Notes and Questions for Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471)
The Imitation of Christ (1418)

Robert Harris
January 18, 1999


More than just a devotional book, The Imitation might be described as a "How To" book: how to imitate Christ, both externally (in one's life) and internally (in one's spiritual being). Perhaps the "how to" should include how to live with others, with oneself, and with Christ at all times. The book has been deeply influential and highly revered for more than 500 years. (Page numbers below refer to Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. Tr. Leo Sherley-Price, New York: Penguin, 1952.)

Things to Think About as You Read

1. A major theme throughout the Imitation is that we live and act unthinkingly and therefore without a reasonable direction to our lives. We also act without true knowledge and without plan or proper measure to our lives. This thoughtless, ignorant behavior brings us much grief.

2. It follows, then, that true enlightenment comes from (1) self knowledge and (2) a knowledge of and trust in God.

3. If you are familiar with stoicism, watch for echoes of it as you read. There are many similar passages in Thomas and in Marcus Aurelius, for example.

4. Throughout the Imitation and especially in Book III, Thomas discusses the ideal of surrendering completely to God's will. This is one of the great and difficult questions of Christian life, not because it is controversial, but because there is difficulty over what it means. To what degree are we to plan and act? Are we to wait for God in everything? If so, what does that mean? What is the nature of God's will, and how precisely does he want to direct our lives? These are some of the questions, and Thomas has one set of answers.

Notes and Questions

Book I

As you read Book I, watch for Thomas' emphasis on the importance of a good, active life, for his belief that one's knowledge should affect one's behavior, and for the importance he places on humility and discipline. Watch for words and phrases like "good life," "do," "serve God," "useful."

I.1. Page 27. The important thing is not knowledge but the effect of knowledge to change behavior and the heart. Compare Psalm 146:8 and Titus 1:16.

Page 28. We are naturally inclined toward local, immediate, material things. Why is this problematic?

I.2-3. Pages 28-32. How would you describe Thomas' attitude toward knowledge?

I.3. Page 30. What is the solution to man's distraction and improper focus?

I.4-5. Pages 32-33. Of what advantage is humility for the inquiring soul?

I.7. Pages 34-35. Of what advantage is humility for the servant soul?

I.9. Page 36. What is the value of living in obedience to someone else? Think about the American individualist culture, where our heroes "answer to no one" because each is "his own man." Comments?

I.12 Page 39. Why, according to Thomas, is adversity good for us?

I.13. Pages 40-41. What value does Thomas see in temptation?

I.17. Pages 45-46. Could this chapter apply to SCC? If so, how?

I.18. Pages 46-47. Thomas Carlyle once said that "work is worship." Comments?

I.19. Pages 48-49. Note here the emphasis on the coherence between the inner and outer life, a subject he will return to.

Page 49. Self examination is needed for self knowledge.

I.20. Pages 50-52. What are the pros and cons of a life of solitude?

I.21. Page 53. "neglect of our faults." Compare Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.24: "If we lose the ability to perceive our faults, what is the good of living on?"

I.23. Page 57. "Today a man is here; tomorrow he is gone." Compare Marcus Aurelius, 2.5: "Approach each action as if it were your last"; 4.17: "Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you; Fate is at your elbow"; 4.48: "Observe, in short, how transient and trivial is all mortal life; yesterday a drop of semen, tomorrow a handful of spice or ashes."

Page 58. If you knew that you would certainly die in a day (or a week or a month), what would you do? How would you act? What would you do differently from the way you act now? Would your actions be similar to those on Thomas' list in paragraph 3?

I.24. Page 61. Note in paragraph 1 the similarities to (1) Dante and (2) Greek mythology in Thomas' account of purgatory.

I.25. Page 65. Paragraph 3. Should our "sole occupation" be "the perpetual praise of the Lord our God with heart and voice"? That is, why are we on earth, anyway? To praise God? To serve him? What does that mean?

Book II

As you read Book II, watch for the treatment of the inner light, life, and strength. Key terms and phrases to look for are "trust in God," "joy," "peace," "pride/proud." Thomas reminds us not to trust in others (II.1. Page 68) nor in ourselves (II.5. Page 73), but in God. The problem of pride and the subproblems engendered by it are discussed, as is the fact that every believer passes through periods of spiritual dryness. He also comments on the reality of suffering in this life.

II.1-2. Pages 67-70. What would Thomas say about peer pressure or our desire to please our friends in order to be accepted by them?

II.3. Pages 70-71. If putting up with the shortcomings of others brings the greatest peace and blessings, why don't we all do it readily? What sin or flaw is responsible for our impatience with others' faults? (There's a clue in the middle of page 71.)

II.4. Page 72. "Nothing created so small . . ." Cf. Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, ll. 612-617:

He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Page 72. "Iron, when plunged into fire . . ." Think about this analogy in terms of the tribulations we face.

II.6. Page 74. "cares for neither praise nor blame" Cf. Marcus Aurelius, 4.20: "Nothing is made worse or better by praise."

II.8-9. Pages 77-80. Note that Thomas takes for granted each person's periods of passing through spiritual deserts, feeling a lack of comfort, cold of heart, and so forth.

II.10. Page 82. "Be thankful for the smallest blessing. . . ." Name ten small blessings you usually overlook (e.g. aspirin, clean towels, a friend's greeting, paper, shoes--or feet, etc.).

Compare the translation by Richard Whitford (1556): "Be thou loving and thankful to God for the least benefit that He giveth thee, and then shalt thou be the more apt and worthy to receive of Him greater benefits. Think the least gift that He giveth is great, and the most despisable things accept as special gifts and great tokens of love: for if the dignity of the Giver be well considered, no gift that He giveth will seem little."

II.11. Page 83. Compare Thomas' comments about loving Jesus through joy and sorrow to the traditional marriage vows from the Book of Common Prayer of 1549: "[Marriage was ordained] for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity." . . . "I N. take thee N. to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us depart: according to God's holy ordinance: And thereto I give thee my troth." Does this help clarify the metaphor of the "bride of Christ"?

II.12. Page 86. "all this mortal life is full of troubles" We often pray, "Lord, remove this mountain," when we should instead pray, "Lord, teach me to climb mountains."

II.12. Page 88. "be prepared to suffer" We don't say this when we preach the Gospel, do we?

Book III

In addition to self knowledge, knowledge of the things of God is required for spiritual progress. Thomas often emphasizes the teaching role of God in this book. Thus, as you read this book, watch for occurrences of the words "speak," "listen," "understand," "hear," "instruct," and "teach."

III.1-3. Pages 91-94. Thomas again contrasts inner with outer, and worldly with spiritual enthusiasm. Why (page 94) is it easier to chase "petty [material] gains" than great spiritual ones?

III.4. Pages 95-96. Comment on Thomas' idea of humility here; see also Chapter 8 (pages 103-104). Is there a difference between pride and self esteem? Is self esteem spiritually harmful?

III.5. Pages 97-98. Note the strength of love.

III.7. Page 102. Note that Thomas says even in devotion we should follow reason rather than the promptings of the heart. Why? Do you think Thomas believed in a polarization between thought and feeling, or would he be in favor of a fusion of thought and feeling?

III.10. Pages 105-107. What does it mean to serve God, who does not need anything from us? What would "worthy service" be? What, in practical terms, can we do to serve God?

III.11. Page 107. "Consider whether it be My honour or self-interest that moves you most." Think about the fundamental motivations of most people's lives. What, for example, makes someone want to become a famous ice skater? Do you ever think about your own motivations?

Page 112. "lest you regret . . . what first pleased you" Ancient curse: "May you get everything you want." Ancient blessing: "May you get everything you need." It's also said: "Be careful what you pray for--God may give it to you."

III.13. Pages 110-111. "you, who are dust and nothingness" and "that all men may trample over you" Comment on Thomas' views in this chapter.

III.15. Pages 112-113. An excellent chapter. Read it carefully!

III.18-19. Pages 116-118. Here Thomas again discusses the necessity--and virtue--of patience, calling upon the example of Christ (Ch. 18) and the example of other believers (Ch. 19) to provide a context for our own struggles with impatience and to encourage us to persevere. Recall also that Thomas has consistently tied impatience to pride.

III.20. Page 119. "a perverted pleasure . . . counts it a delight to lie among the brambles" Remember that whatever people do, they are seeking happiness in some sense, even when they take drugs, become prostitutes, or try to kill themselves.

III.22. Page 123. We all have different gifts and different degrees of gifts. Have you ever thought about exactly what your special gifts are, and for what purpose they were given to you? What plans do you have for them?

III.26. Pages 128-129. Define what Thomas means by a "free mind." What are its advantages?

III.27. Page 130. What you love controls you.

Page 131. "help me to realize" Compare the translation by Richard Whitford (1556): "Give me grace . . . that I may behold all things as they be, transitory and of short abiding; and myself as also to go with them."

III.28. Page 132. Compare the translation by Richard Whitford (1556): "Let not thy peace be in the hearts of men; for whatsoever they say of thee, good or bad, thou art not therefore another man: but as thou art, thou art."

III.29. Page 132. "I know that it is by Your will that temptation and trouble come upon me." In what sense is it God's will that trouble comes to us?

III.31. Pages 136-137. "A man's achievements are often discussed. . . ." Note how we usually ask, "What does he do?" rather than "What is he like?"

III.33. Page 138. Why does Thomas say we shouldn't trust our feelings?

III.37. Page 143. Another difficult but important discussion on surrender to God's will. Again, what does this mean in practical terms, such as, say buying a car, getting married, choosing a job, choosing what to wear in the morning, etc.?

III.45-46. Pages 151-155. Note that Thomas is writing this book to himself as much as to any other reader, so that he realizes how difficult is his own advice, not to pay attention or be hurt by the criticisms of others.

III.49. Page 160. "It is often your duty to act against your own inclination, and to set aside your own wishes." Note that in modern society we have given up self denial and the idea of acting for others against our own interest. We say, "If it feels good, do it"; "What's in it for me?"; "I deserve it"; "Think of yourself"; "Live and let live"; "Every man for himself"; and so on.

III.50. Page 164. "Grant me, Lord . . . to love what I should love" How do you choose what to love? Or whom?

III.53. Page 167. "Seek out a place apart, and love the solitary life." Here as elsewhere Thomas recommends a generally contemplative over an active life. What are the benefits and drawbacks of each?

Page 168. "his passions are subject to his reason" Cf. Marcus Aurelius, 8.48: "Thus a mind that is free from passion is a very citadel" and 7.29: "Cease to be passion's puppet."

III.54. Pages 168-171. You might set up a page with two columns and fill in the attributes for Nature and Grace as you read through this chapter.

III.55. Page 172. Why, since we have reason to know what is right, don't we follow it? What is the remedy?

III.58. Page 177. Note that faith does not provide an explanation for every event, but it provides a framework for believing (trusting) that such an explanation exists, though it may be beyond our knowledge or powers of understanding.

Book IV

As you read this book, note that Thomas sees communion not just as an external aid to devotion and commemoration of the Lord's sacrifice for us, but as an act of union with God, a purifying, correcting restorative for the soul. Remember that Thomas, as a Catholic, believed in transubstantiation.

IV.1. Page 185. "seldom free from all distraction" One of the benefits of communion is to aid the believer in focusing on the Lord. Distractions plague everyone, from fifteenth-century monk to twentieth-century college student.

IV.7. Page 196. One purpose of communion is to allow the believer to examine himself, repent, and amend his life. Thus the theme of self-understanding continues from the earlier parts of the Imitation into this book as well.

IV.7. Pages 196-197. "Grieve that you. . . ." Any of the things in this list hit home?

IV.11. Page 205. What value does Thomas put on Bible reading? Does this seem strange in any way?

IV.16. Pages 213-214. A petitionary prayer.

IV.18. Page 216. "humble your reason to faith" Note that Thomas' hierarchy, then is (1) faith, (2) reason, (3) feelings.

Another hierarchy would be (1) God, (2) others, (3) oneself.

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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com