Contrary to popular belief, the Middle Ages were not dark and ignorant. This period saw remarkable advancements, including the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. During this time, Thomas à Kempis, a German-Dutch monk, wrote and published a renowned collection of essays called The Imitation of Christ.
Considered one of the most widely read Christian devotionals, the collection of essays has stood the test of time, captivating readers from all walks of life, including Eckhart Tolle who considers the collection one source of his spiritual inspiration.
After hearing one of Eckart’s talks, I embarked on a journey to explore the teachings of this medieval masterpiece. With a translation from 1874, I updated the English to resonate with modern readers, and I provided my interpretation and commentary on how these teachings can be applied in today’s fast-paced world.
Below is an excerpt from my new book: Wisdom from the Middle Ages for Living and Leading in Modern Times.
Thomas à Kempis:
Do not open your heart to anyone, but deal only with those who are wise and spiritual. Be seldom with the young and with strangers. Be not a flatterer of the rich, nor willingly seek the society of the famous. Let your company be with the humble and the simple, the devout and the gentle, and let your discourse be concerning things which edify.
While we can express compassion for all persons, you need not make close companions of everyone you meet. From time to time, you may encounter someone unknown to you who is highly regarded and respected. However, when you meet them, they turn out to be crude, rude, and unpleasant. In those cases, you need not try to please that person because of their reputation. You can say to yourself: “this person is not for me,” and then bless and release them.
On the other hand, before passing judgment on another’s actions or character, look inward and realize how your character was once not sterling nor your actions perfect. In assessing others, you may err because of your feelings, assumptions, or misperceptions. Search inward and ask for Divine Discernment in considering all people or circumstances.
How often has your peace of mind been steady so long as things go well and according to your plans? And then something unwanted happens, which causes you frustration and unhappiness. How frequently has conflict arisen between you and your friends due to the diversity of feelings and opinions?
No person can easily see with the eyes of another. If you rely more upon your compassion and the power of Spirit, slowly but surely, you will set aside your judgment of others.
I wish I had come across this advice earlier in life.
Because I am a sensitive (i.e., highly empathic) person, I tend to be very open with other people. That has not always served me well. At several critical junctures of my professional life, I made severe errors in evaluating the character of some of my colleagues.
This was also true in my personal life, especially in the romantic realm.
Thankfully, with maturity, I’ve become more selective and careful about those with whom I associate.
But there is a bit of a rub in what the good Monk says here. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “judging” others as Right/Wrong, Good/Bad, Virtuous/Immoral, Productive/Lazy, Fair/Unfair, and on and on.
We can also easily fall into the habit of judging circumstances similarly as: “there’s something wrong here,” or “this should not be happening.”
This judgment is not skillful, and it causes stress and ruins wholesome relationships – including with ourselves when we judge ourselves harshly.
An alternative way of living is to use what the Monk calls “Divine Discernment.”
Divine Discernment is a way of perception (or seeing) in the absence of judgment to obtain spiritual guidance and understanding.
I do my best every day to see situations, people, and even my behavior in this light. Some questions you can ask yourself when aiming for Discernment include:
- Is this relationship wholesome? Does it bring me joy? Can I count on this person to honor their word?
- What is the gift in this circumstance? What can I learn from it? Where is the growth for me in this?
- Was my behavior skillful or unskillful? Did it improve a relationship or situation? What could I have done better?
If you start looking at other people, situations, and yourself in the light of Divine Discernment, you can be more at peace and experience life with more joy and fulfillment.
Thomas à Kempis was a medieval monk and author of The Imitation of Christ.
You can listen to our full conversation with David Langiulli on our podcast here.
David Langiulli is an Executive Coach, Leadership Trainer, and co-founder of Fundraising Leadership. This essay is an excerpt from his recently released book, Wisdom from the Middle Ages for Living in Modern Times.