Homer’s “Iliad,” Michelangelo’s “David,” Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are all considered classical works. A classic is an outstanding work with a timeless quality. There are classics of painting, sculpture, literature, drama and music that seem to speak to every generation. Usually, it takes some effort to work our way through a classic, and not everything it contains will resonate with our contemporary reality. Nevertheless, what makes a classic a classic is its ability to communicate truth and meaning across a wide expanse of time.
The same is true with spiritual classics. Outstanding works of religious art, writing and music stand the test of time, and communicate spiritual truths across wide chasms of time. Often, it takes some effort to allow the classic to speak to our contemporary minds. Consider the great spiritual writings of the saints. In order to understand a great book in the Christian spiritual tradition, we might have to acquaint ourselves with the historical times in which the author produced the work. We might have to familiarize ourselves with the work’s context. For whom did the author intend the work? What were the reasons for writing it? For example, St. John of the Cross wrote his prose piece “The Dark Night of the Soul” for his brother Carmelites, who had asked him to explain the meaning of his mystical poem “One Dark Night.” St. Francis de Sales wrote “Introduction to the Devout Life” primarily for lay people to help them discern their path to holiness.
One of the most popular spiritual classics is “The Imitation of Christ,” attributed to Thomas à Kempis. Thomas Hammerken was born in Kempen, near Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1380. At age 13, he left home for Deventer in the Netherlands, the home of the Brethren of the Common Life. This was a community of people who took no religious vows, but lived their lives guided by Gospel-based resolutions and intentions.
Geert Grote (1340-84) was the founder of a movement in the Late Middle Ages known as the Devotio Moderna (Modern Devotion). The idea behind this spiritual movement was to foster aspects of monastic spirituality among the laity. The Brethren of the Common Life saw monastic values and practices as normative for Christian spirituality. This spirituality focused on piety, asceticism and humility as essential for the imitation of Christ.
Thomas à Kempis studied at the monastery school in Deventer under Florentius Radewyns, Geert Grotes’s successor, and later joined the monastery of the Augustinian Canons in Zwolle. He was ordained a priest in 1413. While scholars debate whether Thomas actually wrote the “The Imitation of Christ,” there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he did. While he probably did not create the teaching found in the book, he likely collected and organized the devotional tradition of the Brethren of the Common Life. “The Imitation of Christ” is the best representation of the spirituality of the Devotio Moderna.
The spirituality of the Brethren focused on Christ. Their purpose was to imitate Christ, and in order to do that, they emphasized reading and meditating on the Sacred Scriptures, especially the Gospels. Their study of Scripture had as its aim to cultivate moral sanctity. Members of this movement focused their efforts on training the heart, to purge the fallen nature and replace it with a loving devotion to Christ. The focus of “The Imitation of Christ” is on interior renewal and the Eucharist.
“The Imitation of Christ” is made up of four sections, or books: Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Counsels on the Inner Life, On Inward Consolation, and On the Blessed Sacrament. The meditations in each section are designed to bring the novice into deeper union with Christ.
Book I of “The Imitation of Christ” begins with these words of invitation: “‘He who follows Me walks not in darkness,’ (John 8:12) says the Lord. By these words of Christ, we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of the heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.” (Bk. 1, Ch. 1)
It is clear from the very first chapter of Book I that if a person wishes to live in imitation of Christ, there will need to be an interior change moving the heart away from vanity and false pride to a condition of true humility. This spirit of humility directs the person to live in the love of God. Two guiding principles, simplicity and purity, lift up a person like spiritual wings. “Simplicity leads to God, purity embraces and enjoys him.” (Bk. 1, Ch. 4) These virtues make it possible to please God, and help our brothers and sisters in their need. The result is inner freedom.
“The Imitation of Christ” encourages a willingness to accept Jesus’ invitation to take up the cross and follow. Suffering and struggle are inevitable realities in life. Our inner disposition to these realities is what makes all the difference. “If you carry the cross willingly, it will carry and lead you to the desired goal where indeed there shall be no more suffering. If you carry it unwillingly, you create a burden for yourself and increase the load, though you still have to bear it.” (Bk. II, Ch. 12)
There is a strong Eucharistic element in “The Imitation of Christ.” Book IV describes how the soul yearns for complete union with God, and how the presence of Christ in the Eucharist makes union with God possible. The believer’s response to God’s boundless generosity is a spirit of profound gratitude. “What shall I make to the Lord for this love, this grace so boundless? There is nothing I can give more pleasing than to offer my heart completely to my God, uniting it closely to His. Then shall my inner self be glad when my soul is perfectly united with God.” (Bk. IV, Ch. 13)
While some contemporary readers might criticize “The Imitation of Christ” because it emphasizes the interior life of the Christian while focusing little on the active apostolate, others see no contradiction. Both elements — the cultivating of a contemplative spirit, and the performing of works of charity, justice and mercy — are essential to the Christian life. Reading and meditating on “The Imitation of Christ” amidst the frenetic pace of contemporary life may remind us of the need to set time aside to pray, meditate on Scripture and develop the habits of the heart necessary to be evangelizers, peacemakers, and caregivers in today’s world. “The Imitation of Christ” is truly a Christian classic.