December 2014

Bountiful Goodness: A Little Garden of Roses and the Valley of Lilies.  By Thomas à Kempis. Ignatius Press. 192 pages. $14.95.

Many Catholics are familiar with The Imitation of Christ, the 15th-century classic that is generally agreed to be one of the great spiritual writings of all time. What few know, however, is that its author, Thomas à Kempis, also wrote dozens of other important spiritual works. Two of these lesser-known works — A Little Garden of Roses and The Valley of Lilies — serve as complements to the Imitation, and so are of particular value. Whereas the Imitation focuses on the fundamental principles of a life lived in union with Christ, these treatises are concerned with the day-to-day virtues necessary to grow in this union, providing a practical guide to imitating Christ. In Bountiful Goodness these treatises are presented together in new English translations, along with useful background information on the texts and a biography of Thomas, which acquaints readers with their instructor.

Thomas was born in Kempen, Germany, in either 1379 or 1380. As a youth he went to Deventer in the Netherlands to study under the Brethren of the Common Life, a community recently founded as part of Devotio Moderna, a movement to reawaken zeal for the spiritual life among the clergy and laity. There Thomas received a rigorous Catholic and classical education and took part in the rich devotional life of the Brethren. After finishing his education in Deventer in 1399, he went to live at the monastery of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine at Mount St. Agnes in Windesheim, Holland. Later that year, Thomas was accepted into the Canons Regular as a candidate, and was henceforth known as Thomas à Kempis — Latin for Thomas of Kempen. He pursued in-depth theological studies throughout his long formation period until he was ordained in 1414. As a canon, Thomas served in different administrative roles, but his primary duty was copying texts in the monastery’s scriptorium. On the side, he wrote numerous treatises on the various dimensions of the spiritual life, which served in his own time to edify his fellow canons. Thomas died at Mount St. Agnes in 1471, leaving behind a vast corpus of writings that have proven to be applicable not only to the lives of monastics but to all Christians.

It is evident from Thomas’s biography that he is a man well-suited to offer counsel in the spiritual life. In A Little Garden of Roses and The Valley of Lilies he demonstrates a thorough awareness of the disordered ways of fallen human nature, as well as the virtues needed for closer union with our Lord and the practical means to develop them. The guidance he gives is at once gentle and bold, merciful and uncompromising, simple and profound; Thomas is the kind of spiritual director we all need. Thus, the effeminate-sounding titles of these treatises should not fool anyone into thinking that they lack substance. According to the introduction to Bountiful Goodness, Thomas likely chose these titles from one of the sermons of St. Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs, in which the great Cistercian abbot tells of the beloved “going…into the beautiful places of the desert, to the flowering roses and the lilies of the valley, to gardens where delights abound.” Keeping with this image, Thomas’s readers are meant to wander meditatively through the gardens of virtues, each virtue being like a rose or lily to be contemplated for its beauty.

The treatises are divided into meditations of two to six pages, with Roses consisting of 18 meditations and Lilies of 34. Each meditation, which begins with a pertinent Scripture quotation, is highly focused and pertains to the timeless, everyday experiences of the Christian. The meditation titles alone reveal the diversity of topics covered. In Roses some meditations are: On Acquiring the Grace of Devotion, On the Instability of the Human Heart, On Having Trust in God in Difficult Times, and On the Eternal Praise of God. Some meditations in Lilies are: On Fear of Eternal Punishment as a Remedy against the Vices of the Flesh, On the Great Merit Had from Suffering Patiently for Christ, On Directing the Right Intention to God, and On Holy Fellowship with Jesus and His Saints.

Although the meditations are of great depth, Thomas’s points are easy to follow and often quotable, serving like maxims to be kept in mind for how to become virtuous. For example:

- “Perfect virtue is not acquired instantaneously, but only little by little and with much pain and groaning.”

- “Public embarrassment is often the best means for bringing vainglory to an end.”

- “Reading points out the right way to live and offers examples that spur us on to imitation, while prayer asks for the grace enabling us to follow them.”

- “The sincere desire always to do good and to serve God is a sacrifice on the altar of the heart.”

- “Having a great fear of hell dispels all lukewarmness and urges us on to fervent prayer.”

- “Whoever accepts the Lord’s chastisements as gifts finds his soul’s salvation in them and a more glorious crown awaiting him in heaven.”

Out of all the virtues Thomas discusses, it’s interesting to note that he returns most frequently to the commonly overlooked virtue of silence. At first it would seem that this is so because he was originally writing for other monastics, but when considering his words on the subject, it becomes clear how crucial the practice of silence is for the sake of imitating Christ, even for the layman. For instance, Thomas says, “If you wish to conquer your soul’s worst enemies, then take flight and seek silence and quiet.” Elsewhere he instructs, “When anyone speaks harshly to you or rebukes you, do not yield to immediate anger or answer sharply; rather, remain silent or speak gently, and bear it patiently as Jesus did.” And further, “The young man who is brazen and quick to speak is like a fool ready for a fall, but if he listens when instructed, is silent and obedient when corrected, then there is hope for his growth in virtue and he will surely flourish like a lily.”

Whether read as a companion to The Imitation of Christ or on its own, Bountiful Goodness has much to offer. While imitating Christ can seem nearly impossible, Thomas shows us that, by the grace of God, virtue is always within reach, and deeper union with Christ is something we can all attain.

- Stephen J. Kovacs



A Prayer Journal.  By Flannery O’Connor. Edited by W.A. Sessions. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 112 pages. $18.

In this journal, kept from January 1946 to September 1947, Flannery O’Connor is engaged in an all-out battle for her spiritual survival. In her early 20s and studying at the University of Iowa, O’Connor’s future as a Catholic author hangs in the balance. For the first time, she has come under the aegis of learned men without faith or wisdom, and she finds herself tested to the limit. Can she hold on to her childhood faith? O’Connor cries out in prayer: “I dread, Oh Lord, losing my faith. My mind is not strong. It is a prey to all sorts of intellectual quackery.” By quackery she means the use of psychology as a weapon against her faith; she explains that she is “afraid of insidious hands oh Lord which grope into the darkness of my soul.” She asks Him to be the “Cover” of her soul.

We get glimpses of the academic elite flourishing two generations ago and already leading Americans to the cultural abyss in which we are trapped today. They nearly robbed O’Connor of her bearings. They would have succeeded too, except that she fought back with heartfelt prayer and serious reading. She laments that at “every point in this educational process” we are told that faith is “ridiculous.” She adds that “their arguments sound so good it is hard not to fall into them.” Isn’t that still true in academe?

O’Connor begs God for a “better mind” to see through their reasoning. She fears that her “mental trappings” are insufficient since she is “always on the brink of assenting” to their arguments, at least giving them “almost a subconscious assent.” This worries her, and rightly so. She pleads with the Lord to give people like her “the brains to cope” with these arguments, and a “weapon” to “defend us from ourselves after they have got through with us.” Ironically, it sounds as if she were in a communist re-education camp. She even asks for the grace to see the “misery” present wherever God is not adored, such as in her university classroom.

At the journal’s start, O’Con­nor keeps asking for the grace to love God beyond all limits, above all else. Surely this would be the best defense against academic assaults on faith. Nevertheless, she is deeply worried that only a fear of Hell, not love of God, is keeping her in the Church. She imagines that fear of Hell is something to be ashamed of, a kind of “cowardice the psychologists would gloat so over & explain so glibly.” She would be ashamed too if her faith were only what psychologists “so jubilantly call water-tight compartments” or something “invented” to satisfy her “weakness.”

At this time, O’Connor is reading Kafka but soon observes that this author makes grace something hard to obtain. She turns to more congenial authors for her private reading: Georges Bernanos and Léon Bloy. These modern French Catholic writers treat the supernatural, and particularly Hell, with great seriousness. Bernanos, in Diary of a Country Priest (1937), presents Hell as an objective, terrifying reality. O’Connor takes Bloy as a model of how to react to the contemporary world, as when she laments that certain war posters give a supernatural aura to the natural and would make “Bloy retch.” Evidently, she doesn’t want to have a mediocre response to impiety herself; she too wants to retch.

After imbibing Bernanos and Bloy, O’Connor no longer regards her fear of Hell as shameful. She now writes, “Hell, a literal Hell, is our only hope. Take it away & we will become wholly a wasteland not half of one.” She is no longer afraid of psychologists delving into her soul. She puts them at a distance by seeing them as allies of the devil who are trying to banish sin. If we take sin “away from devil as devil & give it to devil as psychologist,” she reflects, then we also “take away God.” (Psychology, especially evolutionary psychology, gets rid of sin by getting rid of free will, without which there is no need for repentance or God’s forgiveness.)

O’Connor asks God to inspire her with a story that will be publishable. However, since she has already experienced literary criticism in academe, she also asks Him to make her story “too clear for any false & low interpretation.” By low she means a purely erotic interpretation. At this time she is reading several authors for her classes who challenge her Catholic view of sexuality: Freud, Proust, and D.H. Lawrence. She laments that they define love only as natural desire and ignore the supernatural desire for God that lies at the depths of every human heart. It is this supernatural love she keeps praying for. She rightly concludes that “modern man isolated from faith, from raising his desire for God into a conscious desire, is sunk into the position of seeing physical love as an end in itself. Thus his romanticizing it, wallowing in it, & then cynicizing it.” In particular she regarded Proust’s view of desire as sinking to the very pit of the unconscious, which is “Hell.” It is intriguing that she takes the correct measure of Proust, without knowing that he was a closeted homosexual writing about his own experiences in coded language.

O’Connor asks herself if she is a “mediocre” writer, then realizes that it is far worse to be a mediocre lover of God. She concludes that if mediocrity in writing is her “scourge,” she will submit, but “I don’t want to be doomed to mediocrity in my feeling for Christ.” She begs for the grace of having an immoderate love for the Lord. Bernanos in Diary of a Country Priest warns that the mediocre priest is nearly always “sentimental,” and that “mediocrities are a trap set by the devil.” If there is anything characteristic of O’Connor’s writings it is their lack of any sentimentality. In her journal she welcomes Bloy as the much-needed iceberg that will smash both her mediocrity and her sentimentality: “He is an iceberg hurled at me to break up my Titanic and I hope my Titanic will be smashed.” In the end, she wants her soul to be radically accessible to God.

At the journal’s end, O’Con­nor is aware that she has emerged alive from the battle for her soul. But she ponders whether she is responsible for those around her at the university: “I am mediocre of spirit but there is hope. I am at least of the spirit and that means alive. What about these dead people I am living with? What about them?” She wonders whether “we who live will have to pay for their deaths.” Could this be the spring of her writings, if we see them as attempts to resuscitate the dead? Could this be the resolve behind her unique voice, a voice which Ralph C. Wood, in Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, compares to the Old Testament “in its unapologetic directness of approach” and in its plain, unsentimental “summons to intense belief”?

- Anne Barbeau Gardiner





Back to December 2014 Issue