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world, is evident from such a saying as this : “If thy heart were right, then every creature would be unto thee a mirror of life and a book of holy doctrine. There is no creature so small and abject but it reflects the goodness of God ” (ii. 4); and a very sane other-worldliness finds expression in the advice : “ Use temporal things ; desire eternal." (iii. 16.)
Thomas was a monk, and it was mainly for the use and edification of his brethren in the monasteries that the Imitation was written. But the human heart is very much the same everywhere, whether it beat under the garb of monk or merchant; and so true is the Imitation to our essential human nature that it has appealed, like the Bible itself, to all sorts and conditions of men.
It is a transcript from life. In setting down what he had himself deeply felt, Thomas was expressing and reflecting the common experience. Perhaps the secret of its power and the kind of influence it has exerted have never been better described than they were by George Eliot, when she tells what the reading of the book meant to Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss.
“A strange thrill passed through Maggie while she read, as if she had been wakened in the night by a strain of solemn music, telling of beings whose souls had been astir while hers was in stupor. Here then was a secret of life which would enable her to renounce all other secrets-here was a sublime height to be reached without the help of outward things—here was insight and strength and conquest to be won by means entirely within her own soul, where a supreme Teacher was waiting to be heard. It flashed through her like the suddenly apprehended solution of a problem, that all
the miseries of her young life had come from fixing her heart on her own pleasure, as if that were the central necessity of the universe ; and for the first time she saw the possibility of shifting the positions at which she looked at the gratification of her own desires—of taking her stand out of herself, and looking at her own life as an insignificant part of a divinely guided whole. This small old-fashioned book, for which you need only pay sixpence at a book-stall, works miracles to this day
turning bitter waters into sweetness. ... written down by a hand that waited for the heart's promptings; it is the chronicle of a solitary, hidden anguish, struggle, trust and triumph. . . . And so it remains to all time a lasting record of human needs and consolations,--the voice of a brother, who, ages ago, felt and suffered and renounced, in the cloister, perhaps with serge gown and tonsured head, with much chanting and long fasts, and with a fashion of speech different from ours, but under the same silent far-off heavens, and with the same passionate desires, the same strivings, the same failures, the same weariness.”
The Imitation is at once one of the most intimate and self-revealing and one of the most impersonal of devotional books. Even when Thomas uses the personal pronoun “I,” it is in an almost impersonal sense-as when he says: “I had rather feel compunction than know the definition thereof." Sometimes he seems to be describing an incident in his own life, but he does so in quite an impersonal way. Thus he is probably referring to something in his own experience when he writes : One that was in sore anxiety, and often wavered between hope and fear, and once was mastered by sorrow, prostrated himself in a church before an altar in prayer, and said within himself, O if I knew I should yet persevere !' Presently he heard the divine answer within him : ‘But if thou didst know, what wouldest thou do? Do now what thou wouldest do then, and thou shalt be free from fear. And being herewith comforted and strengthened, he committed himself to the will of God; and that anxious fluctuation ceased." (i, 25).
But self-effacing as Thomas seeks to be, the book is, as already said, most intimate and self-revealing. It palpitates with the emotions that surge through his soul. In reading it we feel as though we were overhearing one who is speaking to himself even more than he is consciously addressing others. If the true sermon is that which the preacher has first preached to himself, the Imitation is full of such sermons. Thomas writes, not from hearsay, but as one who has himself seen and known. It is this that gives the note of authority to his teaching, as in his great chapter “On the Way of the Holy Cross":
Go where thou wilt, seek whatsoever thou wilt, thou shalt not find a higher way above, nor a safer way below than the way of the Holy Cross.
“Dispose and order all things according to thy will and judgement; yet thou shalt ever find, that of necessity thou must suffer somewhat, either willingly or against thy will, and so thou shalt ever find the Cross.
For either thou shalt suffer pain in thy body, or in thy soul thou shalt suffer tribulation.
Sometimes thou shalt be forsaken of God, sometimes thou shalt be troubled by thy neighbours; and, what is more, oftentimes thou shalt be wearisome to thyself.
“Neither canst thou be delivered nor eased by any remedy or comfort; for so long as it pleaseth God, thou must bear it.
“For God will have thee learn to suffer tribulation without comfort ; and that thou submit thyself wholly to him, and by tribulation become more humble.
“No man hath in his heart a sympathy with the passion of Christ so much as he that hath suffered the like himself.
'The Cross therefore is always ready and everywhere waits for thee. Thou canst not escape it whithersoever thou runnest ; for wheresoever thou goest, thou carriest thyself with thee.
“Both above and below, without and within, which way soever thou dost turn thee, everywhere thou shalt find the Cross, and everywhere of necessity thou must hold fast patience, if thou wilt have inward peace and enjoy an everlasting crown.
“If thou bear the Cross patiently, it will bear thee, and lead thee to the desired end, where there shall be an end of suffering, though here there shall not be.
If thou bear it unwillingly, thou makest for thyself a burden, and increasest thy load, and yet notwithstanding thou must bear it.
If thou cast away one cross, without doubt thou shalt find another, and that perhaps a more heavy one.
“Set thyself, therefore, like a good and faithful servant of Christ, to bear manfully the Cross of thy Lord, who out of love was crucified for thee.” (ii. 12).
But if Thomas knew that hardship of some kind besets every lot, he knew also something of the blessings and possibilities of blessedness that are within the reach of all. Here is a series of his beatitudes that we may set beside the Gospel ones :
“Blessed is the soul that heareth the Lord speaking within her, and receiveth from his mouth the word of consolation.
“Blessed are the ears that gladly receive the pulses of the Divine whisper, and give no heed to the many whisperings of the world.
“Blessed indeed are those ears which listen not after the voice which is sounding without, but for the truth teaching within.
Blessed are the eyes which are shut to outward things, but intent on things internal.
“Blessed are they that enter far into inward things, and endeavour to prepare themselves more and more by daily exercises, for the receiving of heavenly secrets.
Blessed are they who are glad to have time to spare for God, and shake off all worldly impediments." (iv. 1.)
The Imitation is a book that stimulates the desire to pray, and a great deal of it is in the form of prayer. Such is the well-known passage:
The children of Israel in times past said unto Moses, 'Speak thou unto us, and we will hear ; let not the Lord speak unto us lest we die.'
Not so, Lord, not so, I beseech thee; but rather with the prophet Samuel, I humbly and earnestly entreat, 'Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.'
“Let not Moses speak unto me, nor any of the prophets, but rather do thou speak, O Lord God, the inspirer and enlightener of all the prophets; for thou, alone without them, canst perfectly instruct me, but they, without thee, can profit nothing.'