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.