In the preface to his translation of Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, William C. Creasy sketched the historical circumstances in which the book was written:
“When Thomas wrote The Imitation, he saw a world in deep conflict, a world whose foundations seemed to be cracking and crumbling. The death of Pope Gregory XI on March 27, 1378, set the stage for the Great Schism, that rending of Western Christendom that shattered the Church for two generations. … It was the start of a scandal that sapped the moral and spiritual strength of Christendom like an open, infected wound for nearly forty years.”
Mercifully, we are not now in the midst of a Great Schism, but neither is such a thing any longer unthinkable, for reference is regularly made today to the existence in the Catholic Church of an undeclared or incipient schism, and from such cracks gaping chasms can open. This was not lost on the translator, who thought it worth mentioning that in 1978, the historian Barbara Tuchman published a book about the century in which Thomas wrote the Imitation entitled: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century.
Of course, the Imitation of Christ is a timeless spiritual classic, of pertinence to every age. It begins with these words, in Creasy’s translation:
“’Anyone who follows me shall not walk in darkness,’ says the Lord. These are the words of Christ, and by them we are reminded that we must imitate his life and his ways if we are to be truly enlightened and set free from the darkness of our own hearts. Let it be the most important thing we do, then, to reflect on the life of Jesus Christ. . . . Anyone who wishes to understand Christ’s words and to savor them fully should strive to become like him in every way.”
Whether under its surface our moment in history bears any resemblance to the turmoil of the fourteenth century may be debated, but those words of Christ will not pass away, nor will we ever plumb their deepest depths. The question remains, however, whether our historical circumstances, and the theological and anthropological resources now at our disposal, might make it possible to provide substantiating evidence for the central claim of Thomas’ masterpiece? In the months ahead, I will be devoting much of my time to trying to answer that question in the affirmative.