Imitation of Christ


Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis

Thomas was born at Kempen, fifteen miles northwest of present –day Dusseldorf, in 1379-1380, the son of John and Gertrude Haemerken. His father was a blacksmith and his mother ran a school for small children. He attended classes—probably his mother’s—until he left for Deventer. Seven years after his arrival, he determined to enter the religious life. Thomas pronounced the three vows of religion—poverty, chastity, and obedience—in 1406/7 and was ordained a priest in 1413 at the age of thirty-three. Thomas a Kempis may have written the book at the age of forty-seven. The Imitation or Following of Christ is the widest-read and best-loved religious book in the world, with the exception only of the Bible. Since its completion, around 1427, The Imitation has literally traversed the ages and covered the continents. Hre died on July 25, 1471, and buried in the monastery grounds. He belonged to the Congregation of Brothers of Common Life.

Christian life has two sides or aspects: mistrust of ourselves, a proper diffidence in our own powers to avoid sina and grow in Grace; and a rooted confidence in the Grace of God, with which all things are possible to us. This book is a series of meditations to deepen one’s interior life. Often anti-intellectualism is stressed too much. It speaks of vanity of human knowledge, and seems to disparage all learning save the knowledge that one, of oneself, is worth nothing. Perhaps the most famous phrase of The Imitation is: “I had rather feel compunction of heart for my sins than only know the definition of compunction”. What would be wrong, one is tempted to ask, with both feeling compunction and being able to define compunction?  However, it speaks in other passages of the legitimatyc of inquiry and speculation, warning only that presumption and pride must be avoided in the intellectual search.It is a book written by a monk for the monks. The little book is not the whole of the Catholic faith, it represents a very small section of it, and that section is not dogmatic, it is not even notably intellectual. When piety is cut away from doctrinal foundation, it tends to be sentimental or worse.The monastic order has its doctrinal background, but there can be also rather narrow viewpoints, like “personal friendships’—the monk should avoid “particular friendships’ among persons living in community—those friendships which would be so exclusive that they would freeze others out. It would be a hindrance for Christian charity. Monks should not be cold, aloof, insensitive to the ties of kindred and friendship. Regarding the body, the word ‘vile’ is used frequently in connection with ‘corruptible’ in reference to the body. The Latin is ‘vilis’, and its first meaning is simply “what can be purchased of little price, of little worth”. Our modern meaning of “repellent, disgusting” is thoroughly out of context here—unless, of course, we have been brought up on the fable that all monks despised the body. The did not, they recognized it for what it is, the lovely handiwork of God, but still a thing to be kept in its place, precisely, because, in comparison with the soul, it is indeed of little worth.

As Thomas Aquinas has commended: ‘We ought to seek in Holy Scripture ghostly profit rather than curisioty of style”. The same admonition may be issued to the readers of this book. We should seek “ghostly” or spiritual profit. It is an English classic.. This book should prove to all readers a “quick springing well” of “ghostly profit” and of delight in the wealth and beautfy of our English tongue.

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