One of the most enlightening yet now underappreciated books of “personal improvement” is a small volume entitled The Imitation of Christ. It was written by an obscure cleric named Thomas a Kempis in the late medieval period in Germany. His name has various spellings, among them Thomas Von Kempen and Thomas Haemerkken.
Little of his early life is known, except that he received a good education in the Latin classics and showed a remarkable aptitude for writing and copying. We are told that, later in life, he copied the entire Vulgate version of the Bible by hand no less than four times.
He was born in the town of Kempen, Germany, around 1380 and steered his life towards the vocation of holy orders. He became the subprior of a monastery around 1429, and was apparently responsible for the training and instruction of novices. We have no indication that he entered seriously upon worldly occupations: his entire life was spent within the Church. It is remarkable that a man with such apparently limited experience could have written a book of such expansive and worldly wisdom. Perhaps his personal background was not as limited as we have been led to believe.
Between the years 1420 and 1427, he collected various pieces of advice together that found print under the title The Imitation of Christ. We should not be distracted, or put off, by the apparent religious tone of the title. This is a book of practical, worldly advice, with the trappings of religious ornament that were common in his day. There is no tiresome preaching here, no shopworn cant, no dreary admonitions against Hell or dreamy invocations of Heaven. It was an extremely popular book, and has gone through countless editions in a score of languages.
The book is divided into several sections: (1) Thoughts Helpful In The Life Of The Soul; (2) The Interior Life; (3) Internal Consolation; and (4) An Invitation To Holy Communion.
In the first section, we get bits of advice on the following topics, among a great many: the doctrine of truth, having a humble opinion of one’s self, shunning over-familiarity, acquiring peace and zeal for perfection, the value of adversity, bearing with the faults of others, and sorrow of heart.
But it is the section on “internal consolation” that contains the most probing and resonant advice. Here Thomas counsels us such subjects as: the proving of a true lover, the effect of divine love, acquiring patience, how one should feel and speak on various subjects, true patience in suffering, self-love is a hindrance to the highest good, and the vain judgments of men.
Here he urges us to behave zealously in improving our lives. In a passage that could have been written by a pagan Stoic, he tells us:
There is one thing that keeps many from zealously improving their lives, that is, dread of the difficulty, the toil of battle. Certainly they who try manfully to overcome the most difficult and unpleasant obstacles far outstrip others in the pursuit of virtue. A man makes the most progress and merits the most grace precisely in those matters wherein he gains the greatest victories over self and most mortifies his will. True, each one has his own difficulties to meet and conquer, but a diligent and sincere man will make progress even though he have more passion than one who is more even-tempered but less concerned about virtue. [I.25]
Yet at the same time, he takes care to warn us not to think we are too much “islands unto ourselves”:
We must not rely too much upon ourselves, for grace and understanding are often lacking in us. We have but little inborn light, and this we quickly lose through negligence. Often we are not aware that we are so blind in heart. Meanwhile we do wrong, and then do worse in excusing it. At times we are moved by passion, and we think it zeal. We take others to task for small mistakes, and overlook greater ones in ourselves. We are quick enough to feel and brood over the things we suffer in others, but we think nothing of how much others suffer from us. If a man would weigh his own deeds fully and rightly, he would find little cause to pass severe judgment in others. [II.5]
Regarding the over-pursuit of sensual pleasures, he says,
Sensual craving sometimes entices you to wander around, but when the moment is past, what do you bring back with you save a disturbed conscience and a heavy heart? A happy going often leads to a sad return, a merry evening to a mournful dawn. Thus, all carnal joy begins sweetly but in the end brings remorse and death. [I.20]
But Thomas is no killjoy, no recluse hiding from the responsibilities of the world. On the contrary, he tells us to quicken our pulses and take up the sword against worldly troubles:
If you wish to make progress in virtue…do not look for too much freedom, discipline your senses, and shun inane silliness. Sorrow opens the door to many a blessing which dissoluteness usually destroys…
Fight like a man. Habit is overcome by habit. If you leave men alone, they will leave you alone to do what you have to do. Do not busy yourself about the affairs of others and do not become entangled in the business of your superiors. Keep an eye primarily on yourself and admonish yourself instead of your friends. [I.21]
On the brevity of life and the vanity of men, he says,
Tell me, where now are all the masters and teachers whom you knew so well in life and who were famous for their learning? Others have already taken their places and I know not whether they ever think of their predecessors. During life they seemed to be something; now they are seldom remembered. How quickly the glory of the world passes away! If only their lives had kept pace with their learning, then their study and reading would have been worthwhile. [I.3]
This, then, is a true book of wisdom. It is a form of self-improvement that we do not often see: a practical guide for one’s spiritual edification. Thomas must have led a full and varied life to have come by so much practical guidance; he clearly also absorbed fully the gems put out by his classical forebearers.
There is a reason why this book has been one of the most translated works of religious literature: it transcends religion, and provides us a practical program of personal betterment, and solace in adversity. No man can do without both.