A Love Hymn by Thomas à Kempis

imitation-of-christThe 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:

  1. Helpful Counsels of the Spiritual Life
  2. Directives for the Interior Life
  3. On Interior Consolation
  4. 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.

Gero Cross, late 10th centuryIn my reading this year I was particularly struck by chapters V and VI of book 3, which speak of love. It begins with a prayer from the disciple to the Lord:

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.

Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus), 1954, by Salvador Dalí crossThen, 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.

Imitatio Christi Thomas_von_KempenChapter 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.

Imitatio Christi old

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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14 Responses to A Love Hymn by Thomas à Kempis

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks for such a splendid post!

    And, among other things, a nice implicit sequel to your Chris Armstrong review! – I have a sense of repeatedly running into Lewis recommending the Imitation, in which, happily, and interestingly, he is not alone in the modern world.

    This is a great encouragement to go and take it up (again)! (And in a steady, thoughtful, daily way…)

    But it also leaves me bubbling with questions – including, which translation do you quote? And did that fluent Latinist, Lewis, usually reread it in Latin? or vary that with trying different translations (his wonderful discussion of Bible translations in his OHEL volume springs to mind, here)? Did he favor, or warn against, particular translations, in addressing ‘us’ who are no such Latinists? (I seem to have a memory of his encouraging people to try around, and get on with whatever form or version seemed to suit the best, to start with – but my mind may be playing tricks on me, in this.)

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    • Yes, you caught the Armstrong link–I was reading Armstrong as I wrote this. I don’t know a book (other than his friends’) that Lewis recommended more than the Imitation.
      I should have noted the translator. This is William Benham in the late 1800s. Is there a good contemporary translation? I used this so I could get it free.
      I don’t know if Lewis read it in Latin or English, but he could read in Latin. Charles Huttar below partially answers the thing about translations. Lewis did recommend JB Phillips (both informally and formally).

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I don’t know! We’ve got three different Dutch translations – I tried reading our first two, older and newer, in parallel, but that did not seem a good approach. Then, we got another older one, in handy pocket format, which I keep starting over en route on journeys with public transportation, and then not going on with – ! I should pick one, settle down, and nibble through, as one might do with an anthology of daily readings. (Speaking of which, Williams’s New Christian Year and his The Passion of the Christ as (partially) transcribed and indexed and linked at the C.W. Soc site, has several selections each from Thomas and the Theologica Germanica – which I am also always meaning to read…)

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Oops – ‘Theologia’ (curiously enough, the C.W. link I mentioned has ‘Theologica’: I’ll have to try to check the original).

          I see LibriVox.org has good-sounding solo versions of the Latin text and the Benhem English and Gonnelieu Dutch translations! – maybe a little audiobook-home-refectory work will get me through a full first acquaintance-making…!

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      • joviator says:

        I, too, read centuries-old books because they’re free. Some day, historians will marvel at the revival of 18th & 19th-century thought that was caused by 20th-century copyright laws.

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        • Well, we have pretty good libraries, so lots is free. But it is a clever thought–a subversive open access movement of readers. I hope it’s true.

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I wonder how many of us there are who are a day’s journey from a good (public) library, but only a couple clicks from the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, Project Canterbury, the External Links of innumerable Wikipedia articles (in various languages), LibriVox.org, and so on, where the books Inklings could have (or are known to have) read in their youth outnumber later works?

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            • I find googling easier, myself. And text searchable. But the reading experience for me is contact based. I love books. Screens are uni-sensual.

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              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                Someday I must get someone to explain Google Books to me (I feel sure there is more I can do than I already know how to).

                I agree about the preferability of real books – skimming back and forth online seems so clumsy and slow by comparison (like trying to chop vegetables with mittens on, or something).

                And, of course, books are objects and artefacts: any and every scan is inescapably at least one step removed from that reality of books.

                Still, it’s wonderful to have access to so much, even on those terms. (Bill Thayer at Lacus Curtius makes an interesting case for transcribing rather than scanning out-of-copyright works – though this inevitably opens up the opportunity for the introduction of errors of a different kind: in effect, a transcription is a new edition.)

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              • I think Google Books bought 5 giant libraries, ripped off the bindings, scanned the books, then made all or part of it available depending on a few factors (financial recovery, copyright, demand, library integration, and who knows what else). That’s just what I heard.
                I love that google books and the gutenberg type folk are there to help me find obscure things and search common things. My whole project is different because of it.

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  2. Charles Huttar says:

    Brenton, thanks for this.
    With David, I too thought immediately of Lewis’s fondness for the Imitatio. And yes, Lewis wouldn’t presume to tell people which Bible translation would work best for them–though he was pretty firm about the shortcomings of some (e.g., Basic English and, for many contemporaries, the good old KJV). He typically offered guidance but not dictation.
    Another favorite of Lewis’s, roughly contemporary with Kempis but less well known today, was the Theologia Germanica.

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  3. Pingback: 2016: A Year of Reading | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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