Advent with A Kempis XXIII

Chapter 23: Meditation on Death or Invitation to Deeper Life

“Listen!…Always think of death!”

As Christmas Day approaches, the chapters in Imitation of Christ seem to grow more and more dark and negative. Yesterday’s chapter was Reflections on Human Wretchedness, tomorrow’s chapter is Judgment and Punishment for Sins, and the last line of Chapter 25 (to be read on Christmas Day) reads, “Your progress in the spiritual life is in direct proportion to the punishment you choose to inflict upon yourself.” And today’s chapter is especially morbid as the title and epigraph indicate.

I thought I was really onto something when I noticed that the first book (of four books total) in Imitation contained 25 chapters and the second book contained 12, coinciding with the 25 days of Advent[1] and the 12 days of Christmas. However, the content of these chapters encourage the reader to focus more on death than on the coming Incarnation and the birth of our Savior.

I glanced through Imitation years ago and found its negative anthropology off-putting so I put it down. A friend of mine from Fuller Theological Seminary gave me his copy, which I gladly accepted; aware of its ubiquity on lists of Christian spiritual classics, I thought it would fit nicely on my bookshelf.

As I was considering an Advent practice for this year, the Kempis classic called for my attention after enduring my neglect for almost five years. I thought I was ready to give it another try. And honestly, I’ve really enjoyed it, but I’ve had to do some serious appropriation of the text to make myself like it. I’ve been inspired by authors like Joan Chittister, William Meninger and Anthony De Mello, whose accessible and contemporary reflections unlock the ancient wisdom of St. Benedict, the Cloud author and Ignatius (respectively).

However, reading Meninger’s The Loving Search for God alongside The Cloud of Unknowing is like drinking a Slurpee alongside three shots of pure espresso (no milk and no sugar). In the same way, my reflections on Imitation have been attempts to make many of the dark and bitter words of Kempis into tasty and bite-size spiritual treats, that go down easy. And it ain’t easy. And I’m sure Thomas would be infuriated by some of my reflections on his words. But when it comes to spiritual classics that withstand the test of time, one must know that future generations will interpret the words through very different lenses than those of the original audience or author. That’s what semantic autonomy is all about.[2]

All that to say, today’s chapter is about memento mori, which literally means, “Remember, you must die.” Kempis says, “Always think of death!” But I prefer the words of Siggy from What About Bob?: “You…are going…to die. I…am going…to die. We are all going…to die.”

Ancient, medieval and even renaissance philosophers often kept skulls on their desks to remind them of their mortality. In Rome, I walked through several ancient rooms attached to a church that were decorated completely with human skeletons and bones: interior decoration inspired by memento mori.

Although these morbid thoughts are not as en vogue today as they once were, I still think Kempis has some wisdom for us (for me), even on this Christmas Eve Eve.

I’ve never been all that close to death, but I’ve been close to those who have and have seen profound transformation take place in their lives as a result. Closeness to death seems to push people into a deeper, richer, more intentional and more thankful life. I’ve known jerks who have become kind souls and workaholics who have become family men as a result of their close encounter with mortality.

Many of the saints that I have recently studied were not born saintly, but became saintly after a near-death experience. Julian of Norwich actually prayed for a near-death experience, probably aware of its life-enhancing power.

By telling his readers to “Always think of death,” Kempis is not promoting morbidity but rather challenging us to live more intentionally and more fully, as if today might be our last. That full and intentional living obviously looks different for different people.

But there’s an urgency in this chapter that cannot be dismissed. If there’s something I need to say to somebody, Kempis urges me to say it now. If there’s a prayer I need to pray, Kempis implores me to pray it now. If there’s money I need to give to someone (perhaps the homeless man outside the apartment), Kempis says, “Give it now.”

A friend of a friend of mine just died in a freak car accident after taking a final. I remember reading his last wall post on facebook and was surprised by how uplifting and life-affirming it was. (It made me wonder about some of the posts I leave.) I just tried to check it right now. I couldn’t find it but instead, I found his profile quote, which reads, “Now is the time to give your life to the kingdom…it is so easy to say…tomorrow! i have so much going on now! When you are old and dying and finally decide to throw yourself out for God, what do you have to offer? Not much. The time is now!!!!” (For religious views he wrote, “Living a life all out for Christ.”)[3] This is what Kempis is saying when he says, “Listen! Always think of death!” He’s saying, “Live fully now because death is always a real possibility.”

“Somebody should tell us,” Pope Paul VI proposed, “right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.”

[1] Although the number of Advent days varies from year to year, 25 is a relatively average number for Advent days.

[2] This is a reference to French Linguist Paul Ricoeur


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