My headmaster at school was a quiet man. Not that he never got angry. It was just that the angrier he got, the quieter he became. On one occasion we were all gathered together in assembly, and he was reprimanding the whole school for some naughtiness that I have long forgotten now. The summit of his speech arrived: the climax, the moment of greatest trepidation for us apprehensive young students. “If it continues, they will be EXPELLED… without… (mercy)!”
We respected our headmaster so much that the room was completely silent enough to hear his every whisper.
So when he spoke, we listened. Which was greatly worthwhile, because our headmaster was a scholar, alive to the transformative power of the things we were learning.
“Boys,” he would say – and to be fair to him, we were all boys, for it was an all boys’ school – “Boys, you must read such and such.” He would produce a classic book of devotion or literature, and his method of persuasion was the great impact that reading it could have on our lives. I must admit that I didn’t rush straight to the library for these books. But I remember some of his recommendations, and now as an adult I have finally sat down to read them. I really must thank him for the assembly that belatedly introduced me to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and for the off-topic lesson on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment which single-handedly prompted my love of Russian literature.
I am nowhere near as worth listening to as my old headmaster. But in some weak shadow of his spirit, I would like to introduce you to a very short book that really could change your life. I know that most of you won’t read it. I’m not silly enough to imagine you bursting into WHSmith with shining eyes, clutching your book token in both hands as you pirouette towards the theology section.
No – maybe some of you will read this in a few years’ time. In which case, maybe you will retrospectively thank me for the temporary tedium of this piece. And for those who will never read this book, I hope you can absorb some of its brief lessons below.
What is the book, then? I promise you have never heard of it. The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis. Written by an unworldly German monk in the 1420s, it is perhaps the second most influential Christian book after the Bible. For centuries it inspired popes, statesmen, missionaries and Christians more generally to live a full and satisfying life, directed away from the distractions of the world and towards Christ.
Why should you be interested in all that? Two reasons, I think. First, Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ is actually not just about how to live a Christian life. Kempis developed a deep understanding of human nature, and you can read The Imitation of Christ to discover how to live a happy, good and worthwhile life whether you are a believer or not. Second, we live in an age full of noise. Through our smartphones we are constantly caught up in the opinions of others about the issues of today which seem so immediately important the more we hear about them. Surely it is worth stepping back from this busyness, and hear how someone from 600 years confronted the universal issues of the human experience. That will help us avoid the danger of assuming we have got things right in this modern age, just because no-one says any differently.
Because Thomas à Kempis actually spotted a danger that affects us now just as much as it did in the 15th century. He writes,
We ask how much a person has done, but from what degree of virtue they act is not so carefully weighed. We enquire whether they have been courageous, rich, handsome, skilful, a good writer, a good singer, or a good worker. But how they are in spirit, how patient and meek, how devout and spiritual – of this most men are silent.
This seems to be true. To reach the next rung of the ladder in life we are typically judged on outward things: our CVs, our personalities, and our track records. But what matters when we reach the next rung is the kind of person we have become. The way we treat others, the resilience we have to push on, and the inward joy we can find in life. These inner things will then have a greater impact on our lives, but it is up to us to develop them with little thanks from the world around us.
There ought to be much more within,” Kempis says, “than is perceived on the outside. We must diligently search into, and set in order, both the outward and the inner self.
In The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis teaches us how to live a happy, good and worthwhile life – on the inside as well as the outside. Happy, good and worthwhile. And on each of these points, he differs from our modern ideas.
- A HAPPY LIFE
Nowadays our search for happiness is shown clearly all over social media. We want the recognition of others when we share our achievements and the carefully-curated Instagram versions of our lives. But for a happy life, Thomas à Kempis begs us: Don’t let your happiness depend on how others see you.
Don’t let your peace depend on the tongues of men. For whether they interpret you well or badly, you do not therefore become another person.
How others see you does not actually make you a better or worse person. It does not make your achievements any more or less valuable. It should not make you any different within.
Even more importantly, don’t let your happiness depend on material things:
The proud and covetous are never at rest. The poor and humble in spirit dwell in the multitude of peace.
Well, I can’t persuade you of the truth of that. You will have to experience it to know it. But I once saw it in another man. A Buddhist monk who owned nothing except the clothes he wearing. He had shaved his head to avoid the desire for shampoo. He did not even celebrate his own birthday. But he seemed so happy. Humorous, kind, lively. I have never, in all the wealthy and successful people I have met over the years, seen such deep happiness. This monk was distracted by nothing, and in himself completely content.
It seems like a paradox: stop seeking the things that you want, and you will be happy. But this is the same insight that you find across the world’s religions and philosophies:
Keep this short and perfect word: Let go all and you shall find all. Leave desire and you shall find rest.
For Christians, Thomas à Kempis goes further. He remind us that the things we desire in this world are only temporary anyway.
Man’s welfare lies not in obtaining or multiplying any external thing… And this must be understood not only of income and riches, but of seeking after honour too, and the desire of vain praise, all of which pass away with this world.
God is the only lasting thing of value, the only eternal happiness.
2. A GOOD LIFE
Next, Thomas à Kempis teaches us how to live a good life. Nowadays I think we tend to judge morality by people’s actions. Most of us are instinctively utilitarians: saying the best actions are those which have the better consequences. But Kempis disagrees:
Man considers the deeds, but God weighs the intentions,” and “Often in God’s sight is found worthy of blame, that which in the judgement of men is thought worthy of praise.
Throughout The Imitation of Christ Kempis focuses on following our consciences as the measure of goodness. He also points out that a good conscience is not necessarily one that is pure and innocent. Writing as if God himself is speaking, he says,
My will is that you seek not that peace which is void of temptations, or which feels nothing bad.
Goodness is making the choice that you know in your own heart is the right one, and overcoming your natural urge to do the easier or the more selfish thing.
For Christians, Thomas à Kempis again goes further. He reminds us that this approach brings us closer to God. He says,
Of true contrition and humbling of the heart is born hope of forgiveness. The troubled conscience is reconciled; the grace which was lost is recovered; man is preserved from the wrath to come; and God and the penitent soul meet together with a holy kiss.
3. A WORTHWHILE LIFE
Finally, Kempis teaches us how to live a worthwhile life. Nowadays we tend to think a worthwhile life is one that others would consider ‘successful’. But he warns,
Be not careful for the shadow of a great name, nor for the friendship of many, nor for the private affection of men. For these things cause distractions and great darkness in the heart.
Instead, focus on what you do for others. Love. THERE IS POWER IN LOVE, to paraphrase a recent wedding speaker. Thomas a Kempis explains,
Love feels no burden, thinks nothing of labours, attempts what is above its strength, pleads no excuse of impossibility. For it thinks all things possible for itself and all things lawful. It is therefore strong for all things, and it completes many things, and brings them to effect, where he who does not love just faints and lies down. Love is watchful, and sleeping it slumbers not. Though wearied, it is not tired. Though pressed, it is not straitened. Though alarmed, it is not confounded. But as a lively flame and burning torch, it forces its way upwards, and securely passes through all.
And you might notice the pattern, that again Kempis goes further for Christians. Christians should seek God as the only reward, saying,
Nature manages everything for her own gain and profit. She cannot do any thing without payment, and for every kindness she hopes to obtain … praise and favour, and is very eager to have her works and gifts and words much valued. But Grace seeks no temporal thing, nor desires any other reward than God alone for her wages.
A happy, good and worthwhile life in the eyes of Thomas à Kempis. If you like the sound of it, I hope you will seek out this little book, The Imitation of Christ.
For those who follow Thomas à Kempis’s guidance to the utmost, the prize is great:
A pure, sincere and stable spirit is not distracted in a multitude of works, for it works all to the honour of God, and inwardly strives to be at rest from all self-seeking.
When I first delivered this piece as a chapel talk, our reading was from Luke 10:38-42. You’ll know it off by heart, of course. The story where Jesus stops by at Martha’s house, where she ends up burdened with all the catering admin while her sister Mary just sits adoringly at Jesus’ feet. Well, Martha who was ‘distracted by her many tasks’ is long dead now. Those unnamed tasks that she was worrying about don’t matter any more. They haven’t mattered for 2,000 years. From this perspective, our daily tasks and worries are not of enduring importance either. Mary, on the other hand, chose to centre her efforts on Jesus himself. Ultimately, on God: the creator of her whole existence, and her eternal destination. Her efforts echo throughout the landscape of time.
Thomas à Kempis would approve.