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The Imitation of Christ

Written by: a Kempis, Thomas    Posted on: 03/31/2003

Category: Classic Christian Library

Source: CCN

                  THE IMITATION OF CHRIST


                      Thomas a Kempis

                      TRANSLATED FROM                         THE LATIN INTO                         MODERN ENGLISH

Digitized by Harry Plantinga, planting@cs.pitt.edu, 1994. This etext is in the public domain.    


IN PREPARING this edition of The Imitation of Christ, the aim was to achieve a simple, readable text which would ring true to those who are already lovers of this incomparable book and would attract others to it. For this reason we have attempted to render the text into English as it is spoken today rather than the cloudy, archaic terminology that encumbers so many translations of Christian classics. The result, we feel, has achieved a directness and conciseness which will meet the approval of modern readers. In the second place, we have made use of the familiar paragraph form, doing away with the simple statement or verse form of the original and of many translations. This was done in the interest of easier reading, and in order to bring out more clearly the connection between the single statements.     No claim of literary excellence over the many English versions now extant is here advanced, nor any attempt to solve in further confusion the problem of the book's authorship.     Theories most popular at the moment ascribe the Imitation to two or three men, members of the Brethren of the Common Life, an association of priests organized in the Netherlands in the latter half of the fourteenth century. That Thomas Hemerken of Kempen, or Thomas Ë Kempis as he is now known, later translated a composite of their writings, essentially a spiritual diary, from the original Netherlandish into Latin is generally admitted by scholars. This Thomas, born about the year 1380, was educated by the Brethren of the Common Life, was moved to join their community, and was ordained priest. His career thereafter was devoted to practicing the counsels of spiritual perfection and to copying books for the schools. From both pursuits evolved The Imitation of Christ. As editor and translator he was not without faults, but thanks to him the Imitation became and has remained, after the Bible, the most widely read book in the world. It is his edition that is here rendered into English, without deletion of chapters or parts of them because doubts exist as to their authorship, or because of variants in style, or for any of the other more or less valid reasons.     There is but one major change. The treatise on Holy Communion, which Ë Kempis places as Book Three, is here titled Book Four. The move makes the order of the whole more logical and agrees with the thought of most editors.

                                          The Translators                                           Aloysius Croft                                           Harold Bolton    




1  Imitating Christ and Despising All Vanities on Earth 2  Having A Humble Opinion of Self 3  The Doctrine of Truth 4  Prudence in Action 5  Reading the Holy Scripture 6  Unbridled Affections 7  Avoiding False Hope and Pride 8  Shunning Over-Familiarity 9  Obedience and Subjection 10  Avoiding Idle Talk 11  Acquiring Peace and Zeal for Perfection 12  The Value of Adversity 13  Resisting Temptation 14  Avoiding Rash Judgment 15  Works Done in Charity 16  Bearing With the Faults of Others 17  Monastic Life 18  The Example Set Us by the Holy Fathers 19  The Practices of a Good Religious 20  The Love of Solitude and Silence 21  Sorrow of Heart 22  Thoughts on the Misery of Man 23  Thoughts on Death 24  Judgment and the Punishment of Sin 25  Zeal in Amending Our Lives


1  Meditation 2  Humility 3  Goodness and Peace in Man 4  Purity of Mind and Unity of Purpose 5  Ourselves 6  The Joy of a Good Conscience 7  Loving Jesus Above All Things 8  The Intimate Friendship of Jesus 9  Wanting No Share in Comfort 10  Appreciating God's Grace 11  Few Love the Cross of Jesus 12  The Royal Road of the Holy Cross


1  The Inward Conversation of Christ with the Faithful Soul 2  Truth Speaks Inwardly without the Sound of Words 3  Listen Humbly to the Words of God. Many Do Not Heed Them 4  We Must Walk Before God in Humility and Truth 5  The Wonderful Effect of Divine Love 6  The Proving of a True Lover 7  Grace Must Be Hidden Under the Mantle of Humility 8  Self-Abasement in the Sight of God 9  All Things Should be Referred to God as their Last End 10  To Despise the World and Serve God is Sweet 11  The Longings of Our Hearts Must Be Examined and Moderated 12  Acquiring Patience in the Fight against Concupiscence 13  The Obedience of One Humbly Subject to the Example of Jesus     Christ 14  Consider the Hidden Judgments of God Lest You Become Proud     of Your Own Good Deeds 15  How One Should Feel and Speak on Every Desirable Thing 16  True Comfort is to be Sought in God Alone 17  All Our Care is to be Placed in God 18  Temporal Sufferings Should be Borne Patiently, After the     Example of Christ 19  True Patience in Suffering 20  Confessing Our Weakness in the Miseries of Life 21  Above All Goods and All Gifts We Must Rest in God 22  Remember the Innumerable Gifts of God 23  Four Things Which Bring Great Peace 24  Avoiding Curious Inquiry About the Lives of Others 25  The Basis of Firm Peace of Heart and True Progress 26  The Excellence of a Free Mind, Gained Through Prayer Rather     Than by Study 27  Self-Love is the Greatest Hindrance to the Highest Good 28  Strength Against Slander 29  How We Must Call Upon and Bless the Lord When Trouble Presses 30  The Quest of Divine Help and Confidence in Regaining Grace 31  To Find the Creator, Forsake All Creatures 32  Self-Denial and the Renunciation of Evil Appetites 33  Restlessness of Soul -- Directing Our Final Intention Toward     God 34  God is Sweet Above All Things and in All Things to Those Who     Love Him 35  There is No Security from Temptation in This Life 36  The Vain Judgments of Men 37  Pure and Entire Resignation of Self to Obtain Freedom of Heart 38  The Right Ordering of External Affairs; Recourse to God in     Dangers 39  A Man Should Not be Unduly Solicitous about his Affairs 40  Man Has No Good in Himself and Can Glory in Nothing 41  Contempt for All Earthly Honor 42  Peace is not to be Placed in Men 43  Beware Vain and Worldly Knowledge 44  Do Not be Concerned About Outward Things 45  All Men Are Not To Be Believed, For It is Easy To Err in     Speech 46  Trust in God Against Slander 47  Every Trial Must Be Borne for the Sake of Eternal Life 48  The Day of Eternity and the Distresses of this Life 49  The Desire of Eternal Life; The Great Rewards Promised to     Those Who Struggle 50  How a Desolate Person Ought to Commit Himself into the Hands     of God 51  When We Cannot Attain to the Highest, We Must Practice the     Humble Works 52  A Man Ought Not to Consider Himself Worthy of Consolation, But     Rather Deserving of Chastisement 53  God's Grace Is Not Given to the Earthly Minded 54  The Different Motions of Nature and Grace 55  The Corruption of Nature and the Efficacy of Divine Grace 56  We Ought to Deny Ourselves and Imitate Christ Through Bearing     the Cross 57  A Man Should Not Be Too Downcast When He Falls Into Defects 58  High Matters and the Hidden Judgments of God Are Not To Be     Scrutinized 59  All Hope and Trust Are To Be Fixed in God Alone


1  The Great Reverence With Which We Should Receive Christ 2  God's Great Goodness and Love is Shown to Man in This     Sacrament 3  It Is Profitable To Receive Communion Often 4  Many Blessings Are Given Those Who Receive Communion Worthily 5  The Dignity of the Sacrament and of the Priesthood 6  An Inquiry on the Proper Thing to do Before Communion 7  The Examination of Conscience and the Resolution to Amend 8  The Offering of Christ on the Cross; Our Offering 9  We Should Offer Ourselves and All That We Have to God, Praying     for All 10  Do Not Lightly Forego Holy Communion 11  The Body of Christ and Sacred Scripture Are Most Necessary to     a Faithful Soul 12  The Communicant Should Prepare Himself for Christ with Great     Care 13  With All Her Heart the Devout Soul Should Desire Union with     Christ in the Sacrament 14  The Ardent Longing of Devout Men for the Body of Christ 15  The Grace of Devotion is Acquired Through Humility and Self-     Denial 16  We Should Show Our Needs to Christ and Ask His Grace 17  The Burning Love and Strong Desire to Receive Christ 18  Man Should Not Scrutinize This Sacrament in Curiosity, But     Humbly Imitate Christ and Submit Reason to Holy Faith    

                          BOOK ONE

                      THOUGHTS HELPFUL                   IN THE LIFE OF THE SOUL

                      The First Chapter

    Imitating Christ and Despising All Vanities on Earth

HE WHO follows Me, walks not in darkness," says the Lord.[1] By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.     The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all the advice of the saints, and he who has His spirit will find in it a hidden manna. Now, there are many who hear the Gospel often but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ. Yet whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.     What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not 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 by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone.     This is the greatest wisdom -- to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world. It is vanity, therefore, to seek and trust in riches that perish. It is vanity also to court honor and to be puffed up with pride. It is vanity to follow the lusts of the body and to desire things for which severe punishment later must come. It is vanity to wish for long life and to care little about a well-spent life. It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and not to make provision for things to come. It is vanity to love what passes quickly and not to look ahead where eternal joy abides.     Often recall the proverb: "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. ----- [1] John 8:12. [2] Eccles. 1:8.

                    The Second Chapter

                Having a Humble Opinion of Self

EVERY man naturally desires knowledge; but what good is knowledge without fear of God? Indeed a humble rustic who serves God is better than a proud intellectual who neglects his soul to study the course of the stars. He who knows himself well becomes mean in his own eyes and is not happy when praised by men.     If I knew all things in the world and had not charity, what would it profit me before God Who will judge me by my deeds?     Shun too great a desire for knowledge, for in it there is much fretting and delusion. Intellectuals like to appear learned and to be called wise. Yet there are many things the knowledge of which does little or no good to the soul, and he who concerns himself about other things than those which lead to salvation is very unwise.     Many words do not satisfy the soul; but a good life eases the mind and a clean conscience inspires great trust in God.     The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely will you be judged, unless your life is also the more holy. Do not be proud, therefore, because of your learning or skill. Rather, fear because of the talent given you. If you think you know many things and understand them well enough, realize at the same time that there is much you do not know. Hence, do not affect wisdom, but admit your ignorance. Why prefer yourself to anyone else when many are more learned, more cultured than you?     If you wish to learn and appreciate something worth while, then love to be unknown and considered as nothing. Truly to know and despise self is the best and most perfect counsel. To think of oneself as nothing, and always to think well and highly of others is the best and most perfect wisdom. Wherefore, if you see another sin openly or commit a serious crime, do not consider yourself better, for you do not know how long you can remain in good estate. All men are frail, but you must admit that none is more frail than yourself.

                      The Third Chapter

                    The Doctrine of Truth

HAPPY is he to whom truth manifests itself, not in signs and words that fade, but as it actually is. Our opinions, our senses often deceive us and we discern very little.     What good is much discussion of involved and obscure matters when our ignorance of them will not be held against us on Judgment Day? Neglect of things which are profitable and necessary and undue concern with those which are irrelevant and harmful, are great folly.     We have eyes and do not see.     What, therefore, have we to do with questions of philosophy? He to whom the Eternal Word speaks is free from theorizing. For from this Word are all things and of Him all things speak -- the Beginning Who also speaks to us. Without this Word no man understands or judges aright. He to whom it becomes everything, who traces all things to it and who sees all things in it, may ease his heart and remain at peace with God.     O God, You Who are the truth, make me one with You in love everlasting. I am often wearied by the many things I hear and read, but in You is all that I long for. Let the learned be still, let all creatures be silent before You; You alone speak to me.     The more recollected a man is, and the more simple of heart he becomes, the easier he understands sublime things, for he receives the light of knowledge from above. The pure, simple, and steadfast spirit is not distracted by many labors, for he does them all for the honor of God. And since he enjoys interior peace he seeks no selfish end in anything. What, indeed, gives more trouble and affliction than uncontrolled desires of the heart?     A good and devout man arranges in his mind the things he has to do, not according to the whims of evil inclination but according to the dictates of right reason. Who is forced to struggle more than he who tries to master himself? This ought to be our purpose, then: to conquer self, to become stronger each day, to advance in virtue.     Every perfection in this life has some imperfection mixed with it and no learning of ours is without some darkness. Humble knowledge of self is a surer path to God than the ardent pursuit of learning. Not that learning is to be considered evil, or knowledge, which is good in itself and so ordained by God; but a clean conscience and virtuous life ought always to be preferred. Many often err and accomplish little or nothing because they try to become learned rather than to live well.     If men used as much care in uprooting vices and implanting virtues as they do in discussing problems, there would not be so much evil and scandal in the world, or such laxity in religious organizations. On the day of judgment, surely, we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done; not how well we have spoken but how well we have lived.     Tell me, where now are all the masters and teachers whom you knew so well in life and who were famous for their learning? Others have already taken their places and I know not whether they ever think of their predecessors. During life they seemed to be something; now they are seldom remembered. How quickly the glory of the world passes away! If only their lives had kept pace with their learning, then their study and reading would have been worth while.     How many there are who perish because of vain worldly knowledge and too little care for serving God. They became vain in their own conceits because they chose to be great rather than humble.     He is truly great who has great charity. He is truly great who is little in his own eyes and makes nothing of the highest honor. He is truly wise who looks upon all earthly things as folly that he may gain Christ. He who does God's will and renounces his own is truly very learned.

                    The Fourth Chapter

                    Prudence in Action

DO NOT yield to every impulse and suggestion but consider things carefully and patiently in the light of God's will. For very often, sad to say, we are so weak that we believe and speak evil of others rather than good. Perfect men, however, do not readily believe every talebearer, because they know that human frailty is prone to evil and is likely to appear in speech.     Not to act rashly or to cling obstinately to one's opinion, not to believe everything people say or to spread abroad the gossip one has heard, is great wisdom.     Take counsel with a wise and conscientious man. Seek the advice of your betters in preference to following your own inclinations.     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.

                      The Fifth Chapter

                  Reading the Holy Scripture

TRUTH, not eloquence, is to be sought in reading the Holy Scriptures; and every part must be read in the spirit in which it was written. For in the Scriptures we ought to seek profit rather than polished diction.     Likewise we ought to read simple and devout books as willingly as learned and profound ones. We ought not to be swayed by the authority of the writer, whether he be a great literary light or an insignificant person, but by the love of simple truth. We ought not to ask who is speaking, but mark what is said. Men pass away, but the truth of the Lord remains forever. God speaks to us in many ways without regard for persons.     Our curiosity often impedes our reading of the Scriptures, when we wish to understand and mull over what we ought simply to read and pass by.     If you would profit from it, therefore, read with humility, simplicity, and faith, and never seek a reputation for being learned. Seek willingly and listen attentively to the words of the saints; do not be displeased with the sayings of the ancients, for they were not made without purpose.

                      The Sixth Chapter

                    Unbridled Affections

WHEN a man desires a thing too much, he at once becomes ill at ease. A proud and avaricious man never rests, whereas he who is poor and humble of heart lives in a world of peace. An unmortified man is quickly tempted and overcome in small, trifling evils; his spirit is weak, in a measure carnal and inclined to sensual things; he can hardly abstain from earthly desires. Hence it makes him sad to forego them; he is quick to anger if reproved. Yet if he satisfies his desires, remorse of conscience overwhelms him because he followed his passions and they did not lead to the peace he sought.     True peace of heart, then, is found in resisting passions, not in satisfying them. There is no peace in the carnal man, in the man given to vain attractions, but there is peace in the fervent and spiritual man.

                    The Seventh Chapter

                Avoiding False Hope and Pride

VAIN is the man who puts his trust in men, in created things.     Do not be ashamed to serve others for the love of Jesus Christ and to seem poor in this world. Do not be self-sufficient but place your trust in God. Do what lies in your power and God will aid your good will. Put no trust in your own learning nor in the cunning of any man, but rather in the grace of God Who helps the humble and humbles the proud.     If you have wealth, do not glory in it, nor in friends because they are powerful, but in God Who gives all things and Who desires above all to give Himself. Do not boast of personal stature or of physical beauty, qualities which are marred and destroyed by a little sickness. Do not take pride in your talent or ability, lest you displease God to Whom belongs all the natural gifts that you have.     Do not think yourself better than others lest, perhaps, you be accounted worse before God Who knows what is in man. Do not take pride in your good deeds, for God's judgments differ from those of men and what pleases them often displeases Him. If there is good in you, see more good in others, so that you may remain humble. It does no harm to esteem yourself less than anyone else, but it is very harmful to think yourself better than even one. The humble live in continuous peace, while in the hearts of the proud are envy and frequent anger.

                    The Eighth Chapter

                Shunning Over-Familiarity

DO NOT open your heart to every man, but discuss your affairs with one who is wise and who fears God. Do not keep company with young people and strangers. Do not fawn upon the rich, and do not be fond of mingling with the great. Associate with the humble and the simple, with the devout and virtuous, and with them speak of edifying things. Be not intimate with any woman, but generally commend all good women to God. Seek only the intimacy of God and of His angels, and avoid the notice of men.     We ought to have charity for all men but familiarity with all is not expedient. Sometimes it happens that a person enjoys a good reputation among those who do not know him, but at the same time is held in slight regard by those who do. Frequently we think we are pleasing others by our presence and we begin rather to displease them by the faults they find in us.

                      The Ninth Chapter

                  Obedience and Subjection

IT IS a very great thing to obey, to live under a superior and not to be one's own master, for it is much safer to be subject than it is to command. Many live in obedience more from necessity than from love. Such become discontented and dejected on the slightest pretext; they will never gain peace of mind unless they subject themselves wholeheartedly for the love of God.     Go where you may, you will find no rest except in humble obedience to the rule of authority. Dreams of happiness expected from change and different places have deceived many.     Everyone, it is true, wishes to do as he pleases and is attracted to those who agree with him. But if God be among us, we must at times give up our opinions for the blessings of peace.     Furthermore, who is so wise that he can have full knowledge of everything? Do not trust too much in your own opinions, but be willing to listen to those of others. If, though your own be good, you accept another's opinion for love of God, you will gain much more merit; for I have often heard that it is safer to listen to advice and take it than to give it. It may happen, too, that while one's own opinion may be good, refusal to agree with others when reason and occasion demand it, is a sign of pride and obstinacy.

                      The Tenth Chapter

                      Avoiding Idle Talk

SHUN the gossip of men as much as possible, for discussion of worldly affairs, even though sincere, is a great distraction inasmuch as we are quickly ensnared and captivated by vanity.     Many a time I wish that I had held my peace and had not associated with men. Why, indeed, do we converse and gossip among ourselves when we so seldom part without a troubled conscience? We do so because we seek comfort from one another's conversation and wish to ease the mind wearied by diverse thoughts. Hence, we talk and think quite fondly of things we like very much or of things we dislike intensely. But, sad to say, we often talk vainly and to no purpose; for this external pleasure effectively bars inward and divine consolation.     Therefore we must watch and pray lest time pass idly.     When the right and opportune moment comes for speaking, say something that will edify.     Bad habits and indifference to spiritual progress do much to remove the guard from the tongue. Devout conversation on spiritual matters, on the contrary, is a great aid to spiritual progress, especially when persons of the same mind and spirit associate together in God.

                    The Eleventh Chapter

          Acquiring Peace and Zeal for Perfection

WE SHOULD enjoy much peace if we did not concern ourselves with what others say and do, for these are no concern of ours. How can a man who meddles in affairs not his own, who seeks strange distractions, and who is little or seldom inwardly recollected, live long in peace?     Blessed are the simple of heart for they shall enjoy peace in abundance.     Why were some of the saints so perfect and so given to contemplation? Because they tried to mortify entirely in themselves all earthly desires, and thus they were able to attach themselves to God with all their heart and freely to concentrate their innermost thoughts.     We are too occupied with our own whims and fancies, too taken up with passing things. Rarely do we completely conquer even one vice, and we are not inflamed with the desire to improve ourselves day by day; hence, we remain cold and indifferent. If we mortified our bodies perfectly and allowed no distractions to enter our minds, we could appreciate divine things and experience something of heavenly contemplation.     The greatest obstacle, indeed, the only obstacle, is that we are not free from passions and lusts, that we do not try to follow the perfect way of the saints. Thus when we encounter some slight difficulty, we are too easily dejected and turn to human consolations. If we tried, however, to stand as brave men in battle, the help of the Lord from heaven would surely sustain us. For He Who gives us the opportunity of fighting for victory, is ready to help those who carry on and trust in His grace.     If we let our progress in religious life depend on the observance of its externals alone, our devotion will quickly come to an end. Let us, then, lay the ax to the root that we may be freed from our passions and thus have peace of mind.     If we were to uproot only one vice each year, we should soon become perfect. The contrary, however, is often the case -- we feel that we were better and purer in the first fervor of our conversion than we are after many years in the practice of our faith. Our fervor and progress ought to increase day by day; yet it is now considered noteworthy if a man can retain even a part of his first fervor.     If we did a little violence to ourselves at the start, we should afterwards be able to do all things with ease and joy.

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