Monday, December 14, 2009

Thanks to Pope John Paul I

Posted by Webster 
I know what was going on in my life in September and October 1978. I won’t bore you with the details. Something big was happening—in my life, and, as it happens, in the life of the Catholic Church. On September 28, 1978, Pope John Paul I was found sitting up in bed, dead, 33 days into his papacy. According to the media reports, he had an open copy of The Imitation of Christ on his chest.

I thought about this early today when I read Frank's post bridging Pascal’s Pensées and The Imitation of Christ. (Can’t wait for part 5 of his story.)

Most Catholics will think, yes, the death of Pope John Paul I led to the papacy of Pope John Paul II, arguably the greatest pope of modern times (though I will happily cast a vote for “my pope”). I think instead, yes, the death of Pope John Paul I led to my reading The Imitation of Christ. When I saw the TV report of JPI’s death the following day, I literally dashed out and bought a copy of The Imitation—me, the lapsed Episcopalian—and while watching for the puff of white smoke on TV, I read long and deep in the Doubleday edition (1976), based on the Richard Whitford translation made circa 1530.

What was it about the death of JPI that moved me to buy this book? What was it about this book that moved me to think about Catholic Christianity in a new way? Why do I still have that copy of The Imitation, bought on September 29 or 30, 1978, while the world was waiting—again—for the white smoke and the words Habemus Papam? 

It’s all a mystery to me. Rather than try to solve it and make this post longer than it needs to be, I’ll share a few excerpts from my heavily underlined edition of The Imitation of Christ.

1. All that is in the world is vanity except to love God and to serve Him only. (I think that both Frank and Qoheleth would agree with that one.)

2. If you would learn anything and know it profitably to the health of your soul, learn to be unknown and be glad to be considered despicable and as nothing.

3. A good devout man so orders his outward business that it does not draw him to love of it; rather, he compels his business to be obedient to the will of the spirit and to the right judgment of reason.

4. It is great wisdom . . . not to be hasty in our deeds, not to trust much in our own wits, not readily to believe every tale, not to show straightway to others all that we hear or believe. . . .

And so on, for 111 numbered sections, filled with wisdom that would take lifetimes to absorb. Who was Thomas à Kempis? I’m hoping Frank will tell us in his next post in the series, “To Be Frank.”