The Imitation of Christ
Friday, Oct. 15, 2021
In my studies, I’ve come across numerous references to Thomas à Kempis’ book The Imitation of Christ. Written in the 1400s, across the centuries it has influenced many saints, Ignatius of Loyola, Francis de Sales and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux among them. It’s languished on my “to read” list for years now, but then I got word of a new guide to the classic that encouraged me to move it to the top of my list.
Thirty Days Praying the Imitation of Christ: A Companion to the Classic is a wonderful introduction to the original book, of which “there are a thousand different editions preserved in the British Museum alone,” notes Sr. Bridget Haase, OSU in her introduction to the companion guide that she wrote.
The guide itself is divided into 30 chapters. Except for the first chapter, each includes numerous brief excerpts from the original book, a couple of reflection questions, and a short prayer. The first two sentences of the first chapter dissolved my customary caution toward all such guides: “Prayer can jumpstart our day and life, but it is never something we simply jump into. It also cannot be left to chance, as chances are the sun will set, our eyes will close, and our intention to pray will often evaporate into the darkness.”
Then, first on the list of things to consider as you prepare to pray: “Breathe in life and exhale selfishness and self-preoccupation.”
I’ve never met Sr. Bridget, but she seems to know me. I keep saying I’m going to jumpstart my prayer life, but good intentions seem to be as far as I ever get. And, yes, I really do need to breathe in life and exhale selfishness!
I read the first chapter in an electronic version of the guide, but all the subsequent chapters contain a blank page for drawing or doodling or writing whatever comes to mind during that day’s prayer. Because I find scribbling in an e-book annoying even when it is possible, I purchased a hard copy of the guide. (To support our local Catholic businesses, order it through Immaculate Heart Religious Gifts and Books in Draper or Magdalene Religious Goods in Salt Lake City).
Words are my natural form of expression, but for some reason the blank page in Sr. Bridget’s guide prompted me to consider drawing. Now, my ability to draw ended in the second grade, when a classmate ridiculed my drawing of a face by pointing to the nose and laughing at the nostrils, calling them boogers. Despite the teacher’s reassurances, that mocking crushed me to the point that today I cringe at the idea of having to draw.
Why Sr. Bridget’s book inspired me in this way I can’t say, but for the first day’s reflection I considered my reflection as a drawing rather than in words. That led me to sign up for an art class, which I am approaching with trepidation but attempting to keep an open mind.
The book is inspiring quite a bit of reflection, as well, though I’m either going to have to pray several times a day or extend the length of my use of it beyond 30 days, because I find several items in each chapter that I want to ponder. For example, just for today I want to reflect on “How parched and hard-hearted you are without Jesus” and “Be devout and quiet, and Jesus will remain with you,” and also to contemplate the question “In what ways can I practice a greater closeness to Christ?”
The book’s chapters have titles like “The Inner Life” and “Service;” related quotes from The Imitation are included for each topic. The selections were made by Ursuline Sr. Mary Mildred Dooling, who entered the convent in 1910 and died in 1962. Sr. Bridget was given Sr. Mary Mildred’s copy of The Imitation in the 1970s, and she treasures the book.
Myself, I treasure this tangible reflection of the continuity of our religion – from the life of our Lord that inspired a 15th-century churchman to write a book that led a 20th-century Ursuline sister to jot in her copy a prayer to be a faithful nun “just for today,” which motivated a 21st-century Ursuline to write a book that I now use to strengthen my faith.
God, may I be faithful to you just for today; I ask this is Jesus’s name. Amen.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic. Reach her at email@example.com.