“The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis

In the late-fourteenth century a young man from the village of Kempen named Thomas Haemerken joined a spiritual renewal movement started a few decades earlier by a Dutch scholar named Geert Groote.[1] The movement was centered around the life of Jesus of Nazareth with adherents devoting “their lives to study and to educating the world.”[2] After years of study, Haemerken, better known as Thomas à Kempis or Thomas of Kempen, would share the Christ-centered values of the movement with the everyone through one of the most famous and widely read devotional books in the world, The Imitation of Christ.[3] 

            Written in four parts, The Imitation of Christ invites the reader to “study the life of Jesus Christ” so that we may “imitate His life and habits.”[4] To that end, the first part seeks to provide the reader with instructions on how to renounce the values of the world (e.g. pride, material possessions, selfishness) in favor of spiritual soul care and formation. “The greatest wisdom,” Thomas writes, “[is] to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world.”[5] Though this is not an easy message to embrace, it is one worth pursuing as in doing so we “will find peace and will experience less hardship because of God’s grace and the love of virtue.”[6]

            The second part of the book focuses on the interior life of the reader through a look at the “deeper aspects of the spiritual life, in which God illuminates our hearts with His truth.”[7] It was this selection that really caught my attention as Thomas’ words on mediation, grace, humility, and the Cross were simply powerful. It is easy to try to force oneself to follow the way of Jesus instead of dealing with the internal struggles within our souls. We are not, however, to rely upon ourselves in this journey, but rather “it is the grace of Christ…which can and does bring it about.”[8]

            Thomas shifts his writing style in part three of the book from general prose to a conversational dialogue between Jesus and his ‘disciple’ with the text alternating between the voice of Jesus and his disciple. Because of this literary device, Thomas was able to address common questions and hesitations held by his readers in a loving and humble manner. Unfortunately, I found the style distracting and hard to follow. However, others throughout history have found the style helpful as noted in the preface to this volume.[9]

            The fourth part of the book continues with the conversational dialogue previously introduced. The focus on the conversation shifts from personal soul care to the “centrality of the sacrament of Eucharist”[10] which highlights the monastic and medieval culture in which Thomas was writing. Thomas, however, doesn’t forgo his overall focus on one’s personal life. Throughout this selection about the Eucharist he continues to encourage the reader to pursue the virtues of Jesus Christ. Writing in the voice of Christ, Thomas’s encourages readers not only to “prepare devoutly before Communion” but to “carefully keep [themselves] in devotion after receiving the Sacrament.”[11]

            Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Thomas à Kempis’ Christ-centric devotional book, The Imitation of Christ. His message of spiritual formation based upon the study and imitation of Jesus of Nazareth is one that resonates within my heart. Though it is hard to look deeply inside and allow the Creator to ferret out the negative things within, it is a journey worth pursuing. Besides, as Thomas noted, “when Jesus is near, all is well and nothing seems difficult.”[12]


[1] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), xii-xiii.

[2] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, xii.

[3] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, xiv.

[4] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 3.

[5] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 3.

[6] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 32.

[7] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, xiv.

[8] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 50.

[9] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, xiv.

[10] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, xiv.

[11] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 153.

[12] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 42.

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