(Pic: Pretty Vectors/Shutterstock.com)
I have a secret to share. It’s a little embarrassing, but my default view of myself, if I’m not careful, is to think I am extraordinary. I have this outsized sense of confidence for the bite-sized person I really am. I naturally think that I am capable of doing anything and everything I set my mind to better than everyone else. I’ll assume I’m the smartest person in the room, or I’ll make up some reason for why I’m not, like, maybe I didn’t have as many educational opportunities as the people around me. Surely it can’t be that I’m just more stupid. Please understand, I don’t consciously decide to think of myself this way. I just do. I am part of the “Millennial” generation which may have something to do with it – though I realize I can’t just toss all the blame on culture. Still, me and my kind grew up being told we could do and be anything we wanted – actual talent be damned! We were amazing and unique!
I can see how it seemed like a good idea at the time. I want my own children to live life with a sense of hope and possibility. But an inflated view of themselves? Not so much. The most obvious downside of thinking I am stupendous is that I end up looking down on everyone else. Friends become bit-actors in a story that, in my mind, is all about me. My hurt ends up mattering more than everyone else’s, and so do my dreams.
Another not-so-obvious downside is the fragility I can have when dealing with criticism. If I allow myself to go down this road, reality and my real limitations will constantly, in bitter fashion, destroy my expectations of life and of myself. I will never be simply happy. I must always meet the impossible standard of excellence I have set for myself and subsequently will always fail at it.
According to many academics, though, I can at least say I am not alone. Apparently we are much more narcissistic as a country now than we were a couple decades ago. And I can’t say whether me and my fellow narcissists will ever fully recover, but there is one little book that has multiple times set me back in the right direction: “The Imitation of Christ” by a monk named Thomas á Kempis. For those of you who are, understandably, not familiar with books written by monks in the early 1400’s, this book is what the title implies: a primer on how to be like Jesus and follow him. Now, I know what you’re thinking, who wouldn’t want to read a stuffy, archaic book written by a cloistered monk? So it’s not the latest J.K. Rowling novel. I get it. But of all the Jesus-books you could read, aside from the Bible itself, no other book on the Christian life has been more read and cherished throughout church history than “The Imitation of Christ.”
Just how cherished was it? Well, it was one of only three books Thomas More felt every person should read. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, read a chapter each day of his life and often gave it as a gift to people he met. It was beloved by people as varied as St. Robert Bellarmine, John Wesley (a Protestant), and Daniel O’Connell. Thomas Merton said it was one of the first things that led to his conversion and Pope John Paul I was reading it the day he died. It’s a classic by any definition of the word.*
Thomas á Kempis talks about a lot of different aspects of the Christian life, but the constant undertone of the book is this idea that we must learn to be small and insignificant in our own eyes so that God can be big and significant in our lives. The best story I can think of to describe what that means is the one about John the Baptist. John the Baptist and Jesus, at one point, were concurrently gaining disciples. Eventually, Jesus started peeling disciples away from John, and some of John’s followers told him about it – expressing their frustration. John replied that he, himself, was just a groomsman standing on the side at Christ’s wedding, and it was honor enough to just be at the party. “He must increase; I must decrease. ”
To be honest, Á Kempis pulls no punches in his book, and the tone can feel harsh at times. Here are two representative passages:
“…love to be unknown and be esteemed as nothing. This is the most important and most salutary lesson: to know and to despise ourselves. It is great wisdom and perfection to consider ourselves as nothing….” Book 1 Ch. 2, Sec. 4-5
“Many think this a hard saying: ‘Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus,’ but it will be much harder to hear those final words: ‘Depart from me, you cursed one, into everlasting fire. Those who now gladly listen to the word of the cross and follow it will not be in terror when they later hear that sentence of eternal damnation.” Book 1, Ch. 12, Sec. 1
Can you imagine pulling that one out in a conversation?
Friend: “Me and my girlfriend are having a really hard time keeping our hands off each other. It’s like this fire I can’t put down. ”
Me: “I’ll tell you what fire you can’t put down: the fire of Hell. You put those pretty little hands back in your pockets. ”
I can’t say that would go over well with any of my friends. But while the august monk may only get one star for style, he gets five stars for substance. A lot of times in the Christian life, we desire someone to affirm who we are and be understanding and compassionate with our weaknesses, when what we need is the spiritual equivalent of a punch in the face.
But it’s also important to remember that however much it hurts to be humbled, the reward more than outweighs the pain. In those handful of moments when I have truly come to terms with how very small I am in the world, and how very minuscule my contribution is to it, and I turn my gaze away from myself and out to others, the world looks so much bigger, brighter, and more beautiful and people seem more fascinating and lovely. My heart becomes lighter, and I feel free.
This is the gift Thomas á Kempis has given to me. And it’s what he intended for us to achieve in all our struggle against the flesh, the world, and the devil. If you read The Imitation of Christ yourself, I hope you are blessed in the same way, too.
(A good word of caution about reading the Imitation of Christ)
*Joseph N. Tylenda, S.J., in the Introduction (pg. xxvii-xxviii) to the Vintage Spiritual Classics edition of “The Imitation of Christ”
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