My lit­tle children…I am…in the pain of child­birth until Christ is formed in you (Gala­tions 4:19).”

These words are the cen­ter­piece for Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. They are words of effort and pain and tra­vail. But they also speak of hope and promise and new life. To expe­ri­ence the real­i­ty of Christ being formed in us does indeed take some­thing like the tra­vail of child­birth. But in the end it brings with it the joy of a life pen­e­trat­ed through by love, the faith that can see every­thing in the light of God’s over­rid­ing gov­er­nance for good, and the hope to car­ry us through the most dif­fi­cult of circumstances.

This brings me to the theme for this arti­cle, the great tra­di­tion of De Imi­ta­tione Christi, the imi­ta­tion of Christ. In the ear­ly days of this tra­di­tion some five hun­dred years ago it was called the Devo­tio Mod­er­na, the mod­ern or the New Devo­tion. And it did indeed cut a new path for that day, a path that called for the soul’s growth and devel­op­ment (for­ma­tion if you will) into Christ­like­ness by prayer­ful imi­ta­tion of Jesus’ own life, thoughts, habits, and inten­tions. Now, this was no slav­ish imi­ta­tion of exter­nals. No, it was rather an inte­ri­or empha­sis upon humil­i­ty, sim­plic­i­ty, and holi­ness ground­ed in a deep devo­tion to Jesus and intent upon devel­op­ing an inti­mate rela­tion­ship with God. Out of the rich spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence of these folk known as The Brethren of the Com­mon Life sprang The Imi­ta­tion of Christ, a book that for half a mil­len­ni­um has been the unchal­lenged devo­tion­al mas­ter­piece for Chris­tians every­where. It has been trans­lat­ed into more than fifty dif­fer­ent lan­guages and there have been many fine efforts to trans­late it into English. 

Why, you might ask, has this tra­di­tion had such an exten­sive and pro­found effect? Well, first of all, because it under­stands Jesus is a liv­ing Teacher show­ing us dai­ly how to live our lives as he would live our lives if he were us. Then sec­ond, because it focus­es not on any par­tic­u­lar set of exter­nal actions but upon how we become a par­tic­u­lar kind of per­son, name­ly, a per­son who will do nat­u­ral­ly the kinds of things Jesus would do. And third, because it ush­ers us into liv­ing inter­ac­tion with the liv­ing Christ who comes along­side us empow­er­ing us to be the right kind of peo­ple doing the right kind of things in the midst of every­day life.

Paul writes, Be imi­ta­tors of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Here­in lies the great chal­lenge for us: to be such imi­ta­tors of Christ that peo­ple can look at us and under­stand how Jesus would think, live, and act in the con­text of mod­ern soci­ety. To do this takes the fullest of for­ma­tion into Christ­like­ness. And such a mature for­ma­tion by its very nature will involve work akin to the labor pains of childbirth. 

Grow­ing Together

This is our sec­tion devot­ed to prax­is, of which The Imi­ta­tion has valu­able instruc­tion. Right at the heart of this lit­tle book is a seri­ous grap­pling with the virtue of humil­i­ty. This is an issue which every cen­tu­ry of Chris­tians have tak­en with utmost seri­ous­ness with the sin­gle excep­tion of our own. Which may also help explain why The Imi­ta­tion has been held in such high regard in every cen­tu­ry but ours. Which, I would sug­gest, is an excel­lent rea­son for us to take anoth­er look at its teach­ing here. Lis­ten to these few sam­ple passages:

If you want to learn some­thing that will real­ly help you, learn to see your­self as God sees you and not as you see your­self in the dis­tort­ed mir­ror of your own self impor­tance” (Book 1, Chap­ter 2, Creasy trans­la­tion).

But what if oth­ers dis­cov­er your defects and throw them in your face? Well, that’s humil­i­ty. And if you suf­fer that exquis­ite pain in silence, it’ll lead to, of all things, greater humil­i­ty” (Book 2, Chap­ter 2, Grif­fin trans­la­tion).

Love of self — that was the dag­ger that did me in. But seek­ing You and lov­ing You, I found not only You, but also myself” (Book 3, Chap­ter 8, Grif­fin trans­la­tion).

Jesus: Strive, my friend, to do another’s will rather than your own; always pre­fer to have less than more; always seek the low­er place and be sub­mis­sive in all things; always wish and pray that God’s will may be entire­ly ful­filled in you, for you see, the per­son who does all this enters a place of peace and rest’” (Book 3, Chap­ter 23, Creasy trans­la­tion).

Per­haps these brief quo­ta­tions are enough to help us see humil­i­ty as a good thing. So then, how do we begin to grow in it? We are aware that humil­i­ty is one of those things we can­not acquire by try­ing to acquire it! No, it comes indi­rect­ly. We receive the grace of humil­i­ty by apply­ing our­selves to oth­er mat­ters, mat­ters which will place us in a more prop­er rela­tion­ship with God, with oth­ers, and ulti­mate­ly with our­selves. With regard to humil­i­ty we learn:

  1. To con­tem­plate God’s great­ness and good­ness. This will place us in a more prop­er rela­tion­ship with God.
  2. To serve our fam­i­ly, neigh­bors, friends, col­leagues, and even ene­mies. This will place us in a more prop­er rela­tion­ship with each other.
  3. To under­stand our­selves in light of these more prop­er rela­tion­ships to God and others.

Con­tem­plat­ing God’s great­ness and goodness:

  1. Read Psalm 24 (“The earth is the Lord’s …”) and then take a walk out­side. Look around you giv­ing atten­tion to what you see. The cre­ation is con­stant­ly doing the will of the Father, so look and see the will of God in wind and sky, leaf and flower, and the lit­tle crea­tures that creep upon the earth. If you are in an urban set­ting, know that the pow­er of God is over it too, even though we see it in a fall­en and rebel­lious state.
  2. God’s great­ness is revealed to us pri­mar­i­ly in his good­ness. With this in mind, con­tem­plate Luke 7:36 – 50, the sto­ry of the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Pon­der Jesus’ accep­tance and good­ness toward her. Then, con­sid­er who in your life expe­ri­ence is like that woman and what atti­tude and actions you will want to take toward him or her.

Serv­ing our fam­i­ly, neigh­bors, friends, col­leagues, enemies:

  1. For sev­en days at the begin­ning of each day pray: Lord, send me some­one today I can serve”. Now, watch care­ful­ly who comes into your path in need of an act of gen­uine service.
  2. Instead of the world’s pro­gram of ran­dom acts of kind­ness,” plan out spe­cif­ic acts of kind­ness to each fam­i­ly mem­ber, once a week for a month.

Under­stand­ing our­selves in light of a more prop­er rela­tion­ship to God and others:

  1. Write out a list of the attrib­ut­es of God. Study your­self — your deeds, actions, and accom­plish­ments — in light of that list. This exer­cise is not meant to dev­as­tate you but to give you a more prop­er sense of place where you can rest easy under the rule of God. You are not the CEO of the uni­verse, nor do you have to be.
  2. While you are serv­ing oth­ers, watch your­self and see how the actions them­selves begin to tem­per your own sense of self-impor­tance and even your need to be rec­og­nized. Ser­vice is its own reward.

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Per­spec­tives newslet­ter, Jan­u­ary 2000.

Originally published December 1999

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