THE IMITATION OF JESUS CHRIST
A STUDY OF ITS SPIRITUALITY
by Pierre Pourrat Former Superior of the novitiate of Saint Sulpice
The literary form of the "Imitation" makes an exhaustive synthesis of its
spirituality impossible. There is not, as we know, any logical connection
between the four books of this celebrated work, nor between the chapters of
each book. The author presents his teaching in sentences which are often
unrelated to each other. His aim is to instruct, to edify and not to
satisfy intellectual curiosity. How often he warns us of this!
Furthermore, he is well acquainted with many forms of medieval
spirituality. They are reflected in his work like so many rays of light
focused for greater clarity on a single point. This central point of the
"Imitation's" spirituality seems to be the perfecting of the interior life
of the Christian soul in part through knowledge of self but more especially
through knowledge of Christ. To grow in self-knowledge means to grow in the
practice of interior renunciation, without which the soul can never be
filled with the divine spirit. And without a profound knowledge of Christ,
it is impossible to love and imitate Him in a manner befitting a fervent
Christian, as the "Imitation" understands the term.
Therefore the object of this study is this basic and entirely spiritual
problem of the interior life: How can a profound knowledge of self be
acquired so that the soul's evil tendencies will be destroyed and the
contemplation of Christ's life and example can implant His virtues in our
heart? After proposing an answer to this question we will examine some of
the insights the "Imitation" affords on devotion to Christ, especially on
devotion to the Eucharist.
I. KNOWLEDGE OF SELF AND INTERIOR RENOUNCEMENT
The attentive reader of the "Imitation" will be quick to notice that book's
climate is one of interiority and self-introspection. The piety is all
inward and in his analysis of the soul the author turns rarely to exterior
means of sanctification. Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Bonaventure and so
many others ascend to God by means of creatures, that is, as Saint Francis
of Sales has said " by the ladder of creatures ". The "Imitation" makes
this ascent by means of self-knowledge, that is to say by knowledge of
one's own soul:
"Humble self-knowledge is a surer path to God than knowledge's deep
research. This is the highest and most useful knowledge: for a man truly to
know and despise himself... Learn to despise outward things and give
yourself to inward things and you shall see the kingdom of God come into
your soul (cf. 2:1)."
This inward spirituality may be traced to Saint Augustine whose works
medieval writers knew so well. In his refutations of Pelagianism, the
Bishop of Hippo made very dear that the heart of fallen man is the most
redoubtable source of evil solicitations. Within, rather than without, must
battle be joined. When we will have mortified, by ceaseless inner struggle,
the soul's passions, then we will be secure. How can enticements from
without prevail against a soul inwardly dead to its unregulated tendencies
? The work of our sanctification must therefore be above all interior. It
is a matter that concerns the soul. This no one understood better than the
author of the "Imitation."
Because of this inner struggle we must first know the human soul and
analyze both its tendencies and its behavior. Stoics, we are well aware,
carried such analysis very far. The author of the "Imitation" had read
their works. He even quotes this thought from Seneca: "Each time I have
sought the company of men, I have returned home less a man". (1: 20). But
it is as a Christian that he examines the soul. Psychological study of this
kind was highly regarded in the middle ages, as the often quoted "De Anima"
But the difficulties of the subject are great.
First of all, the soul in itself is mysterious, almost incomprehensible. A
psychologist of the middle ages asks:
"What is this soul that is able to give life to the body and unable to
continue unswervingly in holy thoughts? What is this soul, at once so
strong and so weak, so little and so great, that can examine divine secrets
and contemplate heavenly realities?... Once more, what is this soul that
knows so many things and that is ignorant of what it is in itself and how
it is made?
Moreover, in its efforts to understand itself, the soul is both the means
and the object of the knowledge. It is far easier for it to know what is
outside than it is to know itself. It is, to quote Hugh of Saint Victor,
"like the eye that sees all things yet never sees itself. Man's visual
power enables him to see everything around him; it never enables him to see
his face, although that is where his eyes are."
That is why we are happy to find an author who so deftly analyzes the human
soul and shows us to ourselves, just as we really are. The "Imitation" can
make this revelation because it examines the Christian soul not only in the
light of reason but also in the light of faith according to principles of
traditional asceticism. This is why although it is a book written by monks
for monks, it will never grow old and the faithful of every generation will
make it their own. Conditions alter constantly: the nature of the soul
remains unchanged. It will always have the same resources for good and the
same tendencies to evil.
Sometimes it is said that the spirituality of the "Imitation" no longer
meets present needs. Interiority carried so far is not suited to the
exigencies of life today. So exclusive a preoccupation with our personal
sanctification is a poor preparation for the apostolate. To say this is to
forget that Christian life rightly understood is an alternation of periods
of activity and periods of recollection. After periods of exhausting
activity the "Imitation" will help us "to re-discover our soul" in order to
nourish its spiritual life. Michel of Marillac (d. 1632), after a busy life
as keeper of the seals of Louis XIII, re-discovered his own soul when in
prison he reread his own translation of this celebrated work. Nearer our
own day, Andre Beaunier returned to the faith and translated the
"Imitation" to strengthen his own religious convictions. How many other
souls have found in this book a new enthusiasm for Christian perfection!
How does the "Imitation" teach us to acquire self-knowledge and self-
possession? By recollection and examination of conscience.
Not to be able to recollect one's self and to enter within one's self is to
fail forever to know one's self. The "Imitation" puts it this way: "Seek to
wean yourself from love of things visible in order to come to things
invisible" (1: 1).
The man who wants to make progress in the interior life must build what
Saint Catherine of Siena calls an inner "cell of true self-knowledge."
The interior man quickly recollects himself because he never concentrates
all his attention on exterior things. He is not hindered by exterior things
or needful business of the moment for he accommodates himself to things as
they present themselves (2:1).
To recollection is united examination of conscience. First of all there
must be examination of sins as a preparation for confession. Then comes an
examination of the tendencies of the soul and this is stressed in the
"Imitation" because the book is meant for those who have made progress in
the spiritual life. This examination must always be made because without it
there can be no thorough self-knowledge and no advance in the practice of
virtue. This is the daily particular examen.
Both our outer and inner life must be diligently examined and regulated
because both aid our spiritual progress. In the morning form your
resolution, in the evening examine your conduct. How have you behaved in
word, in thought, in deed? In these you have, perhaps, offended both God
and your neighbor (1:19).
Saint Catherine of Siena with energy assured one of her companions:
"Knowledge of self will give you a hatred for your sensual nature, and
armed with this sword of hatred you can sit in the tribunal of your
conscience and pass judgment on your feelings."
Peace of soul and the joy of a good conscience is the immediate reward of
this serious examen.
The "Imitation" says that man's glory is the testimony of a good conscience
(cf. 2 Cor. 1:12).
"Have a good conscience and you will always have joy. A good conscience can
bear many things and is very happy even under adversity. An evil conscience
is always timid and disquieted. You rest sweetly when your conscience
reproves you not (2: 6; cf. 1:11; 3:23)."
To know our soul is to discover in it an abundance of evil tendencies.
These are the results of original sin. Yet we are destined for heaven and
called to a life of holiness and imitation of Christ. Obviously there is a
contradiction between our soul's inclination to evil, and our aspirations
to good. This contradiction, we are taught, is to be resolved by
mortification and self-renunciation. For this reason the "Imitation" never
tires urging us to wage that war against self in which, with God's help, we
will overcome all our evil tendencies.
"If you overcome yourself perfectly you shall the sooner overcome all other
foes. The most perfect victory is victory over self. He who has so
subjected himself that sensuality obeys reason and reason obeys God, is
truly victor over himself and lord of the world. If you long to come to
this point, set manfully to work, place the axe to the root of the tree and
destroy the most secret forms of your inordinate self love (3:53)."
This inner battle must be waged without any respite.
"The more violence you do to yourself, the more, also, you will advance in
virtue. There is one thing which hinders many in their spiritual progress
and fervent amendment of soul, namely, a fear of the labor and pain of the
struggle. But they who most advance in virtue are those who force
themselves to overcome in those matters that to them are most grievous and
So austere a doctrine is sweetened by the example of Christ. Is not this
effort to die to self the same thing as carrying our cross? Now Christ was
the first to carry His cross, not because He needed to mortify Himself--He
who is all-holy--but to give us an example.
The author shows us in the beautiful second chapter of the Imitation" how
he understands Christ's Passion. When Saint Bernard and Saint Francis of
Assisi speak of Christ crucified, they stir our hearts and make us want to
imitate Him. When Saint Angela of Foligno, Saint Bridget and Blessed Henry
Suso give us terrifyingly-realistic descriptions of Christ's Passion, they
make us love Him. When the author of the "Imitation" makes a closely
reasoned appeal, in some sixty sentences, of the necessity of our following
Christ and carrying our cross after Him, his repeated affirmations compel
"There is no health of soul, nor hope of eternal life but in the cross.
Take your cross and follow Jesus, and you shall enter into life eternal. He
has gone before you, bearing His cross. He has died for you on the cross.
So that you, too, may be ready to carry your cross and to die on it
Nor can the cross be escaped...
"Do you think you can avoid what no mortal man has ever yet escaped? Where
is the saint who is without cross and suffering? Our Lord was not without
sorrow and pain for a single hour of His life. "Ought not Christ to have
suffered and so to have entered into His glory?" (Luke 24: 26) Christ's
whole life was cross and martyrdom: are you seeking repose and joy? (6-7)".
So, we must not only carry the cross but we must grow to love it. Then it
will become sweet:
"When you reach this degree of perfection that suffering becomes sweet and
for Christ's sake you love it, then you can count yourself happy. You will
have found heaven on earth... If you try to be what you ought to be, that
is to say, if you accept suffering and death, all will go better and you
will find peace (11-12)."
Let us remind ourselves that the cross will appear in the heavens when
Christ will come to judge the world:
"Then all the disciples of the cross who conformed themselves to the divine
crucifix during life will draw near with great confidence to their
sovereign Judge. Why then do you hesitate to carry a cross that will bring
you to the heavenly kingdom (1-2). If you gladly carry your cross, it will
carry you and bring you to your desired goal where you will experience no
more pain; but this will not be here below (5)".
In a final attempt to convince the Christian to wage a war in his own heart
so that the spirit may triumph over the flesh, the "Imitation" asks him to
meditate on death and its consequences.
This appeal to the last things is far from the dramatic exhortations of
medieval preachers and the death dances artists loved to paint in their
churches. Here we have no representation of death's honors but a gripping
reminder, as clear as a trumpet call, that we do not know when we are going
to die and we must always be ready (1: 23). It is in the chapter on "The
Judgment of Sinners and their Punishments" (1: 20) that we find some traces
of contemporary and fear-filling descriptions of hell.
Even the style in which the "Imitation" is written is affected by this
preoccupation of ensuring our salvation and sanctification by an inward
combat which subjects the flesh to the mind of Christ. At times the
antithetical style marks the opposition of the two forces in us which
dispute for our heart.
Georges Goyau writes in his preface to Andre Beaunier's translation:
"This book is meant to be a call to battle waged between flesh and spirit.
It is meant to show us the meeting and union of Christ and the soul, all
the more marvelous because the contrast between 'He who is' and 'she who is
not' is constantly underlined, accented and illustrated by the balancing of
phrases which establish their opposition, their presence to one another and
finally their friendship."
II. KNOWLEDGE AND IMITATION OF CHRIST
Self-knowledge, then, is necessary to organize this inner struggle which is
to deal death to self. When our wicked tendencies shall have been killed
then the spirit of Christ can take possession of our souls. "My son, as
much as you are able to go out of yourself, so much will you be able to
enter into Me" (2:56).
As a matter of fact these two movements are simultaneous. The greater the
degree of our self-renunciation, the greater our adherence to Christ. This
relationship is a law of Christian life which Christ stated when He said
that His disciple must renounce himself to follow Him, that is to say, to
be united to Him (Matt. 16: 24).
Although growth in self-knowledge means an equal advance in knowledge of
Christ, for greater clarity in this study we will consider them separately.
How does the "Imitation" tell us to know Jesus better and to imitate Him
more closely? The method it recommends is wholly interior; it is much like
the way that leads to death to self.
Usually spiritual writers advise us to read and meditate on the Gospel
record of the mysteries of our Lord's life if we wish to understand Him.
Saint Ignatius most especially prescribes this during the last three weeks
of his "Spiritual Exercises." The "Imitation" does not disagree. In the
fifth chapter of the first book is an explanation of the right way of
reading Sacred Scripture. This advice is meant for monks who know and read
the Bible. But this reading will not touch the soul and help it, unless the
soul is enlightened with an inner light because it is Christ's word heard
interiorly that we must desire. This helps us to know Him and leads us to
"All that I read or hear is burdensome to my soul. In you, Lord is all that
I will and desire. Let the learned be silent, let all creatures be still in
your presence. Lord, speak to my soul (1:3)."
Bossuet once said in a sermon on the Divine Word, when speaking of Saint
Augustine, that in addition to the voice of the preacher that "reaches the
ear, there is a secret voice that speaks interiorly... It is this spiritual
and interior discourse that is the true sermon without which men's words
would be useless sounds." The "Imitation" teaches that it is through this
"spiritual and interior discourse" that we acquire true knowledge of
"Blessed is the man who hears the Lord speak in his soul and takes from His
mouth some words of consolation... Blessed are the ears that hear, not
outward speech, but rather what He teaches within the soul (3:1).
In times past the children of Israel said to Moses: Speak to us and we
shall hear you; but let not the Lord speak lest we die (Ex. 20:19). Not so,
Lord; not so is my prayer. Rather, I ask with Samuel the prophet, humbly
and ardently: Speak Lord, Your servant is listening (1 Sam. 3:9). Let not
Moses, nor any of the prophets speak to me, but you, Lord, who inspire and
illumine the prophets. For You only, without them, can fully impart to me
Your truth; they, without You, profit me little. They can repeat Your words
but they cannot give me understanding (3:2)."
Need we add that this knowledge that God communicates interiorly to the
soul has nothing in common with what Protestants call "private revelation"
which claims to unveil to the Christian, reading the Bible, truths he must
hold and principles he must follow according to his state? The author of
the "Imitation," on the contrary, believes all the truths taught by the
Catholic Church and practices an integral Christian morality. His only
desire is to learn more and more about Christ; to know Him better and to
love Him more perfectly.
Nor is this inner enlightment to be identified with the strictly mystical
phenomenon of "inner words " which reveal secret things of the present or
future, of which Saint Teresa speaks (Life, 25:38). The "Imitation" makes
no reference to revelations in the strict sense of the word but is
concerned with a more complete understanding of the teaching of Christ.
It is especially in the third book that this knowledge is presented in the
form of colloquies between Christ and the Christian soul. For this reason
it bears the title: "The Book of Consolation or of Interior Conversation".
The second book is called "Instructions leading toward the Interior Life"
and the first book, "Useful Admonitions for the Spiritual Life".
It would be irksome to analyze the fifty-nine chapters of the third book,
one by one. The study of a few will suffice. The subjects are chosen to
help religious but in them every Christian can find edification because
Christ's counsels given to the devout and faithful soul are based on a
profound analysis of the Christian soul. So sound is the author's
supernatural psychology that souls suffering from human misery and longing
for divine consolations love to study its pages. Which one of us in reading
a chapter of the "Imitation" does not feel that it was written for him, so
suited is it to the soul's present needs? Thus a man much tried, beset by
temptations, loves to hear Christ say to him:
"My son, you will never be safe from tribulation in this life, but as long
as you live, spiritual armor will be necessary. You are among enemies,
vexed with them on every side. Without the buckler of patience you will not
long be unscathed... Do you think to enjoy at all times and to your own
taste, spiritual consolations? It was not thus with My saints for they
endured much pain, diverse temptations and great desolation. With patience
they bore all these and trusted more in Me than in themselves, for they
knew well that the sufferings of this world are not to be measured against
the glory of the next (Rom. 8:18)."
We must not allow ourselves to be too discouraged we fall into faults.
Weak, as we are, is it any wonder that we trespass? "Remember you are a man
and not a god: a man of flesh and not an angel " (3: 57). What matters most
is that we rise swiftly with fresh courage.
One trial brings special pain: to see our reputation attacked by wicked
tongues. Of this the "Imitation" speaks many times. To persuade us to be
patient and forgiving, it appeals to the examples of Christ:
"My son, said Jesus, I came down from heaven for your salvation. Not
compelled by necessity but out of charity I took upon Myself your miseries
to teach you patience and the silent acceptance of this life's ills... I
heard many complaints made against Me. Meekly I endured shames and rebukes.
For My benefits I received ingratitude; for My miracles, blasphemies; for
My teaching, reproofs."
To which the faithful soul can only answer: "Lord, because You were found
patient in Your life, is it not fitting that I, too, suffer patiently?"
We are often troubled because our desires, which we believe to be
legitimate, are not satisfied. These desires are of many kinds. They may be
for position or greater prestige or fortune. If we wish to calm these
troubling agitations we can open the "Imitation." There we will read:
"My son, let me do what I want with you. I know what is best for you. Your
thoughts are the thoughts of a man and in many ways your ideas are
according to human reasoning... Every desire comes not from the Holy
Spirit, even if it seems to you right and good. It is sometimes hard to
judge whether a good spirit or an evil one moves you to desire this or
that, or whether you are moved by your own spirit (3:15-17)."
Shall we not see that the best thing to do is to follow the recommendation
made by the "Imitation" and practice "resignation"? This means that we must
give up our own judgment confidently and abandon ourselves and all that
concerns us to God (3:15, 17, 37). "Provided, O Lord, that my will is fixed
straight and true in You, do with me what You wish because whatever You do
with me must be good " (3:17).
In this baffling conflict of thoughts and desires the devil's share is
unmistakable and the "Imitation" reminds us that "the ancient foe does his
utmost to stifle your desire to do good and to divert you from your
exercises of devotion".
We must therefore struggle against him and be alert because he never
slumbers but roams around without rest seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet.
The chapter contrasting the action of grace and the action of nature is a
delicate psychological study and enables us to recognize desires which
spring from our fallen nature and which are contrary to the Spirit of God
(3: 54). Highly practical directives are given about resisting temptations
(1: 13; 3: 6, 23, 35). Temptations we have successfully overcome have the
good results of humbling us, of purifying us from our sins, of showing us
how weak we are without God's help. No one understands this better than the
author of the "Imitation."
In the acquisition of virtues Christ's example is able, in a certain sense,
to transform the well disposed soul, so He recommends humility in these
"But what a great thing is it to you, who are but dust and nothingness, if
you subdue yourself to a man, whereas I, the Almighty and most high, the
Creator of all things from nothing subdued Myself meekly to man for your
sake? I made Myself most meek and most low, so that you could learn to
overcome your pride by My meekness (3:13)."
To accept Christ's teaching, to follow in His footsteps and in this way to
live with His life--this is the teaching repeated on every page of the
If knowledge of Jesus must precede imitation, surely knowledge is even more
necessary if we are to love Him. The "Imitation" hymns the love of Jesus in
the seventh and eighth chapters of the second book.
First of all it lays down the condition for this love: perfect self-
"Happy is he who knows how good it is to love Jesus, and for His sake to
despise himself. A lover of Jesus must forsake all other loves, for He will
be loved above all other... Your beloved is of such nature that He will not
admit any other love. He will have alone your heart and will sit therein as
a king on his own throne (2:7)."
In this way our legitimate affections will be completely subordinated to
our love for Jesus: "Love all others for Jesus and love Jesus for Himself"
Consider the advantages this love gives us!
"Love for the creature is deceptive and quickly passes: love of Jesus is
stable and true... Love and take for a friend one who will never abandon
you. When all will leave you at the moment of death, He will not suffer you
to perish (2:7)."
What shall we say of the joy a soul knows who possesses the heavenly Friend
and delights in His presence?
"When Jesus is present all things are good and nothing seems hard but when
He is absent all things are hard. When Jesus is silent, no consolation
avails, but if He speaks a single word, the soul feels great comfort. How
vain and foolish you are if you seek anything outside of Jesus!... What can
this world give you but through Jesus' help. To be without Jesus is an
unbearable hell: to be with Jesus is a sweet paradise (2:8)."
This possession of Jesus through love leads the author of the "Imitation"
to mystic love which he describes in the manner of Saint Bernard (In
"Cantica", Sermon 79, 1).
"Love is a great thing and a good, and alone makes heavy burdens light...
Nothing, therefore, is sweeter than love, nothing higher, nothing stronger,
nothing larger, nothing more joyful, nothing fuller, and nothing better in
heaven nor in earth; for love is born of God and may not rest finally in
anything lower than God. Such a lover flies, he runs swiftly, he is merry
in God, he is free in soul and nothing stops him... (3:5)."
When the soul is ravished in God and receives the kiss of the Spouse, cries
of unspeakable sweetness escape it:
"O my Lord God, my holy Friend, when You come into my soul all that is
within me rejoices. You are my glory and the joy of my heart, my hope and
my whole refuge in the day of trouble... Open my heart and fill it with
love so that I may know in my inmost being how sweet it is to love You, how
I may be possessed and melted with love. I shall sing You the song of love.
I shall follow You to heaven. May I never fail to praise You with the
joyful song of love. May I love You more than I love myself; may I love
myself only for Your sake. May I love in You all those who love You truly,
as the law of love ordains which we know in Your light (3:5)."
The author of the "Imitation" does not exclude the happiness a soul
discovers in a love for God surpassing any love for creatures. In this he
agrees with Hugh of Saint Victor, whom Saint Thomas Aquinas followed. They
taught that a love of God separated from the happiness He gives us is
impossible. Abelard, on the contrary, taught that true love must be
entirely disinterested and must be considered apart from happiness sought
in God. This was a moot point in the middle ages and divided Bossuet and
Fenelon in the seventeenth century (Bossuet, "Instruction sur les etats
d'oraison, Additions" 8).
III. DEVOTION TO CHRIST: THE EUCHARIST
The imitation of Christ is the principal form of this devotion. Of course
the Word was made flesh to save us but also to give us the model of the
perfect life we are to lead. The "Imitation" highlights, as we have
observed, this second motive of the Incarnation.
Several forms of devotion to the humanity of Christ were popular in the
middle ages: devotion to His childhood, to His Passion, to His precious
blood, to His sacred wounds. It is this last devotion that appeals to the
author of the "Imitation." He invites the soul at grips with temptation to
seek refuge in the Savior's wounds just as Saint Bernard had done (In
"Cantica", Sermon 61: 3-4).
"Find your rest in the Savior's Passion and in His holy wounds willingly
dwell. If with love you make these wounds your refuge, discover great
strength in the day of tribulation(2:1).
But it was devotion to the Blessed Sacrament that most captivated the
author of the "Imitation." This he made the subject of the entire fourth
book. In it he examined with fervent piety every aspect of this sweet
mystery in the manner dear to theologians and spiritual authors of his day.
First he dwelt upon the great goodness and measureless love God manifests
for us in the institution of this sacrament (4: 2). Then he showed the
excellence of the Eucharist and of the priesthood without which the
sacrifice of the Mass could not be celebrated.
"It is not granted to the merits of men that a man should touch and
consecrate Christ's sacrament and make the bread of angels his food. Great
is this mystery and great is the dignity of priests who have been given
powers not granted to angels. For priests only, duly ordained in the
Church, have power to offer Mass and consecrate Christ's body. When a
priest celebrates Mass he honors God; he gladdens the angels; he
strengthens the Church; he succors the people; he gives rest to the dead-
he makes himself a sharer of all good things (4:5)."
This celebration demands that the priest be truly holy.
"You are now a priest and consecrated to say Mass... You have not lightened
your burden... A priest ought to be adorned with all virtues and give
others the example of a good life.... If you had the purity of angels and
the sanctity of John the Baptist you would not be worthy to receive or to
touch this sacrament (4:5)."
The author of the "Imitation" is deeply impressed by the contrast between
the incomprehensible excellence of the Sacrament and the miseries and lack
of fervor of celebrant and communicant. This excellence demands our deep
reverence. But beware! Too great an emphasis on the reverence required of
priest and people will make men fear that they are unworthy to celebrate
Holy Mass or to receive Holy Communion and this means that they will not
draw near altar or altar rail. This is why communion was infrequent during
the middle ages.
An attitude of fear is observable in the "Imitation." We read:
"Your words, O Jesus, are full of goodness, tenderness and love. They stir
me to receive You in Holy Communion. But my sins put me in fear and my
soiled conscience makes me hold back from so great a mystery. I am drawn by
the sweetness of Your words but I dare not advance, weighed down as I am,
by my many vices (4:1)."
The sinner receives sanctifying grace through the sacrament of penance. His
passions may not yet be completely dead but he may receive Holy Communion.
This is an efficacious help to this mortification. Therefore our respect
for the Blessed Sacrament must be reconciled with our need. The "Imitation"
insists, in the light of this reconciliation, on our need of Holy Communion
as a means of avoiding a relapse into serious sin.
"Man's senses are prone to evil from his youth (Gen. 8:21) and if he had
not this divine remedy, he would fall more and more into serious faults.
Holy Communion draws a man from evil and strengthens him to do good. If now
I be often negligent and slothful when I receive Communion or offer the
Holy Sacrifice, what should I be if I deprived myself of that blessed
medicine and if I sought not that great help (4:3). It behooves me often to
receive You (3:10, 14)."
Exhortations like this helped to make Holy Communion more frequent at the
close of the middle ages.
The more frequently we receive Holy Communion, the more fervently should we
prepare. In this way there will be no danger of profaning such holy
mysteries. Most of the fourth book deals with this preparation.
Chapters 6, 7 and 12 contain some very practical advice on this point. The
more ardently we long to receive Holy Communion the better should our
hearts be prepared (17). Meditation on the great benefits of Holy Communion
will make us accept all the sacrifices that respect exacts for so august a
mystery (4, 16). If at Mass we make earnest efforts to immolate ourselves
with Christ, we will always be ready to receive Holy Communion.
"As I offered Myself to My Father for your sins, hanging all naked with
arms outstretched on the cross, so that nothing remained in Me but all went
in sacrifice to please God, so daily in Mass you ought to offer yourself
like a pure and holy host, making this offering from the depths of your
heart, and with all the powers of your soul.
What should I require more of you than that you should abandon yourself
wholly to Me?.. for I look not for your gifts but for yourself (4:7)."
So admirable a doctrine we can never sufficiently admire.
The excellence of the "Imitation" is attested not only by its doctrine;
there are also innumerable testimonies given by saints and spiritual
writers. From the "Imitation" Saint Ignatius drew inspiration for his
"Spiritual Exercises." Saint Teresa used to read its pages.
Jean Pierre Camus, bishop of Belly, quotes these words of Saint Francis of
"The 'Imitation of Jesus Christ' is attributed to different authors, rather
I should say to different secretaries because to tell the truth, its true
author is the Holy Spirit... This work cannot be sufficiently praised. A
holy person now alive has said that the number of souls converted by its
pages is greater than the number of letters in the whole book... It is an
elixir and an epitome of the Gospel... Within its tiny compass it contains
a great treasure resembling the precious pearl of which the Gospel
The Imitation is a book for everyone.
"It is a book for valiant souls and for those who have entered the way of
perfection. It is a book for weak and wavering souls and for those who need
to be supported. Because of its simplicity, every soul, in no matter what
state, may open any of its pages and there find just what is needed."
Unbelievers have often been forced to recognize the religious value and
worldwide influence of this great book. "Better than any other" they say,
"does it test the wisdom of the erudite". It reaches "the tiny hidden
places of the soul". Admiration like this sometimes leads to remorse, and
sinners are brought back to the faith.
Generations in ages past have been helped by the broad and saving lessons
of the "Imitation." This, too, will be the experience of generations in
ages to come.
1. The author is of concerned in this chapter with controversies over the
origin of the "Imitation."
2. PL., 184: 485-508; 40: 779-832; 184: 507-552; 117: 171-180. P. POURRAT,
"Christian Spirituality," 2.
3. "Augustine Mediationes" 27, P. L., 40:921.
4. "De arriba animae," P. L., 176:953.
5. Letter 49.
6. Letter 49.
7. Sermon on "La Parole de Dieu", LEBARCQ, "Oeuvres oratoires," 3:579,
8. "L'Esprit de S. Francois de Sales, eveque de geneve," 1640, III, I, 6,
9. Introduction p. xvi to a seventeenth century translation published by A.
Hatzfield, Paris, Le Clere, 1869.