The time of the glorious season of Easter is now upon us. For the next 50 days, until the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we will celebrate the great event of the resurrection. One good way to ponder the saving action of God is by reading the spiritual classic The Following of Christ, usually referred to as The Imitation of Christ.
Written in Latin sometime between 1418 and 1427, The Imitation of Christ was composed by Thomas à Kempis, an Augustinian monk at the Monastery of Mt. St. Agnes in the Netherlands, who was responsible for the instruction of novices. As such, he spent a great deal of time creating manuscripts and writing devotionals. The Imitation of Christ is a collection of four of his books, each giving instruction on the interior life, with a special focus on living a life centered on the Eucharist. After the Bible, it is the most translated book in history, having been printed at least 745 times before 1650. It is believed that saints such as Ignatius of Loyola read a chapter from The Imitation daily and Thomas Moore professed it to be one of the essential books a Christian should own. It also had a major influence on St. Therese of Lisieux. But if the thought of diving straight into a spiritual classic is a little overwhelming, then I would like to offer a suggestion.
The Companion Guide
Ursuline sister Bridget Haase’s new book Thirty Days Praying The Imitation of Christ: A Companion to the Classic guides us into the original spiritual work. Sr. Bridget’s book is organized into 30 different topics, such as "The Inner Life," "Love of Christ," and "Rewards Promised to Those who Fight Against Sin." Each of these topics is a collection of quotes taken straight from The Imitation of Christ, enabling the reader to pray-through (in Sister’s words) a topic; sitting with it, dwelling upon it, instead of simply reading-through it. Each topic is followed by a few reflection questions that are designed to help us apply the teachings to our own lives and ends with an original prayer, written by Sr. Bridget. Finally, there is blank space following each topic for notes, art, and our own supplications. As a reader, I engage with the quotes from the original work, I ponder the reflection questions, but I especially appreciate the original ending prayers. Sr. Bridget writes simply, but clearly. She is known for her down-to-earth style of writing that combines practicality with wonder. Her prayers echo and give shape to the unformed thoughts and expressions in our hearts and minds. Let’s take a closer look at one topic, “Things Which Bring Peace.”
This entry begins with quotes from The Imitation of Christ like “Make this your aim, to do the will of another, rather than your own,” followed by “Always choose to have less rather than more” and “Always desire and pray that the will of God may be wholly fulfilled in you.” Next, we are reminded that “[This discourse] is few in words but full in meaning and abundant in fruit” and that when we feel “disturbed and discontent” it is because we have “strayed from this teaching.” The quotes end with a recognition of our dependence on God by saying “You can do all things and always desire the progress of my soul. Increase your grace in me, so that I may be able to fulfill your words and perfect my salvation.”
In the Reflection Questions that follow, Sr. Bridget invites us to ponder:
1.When have I put others’ desires before my own?
2. How do I succumb to the desire to have more and better things?
3. How do I subtly seek the praise of others to raise myself up?
The Ending Prayer ties the quotes and the questions together, raising them up in supplication:
“O God, these principles are so full of meaning and abound in fruitfulness, even though they are short on words. It takes a lifetime to be faithful to these precepts, but I want to carry them in the backpack of my life. I ask that I draw strength from them when I feel weak and barren, nourishment when I am hungry, and refreshment when I am parched and burdened. Amen.”
This is such a beautiful image. On the pilgrimage of our lives, we each carry a backpack full of supplies; some are necessary, others are not. Sr. Bridget reminds us to be thoughtful about what we choose to carry, since it is from this backpack that we get the strength, nourishment and refreshment to continue.
The questions are followed by a blank space, where we can journal, list or draw “Ways to Desire Less.”
One Final Note
One final noteworthy aspect of this little book is the inspiration behind it. Sr. Bridget writes that she first encountered The Imitation of Christ as a young nun, when she was gifted a pocket-sized edition of the classic work. It has traveled with her through the years “to the mountains of Appalachia; to the desert of Sudan, East Africa; to the bush of Senegal, West Africa; to rural areas in Mexico and to both Texas and Massachusetts” and it is with her still today. But this pocket-sized edition was not new when it was given to her. It first belonged to another Ursuline sister, Mother Mary Mildred Dooling.
Mother Mary (or Sister, as she would have been then) entered the convent in April, 1910, and used this small book as a spiritual guide throughout her life. On the first blank page, as she was beginning her religious life, Sr. Mary wrote a prayer asking God to help her be a faithful nun “just for today.” During the next 52 years as an Ursuline, Sr. Mary pored over the pages of The Imitation of Christ, selecting the topics that are found in Sr. Bridget’s new companion guide. Sr. Bridget writes that she discovered these selections in Mother Mary’s “faded handwriting at the back of the book” where Mother Mary mentions praying with the text for 30 days and arranged the reflections into areas like “the foundation of our life before God, “ the Incarnation, Death and Passion of Jesus”, and “the sweetness of eternal rest in God.”
Sr. Bridget’s companion to the classic can accompany us on our spiritual journey through Eastertide, not only making the original work more accessible, but also enabling us to pray with the communion of saints, both those known, such as St. Ignatius, St. Thomas Moore and St. Therese of Lisieux, as well as other holy voices, like Mother Mary Mildred. It is available from Paraclete Press for $9.99 (US).