“I can’t afford to pay/for most of what I say/so it’s a lucky thing/that the truth’s public domain./ And I’m like a mockingbird. I’ve got no new song to sing.”
-Jesus follower Derek Webb, from the song Mockingbird, title track to his utterly amazing 2005 album
I’ve been listening to a free digital audiobook version of The Imitation of Christ, a classic, public domain devotional guide by Thomas a’ Kempis.
I sometimes tell my literature and fine arts students, or fellow members of church and school groups, that all classic works of art are about at least one of three major themes: God, Love, or Death. (You may debate me on this point in the comments below.)
[ Technical note: my recording is a Librivox recording with a very proper British narrator, put on the web by "Traveling Classics". I got my free "Free Audiobook" app at Android Marketplace, but I assume other companies, apps and platforms also provide this and similar books in the public domain.]
The Imitation of Christ is most certainly a classic, and is very much about God, Love/Sex and Death, stressing each at various points. According to Wiki, this modest work from around 1418 is “perhaps the most widely read devotional work next to the Bible”. Apparently the Wiki-writer hasn’t heard of The Purpose-Driven Life (I’m joking… I think… I have not read the newer book.)
However, be forewarned, modern reader. The kind of inner life, discipline and purity that this old monk Thomas speaks of will sound rather severe and extreme to the modern ear. More than once, I have found myself saying, “You’re kidding, right? That kind of life is impossible!”
Which it is, of course, apart from the grace of God and the intimate, near-constant guidance of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, Imitation is like a football coach saying “Man up! You can do this.” He says, “Do your best, plan to succeed only in part, see how you can do better, and then ask God’s help as you do it again”.
Imitation points the reader (and pray-er, and doer, and follower) toward that “narrow gate” that Jesus himself said we must use to enter the kingdom, or achieve inner peace. Thom’s little book on the contemplative life is the kind of “interventionist” wisdom and tough love that one needs to hear, but that does not sit comfortably, nor provide a shot in the arm of “Christmas cheer”.
The book is not often celebratory of the great things about life, but then when it is –when one “gets it” – it can be mind-bogglingly good. For all the work of reading it — let alone doing what it says — it definitely deepens my faith and gratitude, despite my generally grumbling nature in tackling the task of spiritual maturity.
The book’s chief virtue is in its honesty about the difficulty of the human condition, that we are always on our way (like those beloved Three Wise Men), but never arriving at completion or perfection, or at least not this side of death. Here’s how Brother a’ Kempis puts it:
“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.” [concupiscence= "carnal desires", click the word for broader definition from New Advent's theological encyclopedia site].
This marks the second time since Advent began that I have heard the term concupiscence, a word which I don’t think I had ever heard prior to this year. [Side note: the word's root is related to Cupid, that old Roman trickster god.] The first usage was in the context of a sermon given by one of my pastors, Rev. Carol Breimeier. (She was also self-effacing and amusing, in her admission that she finds the word hard to say aloud, and finds the whole concept a pain in the neck).
Hmm… now I realize I’ve been contemplating carnality and the Incarnation all this year. So why would Advent be any different?
However, the kind of “mortification of the flesh” that Imitation speaks of has been the stuff of parody more than praise, for at least a century if not longer. In 2011, we are now pretty far down the road toward “if it feels good, do it”, and it would be a hard sell to get back that kind of self-denial and discipline, for many people. I began this post above with my favorite example of parodying this Middle Ages-style angst and self-flaggellation — not because it is the most illustrative, but because the Pythons are often the first geniuses who spring to mind when I consider the frequent absurdities of life, even a life well-lived.
Note: those monks are saying: “Pies Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem.”, which is part of the Latin requiem. What they’re saying in English is “O sweet Lord Jesus, grant them rest”. See?! … great art… and it’s about death!
In fact, Thomas has a whole CHAPTER called “Of Meditation Upon Death”. Here are some highlights… or lowlights, if you prefer:
“ Very quickly will there be an end of thee here… If it is a fearful thing to die, it may perchance be a more fearful thing to to live long. Happy is the man who hath the hour of his death always before his eyes, and daily prepareth himself to die.” [Chapter 23]
Gee, thanks for that ray of sunshine, Tommy. I’ll get right on that!
See how much easier it is to make fun of such discipline and self-denial, as opposed to taking it seriously? This is because its selflessness flies in the face of most European (and thus American/Western) thinking since the Enlightenment, which is all about the nobility and dignity of the individual human person, and/or our conquest of nature, even somewhat of death itself, through science (i.e. medicine).
And as for that fear of living long, Thom’s basically saying (especially right after this passage) that while we are here, we are called to make something of the gift of this life, and that if we delay that work, we must bear the increasing weight of denial and guilt, or face the reality that we often fall short of the grace intended for us. Denial and guilt… two more problems that postmodern people prefer to dodge whenever possible.
Here’s another gem from the Death chapter:
“How many times hast thou heard how one was slain by the sword, another was drowned, another falling down from on high broke his neck, another died at the table, another whilst at play? One died by fire, another by the sword, another by pestilence, another by the robber.” [Chapter 23]
Now you don’t have to wonder why they called that era The Dark Ages. Pretty dark and fairly graphic, right? Like some of those bloody Hieronymus Bosch paintings from right around the same period. And here you thought Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ invented the Christian fascination with blood and gore. Not by a longshot.
The above passage even reminds me of many modern horror movies, perhaps most notably the Final Destination series. Or maybe the Spike TV cable series 1000 Ways to Die. (I haven’t seen any of these, either, so this is not an endorsement.)
I will close on a high note, just so we can stop brooding so much about our imminent destruction before we’ve had a chance to root out all lust and greed from our hearts, to save a baby from a burning building, or (pleasePleasePLEASE God) to see Paris one last time before I die.
A more hopeful offering from Thomas a’ Kempis:
“Jesus Christ will come to you offering His consolation, if you prepare a fit dwelling for Him in your heart, whose beauty and glory, wherein He takes delight, are all from within. His visits with the inward man are frequent, His communion sweet and full of consolation, His peace great, and His intimacy wonderful indeed.” [Book 2, Chapter 1]
As for today’s consolation for me, though it be carnal, it is also communal… and cometh from the best kind of “family values” I can think of:
The joy of cookies!
After my hard work cleaning the bathroom (while “imitating Christ” on my headphones), I enjoyed the smell of sweet nothing,s and eventually the taste of them. It was a reminder of all that is good about the Creation, about family, and especially about Christmas.
Be ye merry, as Christ Himself was merry.