If I Had A Hammer – The Sayings of Thomas à Kempis

Original post by Gerhard Venter, May 7, 2013

In this post I tell how I came to start reading The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, whose Dutch surname was Haemerken (Afrikaans “hamertjie”) — little hammer. And his book is a little hammer, if there ever was one. I’m putting my reading life back together bit by bit. I don’t have a reading plan. I’m suspicious of plans. I just think broadly of the kind of things I want to read.

Fifteenth century mystics are not what I want to read right now. In fact, right now I’m reading The German Way of War by Citino as part of my self-imposed course of study in military history (but that’ a blog post in itself). In the process of trying to establish some semblance of order, I think of a very old technique to get your stuff together: positive affirmations.

I was in my early twenties back in Pretoria when I started dabbling in positive thinking. I got Paul J. Meyers Success Motivation Institute system and pasted positive affirmations (surely a tautology) up on my mirror; inane sayings such as “I get up every morning excited about the person I might help that day.” Don’t you just want to slap the man? Anyway. So I begin to look for some sensible affirmations — ones I can believe in.

In the process a website named http://biblia.com snags the seam of my toga and I have to pause. Mmm. They have wonderful books in there: Several Bibles, some in Hebrew and Greek (with the real orthographies); they have Luther, Calvin — everybody who is anybody. My eye catches The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. Yeah, I’ve known about The Imitation for many years. These guys used to beat themselves over the back with little cats-o-nine tails they carried with them in silver boxes. Wore hair shirts and stuff. Really into their suffering.

Suffering . . . aha! One of my favorite topics. So I begin to read The Imitation of Christ. After the first page I’m wide-eyed like Ali Baba after he lights the first candle to see what treasure there might be in the cave. Dear Lord, thank You for a resource like this! For insight, for wisdom, for wit, for rules for living like this! This pre-modern man writes rules of thumb such as:

“He does much who loves much. He does much who does a thing well. He does well who serves the common good rather than his own interests.”

Note that this is not quite a corporate “How to get your own way, no matter what” philosophy. But that’ okay by me at this time in my life. So, instead of compiling a reading list, I spend the next several work hours copying out aphorisms and and epigrammata (I’m not sure exactly what they are, either, except short witty sayings) into flashcards at Quizlet so I can hang onto them as tightly as possible.

I called à Kempis a “pre-modern man.” That certainly shows. To mine 21st century affirmations from him, you must do a certain amount of violence to his work by cherry-picking passages, because he was a religious and a mystic.

We squirm a little bit at concepts such as having Christ as your Divine Lover and doing violence to your own body. 99.99999999999% of us aren’t quite at that point. And if you want to be fair to the author, you need to remember that that’ the core of his work — indeed, of his soul. But his deep wisdom surely lifted my spirits and continues to do so.

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