Rosicrucian Writings Online


The Divine Experiment

 By Raymund Andrea, F.R.C.
Grand Master of A.M.O.R.C. of Britain
 
[From The Rosicrucian Digest October 1948]
 
 
THE lofty theme and influence of Thomas a Kempis in his book Imitation of Christ is another example of how much we are moved by contrasts.
 
To open this book after closing the forbidding tomes of theology and divinity is to pass into an atmosphere of peace and sanctity where the presence of Christ is an indwelling, directing, and healing power, and not an historical figure formally imposed upon us from without by professional religionists.
 
It is that willing and easy acceptance of so many persons (because it costs little beyond a subscription) which has given the church its prestige in the world and at the same time has marked its helplessness in all the crises of the evolution of man. Thomas a Kempis, with a pathos peculiarly his own, denotes this same distinction between the man born into the spirit of Christ and the learned divines whose lives he had well studied.
 
In one of his earlier chapters he remarks: "Tell me now, where are all those Masters and Doctors, with whom thou wast well acquainted, whilst they lived and flourished in learning? Now others possess their livings and perhaps do scarce ever think of them. In their lifetime they seemed something, but now they are not spoken of. O how quickly passeth away the glory of the world. O that their life had been answerable to their learning! then had their study and reading been to good purpose."
 
Again and again he marks most definitely this distinction between the learned philosopher, the religionist, the orthodox divine, and the mystic, the contemplative, the devotee, secretly and inwardly living in the rich quality of the spiritual influence of Christ. Clear it is to A Kempis that we, at least, cannot fail to see that the man who is considered, in everyday parlance, as a Christian is far removed from what he considers to be a man in Christ. Concisely, the distinction is here: The average Christian is a believer in exoteric and denominational doctrine; the man in Christ has upon him the sign of the Cross which is revealed in the quality of his inward living. Were there no such distinction, this exhortation to the imitation of Christ would have been superfluous and unnecessary; indeed, it would not have been written. If another such disciple of Christ should write with the same inspired pen The Repudiation of Christ, it would be a fitting companion to the Imitation and be a lasting memorial to the decline of the West and the East in the twentieth century.
 
A Kempis was a mystic; his book is one of pure mystical inspiration and has not a compeer in the literature of East or West. It is possible that during his mystical pilgrimage, he passed through all the stages of human experience, from physical debasement, mental unworthiness, and spiritual heedlessness, unto a perfect acceptance of the inward life of Christ revealed to him through his own sufferings.
 
In the memorable chapter on the Holy Cross we have a series of exhortations to bear the Cross of Christ and to die thereon; we also have impassioned assurances that there is no escape from either if we ever hope to attain Christhood. It is truly said that we cannot write with strong and irresistible appeal to others of that which we ourselves have not experienced. But it is not always so in the case of a mystical work of this nature; for many who have penned mystical works of undoubted inspirational quality have acknowledged that they themselves have not personally experienced what they had recorded. But I am inclined to think that, judging of the whole tenor of the Imitation and especially of this particular and climaxing chapter, A Kempis had lived the book he wrote. I give this as a personal opinion: for while we have the alleged sayings and admonitions of Christ as recorded by others in scripture, yet it is to A Kempis we must go to have that conception transformed into a living heart contact with Christ as an inwardly sensed spiritual potency of healing and guidance.
 
The distinction is here again forced upon us between the Christ of Christian belief and the mystical Christ as a spiritual presence within man. Your idea of the Christ in the scripture may be word perfect: to live with Christ as a moving power in the heart is a mystical process and of a totally higher order of experience. A Kempis' moving portrayal raises the idea of Christ of the scripture to dramatic intensity and appeal as a living entity; he transforms the idea of what Christ said to what Christ can be as an inspirational force in the heart of man.
 
In the first stanza of the chapter on the Holy Cross, A Kempis says: "If thou be dead with Him, thou shalt also in like manner live with Him." Orthodoxly interpreted, this would justify the simple belief that in accepting Christ as the Saviour of the world we are assured of living with Him after transition. But there is no ground sufficient for believing that A Kempis was referring in this and similar passages simply to the status of the disciple of Christ after transition.
 
For instance, he says: "In the Cross all doth consist, and in our dying thereon all lieth." And again, in the same chapter: "If thou bear the Cross cheerfully, it will bear thee." And further: "Nevertheless, this man, though so many ways afflicted, is not without refreshing comfort, for that he perceiveth very much fruit to grow unto him by the enduring of his own cross." Clearly, these admonitions and this encouragement have no reference to the disciple's life after transition; nor was A Kempis much concerned with this in his book, but chiefly with living the Christ life here and now; that is, our consciousness would be so raised and enlarged that it would be united with and would partake of the wisdom, glory and peace of the Christ consciousness.
 

No Easy Path
 
A Kempis was not a dreamer. He enunciates no soft doctrine, he promises no easy path, he spares neither divine nor philosopher in his spiritual advocacy of Christ; he says plainly and with true mystical authority: the man you are must die if you would live in Christ. This daily dying must be as sure and certain as a scientific procedure. It must be a secret, inward process which cuts down to the very roots of existence in this world. And it is just because he is this skillful psychologist, who probes to the depths of the heart of man and misses nothing therein which frustrates and damns his own Christhood, that the Imitation, known to so many, is acceptable to so few. Indeed, who reads the Imitation today with the devotional humility of the true disciple of Christ? No, it is not because A Kempis was a dreamer and his book beyond the comprehension of intelligent people that it is so rarely encountered or spoken of: it is because the burning words of the saint unsettle the mind, sear the conscience, threaten the strong bulwarks of our materialistic thought and living, and expose too openly the superficiality of the Christianity of our time.
 
As he approached this chapter of the Holy Cross, he wrote as a fitting prelude to it, severe, censorious, yet pathetic in appeal: "How few are the lovers of the Cross of Jesus." It is set in a minor key, as the title foreshadows, and prepares the way for the impressive fugal music of the twelfth chapter. Pause and contemplate for a moment this noble strain from its third stanza: "Where shall one be found who is willing to serve God for naught." It is his searching and just condemnation of man that will repel far more than attract because it opposes the animal in man, whether he be poor and illiterate, learned and a social parasite, or merely religiously respectable.
 
The gospel of introspection, as presented in the books on yoga, gives us as its basic formula: WHAT AM I? which is an excellent formula for increasing a man's preoccupation with himself, centering his interest in himself, and making him feel very satisfied with himself. A Kempis reverses the position. He tells man what he is, makes him very dissatisfied with himself, and focuses his interest upon the Ideal Man he may become. And if he is ready for the first steps on the way, the steady daily contemplation of Christ will quickly awaken the desire to begin to live a sacrificial life in small things. In no long time the habit will become a necessity of his nature and prepare him for greater denials of his mortal selfhood in his daily ministry in whatsoever circumstances.
 

Bear the Cross Wisely
 
I knew a man in Christ many years ago who occupied an official position in our Order, to which I elected him, though against his will. I knew it would be a burden to him, but he was so near to Christ in his life that I considered him more worthy of that burden than any other man I knew. He was self-effacing to the last degree, and never counted the cost of his service. Members came to him in trouble and difficulty and went away comforted and heartened. He carried their secret lives in his heart and never failed in his sacred trust. His days were spent in a responsible position in a great city; his nights were devoted exclusively to the work of the Order. He never spared himself. He took upon himself much of the sad karma of others, and as he served he grew to his task. He had many problems of his own, but those of others were more important. And when he reached that point in his development when it seemed that the full light of the Shekinah would be revealed in him, he passed away suddenly early one morning with his hands crossed over his heart. His life was a benediction and beautiful to the inner eye; and all who knew him still speak of him with reverence and gratitude.
 
From this reference to a personal friend, whose life was a commentary on the Imitation, we may realize what it means to "die with Christ." We are not asked to throw life away so that we may be with Christ. We are to shift our focal center of living, from the selfhood of the limited interests and action to a higher level of spiritual thinking and intuitional responsiveness to others. I am not an advocate of suffering and self-mortification as a self-imposed discipline to achieve detachment and an indifference to life and all it may bring. Asceticism is not the way for us. We must live to some purpose. Christ did so, and very fully. It is necessary to have this in mind in reading the Imitation. A Kempis' book is really summed up in one phrase: Bear your cross, willingly and wisely, as Christ bore His.
 
But bearing the Cross is not a tale of suffering and woe, nor do the words of Christ suggest this, nor does the Imitation. In a previous article on the subject I stated: "If ever the Cross has been laid upon humanity, it has in this century above all others." That there has been an unprecedented descent of suffering and woe upon humanity is not, I suggest, because of willing and wise bearing of the Cross, but the reverse. Humanity has been materialistic, selfish, seeking and worshipping false gods; it has been egotistic, strong in self-righteousness, imperialistic, militaristic, and possessing a keen eye to worldly dominion. Humanity has still failed to recognize the meaning of this cross which it has deserved and karmically invoked. There is small evidence that it even seeks the meaning. If the voice of Christ is sounding in the world today, and I have no doubt that it is, who hears it? Where is the evidence of it? That the influence, power and healing of Christ are in the world today, I am convinced: but they wait, silent and unseen, for man. And if, by a miracle of science, the cross should be lifted from humanity tomorrow and the full tide of teeming prosperity take its place, I believe that science would be the peoples' god, and Christ would still wait.
 
If the tenor of the Imitation inclines the reader to think that its approach to Christ is from the monastic point of view, that does not lessen its truth and practicalness as a mystical guide and inspirational force at the present time. We may allow that the time and environment of A Kempis differed greatly from the present, but that does not weaken one whit its value of applicability today. It is like a soundless voice that has increased in resonance and warning with the years. The challenge is, either to live in bondage to the earth-bound mortal selfhood, which makes of every passing day a lost opportunity of the soul's unfoldment, or to accept this Cross of daily dying in the actual terms in which A Kempis presents it.
 
It is not enough, I repeat, to be merely a respectable Christian, in the commonly accepted sense of the term. The Christianity we know, of yesterday and today, has failed the great ideal. It has proved itself powerless to change the heart of man before and after two world wars, and it rests with politicians, none too sure of themselves, to strive, in the interest of what is called civilization to offset a major third war. There is no argument for Christ or an appeal to Him; the argument and appeal are for a secure and comfortable physical and mental existence. A call for spiritual leadership, for men of spiritual vision, for the mystic, the seer, the genuine prophet of God, the man born into the Christ consciousness, is not heard. And if it were, we are so far from this redeemed and elevated consciousness that a call would not be heeded. It would fall upon the ear like the word of an unknown tongue.
 

The Disciple Knows
 
It is clear, then, that anything like the Christ man which A Kempis mirrors forth to us, in any sufficient number to be widely influential, cannot be expected in our generation. I forbear to forecast the next. At present it is an ideal for the very few who have lost the savor of life as we know it in the world and are resolved to take the first steps individually, silently, and with inflexible purpose to redeem the time. No hard and fast formula can be given to the aspirant, who finds this purpose rising like a clear light in the mind and subduing all lesser aims, whereby he can feel and know the presence of Christ within him. The aspirant is in his own place upon the path of evolution, and it is a different place from that of any other aspirant. He may begin his quest with much past concealed power of growth to his credit, and he may not. But I believe that, when the strong desire and the fixed purpose possess him, this is of great promise. This presence of the Christ within is prophetic of rapid advancement because it is very rare among men today. I do not refer to the outward forms and shows of religion; I refer specifically to the culture of the Christ consciousness, spontaneous, devout, and unceasing. There is no form of outward observance in this; it is an unswerving attitude of the heart and mind which makes a man inwardly holy, no matter what may be his occupation or activity in the world at large. It is precisely there (within) that the real disciple of Christ dies daily, and no other knows what that living death in Christ may mean to him; the disciple knows, and is content. Christ knew, and no other, and He was content.
 
The aspirant in our work has many experiments of mental, physical, and psychic culture which ostensibly have no immediate bearing upon this special culture of the Christ consciousness; but they constitute a field of particular cultures of preparing, awakening, and unifying the whole man to a sane and balanced adjustment in the world where he must perforce live and develop and qualify continuously for greater service. For however great the desire or resolute the purpose of the aspirant, or how singularly he is magnetically attracted by this compelling ideal of A Kempis, the whole way is one of humble forms of service; and it is ever the case that the great ones on the path are those who excel in humility of service.
 
If the aspirant is now bent upon this divine experiment of indelibly impressing upon his inner life the sign and character of the Holy Cross, what better initiatory process could he engage in than in making this chapter in the Imitation his daily contemplation, using the other portions of the book as he will to focus attention and meaning upon that climaxing word? This chapter has a vibration peculiarly its own, and if the soul-personality is prepared for inward ascension there will ensue a response which is real and revealing. He will find that Christ is not a word in scripture, an historical character, variously reported and interpreted, but a living power that rises up within him and descends upon him, a comforting presence and a guiding hand, which he can intimately name in the silence and amid the hard battle of the day, and it will not fail him. In this name is a magic which exceeds all others in its simplicity and potency, and it awaits the aspirant's dedicated heart and mind to use it with complete confidence and resignation and allow it to shape the course of events in his life to their karmic fulfillment.
 
Observe those last words: "to allow it to shape the course of events in his life to their karmic fulfillment." The Cross of Christ is not a renunciation of life, but the acceptance of it. So many students confuse the issues of philosophy of East and West and allow themselves to be unduly influenced by a foreign interpretation of the meaning and trend of individual evolution. The Eastern attitude towards life is one of detachment and withdrawal from the experiences of life, and killing at the source of all contacts which involve karmic consequences and eventual forms of personal suffering. And if the Imitation inclines the aspirant, because of its noble picture of the Ideal Man, to adopt the idea of the East of self-protective detachment that he may be spared the unpleasant personal contacts of life, then I say that A Kempis has not so taught him. This is not bearing the Cross of Christ, but a renunciation of it. If he chooses the latter way he retreats from the very conditions of discipline which are essential for attaining Christhood; for, obviously, they who renounce the impact of manifold experiences which are set before them, so that Christhood may be achieved, cannot hope to share in the consciousness of Christ.
 
Our formula, then, is the steady contemplation of the Christ life, as A Kempis presents it to us, and the realization of the wonder and beauty and strength of that life. In other words, one is to enter into life upon all planes of activity, fully and completely, as the influence of that contemplation will guide, and is not studiously to avoid its searching discipline for his own peace and security, but make this mental realization of Christ a standard of judgment and action in the vocation and circumstance to which he is called. Thus, then, will open a secret way of communion between the personality and the Christ which is a light in the soul.
 
That light may come to be known to the aspirant experimentally in the course of his communion, or for long it may be known only by its beneficent effects, through its guidance, direction, and healing ministration in his life. We know nothing of the private life of A Kempis, but I have no doubt that through his intense contemplation of Christ and his unique exposition of that transcendent character many things were possible to him in the way of demonstration of a miraculous nature. When we ourselves have proofs of similar manifestations through following his admonitions, we know that our assertions are well based. Life has still its privileges today, although much has gone from it, but I know no greater privilege than to die daily with this supreme Master and, in so dying, to live with Him.
 
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Note--This article was written in response to the request of readers, following the one entitled "The Imitation of Christ," by Mr. Andrea, which appeared in the Rosicrucian Digest of December, 1946.
  

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