Thomas A Kempis: On Resisting Temptation

Thomas a Kempis (1380 – 1471) was born at Kempen, near Dusseldorf, and left home at the age of thirteen to join his brother at the Latin school at Deventer – a school which he attended from 1392 to 1399. However, Thomas’ brother (John) had, whilst at school there, become attracted to the Congregation of the Common Life (also known as the Brethren of the Common Life) – a religious community mostly made up of laymen, founded by Gerard Groote, an influential evangelist who had, inspired by the example of a local Carthusian Prior, given up great worldly status and preferment in order to dedicate himself to constant prayer, study and self-discipline – and Thomas soon found himself attracted by the movement as well.

The Congregation/Brotherhood were not bound by permanent vows, but were bound together by a rule of common ownership, poverty, chastity and obedience, as well as a desire to challenge the laxity and corruption of the times. One of Groote’s disciples was a priest named Florentius, and it was under his tutelage that Thomas a Kempis spent much of his time at Deventer, learning from him by word and example the importance of dedicating oneself to the Christian life, as opposed to nominal self-identification as a Christian – this spirit permeates the work for which Thomas is known today, The Imitation of Christ, written later on when he had become an Augustinian Canon Regular.

Nevertheless, the reason Thomas a Kempis is so well remembered even now is that his presentation of that spirit of evangelical zeal and apostolic revival that he had imbibed is particularly clear, and that he has a remarkable knack for clarity, as well as a great insight into the means by which Christian imperatives can be applied practically in everyday life (especially remarkable given that his counsel was meant for other men who had taken religious vows, not for lay people). Making allowances therefore for the occasions where Thomas’ advice is not applicable to lay life today, the Imitation remains a tremendously useful spiritual guide – something to be dipped into for inspiration, or for use as a companion for systematic reflection on one’s inner life.

The first section of his book is entitled ‘Counsels on the Spiritual Life’ and is principally concerned with the way of purgation – a clearing away of attachments to and preoccupations with worldly interests so that the soul may attain knowledge of its great need for God and be able to set itself obediently before Him, allowing itself to be transformed. In the thirteenth chapter of this section Thomas discusses, in terms that are characteristically honest, practical and clear-cut, the means by which temptation gets a hold of us, and the ways in which we can prepare ourselves before any assaults arrive, as well as effectively defend ourselves at the moment they occur:

So long as we live in this world, we cannot remain without trial and temptation: as Job says, “Man’s life on earth is a warfare.” We must therefore be on guard against temptations, and watchful in prayer, that the Devil find no means of deceiving us; for he never rests, but prowls around seeking whom he may devour. No one is perfect and holy that he is never tempted, and we can never be secure from temptation.

Although temptations are so troublesome and grievous, yet they are often profitable to us, for by them we are humbled, cleansed, and instructed. All the Saints endured many trials and temptations, and profited by them; but those who could not resist temptations became reprobate, and fell away. There is no Order so holy, nor place so secluded, where there are no troubles and temptations.

No man can be entirely free from temptation so long as he lives; for the source of temptation lies within our own nature, since we are born with an inclination towards evil. When one temptation or trial draws to a close, another takes its place; and we shall always have something to fight, for man has lost the blessing of original happiness. Many try to escape temptations, only to encounter them more fiercely, for no one can win victory by flight alone; it is only by patience and true humility that we can grow stronger than all our foes.

The man who only avoids the outward occasions of evil, but fails to uproot it in himself, will gain little advantage. Indeed, temptations will return upon him the sooner, and he will find himself in a worse state than before. Little by little and by patient endurance you will overcome them by God’s help, better than by your own violence and importunity. Seek regular advice in temptation, and never deal harshly with those who are tempted, but give them such encouragement as you would value yourself.

The beginning of all evil temptation is an unstable mind and lack of trust in God. Just as a ship without a helm is driven to and fro by the waves, so a careless man, who abandons his proper course, is tempted in countless ways. Fire tempers steel, and temptation the just man. We often do not know what we can bear, but temptation reveals our true nature. We need especially to be on our guard at the very onset of temptation, for then the Enemy may be more easily overcome, if he is not allowed to enter the gates of the mind: he must be repulsed at the threshold, as soon as he knocks. Thus the poet Ovid writes, “Resist at the beginning; the remedy may come too late.” For first there comes into the mind an evil thought: next, a vivid picture: then delight, and urge to evil, and finally consent. In this way the Enemy gradually gains complete mastery, when he is not resisted at first. And the longer a slothful man delays resistance, the weaker he becomes, and the stronger his enemy grows against him.

Some people undergo their heaviest temptations at the beginning of their conversion; some towards the end of their course; others are greatly troubled all their lives; while there are some whose temptations are but light. This is in accordance with the wisdom and justice of God’s ordinance, who weighs the condition and merits of every man, and disposes all things for the salvation of those whom He chooses.

We must not despair, therefore, when we are tempted, but earnestly pray God to grant us his help in every need. For, as Saint Paul says, “With the temptation, God will provide a way to overcome it, that we may be able to bear it.” So, let us humble ourselves under the hand of God in every trial and trouble, for He will save and raise up the humble in spirit. In all these trials, our progress is tested; in them great merit may be secured, and our virtue become evident. It is no great matter if we are devout and fervent when we have no troubles; but if we show patience in adversity, we can make great progress in virtue. Some are spared severe temptations, but are overcome in lesser ones of every day, in order that they may be humble, and learn not to trust in themselves, but to recognise their frailty.

The Imitation of Christ (1952), pp.40-42, Penguin Classics.

            Apart from the fact that it is littered with excerpts from and allusions to Scripture, what I love about this counsel is Thomas’s frankness and realism – he doesn’t try to make our lot out to be any easier than it is, nor does he shy away from the fact that some seem to be tried less than others. This is the way of things, and if we believe in God and His wise Providence, then we must believe it is so for good reason; Thomas thus sees the variety of degrees of temptation experienced throughout humanity to be a reflection of the variety of states of people’s souls – if some are tried more than others, it is because they have certain flaws that can only be corrected by particular trials.

Similarly, there are those who, whilst they do not suffer many great temptations, are routinely subject to frequent lesser ones, and Thomas sees this as being God’s means of constantly recalling them to humility and faith in God – and this being a particular case of the role that temptations play in our life in general. For, as he writes above, it is ‘no great matter if we are devout and fervent when we have no troubles; but if we show patience in adversity, we can make great progress in virtue’ (c.f.; 1 Peter 2:19-20; Romans 5:2-5) – because of our fallen nature, we need the trials that temptations occasion in order to grow. This is something that Julian of Norwich also writes about, albeit in slightly more inviting terms, as I considered in an earlier post.

Another salient part of Thomas’ advice, and one that I personally find particularly useful, is the reminder to block out any hint of temptation as soon as it arrives – that the temptation grows in intensity if one does not divert attention from it (and towards God) straight away, that ‘first there comes into the mind an evil thought: next, a vivid picture: then delight, and urge to evil, and finally consent’, and so we must not entertain it even for the slightest moment. As soon as we recognise the thought or external stimulus for what it is, we must turn away from it and turn instead to the Cross of Christ, kneeling before Him and asking for grace. This, as Thomas reminds us, is the pivotal moment, as after this the force of the temptation will only grow, and we will only become more enslaved to it.

Knowing from experience the truth of this, as well as much of what Thomas a Kempis writes about above, I have found myself returning to the Imitation of Christ many a time for inspiration, and thereby committing a great deal of it to memory (the content, as opposed to the words – if only my memory were that good). It is a salutary guide and excellent corrective to much of what we hear in modern life (including, unfortunately, much that is delivered from the pulpits); a voice that still sounds fresh and has the capacity to cut away the swathes of mental and spiritual clutter that we accrue as we go through life, and that recalls us to the essence of what the Christian life is about – trust in, love for, and the imitation of Our Lord.

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15 thoughts on “Thomas A Kempis: On Resisting Temptation

  1. Another truly wonderful and thought-provoking post from you Michael! 🙂

    I am delighted to hear you are a devotee of Thomas a Kempis’ “Imitation of Christ” too, for my copy of this book – much fingered and patched up now – has been a close companion of mine since I was a 13 year old schoolgirl, when I acquired it from a saintly old nun at my convent school. I didn’t find it an easy to book to read at first [especially as the crazy ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ was causing havoc and all sorts of upsets at the time] but as I matured I found I was becoming increasingly absorbed into the book’s great wisdom and Christian guidance in a world gone mad. (I also found its chapters on Eucharistic Adoration very inspiring.)

    Later, when I first read St. Therese’s gem, “Story of a Soul”, I discovered to my joy that so much of her love of God and spiritual outlook was also inspired by reading the “Imitation of Christ”, and that so much of her insight into her “little way of spiritual childhood” was based on these writings.

    Temptation is a problem for everyone, fallen creatures through Original Sin as we are, though great saints like St. Therese, St. Padre Pio, St. Bernadette etc., appear never to have fallen into mortal sin. What amazing grace and fortitude they must have been given! But this must not deter the rest of us poor sinners to not keep up “the good fight” to battle on with an ever renewed firm purpose of amendment.
    Your second last paragraph was a good reminder and very appropriate in how to avoid sin – we must resist the “OCCASIONS” of sin!! Or, in other words, turn ones mind away from sin as soon as we see it coming, whether this be temptation to selfishness, uncharitable thoughts, impurity, pride, or whatever…. For as you say, once you have entertained the temptation, it is so much more difficult to then avoid falling into sin. Great advice!

    • Thank you Kathleen!

      There is something a little ‘astringent’ about Thomas’ message at first isn’t there – part of this I guess is because he is writing for religious, but also (as you mention) it has a great deal to do with the pampered and crazy age we live in. As one can see by the recent nonsense about Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill’s debate on abortion at Oxford University, people just don’t like hearing things/opinions that remind them of the truth 🙂 Nevertheless, the ‘Imitation’ is something that, persevered with, really becomes a great companion – I think some of my favourite passages now are the ones that I found the most difficult at first, precisely because this is what I most need to hear.

      I have a copy of ‘Story of a Soul’ but to be honest I have never properly read it – only looked through a few sections. It is wonderful to hear that she was so inspired by Thomas a Kempis! What you say about the example of the saints is an important point here too – very often it is easy to look at their lives and think that we’ll never reach those levels of sanctity and feel like giving up, but when we remember that it was precisely because they thought so little of themselves and relied on the grace of God, it is a reminder that the road to holiness is much more simple than we like to imagine. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t hard, but only that the difficulty is only in proportion to the degree that we hold on to our self-love and are unwilling to relinquish those feelings that we are in charge, not God. Seen in this light, the saints are a great comfort! 🙂

      • Yes, I agree, the saints are a great comfort, for when you read their lives you learn they often started off as great sinners, or else they had plenty of faults that took a lifetime sometimes to overcome. Over and above all this though, their passionate love of God spurned them on in the path of holiness.

        There is so much of the “old child of Adam” in us (or “Eve” I suppose 😉 ) when we see how we fail time and time again to conquer our weaknesses, we are often tempted to give up trying to be saints in ernest. We fail to realise that all the saints started off just like us! They became saints precisely because they never gave up in following the Cross, using their failures to grow in humility and repentance for their sins.

        Sticking in there is what matters, even when we experience “dark nights of the soul”; putting our heart into trying in sometimes just small insignificant ways to “imitate Christ”, even when we appear to be making one step forward and taking two back most of the time, but never allowing the Devil to tempt us to “throw in the towel” – ever. 🙂

        • This is all very true, and what you have written above coincides, remarkably, with a passage that I read from the ‘Imitation’ last night – I just ‘dipped in’ to it at random, and what I read resonates very much with what you’ve said here. It is from an older translation this time (one that I prefer actually) and is as follows:

          ‘If great Saints were so dealt with, we that are weak and poor ought not to despair, if we be sometimes fervent and sometimes cold; for the Spirit cometh and goeth, according to the good pleasure of His own will. For which cause blessed Job saith, “Thou visitest him early in the morning, and suddenly Thou provest him,”

          Whereupon then can I hope, or wherein ought I to trust, save in the great mercy of God alone, and in the only hope of heavenly grace? For whether I have with me good men, either religious brethren, or faithful friends; whether holy books, or beautiful treatises, or sweet psalms and hymns; all these help but little, and have but little savour, when Grace forsaketh me, and I am left in mine own poverty. At such time there is not better remedy than patience, and the denying of myself according to the will of God…

          …For unto those that are proved by temptations, heavenly comfort is promised. “He that shall overcome,” saith He, “I will give him to eat of the Tree of life.”

          But divine consolation is given, that a man may be bolder to bear adversities. There followeth also temptation, lest he should wax proud of any good. The devil sleepeth not, neither is the flesh as yet dead; therefore cease not to prepare thyself to the battle; for on thy right hand and on thy left are enemies who never rest.’

          Book II, Chapter IX.

          • So much wisdom in these words – thank you for reminding me of them.
            “The devil sleepeth not, neither is the flesh as yet dead…”
            And the more we draw closer to God, the greater will be the attacks!

            Like you, I also prefer the older translation; modern English can sound too superficial, whereas the language of the original is sweet to the ear.

            The “Imitation of Christ” is such an exceptional book; it has led so many souls to a closer and more intimate union with Our Blessed Lord… and from your article and what I have been able to find out, Thomas led a good and holy long life. That makes me wonder why his case has never come up for possible beatification!
            Do you have any idea why?

            • That is a very good question, for which I unfortunately do not have a good answer! All I know is that the confraternity which influenced Thomas so much – the Brethren of the Common Life – seems to have had an influence on Martin Luther and some other Protestants, which may have cast a shadow over the movement and anyone associated with it. However, it is hardly the fault of the movement and those who started it that this occurred, and the confraternity was approved by Pope Gregory XI in 1376, so I doubt this is really the reason why a Kempis has not been beatified.

              All I could find on the matter is this (from the Catholic Encyclopedia):

              ‘He was laid to rest in the eastern cloister in a spot carefully noted by the continuator of his chronicle. Two centuries after the Reformation, during which the priory was destroyed, the holy remains were transferred to Zwolle and enclosed in a handsome reliquary by Maximilian Hendrik, Prince-Bishop of Cologne. At present they are enshrined in St. Michael’s Church, Zwolle, in a magnificent monument erected in 1897 by subscriptions from all over the world and inscribed: “Honori, non memoriae Thomae Kempensis, cujus nomen perennius quam monumentum” (To the honour not to the memory of Thomas à Kempis, whose name is more enduring than any monument). It is interesting to recall that the same Maximilian Hendrik, who showed such zeal in preserving and honouring the relics of à Kempis, was also eager to see the cause of his beatification introduced and began to collect the necessary documents; but little more than a beginning was made when he died (1688) and since that date no further steps have been taken.’

              Frustrating isn’t it!

              I know what you mean about older translations – they have a more grandiose quality that lends itself especially well to religious texts. With respect to biblical translations, I just cannot stand a lot of modern translations – the NIV is about as far as I can go (which is not say that I actually read that version); some of those ones that try and use ‘up-to-date’ language are just plain embarassing!

              • Oh Michael, you’re wonderful (re your last paragraph) – they most certainly are! 😆
                Seriously though, it is debasing the most sacred to use banal ‘street talk’ as they do with some translations. Personally I love the beautiful Douay-Rheims bible translation, but I know a lot of people find it just too “old fashioned”. There are some others though that you can find on the biblehub website that are a little more ‘up-to-date’ without falling into the “embarrassing” category. 😉

                Thank you so much for looking into the mystery of why Thomas à Kempis remains unrecognised in the Church’s calendar of saints – that was very interesting.

                • Haha – thank you! Yes, I do like the Douay-Rheims, but most of the time I use the RSV-CE, as it (IMO) strikes a good balance between readability, faithfulness to the literal import of the original languages, and dignity appropriate to the sacred nature of the text. I also like that they retained the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ in the Psalms – they in particular do not sound quite right without a bit of ‘old-fashioned’ language in there 🙂

                  I know what you mean about the ‘street talk’ you get in some – I tried reading some of the ‘The Message’ translation once, and I honestly couldn’t stand it – the attempt to be relevant was so cringeworthy, and some of the passages bore almost no relation to the original! Another bug-bear for me though is the ‘inclusive’ language you find in a lot (like the NRSV for example, which is otherwise a good translation) – it just comes across as so forced and each time you read such a passage you’re distracted from the text itself by the appearance of another strained bit of inclusivity.

                  Anyway, that’s enough moaning about Scripture translations for now (I could go on, believe me)! No problem re the Thomas a Kempis issue – it’s just a shame there isn’t more information available. Maybe it’s just the case that not enough is known about his life; but it does seem odd that more people haven’t taken up his cause. Perhaps it’s just that such a long time has passed without anyone putting his name forward that people have got used to the situation!

  2. Michael, I’m writing my new comment here as the other thread was getting a bit narrowed-down!

    Re “Scripture translations”, I would love you to “go on” – please do! You were not “moaning”, and I found everything you were saying both informative and interesting. Perhaps you should think of this as a subject for one of your excellent articles in the future? 🙂

    I’ve been browsing the web and just take a look at point no.12 on this link: https://bbhchurchconnection.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/twelve-things-you-may-not-know-about-thomas-a-kempis-and-the-imitation-of-christ/
    12. Thomas may have been buried alive. “The most bizarre (but entirely consistent) legend had it that when Thomas’s remains were discovered in 1672, it was found that the inside of the coffin lid was covered with scratches and there were splinters of wood under the fingernails of the corpse . .”

    BURIED ALIVE!! Can you imagine such a terrible thing?
    Hope my imagination is not running away with me, but I’m wondering if this just could be one of the reasons poor Thomas a Kempis has never been beatified. Perhaps the ‘Congregation for the Causes of Saints’ found this idea so sinister, or wondered if Thomas might not have had his faith and hope in God severely tested in that moment… or if just not enough was known about his personal piety etc.
    Anyway, as no.11 in this article states, two attempts were made to beatify him and they came to nothing, I doubt now that he ever will be. As you say, it was so long ago and no new evidence to further his cause is likely to come to light now.

    • Good idea – I don’t know how to get rid of that ‘narrowing’ effect, it is quite annoying!

      Re the translation issue, I don’t have that much more to add (although it is a good idea for a future post yes!) but would add that whilst my main issue is with the ‘with it’ dynamic equivalence translations, I must admit that some of the formal equivalence ones sacrifice readability for faithfulness to the literal meaning of the text (the NASB suffers from this IMO). Another thing that bothers me though is when translators/publishers feel the need to add prefaces to each book of the Bible telling you when (according to the ‘assured results’ of modern scholarship) it was written and by whom, etc.

      The NJB (which I’m not particularly fond of anyway) does this, and it is my only issue with the RSV-CE that they have notes at the back making similar points about how such-and-such a book wasn’t really written by who it claims too have been written by etc. Even if these theories of authorship and dating were as assured as some like to think they are, what place have they in a Bible? That sort of thing is fine in textbooks, but sticking it in the Bible itself is distracting, usually controversial, and almost always ends up dating the translation as theories change in a couple of decades time.

      By the way, what do you think to the Knox Bible? I have a copy, and have read through a couple of passages but to be honest have never sat down and properly read through a good section of it. It also has some notes such as I just mentioned, which is annoying, but on the whole I thought the language was nice and dignified, as well as readable. I know that he translated directly from the Vulgate, but am not sure how literal a translation it is.

      As for Thomas a Kempis’ burial, that is terrible, and I hope for his sake that this is just a legend and not based on fact – poor man if it is true though! You are right though I think, in that if not much were known about his personal piety etc, this may have added to lists of doubts about a cause for beatification, and the CCS is very rigorous and (rightly) demanding in their investigations. Terrible though though, being buried alive – makes one shudder just thinking about it!

      • Just want to add that I am really no expert on Bible translations. However, I have heard the Knox Bible is considered to be “one of the crown jewels of English Catholicism”!

        If you want a few more gruesome stories, some of them enough to give one veritable nightmares, here is a link (not sure how reliable it is though) of cases of people who have been buried alive!! 😯

        http://www.snopes.com/horrors/gruesome/buried.asp

        • In that case, I shall give it a proper go! I need to look up some of Ronald Knox’s other works as well – I have read recommendations from many people, but never got around to reading anything by him. Maybe I shall use the Knox version during this Advent for starters 🙂

          I had a quick look through that link above, and they are pretty gruesome indeed, especially the ones about people being walled up! Just have to hope those ones are only rumours. But it certainly cannot be denied that some have suffered the fate of being buried alive in general – terrible to think about!

          • Yes Michael, I don’t think you can go wrong there with any of the works of Ronald Knox. Advent would be a fine season to start on this quest! 🙂

            Must tell you something: my mother, when she was a recent young convert to Catholicism actually met the great Msgr. Ronald Knox in the Burns and Oates bookshop in Westminster!! She was looking for a missal and he talked to her very kindly, mentioning his own conversion to the Faith, and then helped her choose a suitable missal! He became ill and died soon after this chance meeting.

            The snopes link is a bit dubious, isn’t it? But just the very thought of being buried (or walled up 😉 ) alive makes me shake with horror!
            However, in looking around a bit more of the case of Thomas a Kempis supposed burial while he was still alive, it appears this might well be true. I only hope and pray the anguish he must have gone through during those minutes before he suffocated will give him even greater merit in Heaven.

            • It does seem that the case of Thomas a Kempis may well be true yes – I hope not, for his sake, but if this is what happened to him it could very well have introduced doubt into the minds of those handling his beatification case.

              That story about your mother meeting Ronald Knox is wonderful – I especially love the fact that it occurred just after his conversion, and he was looking for a missal! One gets the sense of him just starting out on a great journey, taking the first few steps in his new life as a Catholic, and your mother got to meet him then – great story, thank you! That has increased my desire to read his translation of the Bible this Advent as well 🙂

            • Oh sorry, I misread – it was your mother that was newly converted and looking for a missal! Nevertheless, it is still a lovely story 🙂 It is great that he took the time to discuss his own conversion and to help her choose the missal – it must have been such a great encouragement for your mother, at the start of HER journey (got it right this time!)

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