This fifteenth-century devotional classic had its origins in the Brethren of Common Life, a lay religious society in the Netherlands. In the preface, Richard Foster salutes this contemporary translation by William Griffin for putting back into Kempis's writings "all of those glorious emotions of love and terror and pity and pain and wonder and sorrow that make our lives dangerous and great and bearable." I agree. Griffin has brought snap, crackle, and pop to these pages. No doubt his own works on C. S. Lewis have colored the way he sees the world. Humor peeps through these spiritual admonishments. And that is always a salutary thing given the modern impatience with moral pieties.
Kempis's The Imitation of Christ is divided into four treatises on the spiritual life, the interior life, internal consolation, and the sacrament of the altar. The practice of virtue and the avoidance of vice are major themes of this masterwork of ascetical literature. Vanity and intellectual pretension are put down.
The patient and persistent follower of Christ must be willing to undergo trials and temptations without flinching. Or as Kempis puts it: "All the Saints have passed barefoot over the coals and in the process still made some spiritual progress. Alas, those who can't withstand temptations become the shipwrecked, cast adrift forever."
One of the most helpful aspects of this classic is the repeated emphasis upon the process of spiritual progress. There is grace ("Grace teaches truth, monitors the monastery, illumines the soul, lightens pressure, banishes sadness, reduces fear, nourishes devotion, produces tears."), but also the believer's efforts to change ("Change your ways, give yourself a fresh coat of paint, convert yourself. Do all this, and you'll find the Cross before it finds you."). Sanctification is something all of us could take more seriously and this translation by William Griffin of The Imitation of Christ challenges us to get with it.