The Imitation of Christ, often called Imitatio Christi, is a Latin devotional handbook attributed to Thomas à Kempis. Perhaps the most widely read devotional book other than the Bible, the Imitatio is not merely a classic Christian text, but where most Western Christians of the modern world turned for spiritual formation. The copy you bump into is likely to be divided into four books:
- Helpful Counsels of the Spiritual Life
- Directives for the Interior Life
- On Interior Consolation
- On the Blessed Sacrament
It is not really a single book, but an eclectic collection of devotional material tested by a community. It includes short lyrics, wise sayings and proverbs, commands, meditations on texts, rules for daily life, and prayers to Christ and from Christ to the disciple. It is best read slowly, perhaps reading a chapter a day over four months or so. While only five minutes of reading in a day, the ideas are rich and poignant, pressing in to the heart of discipleship. These devotions are designed for male monks in the late medieval-early modern era, and are sometimes troubling and problematic. From time to time, the language will be shocking to our cultural ears. But as whole, it is filled with spiritual support for the reader who would like to be like Christ.
I bless Thee, O Heavenly Father, Father of my Lord Jesus Christ, for that Thou hast vouchsafed to think of me, poor that I am. O, Father of Mercies and God of all comfort, I give thanks unto Thee, who refreshest me sometimes with thine own comfort, when I am unworthy of any comfort. I bless and glorify Thee continually, with thine only begotten Son and the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, for ever and ever. O Lord God, Holy lover of my soul, when Thou shalt come into my heart, all my inward parts shall rejoice. Thou art my glory and the joy of my heart. Thou art my hope and my refuge in the day of my trouble.
But because I am still weak in love and imperfect in virtue, I need to be strengthened and comforted by Thee; therefore visit Thou me often and instruct me with Thy holy ways of discipline. Deliver me from evil passions, and cleanse my heart from all inordinate affections, that, being healed and altogether cleansed within, I may be made ready to love, strong to suffer, steadfast to endure.
Then, in the same voice of prayer, the disciple extols the virtues of love. While longer than St. Paul’s hymn of love in 1 Corinthians 13, this passage has a potency when thinking about the power of love in a life of faith. I thought it was valuable, then, to introduce readers to the Imitatio’s hymn of love and the desire of the disciple to be lost in the love of God.
Love is a great thing, a good above all others, which alone maketh every heavy burden light, and equaliseth every inequality. For it beareth the burden and maketh it no burden, it maketh every bitter thing to be sweet and of good taste. The surpassing love of Jesus impelleth to great works, and exciteth to the continual desiring of greater perfection. Love willeth to be raised up, and not to be held down by any mean thing. Love willeth to be free and aloof from all worldly affection, lest its inward power of vision be hindered, lest it be entangled by any worldly prosperity or overcome by adversity. Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger, nothing loftier, nothing broader, nothing pleasanter, nothing fuller or better in heaven nor on earth, for love was born of God and cannot rest save in God above all created things.
He who loveth flyeth, runneth, and is glad; he is free and not hindered. He giveth all things for all things, and hath all things in all things, because he resteth in One who is high above all, from whom every good floweth and proceedeth. He looketh not for gifts, but turneth himself to the Giver above all good things. Love oftentimes knoweth no measure, but breaketh out above all measure; love feeleth no burden, reckoneth not labours, striveth after more than it is able to do, pleadeth not impossibility, because it judgeth all things which are lawful for it to be possible. It is strong therefore for all things, and it fulfilleth many things, and is successful where he who loveth not faileth and lieth down.
Love is watchful, and whilst sleeping still keepeth watch; though fatigued it is not weary, though pressed it is not forced, though alarmed it is not terrified, but like the living flame and the burning torch, it breaketh forth on high and securely triumpheth. If a man loveth, he knoweth what this voice crieth. For the ardent affection of the soul is a great clamour in the ears of God, and it saith: My God, my Beloved! Thou art all mine, and I am all Thine.
Enlarge Thou me in love, that I may learn to taste with the innermost mouth of my heart how sweet it is to love, to be dissolved, and to swim in love. Let me be holden by love, mounting above myself through exceeding fervour and admiration. Let me sing the song of love, let me follow Thee my Beloved on high, let my soul exhaust itself in Thy praise, exulting with love. Let me love Thee more than myself, not loving myself except for Thy sake, and all men in Thee who truly love Thee, as the law of love commandeth which shineth forth from Thee.
Love is swift, sincere, pious, pleasant, gentle, strong, patient, faithful, prudent, long-suffering, manly, and never seeking her own; for wheresoever a man seeketh his own, there he falleth from love. Love is circumspect, humble, and upright; not weak, not fickle, nor intent on vain things; sober, chaste, steadfast, quiet, and guarded in all the senses. Love is subject and obedient to all that are in authority, vile and lowly in its own sight, devout and grateful towards God, faithful and always trusting in Him even when God hideth His face, for without sorrow we cannot live in love.
Chapter VI moves into a gentle rebuke of Christ about why the disciple is not living free in this love. There is much that is strict and even harsh in the Imitatio. If we were to weight the chapters by focus, one would assume that God’s grace and love were a minor add on to the tremendous responsibility of the believer to be good–indeed, to be perfect, as God is perfect.
I think, though, that the entire discipline manual is based upon passages like this one. It is not an ideally organized book; I would place the passages of love and grace at the beginning, reminding readers that the engine of our goodness is also God’s good gift. Perhaps, though, discovering passages like this one in the midst of rules, discipline, and the demands of holiness will remind the reader just in time that God always takes the first step. In any case, it is important to remember the cry of aged writer–“Enlarge me in thy love!”–as we turn to this classic text.