Black Books

The Imitation of Christ is a work of devotional instruction that appeared at the beginning of the fifteenth century and became extremely popular.

Its authorship is still in dispute, though it is generally attributed to Thomas a Kempis (c. 1380- 1471), who belonged to the order of the Brethren of the Common Life.

A religious community in the Netherlands, it was part of the devotio modern a, a movement stressing meditation and the inner life. In clear and simple language,

The Imitation of Christ exhorts readers to concern themselves with spirituality as opposed to outer things, gives advice as to how this is to be achieved, and demonstrates the comfort and ultimate rewards of a life lived in Christ.

The title derives from the first line of the first chapter.

It is also stated in the chapter:

“Anyone who wishes to understand and to savor the words of Christ to the full must try to make his whole life conform to the pattern of Christ’s life” (The Imitation of Christ, trans. Betty I. Knott [London: Fount, 1996], Book 1, chapter I , p. 33). The theme of the Imitation of Christ dates back much earlier.

There was much discussion in the Middle Ages about how the concept was to be understood.

On the history of this notion, see Giles Constable, “The Ideal of the Imitation of Christ,” in Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 143- 248.

As Constable shows, two broad approaches may be distinguished, depending upon how imitation is understood: the first, the imitation of the divinity of Christ, stressed the doctrine of deification by which “Christ showed the way to become God through him” (p. 218).

The second, the imitation of the humanity and body of Christ, stressed the imitation of His life on earth.

The most extreme form was in the tradition of stigmatics, individuals who bore the wounds of Christ on their body. In 1932, in  Psychotherapy and the cure of souls,” Jung wrote:

“We Protestants must sooner or later face this question: Are we to understand the Imitatio Christi in the sense that we should copy his life and, in a certain manner, ape his stigmata; or in the deeper sense that we are to live our own proper lives as truly as he lived his in its individual uniqueness? To imitate Christ’s life is no easy matter, but it is unspeakably much harder to live one’s own life as Christ lived his” (cw II,§ 522). ~The Black Books, Vol. III, Page 137, fn 152