Tag Archives: thomas a kempis

Imitation of Christ: The Most Sincere Form of Flattery

On my nightstand sits a tiny leather-bound book. This book was first published sometime around the year 1418. It features print appropriately small enough to match the 3″ X 5″ dimensions of the book itself (and just small enough for my aging eyes to strain each time I look at it). The size of the book is useful, though, in this one regard. It can easily be taken wherever one goes as it fits in most pockets.

The book, of course, is the classic Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.

I first came across this book for use in my own spiritual reading about three years ago. I had just recently started attending the traditional mass when a student of mine mentioned that he had been given a copy of the book for his birthday. He thought I would find it insightful. I’m very grateful he suggested it.

Yesterday I mentioned that I would be looking more in-depth at seminary formation over the past few decades. I figure this is as good a place as any to start. In my own time in seminary, the devotional life was never discussed. I recall that things of this nature were understood to be between the seminarian and his spiritual director. In fact, the then-prevailing thought was (at least it was understood to be) that devotions as such were gifts giving by the Holy Ghost to each Christian. In other words, if you didn’t have a particular devotion, it probably wasn’t a devotion meant for you and that was apparently fine. And while I am sure someone with a much higher intellect like, say, a Fr. Ripperger, could expound upon that statement and parse its meaning in such a way that it might line up with a traditional Catholic understanding of charism, the statement itself is misleading. Devotion itself is a hallmark of the Catholic faith. More to the point, the devotional life must be fostered. How can anyone be expected to have any devotions at all if they are not taught, nourished, and fostered? I still remember my parents teaching me the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be as a four year-old child on our front porch one summer evening. Guess what three prayers are still my go-to for every moment in life? And that’s because the people I love and trust taught me to love and to trust in this manner.

But that’s how it was.

And for a long time after leaving the seminary I did not give it much thought. I knew what my own particular devotions were and I saw them as gifts from God. My dad taught me by example to go to mass every day. We had our family rosary. I have a strong devotion to St. Rita of Cascia. To each his own, I thought.

Then I began to meet some truly holy priests – mean who love their spiritual sons and daughters.

Statue of the Blessed Mother giving the rosary to St. Dominic, St. Dominic’s Catholic Church, San Francisco

Through the proliferation of materials online in videos of conferences and sermons and retreats and of course through exposure to traditional devotions and classics of spiritual reading, I was exposed to a kind of piety I had only rarely encountered before. I do not mean to imply that only traditional priests possess this piety at all as I do know some truly holy priests who have not yet discovered the great blessing of the ancient mass. But it became obvious to me that the priests of tradition had been formed differently certainly than I had been.

Then I came across the following from the New York Times from 1977. A mere decade after the close of the Council and the effects were clearly being seen in how priests were being trained. The article is about the seminary I would come to attend. For context, in 1977 the seminary was on a beautiful country estate. A few years later, due in part to dwindling numbers, the seminary moved to the main campus of the diocesan university. Then-rector Fr. Ed Ciuba, is quoted here breathlessly exuding his joy that men were no longer trained as they had been in the “dark ages”.

“To dramatize the change in preparing men for the priesthood, Father Ciuba cited two books, “Imitation of Christ,” which was used when the “rugged individuals” of the 1920’s and 1930’s were seminarians, and “Spiritual Renewal of the American Priesthood,” which is used today.

“Imitation of Christ” stressed “a very strong personal relationship with God,” Father Ciuba said, while the current text takes into account “how culture influences our spirituality, how the seminarian finds his relationship to God in and through his relationship to his fellow priests, his relationship to his friends and to lay people.”

“Mahwah Seminary Marks 50 Years, James Lynch, NYT, 1977”

Folks, if you want to know anything at all about many of the priests ordained from the 1970’s onward, just re-read that quote. Their formators decided it would be better for these young men that they develop social skills than develop a “very strong personal relationship with God”. And because God knows how to work even with these worst of intentions, some solid men still made it through. Perhaps they were reading one of these tiny copies of Imitation of Christ on the sly. They do, as mentioned, easily slip into one’s pocket.

I am happy to have been exposed to such devotion myself. I’m happy that kid told me to get a copy of Imitation of Christ. I’m happy my parish priests tend to the devotional life of our parish, for devotion is nothing more than an outward display of love, and love for God is the first commandment.

In the seminary, devotions were not taught. They were not nourished. They were not fostered.

Don’t even get me started on the optional once-weekly rosary. Not kidding in the least. Today, many years later, I have learned once again to carry my beads in my pocket at all times so that this symbol of my love for the Blessed Mother and her love for me is always on my person.

It’s almost as if this was all but one pillar in a larger plan to destroy the priesthood and then the Church radically transform the faith to make it more accessible to the modern world (and less in love with God).