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Following Christ's Example in the World – Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (c. 1418)

Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380-1471), a native of the Lower Rhenish region, was the author of The Imitation of Christ, a uniquely popular book that codified the ideals of the movement called “the Modern Devotion” [Devotia Moderna]. Although many who followed Thomas’ principles were laypersons, he himself was part of a community that lived under Augustinian rule. While ascetic and monastic in origin, the piety Thomas taught is adapted for a variety of ways of life. He emphasized a literate, individual spirituality, self-discipline, and, above all, the practice of charity, which he viewed as the highest virtue and the best way to follow the example of God’s son. Translated from the Latin, The Imitation of Christ is probably the most popular book of Christian devotion ever written. Like Eckhart and Tauler before him, Thomas taught that love, not faith, was the highest expression of Christian virtue.

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The Imitation of Christ

Book I

[ . . . ]

Chapter 24

At every turn of your life, keep the end in view; remember that you will have to stand before a strict Judge, who knows everything, who cannot be won over by gifts or talked round by excuses, who will give you your deserts. What sort of defense will you make before One who knows the worst that can be said against you—poor, sinful fool, so often panic-stricken when you meet with human disapproval! Strange, that you should look forward so little to the Day of Judgment, when there will be no counsel to plead for you, because everyone will be hard put to it to maintain his own cause! Now is the time to work, while there is a harvest to be reaped, now is the time when tears and sighs and lamenting of yours will be taken into account, and listened to, and can make satisfaction for the debt you owe.

2. Nothing so important, nothing so useful, if you want to clear your soul of that debt, as to be a man who can put up with a great deal. Such a man, if he is wronged, is more distressed over the sin committed than over the wrong done him; he is always ready to say a prayer for his enemies, forgives an injury with all his heart, and is quick to ask forgiveness of others, and you will find him more easily moved to pity than to anger. And all the while he is putting constraint upon himself, doing all he can to make corrupt nature the servant of the spirit.

Much better to get rid of your sins now, prune away your bad habits here, than keep them to be paid for hereafter; it’s only our preposterous attachment to creature comforts that blinds us.

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7. And now, suppose you had lived all your life, and were still living today, surrounded with honors and pleasures, what use would it all be, if you were to fall down dead this instant? Everything, you see, is just meaningless, except loving God and giving all our loyalty to him.

Love God with all your heart, and you’ve nothing to fear; death or punishment, judgment or hell; love, when it reaches its full growth, is an unfailing passport to God’s presence. If we are still hankering after our sinful habits, of course we are afraid of death and judgment. Just as well, all the same, that if love can’t succeed in beckoning us away from evil courses, we should be scared away by the fear of hell. Only, if a man doesn’t make the fear of God his first consideration, his good resolutions won’t last; he will walk into some trap of the devil’s before long.

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