What does it mean to be a Christian? According to Thomas à Kempis, the Christian must completely imitate the life and example of Jesus Christ. In this classic treasure of Christian instruction, Thomas à Kempis challenges the believer to look intently upon the life of Christ and live in the pattern He established. This spiritual manual begins with the proper outward expressions of faith, moving quickly to the instruction of the reader's spiritual formation. All the while insisting that true imitation of Christ can only occur when the heart and mind are united to Christ.
“‘The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing.’2 Try, moreover, to turn your heart from the love of things visible and bring yourself to things invisible. For they who follow their own evil passions stain their consciences and lose the grace of God.” (Page 2)
“DO NOT yield to every impulse and suggestion but consider things carefully and patiently in the light of God’s will.” (Page 9)
“When the right and opportune moment comes for speaking, say something that will edify.” (Page 16)
“A good life makes a man wise according to God and gives him experience in many things, for the more humble he is and the more subject to God, the wiser and the more at peace he will be in all things.” (Page 9)
“‘Resist the beginnings; remedies come too late, when by long delay the evil has gained strength.’ First, a mere thought comes to mind, then strong imagination, followed by pleasure, evil delight, and consent. Thus, because he is not resisted in the beginning, Satan gains full entry. And the longer a man delays in resisting, so much the weaker does he become each day, while the strength of the enemy grows against him.” (Pages 21–22)
In The Imitation of Christ, readers will discover what is truly important in a relationship with God is not years of schooling or a back pocket full of knowledge about the faith but practicing virtues and loving God. Consider what Kempis writes early in Imitation of Christ:
Indeed, it is not just learning that makes a man holy and just but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God?
His words come with a gentle reminder that the more a person knows, the more God will require of them. The Christian's work is not what matters but the motive behind why they do what they do.
Kempis believes following Jesus' example is the only path to true happiness. Consider what Kempis says will be the only thing that counts at the day of judgment:
In that day, every trial born in patience will be pleasing and voice of iniquity will be stilled; the devout will be glad, the irreligious will mourn, and the mortified body will rejoice, far more than if it had been pampered with every pleasure. Then the cheap garnet will shine with splendor and the rich one will become faded and worn; the poor cottage will be praised more than the gilded palace. In that day, persevering patience will count more than all the power in this world. Simple obedience will be exalted over all worldly cleverness; a good and clean conscience will gladden the heart of man far more than the philosophy of the learned; and contempt for riches will be of more weight than every treasure on earth.
Anyone chasing perfection and feeling like they are falling short will be challenged but encouraged by Kempis' long-beloved devotional. It's a call to simplify life and refocus attention on the only One who can provide true peace and joy, leading to unity with Jesus and a life reflective of what perfection in the kingdom looks like.
For a long time I had nourished my spiritual life with the "fine flour" contained in The Imitation of Christ. It was the only book which did me good, for I had not yet found the treasures hidden in the Holy Gospels. I always had it with me, to the amusement of my people at home. —St. Thérèse of Lisieux
The unchallenged masterpiece of devotional literature for half a millennium. Christians worldwide have been immensely enriched by this simple book. —Richard J. Foster, Christian theologian
The Imitation of Christ is a book that followed me through my days. Again and again I came across copies of it, and the reading of it brought me comfort. I felt in the background of my life a waiting force that would lift me up eventually. —Dorothy Day, Founder of The Catholic Worker Movement
Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380–1471) was a late-Medieval Catholic monk and the probable author of The Imitation of Christ—a classic in Christian literature and one of the best-known books on Christian devotion. His name means “Thomas of Kempen,” his hometown, and in German he is known as Thomas von Kempen. He also is known by various spellings of his family name: Thomas Haemerkken, Thomas Hammerlein, Thomas Hemerken, and Thomas Hämerken.
As he traveled with his brother to attend school in the Netherlands, he was introduced to the Brethren of the Common Life—followers of Gerard Groote's Modern Devotion movement. After finishing school, he joined the Mount St. Agnes monastery, where he spent the rest of his life in devotion and prayer.
Thomas' sermons, meditations, and prayers—compiled in The Works of Thomas à Kempis (7 vols) have influenced many Christian writers.