The Best Little Book You’ve Never Read

It’s the most-published book in the world after the Bible.  John Wesley listed it as one of the reasons he was a Christian.  John Newton, the Anglican clergyman who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” was said to have carried a copy of it in his pocket.  Pope John Paul I was reported to have been reading it when he died.  The basic theme of the book is simple and extraordinary:  since Jesus Christ is true God and true man, by imitating the human Jesus, we become more and more like Christ, Who is God.  The book is The Imitation of Christ, written by Thomas a Kempis in 1418.
Thomas, whose family name was Hammercken, was born in Kempen in northwest Germany in 1380.  He attended school just over the border in Holland at a Catholic school run by a group of monks known as the Brothers of the Common Life.  These men devoted themselves to lives of prayer, simplicity and seeking union with God.  When Thomas was 19 he entered their monastery in Zwolle, Holland and he spent the rest of his life within its walls, dying there at the age of 91.  Thomas’ days were filled with prayer and study, copying manuscripts, teaching novices, and offering Mass and hearing the confessions of the people who came to the monastery church.  He wrote numerous sermons, letters, hymns, and books, many of them about the lives of the saints.  By far his most famous work was The Imitation of Christ.  It’s a small book, and is divided into four chapters.  The format is that of a practical manual which lays out for the reader the “best practices” of daily Christian life.  Each bit of counsel is no more than a few paragraphs, making it easy to read and meditate on an exercise in just a few minutes.  Sprinkled within the chapters are beautiful prayers to our Lord, praising and thanking Him for help in becoming more like Him in all that we do.  Thomas was a scholar of Holy Scripture and his book is filled with Bible passages.  Thomas lays out for us the life of Jesus the man as our model for daily life.  It shouldn’t be surprising that the virtue he teaches most is humility.  “A poor peasant who serves God is better than a proud philospher who ponders the course of the stars.”  But it isn’t just a collection of proverbs.  Thomas teaches us how to read Scripture, how to use adversity for our spiritual growth, how to resist temptation, how to spiritually prepare for death and how to meditate on the sufferings of Christ.  The supreme emphasis of the book is Jesus Christ and the possibility of our own immediate communion with Him.
The opening lines of this small but powerful book are a wonderful summary of the wisdom you’ll find within it: ” ‘No one who follows Me will ever walk in darkness (John 8:12).’  These words of our Lord counsel us all to walk in His footsteps.  If you want to see and clearly avoid blindness of heart, it is His virtues you must imitate.  Make it your aim to meditate on the life of Jesus Christ.”  Available online and at most major bookstores, I’d offer only one small word of caution before you buy it—make sure you take a few minutes to read several paragraphs first.  The Imitation of Christ was originally written in Latin and there are many English translations available.  Some are easier to read than others. Find one that you like and I think you’ll soon find out why this book has been the companion of so many Christians over the centuries.  Happy reading!
“Love flies, runs and rejoices; it is free and nothing can hold it back.”  —Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471)

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