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“HE WHO follows Me, walks not in darkness,” 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 heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.” Those words have been read by more people than any other words printed except those printed in the Holy Scriptures. They are the opening sentences of The Imitation of Christ by my 15th century friend, Thomas à Kempis. I would share with you my favorite passages of this great work, but then I would pretty much have to read the entire book to you.
Since it was first published in 1471, the year of Thomas’ death, there have been 6,000 different editions published. That’s one new edition, every month, for 500 years.
I’ve told you the story before: I’ve read all sorts of devotional / inspirational books. From Oswald Chambers to the more contemporary, but in every case, it took me less than about a month to become completely bored or frustrated with them. Oswald was probably the most compelling, but they seemed to all tell me what I wanted to hear, not what I needed to hear. They seemed more interested in giving the reader a warm fuzzy than in changing lives. Then one day, as I was walking through the library of Nashotah, I came to the shelves of free books. Ones that were dated or worn out and students could take what they wanted. It was there that I picked up this very book, and although I now have multiple editions, I’ve never set it down. Thomas is a true companion of my soul. And, clearly, I’m not the only one who feels this way.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who’s book, Story of a Soul, we just finished in book club writes, “If I open a book composed by a spiritual author (even the most beautiful, the most touching book), I feel my heart contract immediately and I read without understanding, so to speak. Or if I do understand, my mind comes to a standstill without the capacity of meditating. In this helplessness, Holy Scripture and the Imitation [of Christ] come to my aid; in them I discover a solid and very pure nourishment.”
If Thomas à Kempis and the Imitation have had such widespread and lasting effect on so many, then why is he still not SAINT Thomas à Kempis. There have been two attempts at his canonization, 1655 and 1911, but both failed. One theory for the failure states that Thomas was buried alive—when they exhumed his body as part of the examination process, they found scratch marks on the inside of the lid of his coffin, with splinters in his hands. Rules say that it cannot be known if he died in a state of grace, because—obviously—no one was present at his death, therefore he cannot be sainted. However, there is further evidence that suggests this is only a myth that developed over the years. The second theory is that the Imitation was not written solely by Thomas, but was a compilation of several authors and Thomas was the editor of the work. In either case or none of the above, the church has not elevated Thomas, but those who read him have.
He is one of the medals on my rosary, along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Michael the Archangel, and St. Josemaría Escrivá. With these three, Thomas, and the Lord Jesus walking with me, I figure I’m in pretty good hands.
My former bishop would give me a hard time for reading the Imitation—“Too morbid, John.”—and I’ve had friends suggest that I pick up something more inspiring, so I know he is not for everyone, but if you’ve never picked up this little book, I recommend it to you, with this one warning: you may never put it down.