Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 25 July 2010
25 July 2010 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon in Residence
Some Late Medieval Spiritual Classics (4): the Imitation of Christ
This week I shall speak about a book written in Latin, The Imitation of Christ. Thomas à Kempis knows a great deal about the secrets of survival in a world that seems to be spinning out of control. For Thomas, our relationship with Christ is the key to living with serenity and joy.
Through the Sundays of July, I have been speaking about some classics of late medieval spiritual writing. The first three were all written in English when there was a great outburst of spiritual writing in the late fourteenth century. This week I want to speak about a spiritual classic written in Latin about thirty years later, in 1425, by Thomas à Kempis. Thomas came from Kempen on the River Rhine, in north Germany near the Dutch border.
Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ is one of the most popular devotional classics there has ever been. When I was young, many Christians, especially priests, monks and nuns, would read a chapter a day. Today, I suspect it is hardly read at all.
How is it that fashions in spirituality change so much? In the case of the Imitation of Christ I guess it is because we see life so differently. Writing for monks like himself, and for priests, Thomas is constantly reminding them of death: ‘Every action of yours, every thought’, he says, ‘should be those of a man who expects to die before the day is out’ (p. 50). These days, with modern medicine, we live far less close to sudden death than Thomas would have done, so his preoccupation with death may seem a bit irrelevant. But not, of course, completely so. Death can come suddenly, for instance in a car crash, and Thomas is right to make us face up to that possibility. We are bombarded with images of the good life, but Thomas keeps reminding us that the things which are so attractive to us are all passing away. At times he speaks with the world-weary tone of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, who sees this everything in this life as vanity or emptiness. Thomas talks of ‘the hollowness of all earthly things’ (p. 35) and discourages getting too close to other people – we have to remember that he was writing to people who had taken a vow of celibacy. Today, the need for celibate people be sustained by loving and close relationships would be widely affirmed. These days we want our Christianity to be life-affirming not life-denying.
Thomas never stops affirming life in Christ. He knows that the psalmist is right when he bursts out ‘Bless the Lord, O may soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name’ (Psalm 103:1). He recognises that, ‘There’s no creature in the world so mean and insignificant that it doesn’t reflect, somehow, the glory of God’ (p. 65). His concern, though, is that we do not mistake the glory of creation for the glory of the Creator.
The Imitation of Christ has four books, each of which is very different from the others. The first contains practical advice about how to live the spiritual life. The emphasis here is on detachment from the things of this world. The second turns to the inner life of the believer. In modern terms, it sounds quite evangelical with its emphasis on friendship with Jesus and walking in the way of the cross. The third book, which is much the longest, focuses on the dialogue of love between the believer and Christ. The influence of the Song of Songs in the background is unmistakeable. The last book is a meditation on the eucharist, which encourages us to share in it with devotion and wonder. These four books may well have circulated independently before being brought together in one volume.
In the first book, Thomas can sound quite anti-intellectual. There are wonderful remarks such as, ‘For myself, I would sooner know what contrition feels like, than how to define it’ (p. 17), or ‘When the day of judgement comes we shall be examined about what we have done, not about what we have read’ (p. 21). A little later he writes, ‘Blessed are the simple; they shall have peace to their heart’s content’ (p. 28). Again and again, he points to the joy that comes with single-minded dedication to God. Sometimes he breaks out in prayer:
O God, you are the truth; unite me to yourself by an act of unfailing love! I am so tired of reading about this and that, being lectured to about this and that, when all I want, all that I long for, is to be found in you. If only they would hold their tongues, these learned folk! If only the whole creation would be silent in your presence, and you, you alone, speak to me. (p.20)
Imagine a world in which, just for a moment, all the computers, televisions, radios, CD players, and i-phones were turned off, and creation was silent before its maker. If we can’t do that outwardly, Thomas wants us to do it inwardly.
In the second book, Thomas develops the idea of an interior life more fully. ‘You must turn to him, the Lord, with all your heart, and leave this wretched world behind you, if your soul is to find rest’, he says (p. 60). He assumes that we all have this need, but he knows we have to be extremely disciplined to make time to cultivate our interior life. In former generations, there was a lot of emphasis on the importance of having a secret discipline, a disciplina arcana, in the way one went about living a Christian life. The word that comes to mind is ‘reserve’. Thomas wants us to reserve an interior space for God. In rejecting his negative attitude towards the good things of this world, the danger is that we reject the positive good of making time to withdraw to be silent and still, to attend to what goes on within. Those times, says Thomas, are essential for healthy Christian living.
The third book is a series of dialogues between the human soul and its beloved, Christ. I find these less interesting than the previous two books, because they are rather predictable. They don’t have the sharp turns of phrase you get in the first two books. Still, there are wonderful moments, including a prayer of complete self –surrender. Thomas prays:
Lord, you know which way is for the best; let it happen this way or that, according as you will. Give what you will, in whatever measure you will, and when you will. Do with me as you know is best, as pleases you best, as will best promote your glory. Put me where you will, and have a free hand with me in everything. Yes, I am in your hand; twist me around and turn me about as you will. I am your servant, and ready for anything; it is not for myself that I want to live, but for you. [I just want to do] that do that worthily and faultlessly! (p. 107)
This is very similar to the Contemplation to Attain Love of God, which for St Ignatius of Loyola comes at the end of a thirty-day retreat, or the prayer which John Wesley wrote to be uttered once a year in the Covenant Service. It is a prayer which cannot be prayed from the heart without much careful preparation, and complete self-surrender.
In his last book, Thomas confronts us with the wonder of the eucharist as a means of sharing in Christ. We have become far too familiar with it, he says: ‘Suppose that this most holy Sacrament were celebrated in one place only; suppose there were only one priest in the whole world to say the words of consecration. How men would long to go to that place, to visit that one priest of God and to see the divine mysteries celebrated’ (p. 185). The wonder is that the eucharist is celebrated in many places and all may freely share in Christ by his free invitation.
The Imitation of Christ opens with a call to follow Christ: ‘If we want to see our way truly, never a trace of blindness left in our hearts, it is his life, his character, we must take for our model’ (p. 17). Actually, Thomas does not pay much attention to Christ as a model at all. There is no evidence in the gospels that Christ lived as though he expected to die before the day was out, that he avoided close friendships, or that he accepted ‘the hollowness of all earthly things’. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, and invited people to celebrate his presence with them. Thomas wants to celebrate the presence of Jesus, but he advocates withdrawal from the world to find it. This is why, I think, so many fewer people read him today. But this is a pity, because Thomas has many good things to say about Christian discipleship. He knows a great deal about the secrets of survival in a world that seems to be spinning out of control. For Thomas, our relationship with Christ is the key to living with serenity and joy.