The Common Good

Imitation of Christ: Thomas a Kempis, Love and Learnin'

The manuscript of "De Imitatione Christi." Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Brussel.
The manuscript of "De Imitatione Christi." Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Brussel.

Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger, nothing higher, nothing wider,
nothing more pleasant, nothing fuller or better in heaven or earth; 

for love is born of God, and can rest only in God above all created things.

And so my musings on Thomas a Kempis, for whom Jesus the Christ was Love Incarnate, begin.

Will it frame my day? Will it help me make sense of French class?

Love is a mighty power, a great and complete good;
Love alone lightens every burden, and makes the rough places smooth.
It bears every hardship as though it were nothing, and renders all bitterness sweet and acceptable.
The love of Jesus is noble, and inspires us to great deeds;
it moves us always to desire perfection.
Love aspires to high things, and is held back by nothing base.
Love longs to be free, a stranger to every worldly desire,
    lest its inner vision become dimmed,
    and lest worldly self-interest hinder it or ill-fortune cast it down. 

I'm sitting here with a fresh cup of coffee from my French press no less, some lingering conjugations, and a bunch of prepositions that, to be quite frank (Get it? Frank? Nevermind...), elude me. 

This stuff doesn't stick in my head. I get it in the moment.

Sitting in class I get it. Surrounded by the wisdom of others, that terror mingled with excitement, I get it.

Home. Alone. Well, learning a new language well enough to navigate a dictionary and translate long-ish passages of theological prose. I'm frightened. 

Love flies, runs, leaps for joy; it is free and unrestrained.
Love gives all for all,
    resting in One who is highest above all things,
    from whom every good flows and proceeds.
Love does not regard the gifts, but turns to the Giver of all good gifts.
Love knows no limits, but ardently transcends all bounds.
Love feels no burden, takes no account of toil,
    attempts things beyond its strength;
    love sees nothing as impossible,
    for it feels able to achieve all things.
Love therefore does great things;
    it is strange and effective;
    while he who lacks love faints and fails.

I've always had this hiccup in my education: I freeze up when "memorization" is asked of me. Even this admittedly loose version of memorization for reading French intimidates. But there are Thomas' words this morning...Love knows no limits, but ardently transcends all bounds. There it is.

It's the coffee, as my wife would say, that bitter-sweet point to the whole endeavor. I take too long to get to the coffee in my preaching sometimes. Well, that's what she tells me. So, I work to get there...sometimes I preach like I'm jumping off a cliff (A friend told me that once) and I take the congregation with me. I love preaching now.

I hope that I will learn to love French and in loving it learn it. Remember it. Anamnesis and reading in tongues. All this learnin' is a labor of love. 

Enlarge us in love;
that with the inner mouth of our heart
we may taste how sweet it is to love. Amen.

Tuesday was the Feast of Thomas a Kempis. He was German. Do you think he'll mind if I spend the next few weeks learning French? I hope not. 

Thomas Hammerken was born at Kempen (hence the "A Kempis") in the duchy of Cleves in Germany around 1380. He was educated by a religious order called the Brethren of the Common Life, and in due course joined the order, was ordained a priest, became sub-prior of his house (in the low Countries), and died 25 July 1471. Thomas is known almost entirely for composing or compiling a manual of spiritual advice known as The Imitation of Christ, in which he urges the reader to seek to follow the example of Jesus Christ and to be conformed in all things to Jesus' will. (Source)

Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif. You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at AngloBaptist.orgFollow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist.

Images: The manuscript of De Imitatione Christi. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Brussel via Wiki Commons. Painting of Thomas a Kempis on Mount Agnes in Zwolle via Wiki Commons. Drawing of Thomas a Kempis via Wiki Commons.

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