It took me 33 years to read The Imitation of Christ. I know the exact date when I first heard of this devotional manual by 15th-century monk Thomas à Kempis, said to be the second-most-read religious book in history, after the Bible. It was September 29, 1978, the day Pope John Paul I (the Italian Albino Luciani) was found dead in his bed, before dawn. Sensation-mongers cried murder, but what I heard was The Imitation of Christ—the book the Pope was reading when he died. I drove to Borders and bought a copy, same day.
This is hard to explain. I would not be a Catholic for another 30 years, but ever since the conclave that elected Pope John XXIII in October 1958, when I was seven, I had watched Papal transitions with rapt fascination: the red hats, the black smoke and the white, the Latin words Habemus Papam, and the strange sound of that name Wojtyla—voy-TEE-wa. But that came later. The world, Catholic and otherwise, was saddened by the death of the beautiful, unassuming little Luciani, and I was touched when the cardinal from Poland with the strange name honored him by becoming John Paul II.
Why did I buy the book? At the time, I was walking a spiritual path that was only tangentially Christian, but I’m sure the Call was already out for me. I’m hard of hearing, but not entirely deaf. I read the first of the four sections of the book; today it is heavily underlined with 33-year-old ink. Then I set the book aside. I wasn’t ready.
What I remember most about that first encounter was the book’s foreword, which explains that Thomas à Kempis started out as a member of the Brotherhood of the Common Life. This movement, which emerged in the 14th century and faded to black in the 19th, was perhaps not unlike Memores Domini, the subset of consecrated laypeople within the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation today. Although I always intended to marry, and have, I continue to be fascinated with the notion of living communally with other Christians while working in the world, a monk with a lunch pail and a daily commute.
I think I know why I was not ready for The Imitation in 1978, at age 25. I had not completely shed my adolescent obsession with rules for living well. I was so lacking in self-confidence as a 19-year-old that I was perpetually writing out rules for living. I read anything that seemed to offer rules, from Martin Buber to Alan Watts, Karen Horney to G. I. Gurdjieff. I thought that if I could just boil all wisdom down to one or two rules—and remember them, all day and night—life would finally sort itself out.
I had not yet come to grips with the Great Commandments—love God, love neighbor—because I had not yet come to grips with the Great Commander.
Now The Imitation of Christ seems so simple to me, if harder to apply. Sure, it is a litany of admonitions, but they all boil down to the same thing: the conversion that Pope Benedict XVI has been calling for, not the conversion of non-Christians but our own conversion, as Catholics, a true turn toward Christ, whom Thomas places inside, in the inmost, quietest corner of the soul.