Rosicrucian Writings Online


"The Imitation of Christ"

By Raymund Andrea, F.R.C.
Grand Master of AMORC of Britain
 
[From The Rosicrucian Digest December 1946]
 
 
MANY years ago, during the first world war, I heard a doctor of philosophy, the minister of a progressive church, tell his congregation, on reading to it a chapter from The Imitation of Christ,1 that but for this book, which he read daily, he could not continue with his life. He was a learned man, a master of many languages, and a severe rationalist, hence this forthright confession of the influence of the Imitation was the more remarkable. He became a personal friend, and I soon came to realize why the Imitation meant so much to him. His impressive personality and his humility come back to me, and I have felt prompted to say something about a book which should also mean much to us.
 
The Imitation has been translated into more languages than any other book, with the exception of the Bible. Within ten years of the author's death there had been published 80 editions of it. Obviously, it is the work of a contemplative. It breathes of the quietness and peace of the cloister. In 1399 the writer of it, Thomas a Kempis, was admitted into an Augustinian convent, and there he lived a secluded life, writing sermons, hymns, and pious tracts dealing with the monastic and Christian life; he also wrote several biographies. The most celebrated of his works is the Imitation, with its combination of simple faith and mysticism, and it has never ceased to appeal to all manner of men and women of every conceivable religious and mystical persuasion. When a devotional book makes a universal appeal to the human heart, as the Imitation has done for several centuries, we may be sure that it is the off-spring of divine inspiration and has a message for us. But we need humility and a chastened heart to hear that message.
 
It is related of Pascal that when about to write, he used to kneel down and pray the infinite Being so to subdue every part of him unto Itself, that when he was thus brought low the divine force might enter into him. By self-abasement he prepared himself for the receiving of inspirations. That is the attitude we must have if we wish to profit from the Imitation. Then a door softly opens into a temple of holiness. The music of the voice of a disciple kneeling before the altar falls upon our ears. We forget what we are and listen to a voice of yearning compassion, telling us what we might become. And when we pass out into the strident world we carry the tones of that voice within us, and we know that it is attuned with the spirit of Christ.
 
The Imitation is comprised of four books: Admonitions, useful for a spiritual life; Admonitions pertaining to inward things; Of internal consolation; A devout exhortation to the holy communion. The second book, on inward things, is the shortest of the four; and the twelfth and last chapter of that book, "Of the king's highway of the holy Cross," seems to me to expound in its brief compass the very essence of the Christian and Rosicrucian life.
 
In these days we hear so much about the revelations of psychoanalysis, psychology, and psychiatry, and other allied methods of scientific probings of the sacred precincts of personality and soul; yet when all is said and done, where do we stand? We stand face to face with our own secret thinking and consequent outward action. If our thinking conforms to the law of Christ within us, there is a plain and lighted way to our action in the world; and the fears, inhibitions, and complexes which haunt the majority and provide a rich source of enterprise for clinics and professors, pass away like mist before the rising sun. We do not think of the author of the Imitation as a psychologist, a psychoanalyst, or a psychiatrist, nor has he ever been described as such. But he is greater than any of them. He has looked into the heart, mind, and soul of man from the vantage point of a seer illumined by the consciousness of Christ; he has uncovered every palpable or lurking weakness of mortal man and revealed the way to immortal selfhood. His rare quality is, that he shows an unexampled genius of a man possessed with a passion for Christ. From the first words to the last of his book we are impressed with the unrestrained influence of a man who was overwhelmingly possessed with the presence of Christ--who had seen, lived and communed with Christ. The whole book revolves around the one central theme which absorbs him, of man helpless, broken, buffeted, and perplexed by his own unreclaimed nature which has turned away from or forgotten the divine Presence within him, of man unredeemed and blinded through absorption in the passing phantasmagoria of the life of the world; and of the challenging and sadly compassionate figure of Christ ever before his vision and pointing the way which He had trodden in defiance of all the difficulties, hindrances, and treacheries which the karma of the world could set against Him.
 
I mentioned the particular chapter on "The king's highway of the holy Cross." I question whether there is any teaching in any other book of devotion which so truly epitomizes the path of discipleship as we practically face it as Rosicrucians in our higher temple grades of instruction. Some who are well versed in Eastern devotional works, which depict the way of discipleship in colorful language and with a nomenclature which is far more abstract than applicable in character to the Western mind, may on first sight doubt this statement. I ask them to accept the challenge of it and take this chapter into the hour of meditation in the attitude of Pascal. There is no appeal from it, to any tribunal here or in heaven. It is the life of the disciple in its true and highest estate. No matter what books we have read, or shall read, the challenge of the Cross stands before every disciple as a fact to be met, and not one can escape it. He may chart the path to his mind's content, divide and subdivide it into discipleship, major and minor, occultist by virtue of this, mystic by virtue of that, near to the Master or far from him, the word of A Kempis is a two-edged sword which flashes clean to the heart of the problem of initiation into Christ. The Cross of Christ descends bodily upon every soul of man who is resolved upon that initiation. It is of no use for us, if as yet untried, to turn aside from this aspect of the path because we may think it unduly introspective, if not morbid, in presentation. I can imagine that some, the academically and occultly learned ones, may feel inclined to do so; but that will not dispose of the fact.
 
If ever the Cross has been laid upon humanity, it has in this century above all others; nor can all the voices and commotion of the world hide the fact. Whether it is recognized as the Cross of Christ or merely as worldly misfortune, is another matter. But it will make all the difference how we regard it: whether we recognize it as a stroke of common fate, or see it as a major opportunity of the Cross laid upon man for his own perfecting. To view it as a chance stroke of destiny will not carry us far. It may deaden the pain, like a narcotic, leave us subdued and unresponsive, bound hand and foot to the relentless revolving wheel of time, uninspired and of no inspiration to our fellow men. That has happened in countless lives. If it happened in all, we should not have to wait long for the downfall of civilization. Hence, the other view is imperative: that we face a turning point in evolution, where men have been suddenly brought to an important crisis in life which offers an acceptance or rejection of a peculiar initiation, by force, instead of by slow and easy development. For, between the two wars, mankind was settling down once again to humdrum, uneventful living--uneventful in higher and spiritual living, very eventful in seizing upon and making more and more of a materialistic environment and less and less susceptible to a frame of mind which turned back in quietness and confidence to the perennial spring of spiritual inspiration and culture such as we find in the Imitation. And looking back over the years and making an impartial assessment of our profit and loss, where do we find ourselves? What have we gained and what lost? I speak of mankind in general. The world crisis has stripped mankind of most of its material gain; and in its place there is--an ominous silence. "The personality of men has been dissolved and melted," and there is nothing around them to take its place. They may elect to build again in the same way upon the same foundations, if they have the heart for it. Perhaps the majority will do so, for they see nothing better. But this will not satisfy all. There are those, a comparatively small minority, who interpret the world crisis as a crisis in the soul of man; and through this crisis, in these lives, Christ, it seems to me, will come into His own.
 
It has been said that "Purity of heart is to will one thing." That most pertinently sums up the Imitation and its author. Throughout the Imitation one thing only is willed. There is a single endeavor to mirror in the heart of man the image and life of Christ in all its radiant, poignant and unrivalled beauty. There is not a word of deviation from this august ideal. It is as if the author had ever before him, day and night, the real presence of Christ in the temple of the heart, and not for a moment could he release his gaze from a rapt contemplation of it, nor speak but in words of fervent simplicity of the way to full possession of it.
 
Acquainted, as many of us are, with many books of a devotional nature, when we turn to the Imitation, and after repeated reflection upon it, it is astonishing to note how completely absorbed the author was in his subject. There is not a single aspect of the conduct of man in his approach to or retrogression from the Christ ideal which has escaped the clear insight of this genius of holiness. In spite of some touches of austere asceticism, which we should expect from the pen of a recluse in monastic retirement, we find in the Imitation a warmth, companionship, and sympathetic understanding for man in all his manifold failings and weaknesses on the way, which places it in sharp contrast to Eastern literature. How often does the complacent aloofness, conscious height of attainment, the bleak detachment so characteristic of the latter seem to ignore or belittle our common and wounded humanity fighting at odds in a purely worldly environment, and impress us with a feeling of finality and impossibility of achieving the high goal of endeavor while man is but man. Not so is it in the Imitation. The irresistible magnetism of Christ works upon the mind like a spiritual leaven as we read it. It was the magnetism of Christ which gripped A Kempis as he wrote, and it is this same influence which holds and compels our allegiance as we meditate it. Spiritual magnetism in an inspired writer has this of divinity in it, that it draws us upward to itself directly the heart is touched by it. And as A Kempis depicts upon his living canvas in full and luminous detail the character of the Great Exemplar, we see a man lifted up into the high heaven of consciousness by the magnetism of his subject and writing what he must, in perfect humility and consuming adoration.
 
The Grand Inquisitor
 
In a recent book on Russian prophets of the last century, the writer, referring to Dostoevsky, says: "The world's literature does not possess any picture of Christ comparable in its power to that given by Dostoevsky in The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.2 The most remarkable feature of this legend is Christ's complete silence; throughout the whole scene He does not say a single word. It is only the Grand Inquisitor who argues, who tries to prove his case, who hates, fears and admires. Christ stands in front of him, subdued and yet triumphant, understanding all, forgiving all and yet pronouncing His final judgment."... And Dostoevsky's conclusion of the Legend runs thus: "When the Inquisitor ceased speaking he waited some time for his prisoner to answer him. His silence weighed down upon him. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for Him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it, and said to Him: 'Go, and come no more ... come not at all, never, never!'"
 
We are strangely impressed by contrasts. To read the bitter tirade of the Grand Inquisitor against Christ in Dostoevsky after the compassionate tones of A Kempis in his adoration of Christ in the Imitation, provides one of the most striking contrasts in literature. Christ stands before the Grand Inquisitor in person, a prisoner, is branded as a common criminal, and dismissed, offering not a word in reply, but only a simple act of forgiveness. The haughty Inquisitor stands and dismisses Christ with a gesture of contempt. A Kempis bows down before that same figure in vision within his heart and worships in words of undying pathos the greatest Man. The silence of Christ before the Inquisitor in Dostoevsky is one of those inspirational moments in literature when "the pencil of the Holy Ghost" writes for the man. The understanding silence of Christ stands out in speaking contrast to the deadly denunciation of the blind rhetoric of the man of the church.
 
Deafened by a Thousand Tongues
 
So is it today. Our ears are deafened with the rhetoric of a thousand tongues. They are not Inquisitorial tongues arraigning Christ: they have forgotten Him and arraign one another. There is a mad haste to build quickly upon the old foundations power, prestige, and domination. "Therefore is the name of it called Babel." Already, a few short days after the bloodbath of the nations, the fear of man for the ascendancy and domination of his neighbor rises steadily and makes the future as uncertain as the past. It is not a picture that would inspire any man. Whence then shall we look for inspiration, and what shall we do? We who have striven through the years for the greater and endurable values of life, and others like us of different persuasions, are but a handful among the nations. But nothing that has happened has robbed us of our ideal or our hope. They are a part of the texture of the soul which neither wars nor rumors of wars can touch; indeed, we are more convinced than ever that these values are the only enduring ones, for after the world holocaust they still dominate the heart with unabated persistency as silent witnesses of the presence of Christ within us. It is upon this foundation that we must continue to build. We are not responsible for the masquerade of the nations, nor did we create the gods they worship. "All gods of the nations are idols," says the Psalmist. That is a summary judgment, but in this materialistic epoch in which we find ourselves it is not far short of the truth. In fact, when we turn from it for a moment to quiet contemplation of the Imitation, we wonder whether after all A Kempis is speaking to humanity as we know it, and whether humanity is fit to read it. It needs it, desperately: but the gods of the nations are firm upon their thrones. Two wars have not shaken them from their sordid seats: and it is humanity, our fellow men and women, who keep them there. That is an unpalatable truth, but there is no gainsaying it. Christ has been dethroned by the people of the nations and as summarily dismissed as the Grand Inquisitor dismissed Him, with a contemptuous finger pointing Him to the door.
 
Whence then shall we look for inspiration, and what shall we do? We must come back once again to ourselves and seek inspiration within. And as a key thought, I will quote from that chapter in the Imitation on "The king's highway of the holy Cross." ... "Know for certain, that thou oughtest to lead a dying life. And the more any man dieth to himself, so much the more doth he begin to live with God. No man is fit to comprehend things heavenly, unless he submit himself to the bearing of adversities for Christ's sake. Nothing is more acceptable to God, nothing more wholesome to thee in this world, than to suffer cheerfully for Christ. And if it were for thee to choose, thou oughtest rather to suffer adversities for Christ, than to be refreshed with many consolations; because thou wouldest thus be more like unto Christ, and more conformable to all the saints. For worthiness, and the progress of our spiritual estate, standeth not in many sweetnesses and comforts; but rather in thoroughly enduring great afflictions and tribulations. Indeed, if there had been any better thing, and more profitable to a man's salvation, than suffering, surely Christ would have shown it by word and example. For both the disciples that followed Him, and all who desire to follow Him, he plainly exhorteth to the bearing of the Cross, and saith, 'If any will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his Cross, and follow Me.' So that when we have read to the end and searched through all, let this be the final conclusion, 'That through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God.'"
 
There is nothing startlingly new in that. It is just the simple truth of the disciple's life on the mystic way. Note the title of A Kempis' book, The Imitation of Christ. He asks us to look at Christ, to meditate upon the beauty, suffering and strength of Christ, to absorb into ourselves the spiritual magnetism of Christ, and to realize that whatever happens to us as we try to radiate the influence of that life, we shall find the prototype of it in Him. There is our inspiration; and our care must be, that we reflect it in a life of devoted service to the only ideal that is worth anything in this world.
 
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1Publishers: Harper and Brothers (1943), New York, N.Y.
 
2Publishers: Martin Secker and Warburg (1935), London, England.
 
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Webmaster's Notes:

(A) The above article should be read together with the one entitled
The Divine Experiment.

(B) Several editions of The Imitation of Christ on-line are listed here (external link).

(C) A Gutenberg edition of The Grand Inquisitor by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is on-line here (external link).
  

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