Because of God’s tender mercy,
the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace. (Luke 1.78-79)
As I am writing this, we are counting down the days and waiting with bated breath, our hearts filled with hope and anticipation, for the arrival of God in our midst. While we are waiting for this, my mind quickly jumps to how God arrived so long ago - a babe in a manger - and a question comes rushing to the fore: What does this tell us about God? What does this tell about our images of God? What does this helpless child lying in swaddling clothes tell us about our understanding of God’s nature and character? And to go just a bit further, how do these questions (and their responses) shape us who are followers of this God whom chose to be seen as a helpless babe in a manger?
It is with these questions in mind that I reflect on my latest reading, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. It is stated that this book is ‘second only to the Bible in sales and popularity among religious readers’ (pg. 8). And I can see why. Though ‘dry’ in spots, it has some good insights and practical wisdom that I recommend it highly but with a word of caution.
The book is actually a collection of four books that Fr Thomas wrote in the early fifteenth century while serving with the Brethren of a Common Life in the Netherlands.
The imitation comprises four subsections, or “Book”: (1) Counsels of the Spiritual Life, (2) Counsel on the Inner Life, (3) On Inward Consolation, and (4) On the Blessed Sacrament. Each section is made up of a series of short meditations that lead the novice deeper and deeper into the union with Christ. Unity with Christ was to be realized not only through contemplation, but also through inward and outward imitation of Christ, as well as sacramental oneness with him. These four books circulated separately prior to being circulated as a unified work (pg 11).
Before we get into some of the practical wisdom of this book, I want to just touch upon the part that makes me cautious about to whom I would recommend this book. Over and over again, the careless reader would get the impression that Fr Thomas believes that life here is not important, even less sacred. Through various statements, the reader may understand that the ‘real’ life is to be found outside of this existence ‘in heaven’. This can be seen very early in the first book.
Endeavour therefore to withdraw thy heart from the love of visible things, and to turn thyself to things invisible. For they that follow their own sensuality, defile their conscience, and lose the grace of God (pg 20).
Without thinking deeply on this, one could see how one would start to believe that this world is to be forsaken in place of the heavenly one. Further...
He therefore that intendeth to attain to the more inward and spiritual things of religion, must with Jesus depart from the multitude (pg 61).
Here again, if one is not careful, one would see that the best thing to do would be to become a hermit or leave this world altogether by death since it is here that one is tempted and can not attain ‘inward and spiritual things of religion’.
But this really isn’t what Fr Thomas is stating. The whole theme of this book is to imitate Christ - and Christ was all about being here, on earth, in all of its’ muddledness. Through Jesus, God chose humility and became human, became a created being of the earth. To me, this speaks volumes about the sacredness of life in our worlds realm. And it is to this humility that Fr Thomas goes to over and over again. For example:
The deepest and most profitable reading is this, the true knowledge and contempt of ourselves. It is great wisdom and high perfection to esteem nothing of ourselves, and to think always well and highly of others (pg 22).
If there by any good in thee, believe better things of others, that so thou mayest preserve humility. It doth no hurt to thee to set thyself lower than all men, but it hurteth thee exceedingly if thou set thyself before even one man. Continual peace is with the humble; but in the heart of the proud is envy and frequent indignation (pg 33).
Learn to humble thyself, thou earth and clay, and to bow thyself down under the feet of all men. Learn to break thine own wishes, and to yield thyself to all subjection. Be fiercely hot against thyself, and suffer no swelling of pride to dwell in the: but shew thyself so humble and so very small, that all may be able to walk over thee, and to tread thee down as the mire of the streets (pg 145).
On more than one occasion, I have stated that the ‘will of God’ for those who follow Jesus is to be found in Matthew 5 - 7 (cf. Luke 6), a passage we call the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. In that sermon, Jesus clearly stated that we who follow him are to be humble, that we are not to judge others, that we are too think more highly of them than ourselves, that we are to love our enemies, that we are to be people of non-violence and on and on and on.
Furthermore, The Way of Living, our Prayer Book in the Lindisfarne Community, contains this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
The restoration of the church will surely come from a new kind of monasticism, which will have nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ. I believe the time has come to rally people together for this.
This shows me at least one thing - for us as a community, we are on the right track. I am convinced more and more each day that St Paul was correct when he wrote, ‘[Creation] looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time’ (Romans 8.21-22). That is, ‘creation’ is yearning for humble honesty; for people who are authentic and, yes, Christ-like. There are too many of us who put ourselves above others. sadly, we serve our own wills rather than serving the community: ‘He doeth well that serveth the community rather than his own will’ (pg 49).
So, let’s go back to our questions. God came to us as a child; a helpless infant born in a manger among livestock. The Creator God, the one who made all that is seen and unseen gave us a key into how we should be. And it didn’t stop there. During Jesus’ pubic ministry, he stated more than once to let the children come to him ‘For the Realm of God belongs to those who are like these children’ (Matthew 19.14).
What is it about an infant that God wants us to see? What picture or image or sign post is God trying to show us about Godself? Is it complete helplessness? Is it the total dependence on others? Is it that an infant does not know of things like hate or evil or enemies or war? It seems that all that a baby knows is the good of others. She does not think of herself more highly than others. She does not think that she is always right and everyone else is wrong. She does not see any difference between political parties or men and women or persons of color or persons of different sexual preferences. All she knows is that others take care of her. When she is hungry, others feed her. When she is dirty, others clean her. When she is naked, others clothe her. When she is cold, others warm her. A baby only knows of the actions of others and through those actions she knows love. Is this what God is saying to us? I believe it is.
As we are continuing our celebration of the coming of God, remember that it is through our acts of kindness and love that we are known as children of God.
Love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. In that way you will be acting as true children of your Father-Mother in heaven. (Luke 6; Matthew 5)
In the Love of the Three in One,