The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis

While not a Christian myself, I study the Middle Ages, so it’s common to find treatises and texts from those deemed to be the spiritual masters.  The vast majority of them are quite beautiful when not calling down some fire and brimstone upon those like myself who choose to see through the authoritarian nonsense, otherwise described by the locals in my area as “you’re going to hell if…”.  It truly is astounding how, once you strip away the dogma, the ideas within line up with a great many others found around the world.  In fact, Swami Vivekananda (19th century, founder of Vedanta Society) actively compared it to the Bhagavad Gita, and Eknath Easwaran did the same with the Upanishads.  Not really a surprise, given that Christianity has always been a veritable hodge-podge of everything that came before it.  That’s one of the reasons I find it so invaluable on my own spiritual quest, because the ideas have already been distilled down to their essences… the very heart of mysticism.  At any rate, between my appreciation for the Christian mystics and the active comparisons to two Hindu texts that I find most beautiful and profound, I felt I needed to look into this myself.  That, of course, means finding out about the author and his place in the world that I might better appreciate the spirit of intent with respect to the attitudes of the time and place.

Thomas à Kempis, as it turns out, was not the original author of this book.  Rather, he was the editor, compiler, and translator into Latin, drawing from the works of three men before him from the Netherlands.  He was a member of the Devotio Moderna (Modern Devotion) movement that called for reform through humility and genuine piety.  It was revolutionary in its day, and indeed, The Imitation of Christ became the second most influential book in Christianity after The Bible.  But that status and the movement itself came to a cold stop in the wake of the Protestant Reformation (at which point the harrowing and grisly Foxe’s Book of Martyrs found its way to the #2 status).  Today, The Imitation of Christ is, as the cover of my copy claims, “After the Bible, probably the best-loved book of Christianity.”  I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s because this book is devotional, as opposed to the fire and brimstone nightmare that John Foxe gave us.  Who says history isn’t fun?

The text is partitioned into four books of instruction: “Helpful Counsels of the Spiritual Life,” “Directives for the Interior Life,” “On Interior Consolation,” and “On the Blessed Sacrament.”  In a nutshell, it boils down to exactly what you’d expect from a priest in the late Medieval era known for having hand-copied The Bible in its entirety at least four times: withdrawal from the world by other friars (as opposed to an actual “What Would Jesus Do?” consideration and example), and devotion to the Eucharist as the key point of one’s spiritual quest.

Right from the outset, this book points the finger, telling people who read it that the intellectual types (i.e., the ones likely to read this book) are doing it wrong.  Knowledge leads to confusion rather than power, and simple devotion is the Way.  Likewise, those who criticize another are doing it wrong.  So immediately out of the gate, this is a classic example of “Do as I say, not as I do” — always the best criterion on which to base authority, which the text also criticizes.  *head/desk*  This would make such beautiful sense if it not for the obvious hypocrisy.  But… the point of the exercise in such books is to turn off the brain, open the heart, and see what we can gain from the experience.

I found myself unable to do that.  In fact, I didn’t finish the book.  Any book that directs anyone to sit in your cell, be quiet, accept your prison, hate yourself, and do this all in the name of Jesus lest ye be bombarded with hellfire… has entirely missed the point of everything Jesus is supposed to have taught.  That this is one of the most widely read, translated, and cherished of Christian books reminds me yet again why I’m not Christian.  I found it misogynistic, fearful, xenophobic, and hateful.  I became physically ill at one point while reading it, and that’s when I decided to put it down.

I’ve since decided to use this as a teaching moment for myself, to examine why it is that I would feel this way.  Being transgender, I’m already in a prison of a body I can’t escape, surrounded by a world that hates and fears me — assuming they acknowledge me at all — and I grew up hating and fearing myself accordingly.  Jesus is love, so they say.  “Love thy neighbor,” so he is written to have said.  Despite lip service, very few ever seem to lead by example on this one.  Multiply that by various cultures across time, used to justify so much atrocity, and…

Yeah.  Life taught me to hate Christianity and the bullshit it’s brought down around me.  Getting the directives straight from a presumed authority in the Middle Ages was quite the revelation (no pun intended).  As I say, I got physically ill.  But then I decided to take a step back.  These reactions are not who I want to be.  I have to be the change I want to see in the world, which is why I do my best to operate in love, compassion, and hope.  Dare I say it, the very things Christians are supposed to emulate.  My own knee-jerk response is a direct result of my experiences.  It’s part of the baggage I’m carrying.  This book is fear and hate… the path to the Dark Side.  It has induced fear and hate in return.  What else could it do?  When I flipped the script, as they say, that’s when I found out what else it could do.  I felt sorrow for those who think this is how it has to be.  It’s that same lie about the Garden of Eden I turned my back on decades ago.  If I am defective for being of one gender in the body of another, it’s not because someone ate an apple.  It’s because God fucked up my design.  If we assume God is infallible, then I’m this way on purpose, so either God is as asshole, or… it’s simply beyond the Judeo-Christian doctrine to explain because the most wise and learned cannot or will not allow for me.  In my decades of confronting this, I’ve decided it really is the latter.  Most in that world simply do not want to admit the reality of what I represent, which creates closed minds and a closed belief system.  My answers lie elsewhere.  And I’ve known that for a very long time, but I keep coming back in some misaligned effort to reconcile my past and the culture I was raised in.  No matter the wisdom that lies between the lines in a book like this, no matter how much of a product of its time it is, there are whole swaths of the population of this planet right now who are in direct alignment with the ill-conceived message it wrought.  That is toxic to both my well-being, and to the world at large.

There are other interpretations of Christianity, of course, and my apologies to those of you get it, but I’m reviewing this book and the effect it had on me.  I won’t sugarcoat this, and there’s no defending it in my eyes.

Now that I’ve had the opportunity to reassess, now that I feel the hollow sadness of a book like this, I realize that the experience of being transgender — that idea of being an outcast from everything and everyone you know, of having to hide like some kind of a monster, never being good enough — is precisely how Christianity operated since its consolidation under Constantine and has continued to do so in virtually every sect across the globe.  That’s what the whole concept of Original Sin is all about, except the Creator (or Creators, depending on your interpretation) didn’t take responsibility for a great many things.  That one story underlines everything else in the book, and thus in dogmas and in the halls of power where people are reminded they can never be good enough.  The humility and piety taught in this book is the same kind that the abused, the enslaved, and the disenfranchised have learned across all time and cultures.  It’s the same effect as when you kick a puppy that once trusted you and loved you unconditionally.  That kind of fear and hate cannot be unlearned.  It can only be overcome.  THAT is the nature of the Original Sin.  That’s what oppression looks like.

Hildegard von Bingen and Joan of Arc clearly didn’t get the memo that the teachings of this book were somehow valid.  Bless them for it.  This book is not devotional by any stretch of imagination.  It’s the boot that would kick down the innocent and stamp out love and joy and anything resembling goodness.

I think it’s time I walked away from Christian theology for a long while, if not permanently, before I unleash everything I’ve bottled up for 40 years.  I count myself fortunate that in spite of the harm done in my own world, I’ve stared into the beautiful face of unconditional Love and recognized it for what it is.  It transcends theology and limitation.  That’s the lesson I’ll choose to take away from my experience of this book.  I’ll leave it to the Christians to clean up their own mess.  My own path beckons me forward.  Gratefully, I never walk it alone.

7 thoughts on “The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis

  1. I’m sorry that your lifetime of experience with Christianity has been negative.
    I honestly don’t know where ideas relating to locking yourself away forever came from because Jesus was out ministering to people. There are a lot of Catholic traditions and beliefs that I don’t understand because they’re not teachings of God/Jesus.
    The problem with labels–Christian or feminist or liberal, etc.–is that anyone can attach them to their messages and agendas and claim to represent that category.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s true, but when representatives of a given organization are the ones pushing that message, and it gets repeated across centuries, one is forced to look beyond the label and into the nature of the message and its messengers. This originated in Catholicism, but it’s been widely circulated and is still considered far and wide to be representative by various Christian sects and by spiritual authorities from other religions. It speaks volumes. I don’t pretend to get it either. I just see the patterns.

      Like

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