There may have been no more exciting—and frightening!—time to be alive in Europe than on the eve of the invention of the printing press, with the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation already blowing winds of change through the Church. Perhaps it is precisely because of those winds howling outside that the young Thomas à Kempis (his name simply means Thomas from Kempis) wanted above all a quiet life. He was determined, it is said, that nothing would happen to him in his life; and while it’s true that nothing did on an external level, his internal life—and the working of the Holy Spirit in him and through him—were nothing less than spectacular.
For what other people is as blessed as the Christian people? Or who under heaven is as beloved as a devout soul, to whom God comes and feeds with his glorious flesh? O ineffable grace! O admirable condescension! O immense love, so singularly bestowed upon us!
When Thomas was 13, he went in search of a serious education, which he found with The Brethren of the Common Life, made up of a fairly large number of communities loosely tied together with little organizational unity but brought together by a common desire to cultivate the Christian life and emphasize genuine piety. They established schools, built hospitals, and cared for the poor. But beside all of these active apostolates, the Brethren of the Common Life also produced outstanding theologians and mystics. And, in fact, Thomas himself has often been seen as both.
If you seek rest in this life, how will you arrive at eternal rest? Do not concentrate on getting rest so much as on acquiring patience. Seek true peace not here on earth, but in heaven, not in other persons, not in any creatures, but only in God.
Thomas developed his skills as a copyist: copying books for the libraries of theologians of the Brethren of the Common Life, copying various manuscripts of importance to the community, and copying Scripture. He produced four copies of the Scriptures, one of which still exists. And he went on to do original work, much of which is contained in the beloved classic, The Imitation of Christ.
And while it might have been written in a turbulent time, its words have deep meaning for people of all times. Who among us hasn’t been in pain—mental, physical, emotional, spiritual? And the truth is that when we’re hurting, we’re not at our best. We often can’t think straight, or pray well, or figure a way out of our distress. At these times, it is helpful to turn to others in our tradition and our collective past who have walked some of those same roads, who have stepped into suffering and have learned from it. Like Thomas.
It is good for us sometimes to have troubles and adversities, for they cause us to look within and recognize that we too are exiles, whose hopes should not be centered on anything in this world. It is good that we sometimes suffer contradictions and that others have the wrong opinion of us, even when our intentions are good. These things are helpful to our humility. They keep us from becoming proud. Because of them we will seek God to witness to our conscience, since outwardly we are despised and not believed.
We’ve all experienced a feeling of despair and a sense that everything around us is heading in the wrong direction. But Thomas emphasizes that life will always be like that, swirling with the issues of the time; only in God will we find the solid rock that we’re seeking.
For as soon as you have consecrated yourself with all your heart to God, and have not sought this or that thing for your own pleasure, but wholly leaned upon him, you will immediately find yourself recollected and at peace. Nothing will give you such joy or please you as much as the good pleasure of God’s will.
In other words, it’s our total dependence on God, our total trust in him, that gives us peace. If we turn to God and find our spiritual security in him, then we’ll lose our anxiety about whether or not God will accept us. What we believe about God matters, because it shapes how much we trust him. The more we trust God, the more we experience his love—which provides solace in whatever suffering we are enduring.
The origin of our good deeds is in God’s love. Jesus says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Whenever we do good, it is really God loving other people through us. God is always finding ways to make love happen through people, whether or not they know him. But it’s only when they know and trust him that they become “beloved” through channeling his love.
Come to me whenever you need help. The greatest hindrance to receiving consolation is your apparent reluctance to pray. Before you ask me for anything earnestly, you try to find other consolations, delighting yourself in so many external things. When it happens that nothing helps you out, you remember that I am the One who saves those who trust in me. Other than me you will find no power, nor profitable advice, nor lasting remedy.
Turning to God in prayer is the sure way to find solace in him, no matter what kind of suffering you might be going through. He is there, and waiting to console you. We’re the ones who are, as Thomas says, reluctant to turn to God, and see him only as a last resort! Make him your first resort, and then you’ll truly find…solace in suffering.
-by Jeannette de Beauvoir
The Classic Wisdom Collection from Pauline Books & Media has distilled some of the thoughts from the Imitation of Christ into a small volume called Solace in Suffering. Like all of the volumes in this series, it finds ways to apply the words of a recognized spiritual authority into our own lives.