Reading Thomas á Kempis can be more than a little challenging. There is a strong penitentiality that makes a steady diet of The Imitation of Christ hard to digest and when approaching works of this nature I usually view it as digging for gold. The gold is there, notably in some lofty reflections of our relationship with Jesus our Lord.
The year that I discovered that grace was freely given I heard the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount. I memorized the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, and actually tried to live it perfectly for a week. It was a salutary exercise, and it crucified me; a wonderful preparation for the gift of grace that comes only through the sacrificial labour of Christ Jesus. If you doubt me, accept the challenge and try it for yourself.
Context is always important and when reading Thomas remember his basic orientation. He says, “Blessed is he who appreciates what it is to love Jesus and who despises himself for the sake of Jesus. Give up all other love for His, since He wishes to be loved alone above all things. (The Imitation of Christ; Book II, The Interior Life; Chapter 7). Similarly Saint Paul says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). In his Rule, St. Benedict says, “The love of Christ must come before all else.” [Timothy Fry, ed. The Rule of St. Benedict, (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1980), p. 27.]
This following prayer from Thomas á Kempis surfaces an awareness of the inadequacy of human efforts in acquiring grace. This awareness is not just a quirk of medieval devotional theology, but is written into the very nature of faith itself.
Thomas á Kempis speaks out of this consciousness and prays,
If you discovered iniquity in the angels and did not spare them, what will become of me? The stars fell from heaven, and I, mere dust, what should I expect? Those whose works seemed praiseworthy fell to the depths, and I have seen those who once were fed with the bread of angels take comfort in the husks of swine.
There is no holiness where you have withdrawn your hand, O Lord; no profitable wisdom if you cease to rule over it; no helpful strength if you cease to preserve it. If you forsake us, we sink and perish; but if you visit us, we rise up and live again. We are unstable, but you make us firm; we grow cool, but you inflame us.
The Collects in The Book of Common Prayer emphasize the same theme, that grace is a free gift, and cannot be earned by the unaided will. The following Collect is from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer:
Collect for The Ninth Sunday after Trinity.
GRANT to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as be rightful; that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The spiritual foundation for the life of grace is found in these marvellously disturbing lines from Psalm 88. “I am a man who has no strength. . . I am shut in so that I cannot escape. . . I am helpless” (Psalm 88:4, 8, 15). Until one has discovered this uncomfortable reality one has not begun living a grace filled life. Yet having discovered this one cannot live a life stalled in helplessness. Surrender must be followed by obedience. Paul exhorts us to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling, knowing that it is God who works in us to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12, 13). Surrender to God in the face of our essential helplessness is not meant to be used for a surrender to acedia, or a surrender to laziness. Paul again reflects a healthy orientation when he says, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (Corinthians 15:10).
Nor are we allowed to wallow in our helplessness, or to waste time and energy enjoying the penitential discovery that we are too easily satisfied with taking comfort in the husks of swine. John Cordelier instructs us to “Live boldly, dangerously, and completely, without fastidiousness. Accept the mud and slime, the heat and misery, the odious disabilities of the flesh” [The Path of the Eternal Wisdom, (Elbiron Classics, p. 80]. So you are what you are. Rejoice in the grace of Christ more boldly still and get on with the business of living.
Self-discovery and confession are meant to lead us to forgiveness and to the active pursuit of doing the right thing. C. S. Lewis advises us to keep our balance saying, “Keep clear of introspection, of brooding, of spiritualism, of everything eccentric. Keep to work and sanity and open air – to the cheerful & the matter of fact side of things. We hold our mental health by a thread: & nothing is worth risking it for. Above all beware of excessive day dreaming, of seeing yourself in the centre of a drama, of self pity, and as far as possible, of fears. (Letter “To Arthur Greeves, April 22nd ”) C. S. Lewis, Family Letters, Vol. 1, (SanFrancisco: Harper, 2004), p. 605.