The Imitation of Christ (old Eng.)
Written by: a Kempis, Thomas Posted on: 03/31/2003
Category: Classic Christian Library
Etext Imitation of Christ
by Thomas A Kempis translated by Rev. William Benham
THE IMITATION OF CHRIST
by Thomas a Kempis translated by Rev. William Benham
The treatise "Of the Imitation of Christ" appears to have been
originally written in Latin early in the fifteenth century. Its
exact date and its authorship are still a matter of debate.
Manuscripts of the Latin version survive in considerable numbers
all over Western Europe, and they, with the vast list of
translations and of printed editions, testify to its almost
unparalleled popularity. One scribe attributes it to St. Bernard
of Clairvaux; but the fact that is contains a quotation from St.
Francis of Assisi, who was born thirty years after the death of
St. Bernard, disposes of this theory. In England there exist
many manuscripts of the first three books, called "Musica
Ecclesiastica," frequently ascribed to the English mystic Walter
Hilton. But Hilton seems to have died in 1395, and there is no
evidence of the existence of the work before 1400. Many
manuscripts scattered throughout Europe ascribe the book to Jean
le Charlier de Gerson, the great Chancellor of the University of
Paris, who was a leading figure in the Church in the earlier
part of the fifteenth century. The most probable author,
however, especially when the internal evidence is considered, is
Thomas Haemmerlein, known also as Thomas a Kempis, from his
native town of Kempen, near the Rhine, about forty miles north of
Cologne. Haemmerlein, who was born in 1379 or 1380, was a member
of the order of the Brothers of Common Life, and spent the last
seventy years of his life at Mount St. Agnes, a monastery of
Augustinian canons in the diocese of Utrecht. Here he died on
July 26, 1471, after an uneventful life spent in copying
manuscripts, reading, and composing, and in the peaceful routine
of monastic piety.
With the exception of the Bible, no Christian writing has had
so wide a vogue or so sustained a popularity as this. And yet,
in one sense, it is hardly an original work at all. Its
structure it owes largely to the writings of the medieval
mystics, and its ideas and phrases are a mosaic from the Bible
and the Fathers of the early Church. But these elements are
interwoven with such delicate skill and a religious feeling at
once so ardent and so sound that it promises to remain, what it
has been for five hundred years, the supreme call and guide to
THE IMITATION OF CHRIST
THE FIRST BOOK
ADMONITIONS PROFITABLE FOR THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
Of the imitation of Christ, and of contempt of the world and all
He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness(1), saith the
Lord. There are the words of Christ; and they teach us how far
we must imitate His life and character, if we seek true
illumination, and deliverance from all blindness of heart. Let
it be our most earnest study, therefore, to dwell upon the life
of Jesus Christ.
2. His teaching surpasseth all teaching of holy men, and such as
have His Spirit find therein the hidden manna.(2) But there are
many who, though they frequently hear the Gospel, yet feel but
little longing after it, because they have not the mind of
Christ. He, therefore, that will fully and with true wisdom
understand the words of Christ, let him strive to conform his
whole life to that mind of Christ.
3. What doth it profit thee to enter into deep discussion
concerning the Holy Trinity, if thou lack humility, and be thus
displeasing to the Trinity? For verily it is not deep words that
make a man holy and upright; it is a good life which maketh a man
dear to God. I had rather feel contrition than be skilful in the
definition thereof. If thou knowest the whole Bible, and the
sayings of all the philosophers, what should all this profit thee
without the love and grace of God? Vanity of vanities, all is
vanity, save to love God, and Him only to serve. That is the
highest wisdom, to cast the world behind us, and to reach forward
to the heavenly kingdom.
4. It is vanity then to seek after, and to trust in, the riches
that shall perish. It is vanity, too, to covet honours, and to
lift up ourselves on high. It is vanity to follow the desires of
the flesh and be led by them, for this shall bring misery at the
last. It is vanity to desire a long life, and to have little
care for a good life. It is vanity to take thought only for the
life which now is, and not to look forward to the things which
shall be hereafter. It is vanity to love that which quickly
passeth away, and not to hasten where eternal joy abideth.
5. Be ofttimes mindful of the saying,(3) The eye is not satified
with seeing, nor the ear with hearing. Strive, therefore, to
turn away thy heart from the love of the things that are seen,
and to set it upon the things that are not seen. For they who
follow after their own fleshly lusts, defile the conscience, and
destroy the grace of God.
(1) John viii. 12. (2) Revelations ii. 17.
(3) Ecclesiastes i. 8.
Of thinking humbly of oneself
There is naturally in every man a desire to know, but what
profiteth knowledge without the fear of God? Better of a surety
is a lowly peasant who serveth God, than a proud philosopher who
watcheth the stars and neglecteth the knowledge of himself. He
who knoweth himself well is vile in his own sight; neither
regardeth he the praises of men. If I knew all the things that
are in the world, and were not in charity, what should it help me
before God, who is to judge me according to my deeds?
2. Rest from inordinate desire of knowledge, for therein is found
much distraction and deceit. Those who have knowledge desire to
appear learned, and to be called wise. Many things there are to
know which profiteth little or nothing to the soul. And foolish
out of measure in he who attendeth upon other things rather than
those which serve to his soul's health. Many words satisfy not
the soul, but a good life refresheth the mind, and a pure
conscience giveth great confidence towards God.
3. The greater and more complete thy knowledge, the more severely
shalt thou be judged, unless thou hast lived holily. Therefore
be not lifted up by any skill or knowledge that thou hast; but
rather fear concerning the knowledge which is given to thee. If
it seemeth to thee that thou knowest many things, and
understandest them well, know also that there are many more
things which thou knowest not. Be not high-minded, but rather
confess thine ignorance. Why desirest thou to lift thyself above
another, when there are found many more learned and more skilled
in the Scripture than thou? If thou wilt know and learn anything
with profit, love to be thyself unknown and to be counted for
4. That is the highest and most profitable lesson, when a man
truly knoweth and judgeth lowly of himself. To account nothing
of one's self, and to think always kindly and highly of others,
this is great and perfect wisdom. Even shouldest thou see thy
neighbor sin openly and grievously, yet thou oughtest not to
reckon thyself better than he, for thou knowest not how long
thou shalt keep thine integrity. All of us are weak and frail;
hold thou no man more frail than thyself.
Of the knowledge of truth
Happy is the man whom Truth by itself doth teach, not by figures
and transient words, but as it is in itself.(1) Our own
judgement and feelings often deceive us, and we discern but
little of the truth. What doth it profit to argue about hidden
and dark things, concerning which we shall not be even reproved
in the judgement, because we knew them not? Oh, grievous folly,
to neglect the things which are profitable and necessary, and to
give our minds to things which are curious and hurtful! Having
eyes, we see not.
2. And what have we to do with talk about genus and species!
He to whom the Eternal Word speaketh is free from multiplied
questionings. From this One Word are all things, and all things
speak of Him; and this is the Beginning which also speaketh to
us.(2) No man without Him understandeth or rightly judgeth. The
man to whom all things are one, who bringeth all things to one,
who seeth all things in one, he is able to remain steadfast of
spirit, and at rest in God. O God, who art the Truth, make me
one with Thee in everlasting love. It wearieth me oftentimes to
read and listen to many things; in Thee is all that I wish for
and desire. Let all the doctors hold their peace; let all
creation keep silence before Thee: speak Thou alone to me.
3. The more a man hath unity and simplicity in himself, the more
things and the deeper things he understandeth; and that without
labour, because he receiveth the light of understanding from
above. The spirit which is pure, sincere, and steadfast, is not
distracted though it hath many works to do, because it doth all
things to the honour of God, and striveth to be free from all
thoughts of self-seeking. Who is so full of hindrance and
annoyance to thee as thine own undisciplined heart? A man who is
good and devout arrangeth beforehand within his own heart the
works which he hath to do abroad; and so is not drawn away by the
desires of his evil will, but subjecteth everything to the
judgement of right reason. Who hath a harder battle to fight
than he who striveth for self-mastery? And this should be our
endeavour, even to master self, and thus daily to grow stronger
than self, and go on unto perfection.
4. All perfection hath some imperfection joined to it in this
life, and all our power of sight is not without some darkness. A
lowly knowledge of thyself is a surer way to God than the deep
searching of man's learning. Not that learning is to be blamed,
nor the taking account of anything that is good; but a good
conscience and a holy life is better than all. And because many
seek knowledge rather than good living, therefore they go astray,
and bear little or no fruit.
5. O if they would give that diligence to the rooting out of vice
and the planting of virtue which they give unto vain
questionings; there had not been so many evil doings and
stumbling-blocks among the laity, nor such ill living among
houses of religion. Of a surety, at the Day of Judgement it will
be demanded of us, not what we have read, but what we have done;
not how well we have spoken, but how holily we have lived. Tell
me, where now are all those masters and teachers, whom thou
knowest well, whilst they were yet with you, and flourished in
learning? Their stalls are now filled by others, who perhaps
never have one thought concerning them. Whilst they lived they
seemed to be somewhat, but now no one speaks of them.
6. Oh how quickly passeth the glory of the world away! Would
that their life and knowledge had agreed together! For then
would they have read and inquired unto good purpose. How many
perish through empty learning in this world, who care little for
serving God. And because they love to be great more than to be
humble, therefore they "have become vain in their imaginations."
He only is truly great, who hath great charity. He is truly
great who deemeth himself small, and counteth all height of
honour as nothing. He is the truly wise man, who counteth all
earthly things as dung that he may win Christ. And he is the
truly learned man, who doeth the will of God, and forsaketh his
(1) Psalm xciv. 12; Numbers xii. 8. (2) John viii. 25 (Vulg.).
Of prudence in action
We must not trust every word of others or feeling within
ourselves, but cautiously and patiently try the matter, whether
it be of God. Unhappily we are so weak that we find it easier to
believe and speak evil of others, rather than good. But they
that are perfect, do not give ready heed to every news-bearer,
for they know man's weakness that it is prone to evil and
unstable in words.
2. This is great wisdom, not to be hasty in action, or stubborn
in our own opinions. A part of this wisdom also is not to
believe every word we hear, nor to tell others all that we hear,
even though we believe it. Take counsel with a man who is wise
and of a good conscience; and seek to be instructed by one better
than thyself, rather than follow thine own inventions. A good
life maketh a man wise toward God, and giveth him experience in
many things. The more humble a man is in himself, and the more
obedient towards God, the wiser will he be in all things, and the
more shall his soul be at peace.
Of the reading of Holy Scriptures
It is Truth which we must look for in Holy Writ, not cunning of
words. All Scripture ought to be read in the spirit in which it
was written. We must rather seek for what is profitable in
Scripture, than for what ministereth to subtlety in discourse.
Therefore we ought to read books which are devotional and simple,
as well as those which are deep and difficult. And let not the
weight of the writer be a stumbling-block to thee, whether he be
of little or much learning, but let the love of the pure Truth
draw thee to read. Ask not, who hath said this or that but look
to what he says.
2. Men pass away, but the truth of the Lord endureth for ever.
Without respect of persons God speaketh to us in divers manners.
Our own curiosity often hindereth us in the readings of holy
writings, when we seek to understand and discuss, where we should
pass simply on. If thou wouldst profit by thy reading, read
humbly, simply, honestly, and not desiring to win a character for
learning. Ask freely, and hear in silence the words of holy men;
nor be displeased at the hard sayings of older men than thou, for
they are not uttered without cause.
Of inordinate affections
Whensoever a man desireth aught above measure, immediately he
becometh restless. The proud and the avaricious man are never
at rest; while the poor and lowly of heart abide in the
multitude of peace. The man who is not yet wholly dead to self,
is soon tempted, and is overcome in small and trifling matters.
It is hard for him who is weak in spirit, and still in part
carnal and inclined to the pleasures of sense, to withdraw
himself altogether from earthly desires. And therefore, when he
withdraweth himself from these, he is often sad, and easily
angered too if any oppose his will.
2. But if, on the other hand, he yield to his inclination,
immediately he is weighed down by the condemnation of his
conscience; for that he hath followed his own desire, and yet in
no way attained the peace which he hoped for. For true peace of
heart is to be found in resisting passion, not in yielding to it.
And therefore there is no peace in the heart of a man who is
carnal, nor in him who is given up to the things that are without
him, but only in him who is fervent towards God and living the
life of the Spirit.
Of fleeing from vain hope and pride
Vain is the life of that man who putteth his trust in men or in
any created Thing. Be not ashamed to be the servant of others
for the love of Jesus Christ, and to be reckoned poor in this
life. Rest not upon thyself, but build thy hope in God. Do what
lieth in thy power, and God will help thy good intent. Trust not
in thy learning, nor in the cleverness of any that lives, but
rather trust in the favour of God, who resisteth the proud and
giveth grace to the humble.
2. Boast not thyself in thy riches if thou hast them, nor in thy
friends if they be powerful, but in God, who giveth all things,
and in addition to all things desireth to give even Himself. Be
not lifted up because of thy strength or beauty of body, for with
only a slight sickness it will fail and wither away. Be not vain
of thy skilfulness or ability, lest thou displease God, from
whom cometh every good gift which we have.
3. Count not thyself better than others, lest perchance thou
appear worse in the sight of God, who knoweth what is in man. Be
not proud of thy good works, for God's judgments are of another
sort than the judgments of man, and what pleaseth man is ofttimes
displeasing to Him. If thou hast any good, believe that others
have more, and so thou mayest preserve thy humility. It is no
harm to thee if thou place thyself below all others; but it is
great harm if thou place thyself above even one. Peace is ever
with the humble man, but in the heart of the proud there is
envy and continual wrath.
Of the danger of too much familiarity
Open not thine heart to every man, but deal with one who is wise
and feareth God. Be seldom with the young and with strangers. Be
not a flatterer of the rich; nor willingly seek the society of
the great. Let thy company be the humble and simple, the devout
and the gentle, and let thy discourse be concerning things which
edify. Be not familiar with any woman, but commend all good
women alike unto God. Choose for thy companions God and His
Angels only, and flee from the notice of men.
2. We must love all men, but not make close companions of all.
It sometimes falleth out that one who is unknown to us is highly
regarded through good report of him, whose actual person is
nevertheless unpleasing to those who behold it. We sometimes
think to please others by our intimacy, and forthwith displease
them the more by the faultiness of character which they perceive
Of obedience and subjection
It is verily a great thing to live in obedience, to be under
authority, and not to be at our own disposal. Far safer is it to
live in subjection than in a place of authority. Many are in
obedience from necessity rather than from love; these take it
amiss, and repine for small cause. Nor will they gain freedom of
spirit, unless with all their heart they submit themselves for
the love of God. Though thou run hither and thither, thou wilt
not find peace, save in humble subjection to the authority of him
who is set over thee. Fancies about places and change of them
have deceived many.
2. True it is that every man willingly followeth his own bent,
and is the more inclined to those who agree with him. But if
Christ is amongst us, then it is necessary that we sometimes
yield up our own opinion for the sake of peace. Who is so wise
as to have perfect knowledge of all things? Therefore trust not
too much to thine own opinion, but be ready also to hear the
opinions of others. Though thine own opinion be good, yet if for
the love of God thou foregoest it, and followest that of another,
thou shalt the more profit thereby.
3. Ofttimes I have heard that it is safer to hearken and to
receive counsel than to give it. It may also come to pass that
each opinion may be good; but to refuse to hearken to others when
reason or occasion requireth it, is a mark of pride or
Of the danger of superfluity of words
Avoid as far as thou canst the tumult of men; for talk concerning
worldly things, though it be innocently undertaken, is a
hindrance, so quickly are we led captive and defiled by vanity.
Many a time I wish that I had held my peace, and had not gone
amongst men. But why do we talk and gossip so continually,
seeing that we so rarely resume our silence without some hurt
done to our conscience? We like talking so much because we hope
by our conversations to gain some mutual comfort, and because we
seek to refresh our wearied spirits by variety of thoughts. And
we very willingly talk and think of those things which we love or
desire, or else of those which we most dislike.
2. But alas! it is often to no purpose and in vain. For this
outward consolation is no small hindrance to the inner comfort
which cometh from God. Therefore must we watch and pray that
time pass not idly away. If it be right and desirable for thee
to speak, speak things which are to edification. Evil custom and
neglect of our real profit tend much to make us heedless of
watching over our lips. Nevertheless, devout conversation on
spiritual things helpeth not a little to spiritual progress, most
of all where those of kindred mind and spirit find their ground
of fellowship in God.
Of seeking peace of mind and of spiritual progress
We may enjoy abundance of peace if we refrain from busying
ourselves with the sayings and doings of others, and things which
concern not ourselves. How can he abide long time in peace who
occupieth himself with other men's matters, and with things
without himself, and meanwhile payeth little or rare heed to the
self within? Blessed are the single-hearted, for they shall have
abundance of peace.
2. How came it to pass that many of the Saints were so perfect,
so contemplative of Divine things? Because they steadfastly
sought to mortify themselves from all worldly desires, and so
were enabled to cling with their whole heart to God, and be free
and at leisure for the thought of Him. We are too much occupied
with our own affections, and too anxious about transitory things.
Seldom, too, do we entirely conquer even a single fault, nor are
we zealous for daily growth in grace. And so we remain lukewarm
3. Were we fully watchful of ourselves, and not bound in spirit
to outward things, then might we be wise unto salvation, and make
progress in Divine contemplation. Our great and grievous
stumbling-block is that, not being freed from our affections and
desires, we strive not to enter into the perfect way of the
Saints. And when even a little trouble befalleth us, too quickly
are we cast down, and fly to the world to give us comfort.
4. If we would quit ourselves like men, and strive to stand firm
in battle, then should we see the Lord helping us from Heaven.
For He Himself is alway ready to help those who strive and who
trust in Him; yea, He provideth for us occasions for striving, to
the end that we may win the victory. If we look upon our
progress in religion as a progress only in outward observances
and forms, our devoutness wll soon come to an end. But let us
lay the axe to the very root of our life, that, being cleansed
from affections, we may possess our souls in peace.
5. If each year should see one fault rooted out from us, we
should go quickly on to perfection. But on the contrary, we
often feel that we were better and holier in the beginning of our
conversion than after many years of profession. Zeal and
progress ought to increase day by day; yet now it seemeth a great
thing if one is able to retain some portion of his first ardour.
If we would put some slight stress on ourselves at the beginning,
then afterwards we should be able to do all things with ease and
6. It is a hard thing to break through a habit, and a yet harder
thing to go contrary to our own will. Yet if thou overcome not
slight and easy obstacles, how shalt thou overcome greater ones?
Withstand thy will at the beginning, and unlearn an evil habit,
lest it lead thee little by little into worse difficulties. Oh,
if thou knewest what peace to thyself thy holy life should bring
to thyself, and what joy to others, methinketh thou wouldest be
more zealous for spiritual profit.
Of the uses of adversity
It is good for us that we sometimes have sorrows and adversities,
for they often make a man lay to heart that he is only a stranger
and sojourner, and may not put his trust in any worldly thing.
It is good that we sometimes endure contradictions, and are
hardly and unfairly judged, when we do and mean what is good.
For these things help us to be humble, and shield us from
vain-glory. For then we seek the more earnestly the witness of
God, when men speak evil of us falsely, and give us no credit for
2. Therefore ought a man to rest wholly upon God, so that he
needeth not seek much comfort at the hand of men. When a man who
feareth God is afflicted or tried or oppressed with evil
thoughts, then he seeth that God is the more necessary unto him,
since without God he can do no good thing. Then he is heavy of
heart, he groaneth, he crieth out for the very disquietness of
his heart. Then he groweth weary of life, and would fain depart
and be with Christ. By all this he is taught that in the world
there can be no perfect security or fulness of peace.
Of resisting temptation
So long as we live in the world, we canot be without trouble and
trial. Wherefore it is written in Job, The life of man upon the
earth is a trial.(1) And therefore ought each of us to give heed
concerning trials and temptations, and watch unto prayer, lest
the devil find occasion to deceive; for he never sleepeth, but
goeth about seeking whom he may devour. No man is so perfect in
holiness that he hath never temptations, nor can we ever be
wholly free from them.
2. Yet, notwithstanding, temptations turn greatly unto our
profit, even though they be great and hard to bear; for through
them we are humbled, purified, and instructed. All Saints have
passed through much tribulation and temptation, and have profited
thereby. And they who endured not temptation became reprobate
and fell away. There is no position so sacred, no place so
secret, that it is without temptations and adversities.
3. There is no man wholly free from temptations so long as he
liveth, because we have the root of temptation within ourselves,
in that we are born in concupiscence. One temptation or sorrow
passeth away, and another cometh; and always we shall have
somewhat to suffer, for we have fallen from perfect happiness.
Many who seek to fly from temptations fall yet more deeply into
them. By flight alone we cannot overcome, but by endurance and
true humility we are made stronger than all our enemies.
4. He who only resisteth outwardly and pulleth not up by the
root, shall profit little; nay, rather temptations will return to
him the more quickly, and will be the more terrible. Little by
little, through patience and longsuffering, thou shalt conquer by
the help of God, rather than by violence and thine own strength
of will. In the midst of temptation often seek counsel; and deal
not hardly with one who is tempted, but comfort and strengthen
him as thou wouldest have done unto thyself.
5. The beginning of all temptations to evil is instability of
temper and want of trust in God; for even as a ship without a
helm is tossed about by the waves, so is a man who is careless
and infirm of purpose tempted, now on this side, now on that.
As fire testeth iron, so doth temptation the upright man.
Oftentimes we know not what strength we have; but temptation
revealeth to us what we are. Nevertheless, we must watch,
especially in the beginnings of temptation; for then is the foe
the more easily mastered, when he is not suffered to enter within
the mind, but is met outside the door as soon as he hath knocked.
Wherefore one saith,
Check the beginnings; once thou might'st have cured,
But now 'tis past thy skill, too long hath it endured.
For first cometh to the mind the simple suggestion, then the
strong imagination, afterwards pleasure, evil affection, assent.
And so little by little the enemy entereth in altogether, because
he was not resisted at the beginning. And the longer a man
delayeth his resistance, the weaker he groweth, and the stronger
groweth the enemy against him.
6. Some men suffer their most grievous temptations in the
beginning of their conversion, some at the end. Some are sorely
tried their whole life long. Some there are who are tempted but
lightly, according to the wisdom and justice of the ordering of
God, who knoweth the character and circumstances of men, and
ordereth all things for the welfare of His elect.
7. Therefore we ought not to despair when we are tempted, but the
more fervently should cry unto God, that He will vouchsafe to
help us in all our tribulation; and that He will, as St. Paul
saith, with the temptation make a way to escape that we may be
able to bear it.(2) Let us therefore humble ourselves under the
mighty hand of God in all temptation and trouble, for He will
save and exult such as are of an humble spirit.
8. In temptations and troubles a man is proved, what progress he
hath made, and therein is his reward the greater, and his virtue
doth the more appear. Nor is it a great thing if a man be devout
and zealous so long as he suffereth no affliction; but if he
behave himself patiently in the time of adversity, then there is
hope of great progress. Some are kept safe from great
temptations, but are overtaken in those which are little and
common, that the humiliation may teach them not to trust to
themselves in great things, being weak in small things.
(1) Job vii. I (Vulg.). (2) I Corinthians x. 13.
On avoiding rash judgement
Look well unto thyself, and beware that thou judge not the doings
of others. In judging others a man laboureth in vain; he often
erreth, and easily falleth into sin; but in judging and examining
himself he always laboureth to good purpose. According as a
matter toucheth our fancy, so oftentimes do we judge of it; for
easily do we fail of true judgement because of our own personal
feeling. If God were always the sole object of our desire, we
should the less easily be troubled by the erring judgement of our
2. But often some secret thought lurking within us, or even some
outward circumstance, turneth us aside. Many are secretly
seeking their own ends in what they do, yet know it not. They
seem to live in good peace of mind so long as things go well with
them, and according to their desires, but if their desires be
frustrated and broken, immediately they are shaken and
displeased. Diversity of feelings and opinions very often brings
about dissensions between friends, between countrymen, between
religious and godly men.
3. Established custom is not easily relinquished, and no man is
very easily led to see with the eyes of another. If thou rest
more upon thy own reason or experience than upon the power of
Jesus Christ, thy light shall come slowly and hardly; for God
willeth us to be perfectly subject unto Himself, and all our
reason to be exalted by abundant love towards Him.
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