and not to hasten thither where everlasting joy abideth.
5. Call often to mind that proverb, 'The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.'4
Endeavour therefore to withdraw thy heart from the love of visible things, and to turn thyself to the invisible.
For they that follow their sensuality, do stain their own consciences, and lose the favour of God.
Of the Humble Conceit of Ourselves ALL men naturally desire to know;5 but what availeth knowledge without the fear of God?
Surely, an humble husbandman that serveth God is better than a proud philosopher that neglecting himself laboureth to understand the course of the heavens.
Whoso knoweth himself well, groweth more mean in his own conceit, and delighteth not in the praises of men.
If I understood all things in the world, and were not in charity, what would that help me in the sight of God, who will judge me according to my deeds?
2. Cease from an inordinate desire of knowing, for therein is much distraction and deceit.
The learned are well-pleased to seem so to others, and to be accounted wise.6
There be many things, which to know doth little or nothing profit the soul:
And he is very unwise, that is intent upon other things than those that may avail him for his salvation.
Many words do not satisfy the soul; but a good life comforteth the mind, and a pure conscience giveth great assurance in the sight of God.
3. How much the more thou knowest, and how much the better thou understandest, so much the more grievously shalt thou therefore be judged, unless thy life be also more holy.
Be not therefore extolled in thine own mind for any art or science, but rather let the knowledge given thee, make thee more humble and cautious.
If thou thinkest that thou understandest and knowest much; know also that there be many things more which thou knowest not.
Affect not to be overwise, but rather acknowledge thine own ignorance.7
Why wilt thou prefer thyself before others, sith there be many more learned, and more skilful in the Scripture than thou art?
If thou wilt know or learn anything profitably, desire to be unknown, and to be little esteemed.
4. The highest and most profitable reading, is the true knowledge and consideration of ourselves.
It is great wisdom and perfection to esteem nothing of ourselves, and to think always well and highly of others.
If thou shouldest see another openly sin, or commit some heinous offence, yet oughtest thou not to esteem the better of thyself; for thou knowest not how long thou shalt he able to remain in good estate.
We are all frail,8 but thou oughtest to esteem none more frail than thyself.
Of the Doctrine of Truth HAPPY is he whom truth by itself doth teach,9 not by figures and words that pass away; but as it is in itself.
Our own opinion and our own sense do often deceive us, and they discern but little.
What availeth it to cavil and dispute much about dark and hidden things,10 whereas for being ignorant of them we shall not be so much as reproved at the day of judgment?
It is a great folly to neglect the things that are profitable and necessary, and give our minds to that which is curious and hurtful: we have eyes and see not.11
2. And what have we to do with genus and species, the dry notions of logicians?
He to whom the Eternal Word speaketh, is delivered from a world of unnecessary conceptions.
From that one Word are all things, and all speak that one; and this is the Beginning, which also speaketh unto us.
No man without that Word understandeth or judgeth rightly.
He to whom all things are one, he who reduceth all things to one, and seeth all things in one; may enjoy a quiet mind, and remain peaceable in God.
O God, who art the truth, make me one with Thee in everlasting charity.
It is tedious to me often to read and hear many things: In Thee is all that I would have and can desire.
Let all doctors hold their peace; let all creatures be silent in Thy sight; speak Thou alone unto me.
3. The more a man is united within himself, and becometh inwardly simple and pure, so much the more and higher things doth he understand without labour; for that he receiveth intellectual light from above.12
A pure, sincere, and stable spirit is not distracted, though it be employed in many works; for that it works all to the honour of God, and inwardly being still and quiet, seeks not itself in any thing it doth.
Who hinders and troubles thee more than the unmortified affections of thine own heart?
A good and godly man disposeth within himself beforehand those things which he is outwardly to act;
Neither do they draw him according to the desires of an inordinate inclination, but he ordereth them according to the prescript of right reason.
Who hath a greater combat than he that laboureth to overcome himself?
This ought to be our endeavour, to conquer ourselves, and daily to wax stronger, and to make a further growth in holiness.
4. All perfection in this life hath some imperfection mixed with it; and no knowledge of ours is without some darkness.
An humble knowledge of thyself is a surer way to God than a deep search after learning;
Yet learning is not to be blamed, nor the mere knowledge of any thing whatsoever to be disliked, it being good in itself, and ordained by God; but a good conscience and a virtuous life is always to be preferred before it.
But because many endeavour rather to get knowledge than to live well; therefore they are often deceived, and reap either none, or but little fruit.
5. O, if men bestowed as much labour in the rooting out of vices, and planting of virtues, as they do in moving of questions, neither would there so much hurt be done, nor so great scandal be given in the world, nor so much looseness be practised in Religious Houses.
Truly, at the day of judgment we shall not be examined what we have read, but what we have done,13 not how well we have spoken, but how religiously we have lived.
Tell me now, where are all those Doctors and Masters, with whom thou wast well acquainted, whilst they lived and flourished in learning?
Now others possess their livings and perhaps do scarce ever think of them. In their lifetime they seemed something, but now they are not spoken of.
6. O, how quickly doth the glory of the world pass away!14 O that their life had been answerable to their learning! then had their study and reading been to good purpose.
How many perish by reason of vain learning15 in this world, who take little care of the serving of God:
And because they rather choose to be great than humble,
therefore they become vain in their imaginations.16 He is truly great, that is great in charity.
He is truly great, that is little in himself, and that maketh no account of any height of honour.17
He is truly wise, that accounteth all earthly things as dung, that he may gain Christ.18
And he is truly learned, that doeth the will of God, and forsaketh his own will.
Of Wisdom and Forethought in our Actions WE must not give ear to every saying or suggestion,19 but ought warily and leisurely to ponder things according to the will of God.
But alas; such is our weakness, that we often rather believe and speak evil of others than good.
Those that are perfect men do not easily give credit to every thing one tells them; for they know that human frailty is prone to evil,20 and very subject to fail in words.21
2. It is great wisdom not to be rash in thy proceedings,22 nor to stand stiffly in thine own conceits;
As also not to believe every thing which thou hearest, nor presently to relate again to others23 what thou hast heard or dost believe.
Consult with him that is wise and conscientious, and seek to be instructed by a better than thyself, rather than to follow thine own inventions.24
A good life maketh a man wise according to God,25 and giveth him experience in many things.26
The more humble a man is in himself, and the more subject unto God; so much the more prudent shall he be in all his affairs, and enjoy greater peace and quiet of heart.
Of the Reading of Holy Scriptures TRUTH, not eloquence, is to be sought for in Holy Scripture.
Each part of the Scripture is to be read with the same Spirit wherewith it was written.27
We should rather search after our spiritual profit in the Scriptures, than subtilty of speech.
We ought to read plain and devout books as willingly as high and profound.
Let not the authority of the writer offend thee, whether he be of great or small learning; but let the love of pure truth draw thee to read.28
Search not who spoke this or that, but mark what is spoken.
2. Men pass away, but the truth of the Lord remaineth for ever.29 God speaks unto us sundry ways without respect of persons.30
Our own curiosity often hindereth us in reading of the Scriptures, when as we will examine and discuss that which we should rather pass over without more ado.
If thou desire to reap profit, read with humility, simplicity, and faithfulness; nor ever desire the estimation of learning.
Of Inordinate Affections WHENSOEVER a man desireth any thing inordinately, he is presently disquieted in himself.
The proud and covetous can never rest. The poor and humble in spirit live together in all peace.
The man that is not perfectly dead to himself, is quickly tempted and overcome in small and trifling things.
The weak in spirit, and he that is yet in a manner carnal and prone to sensible things, can hardly withdraw himself altogether from earthly desires:
And therefore he is often afflicted, when he goeth about to withdraw himself from them; and easily falleth into indignation, when any opposition is made against him.
2. And if he hath followed therein his appetite, he is presently disquieted with remorse of conscience; for that he yielded to his passion, which profiteth him nothing to the obtaining of the peace he sought for.
True quietness of heart therefore is gotten by resisting our passions, not by obeying them.
There is then no peace in the heart of a carnal man, nor in him that is addicted to outward things, but in the spiritual and fervent man.
Of flying Vain Hope and Pride HE is vain that putteth his trust in man,32 or creatures.
Be not ashamed to serve others for the love of Jesus Christ; nor to be esteemed poor in this world.
Presume not upon thyself, but place thy hope in God.33
Do what lieth in thy power and God will assist thy good affection.
Trust not in thine own knowledge,34 nor in the subtilty of any living creature; but rather in the grace of God, who helpeth the humble, and humbleth those that are proud.
2. Glory not in wealth if thou have it, nor in friends because potent; but in God who giveth all things, and above all desireth to give thee Himself.
Extol not thyself for the height of thy stature or beauty of thy person, which may be disfigured and destroyed with a little sickness.
Take not pleasure in thy natural gifts, or wit, lest thereby thou displease God, to whom appertaineth all the good whatsoever thou hast by nature.
3. Esteem not thyself better than others,35 lest perhaps in the sight of God, who knoweth what is in man, thou be accounted worse than they.
Be not proud of well-doing,36 for the judgment of God is far different from the judgment of men, and that often offendeth Him which pleaseth them.
If there be any good in thee, believe that there is much more in others, that so thou mayest conserve humility within thee.
It is no prejudice unto thee to debase thyself under all men: but it is very prejudicial to thee to prefer thyself before any one man.
That too much Familiarity is to be shunned LAY not thy heart open to every one; but treat of thy affairs with the wise, and such as fear God.37
Converse not much with young people and strangers.38
Flatter not the rich: neither do thou appear willingly before great personages.
Keep company with the humble and plain ones, with the devout and virtuous; and confer with them of those things that may edify. Be not familiar with any woman; but in general commend all good women to God.
Desire to be familiar with God alone and His Angels, and avoid the acquaintance of men.
2. We must have charity towards all, but familiarity with all is not expedient.
Sometimes it falleth out, that a person unknown to us, is much esteemed of, from the good report given by others; whose presence notwithstanding is not grateful to the eyes of the beholders.
We think sometimes to please others by our company, and we rather distaste them with those bad qualities which they discover in us.
Of Obedience and Subjection IT is a great matter to live in obedience, to be under a superior, and not to be at our own disposing. It is much safer to obey, than to govern.
Many live under obedience, rather for necessity than for charity; such are discontented, and do easily repine. Neither can they attain to freedom of mind, unless they willingly and heartily put themselves under obedience for the love of God.
Go whither thou wilt, thou shalt find no rest, but in humble subjection under the government of a superior. The imagination and change of places have deceived many.
2. True it is, that every one willingly doth that which agreeth with his own sense, and is apt to affect those most that are of his own mind;
But if God be amongst us, we must sometimes cease to adhere to our own opinion for the sake of peace.
Who is so wise that he can fully know all things;
Be not therefore too confident in thine own opinion; but be willing to hear the judgment of others.
If that which thou thinkest be not amiss, and yet thou partest with it for God, and followest the opinion of another, it shall be better for thee.
It may also fall out, that each one's opinion may be good; but to refuse to yield to others when reason or a special cause requireth it, is a sign of pride and stiffness.
Of avoiding Superfluity in Words FLY the tumultuousness of the world as much as thou canst;39 for the talk of worldly affairs is a great hindrance, although they be discoursed of with sincere intention;
For we are quickly defiled, and enthralled with vanity.
Oftentimes I could wish that I had held my peace when I have spoken; and that I had not been in company.
Why do we so willingly speak and talk one with another, when notwithstanding we seldom return to silence without hurt of conscience?40
The cause why we so willingly talk, is for that by discoursing one with another, we seek to receive comfort one of another, and desire to ease our mind overwearied with sundry thoughts:
And we very willingly talk and think of those things which we most love or desire; or of those which we feel most contrary unto us.
2. But alas, oftentimes in vain, and to no end; for this outward comfort is the cause of no small loss of inward and divine consolation.
Therefore we must watch and pray, lest our time pass away idly.
If it be lawful and expedient for thee to speak, speak those things that may edify.
An evil custom and neglect of our own good doth give too much liberty to inconsiderate speech.
Yet religious discourses of spiritual things do greatly further our spiritual growth, especially when persons of one mind and spirit be gathered together in God.41
Of the obtaining of Peace, and Zealous Desire of Progress in Grace WE might enjoy much peace, if we would not busy ourselves with the words and deeds of other men, with things which appertain nothing to our charge.
How can he abide long in peace, who thrusts himself into the cares of others, who seeks occasions abroad, who little or seldom recollects himself within his own breast?
Blessed are the single-hearted; for they shall enjoy much peace.
2. What is the reason, why some of the Saints were so perfect and contemplative?
Because they laboured to mortify themselves wholly to all earthly desires; and therefore they could with their whole heart fix themselves upon God, and be free for holy retirement.
We are too much led by our passions, and too solicitous for transitory things.
We also seldom overcome any one vice perfectly, and are not inflamed with a fervent desire to grow better every day; and therefore we remain cold and lukewarm.
3. If we were perfectly dead unto ourselves, and not entangled within our own breasts; then should we be able to taste divine things, and to have some experience of heavenly contemplation.
The greatest and indeed the whole impediment is for that we are not disentangled from our passions and lusts, neither do we endeavour to enter into that path of perfection, which the Saints have walked before us; and when any small adversity befalleth us, we are too quickly dejected, and turn ourselves to human comforts.
4. If we would endeavour like men of courage to stand in the battle, surely we should feel the favourable assistance of God from Heaven.
For He who giveth us occasion to fight, to the end we may get the victory, is ready to succour those that fight manfully, and do trust in His grace.
If we esteem our progress in religious life to consist only in some exterior observances, our devotion will quickly be at an end.
But let us lay the axe to the root, that being freed from passions, we may find rest to our souls.
5. If every year we would root out one vice, we should sooner become perfect men.
But now oftentimes we perceive it goes contrary, and that we were better and purer at the beginning of our conversion, than after many years of our profession.
Our fervour and profiting should increase daily; but now it is accounted a great matter, if a man can retain but some part of his first zeal.
If we would but a little force ourselves at the beginning, then should we be able to perform all things afterwards with ease and delight.
6. It is a hard matter to leave off that to which we are accustomed, but it is harder to go against our own wills.
But if thou dost not overcome little and easy things, how wilt thou overcome harder things?
Resist thy inclination in the very beginning, and unlearn evil customs, lest perhaps by little and little they draw thee to greater difficulty.
O if thou didst but consider how much inward peace unto thyself, and joy unto others, thou shouldst procure by demeaning thyself well, I suppose thou wouldest be more careful of thy spiritual progress.