Tough loves

Ronald Knox said, of The Imitation of Christ, that anyone who claims to be “fond” of it is either a saint, or he is lying. This most formidable of late mediaeval spiritual guides — to call it a “devotional book” is to set out in the wrong direction — was meant as an acid bath. It strips off the skin of one’s vanity, then claws at what lies underneath. The charm in the writing lands like salt. There are no “happyface” moments, unless one counts a surprising chapter, whose number I won’t give lest some innocent try to start there. That chapter can be read as a transcription of mystical experience, along the unitive way. But I take it not as “encouragement” but as grounding and orientation, for the book is deadly serious beginning to end, and the point of it is to point the reader where the Christian must go: on a path that unavoidably includes “the dark night of the soul.”

It would seem that the ancient Egyptian “Book of the Dead” had the same purpose of instruction to the dying (we are all dying), but by comparison it is glib. It is magic spells the reader must memorize, for when he passes through the underworld and “comes forth into the light.” To a reader not in ancient Egypt, with ancient priests to flesh the thing out, it will remain largely incomprehensible. I don’t trust explanations from another day and age, for a religion that can only make sense from inside. Even the projective imagination requires some parallel, first-hand religious experience.

Perhaps a day could come when the Imitatio Christi is as befuddling as that Book of the Dead, but this is hard to imagine, for while spare the style endeavours clarity. There is no drip of arcane theological terms in the original Latin, and needn’t be in any translation. The author has an urgent task; he has no time for obfuscation, secret messages, autobiography, learned asides. (Or, “the authors”: I will hardly dip in this short space into who they were, but cite the book itself: “Do not ask who said this, but listen to what is said.”) It starts with a warning. Only the reader who has already decided to take Christ for his model will find it any use. Here is no Pascal proposing that we try his Wager.

The book has stood the test of changing times: about six centuries of them. The modern mind, addled by a false concept of progress, can only return to the 14th century as a kind of voyeur or tourist. But the modern mind is too heavy to carry a distance like that. Leave it behind. Likewise, discard any later non-Catholic interpretation. This Thomas of Kempin was pre-Protestant, and attempts to make him into a “mere Christian” require conscious meddling with the text.

Another Thomas — Aquinas — had similar habits, though what he had to explain demanded much more space. It is, among other things, a difference between philosophical texts written before Descartes, and those written after. For Descartes was the pioneering liberal, who used old, once reliable words, in subtly tricky new ways. The spokesmen for the Middle Ages are on guard against such tricks; they write to be understood, plainly. Our Moderns are by nature gnostic: one can’t read them without a specialized, “professional” vocabulary. They conceive themselves as members of an élite. They do not address Everyman, but a closed camp of initiates. Their jargon is meant to repel outsiders.

What makes the Imitation of Christ hard, isn’t complications. It is instead enduring the pain of self-exposure; the difficulty of the pilgrimage itself. Getting to Heaven will not be easy. But unlike the vague and contradictory destinations of our insipid “progress,” we have an unmistakable place to go.