coffee with dead people: thomas a kempis

On the days I write for this here blog on these here interwebs, I find myself so wrapped up in writing that I’m ashamed to admit that I have lost the time to read.

For a while, after I appealed and had to stick it to a faculty member who stuck it to me earned my MA, I was in a nice little groove with cranking out writing and going through books. During grad school and even dating back to my undergrad, I had accumulated a significant number of books on my queue to plow through once I got done. The list did indeed begin to shrink, but I got so involved in writing here–and life got in the way, as it is wont to do–that actual reading took a backseat. (By way of a consolation prize, the nice thing about developing a philosophical or literary mindset is recognizing the philosophical or literary qualities found in other media–television, movies, radio and web presences take on an entirely new dimension of appreciation and meaning…or become even more vapid and braincramp-inducing. Regardless, we get the media we deserve in receiving the media we consume.)

So, in an effort to supplement original content with my re(-re-re-re-)recognition of the proposition that writers typically become better writers by being committed readers, I present to you, the reader, a new, semi-regular feature: coffee with dead people.

courtesy wikipedia

For my inaugural entry, I have coffee with the long-dead, and long-admired Christian mystic, Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380-1471.)

If I have my attaché with me, you will find two guaranteed items in it: my moleskine journal, and The Imitation of Christ. I first stumbled onto this landmark of Christian philosophy, theology and devotion during my time at the gulag, spending time with specific people who would later betray me. Once I got a copy of my own–and have since given away somewhere between 5-15 copies to people along the way–it quickly became a standby in my library and came along virtually everywhere I went up to this day.

There are several ways in which I value that quiet rabble-rouser from the Lower Countries: one, he was a quiet rabble-rouser; part of a local movement which sought to reform the church and generally give more than a patronizing crap about caring for the less-fortunate and was firmly Catholic, while yet a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation. Two, for being a man who spent most of his life in monastic seclusion, the guy demonstrably has his finger on the pulse of the human condition. In this respect, Thomas’ little masterwork transcends religion: Imitation could be read with as much interest and rewarding value by someone who does not ascribe to religious faith as it could by a ‘devout religious’, borrowing from his medieval phrasing, dealing so much with the emptiness of giving in to the self and emphasizing focus on God and the scriptures for strength and resolve. Three, it’s eminently readable without watering down his principles or feeding that false inference that audiences need to be talked down to rather than addressed as something more than a lowest common denominator.

Imitation also touches on points that are more fully fleshed out by some titans of philosophy and theology. First, though there are several preceding strains of reform, some of the ideas here are examples of what is brewing in Europe culminating with Luther. There is also a strong existential component in the work, anchoring one’s self in something ultimate, the void of human experience without a clear sense of identity predating Kierkegaard by about 400 years and Tillich by 500. (In fairness, when it comes down to it, who isn’t an existentialist?)  One of my all-time favorite lines–within the opening paragraphs of Imitation: “I would rather feel compunction of heart for my sins than merely know the definition of compunction”–is a thought which the underrated and overlooked Michael Polanyi (he who will probably earn his own CWDP entry down the line) indirectly fleshes out in his seminal work Personal Knowledge.

In an age when the ‘Christian Inspiration’ section of the bookstore is bloated with wretched works churned out by wretched writers who may or may not particularly care much about the orthodoxy or internal rationale of their works–looking at you, Rob Bell, John Eldredge, Beth Moore and a host of others–it’s refreshing to sit down with a guy who was honest without throwing away a sense of personal or religious responsibility and didn’t live in a time where the quality of a book takes a backseat to the number of copies it sells. Instead, that medieval monk managed to submit only one of the lasting cornerstones of Christian devotion which has resonance even to, and perhaps now more than ever, this day. (Good luck writing anything that isn’t more than a flavor of the month for the niche, John Piper. Piper is terrible, and is likely a heretic, and definitely not in a good way. I digress.)

The other quality I value from Thomas is that he routinely kicks me squarely in the butt. Taking a shot at Piper in a java-induced salute to the named teems with irony, irony which is not lost on this writer. At the same time, I feel that he, like anyone familiar with philosophy and theology, recognizes the tension of existence. Where is that balance between grace and conviction? More generally, what does it mean to be human? Those struggles are part of all our journeys, or at least they should be. To find someone who gets that is rare–and I would further say that anyone we meet or encounter along the way who comes close to understanding one’s own existential struggles should be a person never far from one’s life and reach. And, by ‘struggle’, I do not mean failings or shortcomings, as in Christian parlance, but in simply living this life. Anybody I interact with who can, after any amount of time in relationship, keep ruining my crap is worth keeping around.

And when one finds such a person in a book, even better, for that person is never further than your bookshelf or nightstand. Or a well-traveled messenger bag.

Have you read this dead person? With what dead person would you like to have coffee? Feel free to comment!


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