It would be impossible to estimate the wide and profound influence that this wonderful little book has exercised throughout Christendom for over five hundred years. After the Bible itself, one other work can compare with its profound wisdom, clarity of thought, and converting power. Christians of such widely differing period and outlook as S. Thomas More and General Gordon, S. Ignatius Loyola and John Wesley, S. Francis Xavier and Dr Johnson, are but a few of the thousands who have acknowledged their debt to this golden work.
It may perhaps appear strange that a book written by one who spent nearly the whole of his long life in the cloister, and who intended his works primarily for his fellow-religious, should have such power to guide and inspire hundreds who have little knowledge of monastic life: but the writer's deep and burning love of God, his deep humility, his profound knowledge of the Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers, coupled with his understanding of human nature and its needs, make him a wise and trustworthy counsellor to all who seek to know and fulfil the true purpose of human life - `to praise, love and serve God their Lord, and by doing these things, to save their souls'(S.Ignatius Loyola "Spiritual Exercises"). Accordingly, while Thomas a Kempis writes in the first place for his fellow-religious, an ascetic for ascetics, a mystic for those who aspire to mystical union with God through the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, yet his counsels are a proved guide and inspiration to men and women of every age and nation.
The secret of the amazing influence and converting power of this little book is the secret of the lives of all the Saints - their nearness to God, and the reflection of His love in their lives and writings. Thomas's theme is the love, mercy, and holiness of God; with vivid clarity he shows man's complete dependence on, and need of, God, and the empty futility of life lived apart from its only source of true Life and Light : he stirs us to seek our own good and lasting happiness in the knowledge and service of God. In the words of S. Augustine, Patron of the Order of Canons Regular to which Thomas himself belonged, `O God, Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.' In simple and burning words, Thomas shows that the only road to this sublime goal of oneness with God is by devotion to Christ Crucified, and by treading his `Royal Road to the Holy Cross'("Imitation", ii,12.).' Moreover, while the author is both . a mystic and a scholar, he is always - like S. Teresa of Avila - eminently realistic and practical, and he shows us the `how' as well as the `why' of the spiritual life.
In his authoritative work on a Kempis, the late Dr F. R. Cruise writes: `Beyond doubt, the Imitation most perfectly reflects the light which Jesus Christ brought down from heaven to earth, and truthfully portrays the highest Christian philosophy. When our divine Saviour preached the Sermon on the Mount He held up as the characteristics of His followers - perfect humility, poverty of spirit, purity of heart, meekness, sorrow for sin, forgiveness of injustice, and peace and joy in the midst of persecution. Nowhere else do we find these doctrines so incisively and persuasively taught as in this unpretending little volume. (Thomas a Kempis, Kegan Paul London 1887)
There is a common tendency today to represent the Saints as experts in `natural' religion or `perennial philosophy'; as men and women who, by breaking the chains of Christian dogma, have been enabled by their own natural genius to attain to union with the Divine. Probably the most frequent victim of such misrepresentation is that most loyal son of the Church, S. Francis of Assisi. But in the Imitation, as in the lives of the Saints, will be found sincere and reasoned loyalty to the teachings of Christ and His holy Catholic Church, and Thomas lays emphasis on right belief as the prerequisite of right life. He is no nature-mystic, nor would he regard as worthy of serious consideration many modern attempts to ignore the true nature of man, or to produce a synthesis of Christian and pagan philosophies as a guide to the spiritual life. For Thomas, as for all Christians, the sole road to God is through the power and teachings of Jesus Christ, true God and true Man; by the subordination of nature to divine grace; by self-discipline; and by devout use of the Sacraments of the Catholic Church, in particular that of the Holy Eucharist.
The modern reader will perhaps find minor portions of the book, such as the chapters on monastic life,(I. i, 17-20) inapplicable in detail to his own needs, but they stand as a worthwhile reminder that the fundamental spirit and intention of the Religious Orders is identical with that of all devout Christians, i.e. the following of Christ and the pursuit of perfection. The widespread revival of the Religious Life during the past century, and its call for selfless service to God and man, provides a living witness and effective admonition that the Christian life requires personal discipline and self-sacrifice coupled with unswerving loyalty to the Person and teachings of Christ our Saviour. The powerful challenge of godless Communism today would make small headway if all those `who profess and call themselves Christians' were as active and devoted in the following of Christ as are many of their adversaries in the service of anti-Christ. And it is thus very devotion to Christ and His Church that Thomas seeks to stimulate.
Commenting on the purpose and nature of the Imitation, one writer says: `The philosophy of the Imitation may be summed up in two words. It is a philosophy of Light, and a philosophy of Life: ( See Imitation, iii, 23) the Light of Truth, and the Life of Grace. Both the one and the other a Kempis seeks as their source and fountain-head. He does not separate them. It is only in the union of both that man attains his philosophic ideal. - . . So the Devout author, with Clement of Alexandria and Aquinas, ascends to the incarnate Word - the divine Logos - as the Source whence proceeds all truth, both natural and revealed, for the criterion and ideal of human knowledge. Here he finds unity and harmony . . . it is not only the Light of Truth; it is also the Life of Grace. This life consists in the practice of the Christian virtues; the practice of the Christian virtues leads up to union with Christ; and union with Christ is consummated in the Holy Eucharist. Such is the author's philosophy of life, and in its development does his genius especially glow. He is mystical, eloquent, sublime. He soars into the highest regions of truth, in which meet both poetry and philosophy. Following in the footsteps of Christ, heeding His words, living in intimate union with Him, loving Him with a love that counts no sacrifice too great, trampling underfoot all things displeasing to Him, bearing one's burden cheerfully for His sake - such is the life of the soul as revealed in this wonderful book." The Culture of the Spiritual Sense, by Bro. Azarias. (Steigel & Co., New York, 1884).
Thomas a Kempis is not only a master of the spiritual life, he is a master writer as well; consequently we have in the Imitation a classic that richly repays careful study and re-reading. As with the Scriptures, the more familiar we are with this book, the fairer the riches we discover in its pages, and the more it becomes a part of ourselves. Open it where one will; on every page will be found something to instruct, to inspire, to give ample food for thought.
It is hardly surprising that a man of Thomas's spiritual and mental powers was widely and soundly read in the best both of pagan and Christian literature. Every page glows with the reflected light of holy Scripture, which he knows so intimately; but he loves also to draw from the wisdom of the Christian Fathers, and from the great philosophers of Greece and Rome, in order to confirm and illustrate his teaching. Anyone familiar with the writings of S. Bernard, S. Augustine, and S. Thomas Aquinas can readily detect the thought of these great theologians, while Thomas also draws from Ovid, Seneca, and Aristotle. Like the householder of the Gospels, `he brings out of his treasure things new and old',(Matt. xiii, 52.2) to illustrate the great truths of God, man, and life.
OUTLOOK OF THE BOOK
BOOK ONE : Counsels on the Spiritual Life
Here Thomas seeks firstly to wean the soul from preoccupation with solely material interests, successes and failures, and from dependence on its fellows, and to set before it the Christian teaching on life, on human nature, and on its essential need of God. He shows how, bywinning control of our passions, and by overcoming conceit and complacency, we may, like S. Paul, become spiritual athletes, and enterupon the way of purgation, which is the first stage of the soul'spress towards its divinely appointed destiny of union with God. ,sere selfknowledge will bring the soul to a realization of its own nothingness and need of God. The humble following of Christ, and the power of His grace alone can transform our lives, `for if you rely on your own reasoning and ability rather than on the transforming power of Jesus Christ, you will seldom and only slowly attainwisdom. For God wills that we become perfectly obedient to Him, and that we rise above cold reason on the wings of a burning love for Him."(I. Imit. i, 14.) The Book continues with counsels addressed primarily to Religious, but which are also of value to all who pursue perfection. It concludes by urging the disciple to complete the goodwork of purgation now begun and sets before him considerations on true contrition, on man's last end, on God's judgement of sinners and man's need of amendment.
BOOK TWO: On the Inner Life
This sets forth the second stage of the spiritual life - the way ofillumination - in which the disciple, having made some progress inself-conquest, is gradually illumined by the divine light of the knowledge of God. Here Thomas sets forth the Christian standards of value,spiritual and material: we are shown how the spiritual and eternal isto be prized above the material and transitory, `for men soon change,but Christ abides for ever, and stands firmly by you to the end' (Ch.i). Through purity of heart and simplicity of purpose, man is raisedand cleansed (Ch. 4) ; and by self-knowledge he is freed from thetemptation to pass judgement on others (Ch. S). The book continues,to speak of the wonders of the love of Jesus, and the glory of Hisfriendship, that only His loved ones know (Chs. 9, 8) : and shows thatthe only road to this desired consummation is that which Jesus Himself has revealed, the road of the Cross, so meaningless to the world, so powerful to the faithful pilgrim. Many fear to tread this hard road(Ch. I I ), which is the sole road to God. Yet `See, how in the Cross all things rest, and how in dying upon it all things depend. There is no other way to life and true inner peace than the way of the Cross, and of daily self-denial: ... our merit and spiritual progress do notconsist in enjoying great delight and consolation, but rather in thebearing of great burdens and troubles' (Ch. 12). But the love of Jesuswill amply outweigh all sacrifices, and light the steep upward path.
BOOK THREE : On Inward Consolation
In the third and longest book, Christ calls on the disciple to seek Him alone, and shows him the way of union and true peace. Aware of the perils that beset the steep ascent of the Mount of God, and seeing all things in their true light, the disciple is led to choose God as his true and only goal (Ch. 3 ). He is shown how, by the light of grace, he can gradually win free from the entanglements of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and come freely to Christ. In response, the disciple sings the joys and glories of the love of God, and prays: `Deepen Your love in me, O Lord, that I may learn in my inmost heart how sweet it is to love, to be dissolved, and to plunge myself into Your love. Let Your love possess me, and raise me above myself with a fervour and wonder above all imagination. Let me sing the song of love. Let me follow You, my Beloved, into the heights. Let my soul spend itself in Your praise, rejoicing for love . . ..' (Ch. 5). There follow chapters of practical counsels on the Christian life: on the gradual conquest of self; on the divine virtues of love, obedience, patience, humility, and trust, which must be cultivated as the soul advances with God's help on the road towards perfection (Chs. 7-z5). We are shown how holiness is not to be sought as an end in itself, but that we must rest in God alone above all other good, `above all health and beauty, above all glory and honour, above all power and dignity, above all joy and gladness . . . and above all that is not Yourself, O my God' (Ch. 2z). Christ then reveals (Ch. 23) four ways to obtain freedom and peace of spirit, `the whole secret of perfection', and the disciple offers a most beautiful prayer for mental light. He is then shown (Ch. 25) how the true source of peace and progress rest `in complete surrender of the heart to the will of God, not seeking to have one's own way either in great matters or small, in time or eternity'. Freedom of mind is not to be achieved by study so much as by prayer and direct contact with the Source of all light and life (Ch. 26). In the ensuing chapters the disciple is warned that obedience to Christ does not imply that he will be freed from sorrow, distraction, or temptation: rather will the Devil redouble his efforts to deter the spiritual athlete, who can expect no ease in this life, but is comforted by the assurance of final victory through perseverance and faith. `Wait for the Lord: fight manfully and with high courage. Do not despair, do not desert your post; steadfastly devote yourself, body and soul, to the glory of God. I will give you a rich reward, and will be with you in all your troubles' (Ch. 35). The disciple cannot rely on his fellow men for help; God alone can order his affairs aright, and bring good out of ill. He must therefore fix his heart and mind on God in all and above all, as did the holy martyr Agatha who cried, `My mind is firmly established and grounded in Christ' (Ch. q.5). The disciple is next shown how no evils that the ingenuity of the Devil or man can inflict have power to do real injury to the soul who trusts and lives wholly in Christ (Chs. 46, 47), and who looks steadfastly towards its heavenly home. Nor is the disciple to be overmuch concerned with success or failure, honour or dishonour- `Let this be your constant desire, that whether in life or death, God may at all times be glorified in you' (Ch. 5o). The only way to overcome the corruption of human nature is by self-discipline, that the power of grace may have full play in us; `for grace is a supernatural light, and the especial gift of God, the seal of His chosen, and the pledge of salvation, that raises man from earthly things to love the heavenly, and from being worldly, makes him spiritual. Therefore the more nature is controlled, the richer the graces bestowed' (Ch. 55). The Third Book concludes by urging the disciple to banish all discouragement (Ch. 57); to cultivate humility (Ch. 58); to avoid controversy; and to place his entire trust in God; `for where You are, there is Heaven; and where You are not, there is Death and Hell .... You alone are the End of all good things, the fullness of life, and the depth of wisdom; and the greatest comfort of Your servants is to trust in You above all else' (Ch. 59).
BOOK FOUR: On the Blessed Sacrament
This begins with `A devout exhortation to Holy Communion', but does far more than encourage the faithful to regular and devoutCommunion. It deals also with the theological and historical background of the Eucharist, and shows this sacred rite to be the centralsun around which all the worship and sacraments of the Church revolve. Here Thomas, true to the doctrine and experience of the Church, shows this sublime Sacrament to be both the effectual pleading of the sacrifice of Christ's death on the Cross, and the fulfilment of His last loving command at the Last Supper, and also the covenanted means of grace and unique act of Christian worship. In this Sacrament the Christian knows Christ Himself to be truly and actually present, hiding His glory beneath the simple forms of bread and wine. Here Christ pleads His sacrifice before the eternal Father: here His Church lifts up holy hands in sacrifice and intercession; here Christ feeds the faithful with His very Self, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. The altar is the vital link between God and man, heaven and earth, where angels and men join in adoration of the crucified and risen Christ.
Thomas therefore begins by emphasizing the simple and direct invitation of Christ to the faithful, who desire to have part in Him. He shows the prophetic nature of the ancient sacrifices of the Law, and the need of even greater devotion towards the Sacrament of Christ than that so amply displayed by the great kings and prophets towards the Ark, the Temple, and the sacrifices of old: `for how great a difference is there between the Ark of the Covenant with its relics, and Your most holy Body with its ineffable powers; between the sacrifices of the old Law that foreshadowed the Sacrifice to come, and the true Victim of Your Body, which fulfils all the ancient rites' (Ch. I). The generosity, goodness, and condescension of God are richly shown in thus Sacrament (Ch. a), which is to be regularly and devoutly received, with a deep sense of unworthiness (Ch. 3). In Chapter 4, the disciple acknowledges his unworthiness, and prays for the transforming graces of this Sacrament. Chapter S is addressed in particular to priests, as guardians and dispensers of the Most Holy Sacrament, and calls on them to couple the supreme privilege and dignity of the priesthood with the highest possible standard of life and devotion, since `a priest should be adorned with all virtues, and show an example of holy life to others . . . for when a priest celebrates the Eucharist, he honours God and gives joy to the Angels; he edifies the Church, aids the living, obtains rest for the departed, and makes him self a sharer in all good things.' Chapters 6 and 7 deal with preparation for Communion, which should include careful self-examination, confession, and sincere purpose of amendment. In Chapters 8 and 9, Christ calls on the disciple for complete surrender to the will of God `Naked I hung on the Cross with arms outstretched, offering Myself freely to God the Father for your sins, My whole Person a sacrifice to appease divine displeasure: you, also, must willingly offer yourself daily to Me in the Eucharist, with all your powers and affections as a pure and holy offering .... I do not seek your gifts, but yourself.' The disciple responds to this plea, asking pardon for his sins, and praying for the needs of the faithful : `I offer to You whatever is good in me though it be little and imperfect, that You may strengthen and hallow it, make it dear and acceptable to You, and raise it continually towards perfection.' Christ then warns the disciple (Ch. 10) against the temptation to regard Holy Communion as reserved for the holy, since it is the fountain of grace and mercy for penitent sinners. In Chapters 11 and 12, the disciple speaks of his insatiable longing for God alone above all His gifts and graces, and for Christ as his heavenly food. I acknowledge my need of two things food and light. You have therefore given me in my weakness Your sacred Body as the refreshment of my soul and body, and have set Your Word as a light to my feet. Without these two, I cannot rightly live; for the Word of God is the light of my soul, and Your Sacrament is theBreath of my life.' The disciple is filled with longing for Christ his Beloved (Ch. 13) ; he recalls the boundless love shown by other devout souls towards Christ in His Sacrament (Ch. 14) ; and grieves at the inadequacy of his love as compared with theirs. In Chapter 15, Christ reveals how this grace of devotion can be won by humility and self-denial, and is the gift of God alone. The disciple then makes renewed acts of love and desire for Christ (Ch. 16) ; and recalling the glorious lives of the Saints, cries (Ch. 17) : `Although I am not fit to enjoy such feelings of devotion as they, yet I offer You all the love in my heart . . . and whatever a pious heart can conceive or desire, that I offer You with all reverence and love.' The Book concludes with Christ warning the disciple against `curious and unprofitable inquiries' into the manner of His Presence in this Sacrament, since `God can do more than man can comprehend'. The requirements of God are `faith and a holy life'. `All reason and research must follow faith, but not precede or encroach upon it. For in this most holy and excellent Sacrament, precede all else, working in ways unknowable to man.'
THE LIFE OF THOMAS A KEMPIS
Since a book is the offspring of an author's mind, it will be of value to learn a little about this master of the spiritual life, whose devotion and experience are reflected in the pages of the Imitation.
Thomas a Kempis, so called from his birthplace at Kempen, near Dusseldorf, was born of humble parents, John and Gertrude Haemerken, of whom little is known, and whose claim to fame rests in their two sons, John (born 1365) and Thomas (born 1380), both of whom were destined to become distinguished sons of the Church, the former as Prior of Agnetenburg (Mount S. Agnes), and the latter as the illustrious author of the Imitation and many other works.
Devoutly brought up by his mother, and educated at Kempen Grammar School, Thomas left home at the early age of thirteen to join his elder brother at Deventer, where John had attached himself to the Congregation of the Common Life, a brotherhood founded by the great Gerard Groote, and approved by Pope Gregory XI in 1376. It will be necessary to make a digression here, in order to give a brief account of Gerard, whose foundation was to have so great an influence on Thomas, and whose biography he was later to write.
Gerard Groote was born at Deventer in 1365 of wealthy parents, and early showed great talents. Entering the University of Paris at the age of fifteen, he took high degrees, and subsequently received several rich preferments that allowed him to indulge his natural taste for influence and luxury. This brilliant man was not, however, to remain long satisfied with worldly honours, and influenced by Henry Calcar, Prior of the Carthusians at Monichuisen, Gerard was moved to resign all his lucrative offices, and retired with his friend to Monichuisen in order to re-orientate his whole life and outlook and to seek God's guidance as to his future work. He remained here for three years, employed in constant prayer, study, and self-discipline; then, with the unanimous approval of the Community, he set out to evangelize the country. Such was the appeal of this brilliant Christian orator that thousands were moved to amend their lives, and Gerard's don greatly prospered; but its very success roused the anger and of lax and unworthy clergy, who by false charges at length persuaded the Bishop of Utrecht to suspend Gerard from preaching. just as was the sentence, Gerard humbly accepted it, and turned his zealous energy to writing, and to advising individuals and communities who sought his help. Settling once more at Deventer, his magnetic personality drew a number of priests and laymen around him, and the nucleus of an informal religious community was formed. This society was not bound by permanent vows, but its members lived together under a Rule in poverty, chastity, and obedience, holding all things in common, and earning their own livelihood. Its object was to challenge the laxity and corruption of the times by a return to apostolic zeal and simplicity. `They were of one heart and mind in God,' Thomas was to write later; `what each possessed was held in common, and being content with plain food and clothing, they took no thought for the morrow.' Among these disciples of Gerard Groote was Florentius Radewyn, who from its earliest days played a leading part in the development of a regular Community, and whom Gerard appointed to succeed him at his death.
Influenced by the holiness of John Ruysbroeck, Prior of the Augustinian Canons Regular at Groenendaal, Gerard determined to place his Congregation under its direction and Rule; but his death of the plague in 1384 prevented this, and it was left to Florentius to carry out the founder's wishes. With the consent of the Bishop of Utrecht, a site for a monastery was chosen at Windesheim, near Zwolle, in 1386 and it was in this Community that Thomas was to spend most of his long life.
To return to Thomas a Kempis, he remained at Deventer under the guidance of Florentius for seven years, during which time he acquired a great regard for this holy priest, and the devotion which he taught. `Never before do I remember to have seen men so devout, so full of love for God and their fellow-men. Living in the world, they were altogether unworldly,' says Thomas of Florentius and his companions. In 1399, with the approval of Florentius, Thomas travelled to Zwolle, and sought admission to the new monastery of Mount S. Agnes, where his brother John had become Prior. Here began his long life in Religion; here he learned to obey the words of his Master, `If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.' Thomas made his profession in 1406 and received the priesthood in 1413 at the age of thirty-three. It was probably during the years immediately preceding and following his ordination that he compiled the four books of the Imitation.
During his long life as a Canon of S. Augustine, Thomas spent much time in the copying of the Scriptures and altar books for the use of the House, and, in addition to his masterpiece, wrote many other works in which his learning and devotion are almost equally reflected, but which are less well known today: Prayers and Meditations on the Life of Christ, Sermons to Novices, Spiritual Exercises, The Elevation of the Mind, The Soliloquy of the Soul, The Garden of Roses, On True Compunction of Heart, On Solitude and Silence, On the Discipline of the Cloister, and several biographies, including those of Gerard Groote and Florentius Radewyn. He is said to have been an eloquent preacher, and a wise confessor. Modest and retiring both by nature and conviction, Thomas sought no office or fame; as he mentions in his Exercises, silence was his friend, work his companion, and prayer his aid, and he was well content to work unknown.
Of Thomas's outwardly uneventful life, little remains to be told. In 1425 he was elected Sub-Prior, and acted as Master of Novices; he also kept the Chronicle of the monastery. His main work ever remained that of all good Religious - the cultivation of the spiritual life, and the personal following of Christ; his achievement in this life-work, known in its entirety to God alone, is reflected in the wide influence and converting power of his Imitation.
In the spring of 1471, Thomas's long and useful life drew to its close. In the words of his successor as Chronicler of Mount S. Agnes`In the same year, on the Feast of S. James the Less (1 May), after Compline, our Brother Thomas Haemerken, born at Kempen, a town in the diocese of Cologne, departed from this earth. He was in the 92nd year of his age, the 63rd of his religious clothing, and the 58th of his priesthood. In his youth, he was a disciple, at Deventer, of Master Florentius, who sent him to his own brother, who was then Prior of Mount S. Agnes. Thomas, who was then 20 years of age, received the habit from his brother at the close of six years' probation, and from the outset of his monastic life lie endured great poverty, temptations, and labours. He copied out our Bible and various other books, some of which were used by the convent, and others were sold. Further, for the instruction of the young, he wrote various little treatises in a plain and simple style, which in reality were great and important works, both in doctrine and efficacy for good. He had an especial devotion to the Passion of Our Lord,and understood admirably how to comfort those afflicted by interior trials and temptations. Finally, having reached a ripe old age, he was afflicted with dropsy of the limbs, slept in the Lord in the year 1471 and was buried in the east side of the cloister by the side of Peter Hebort.'
The monastery of Mount S. Agnes was destroyed in the troubles of the sixteenth century (1573), and its very site almost obliterated. In 1672, however, the Elector of Cologne ordered a search for Thomas's tomb, which was subsequently discovered and indisputably authenticated. His remains were placed in a casket, and after resting for two hundred years in the chapel of S. Joseph, were transferred to the Church of S. Michael in Zwolle, where they remain to this day.
THE AUTHORSHIP OF THE IMITATION
This has for a long time been in dispute, but an introduction is not the place to attempt to set forth the lengthy and abstruse arguments put forward by opponents of Thomas's authorship, nor would much interest or profit result from such an attempt. Happily, the importance and value of this golden book in no way depend on its authorship, but on its contents, since no other book of Christian devotion has ever exercised such unbroken and world-wide influence for good as the Imitation. We may therefore do well to follow the advice of the author, when he says: `Do not be influenced by the importance of the writer, and whether his learning be great or small; but let the love of pure truth draw you to read. Do not inquire, "Who said this?" but pay attention to what is said.'(I. i,5)
Without, therefore, entering into historical or textual details of this question, to which scholars have devoted much time and research, we may state briefly that, at one time or another, the following claimants to the authorship of the Imitation have been advanced: Jean Charlier Gerson, Chancellor of Paris; Gerard Groote ; S. Bernard of Clairvaux; S. Bonaventura; Henry de Calcar; Landolph of Saxony; Walter Hilton; and others. Exhaustive research has effectively disposed of the claims of all these, with the doubtful exception of Gerard Groote, the case for whose (partial) authorship has been ably argued by the Rev. Joseph Malaise, s.J., of San Francisco, in his translation of parts of the Imitation, which he describes as `The Spiritual Diary of Gerard Groote' (1937). In the view of the present translator, the case which he presents with considerable skill is entirely inconclusive, and it seems evident that, while Thomas was well acquainted with the thought and writings of Groote (whose biography he wrote), and that all Thomas's writings reflect the characteristic devotion and ethos of the `Circle of Windesheim', yet all the evidence points as clearly to the authorship of Thomas for the Imitation as it does to the remainder of his writings.
The case for Thomas's authorship may be summarized as follows
1. Internal evidence. The style, thought, and phraseology of the Imitation are those found in Thomas's other works, as also is his frequent indirect quotation of the writings of S. Bernard, S. Augustine and S. Thomas Aquinas, all of whom he particularly revered.
2. External evidence. No MS of the Imitation has been found which dates from earlier than Thomas's middle age (when Groote had been dead fifty years), while the well-known Brussels autograph MS (1441), contains thirteen spiritual treatises by Thomas, and including the four `books' of the Imitation, closes with the note: `Finitus et completus anno Domini MCCCCXLI per manus Fratris Thome Kempis in Monte Sanctae Agnetis prope Zwollis.' `Finished and completed by the hand of Brother Thomas a Kempis iii the year 1441, at the Monastery of Mount S. Agnes near Zwolle.' It is hardly conceivable that the humble Thomas would have included among his own works one which - in view of the high repute of Groote - was well known to be not his own, but that of Groote.
3. The evidence of contemporary witnesses. These include members of Thomas's own community at Mount S. Agnes, who are unanimous in making specific mention of Thomas's authorship of the Imitation. Of many, three may be mentioned: John Busch, Thomas's successor as Chronicler of Windesheim (1400-79) ; Herman Ryd (1408-?), who speaks of Thomas being alive at the time of writing; and Wessel Gansford, who mentions that he visited Mount S. Agnes with the particular purpose of meeting the author of the Imitation.
The majority will probably be agreed that there is little reasonable doubt of Thomas's authorship, the uncertainty over which may well have arisen in the first place through his own modesty and reticence, since the Imitation first became known without specific mention of his authorship. But since the truth was well known and testified to by members of his own Community both during his life and subsequently, it is the translator's view that Thomas's authorship is well nigh indisputable.
Earlier Translations. The first translation into English (from French) was in 1503, when the Fourth Book was translated by Margaret, Countess of Richmond, mother of Henry VII, and printed by Richard Pynson, the King's Printer. This was followed the same year by a translation of the first three Books by William Atkinson, D.D. In 1556, a complete translation was made by Richard Whytford, a member of the Augustinian Canons of Syon House, London, and author of the well-known Jesus Psalter. This long remained the best and standard translation.
Since those early days, a number of translations have appeared, but many suffer from incompleteness or obscurity of style. Firstly, translators have taken considerable liberties with Thomas's text, making unacknowledged omissions and alterations of the original whenever their personal views did not agree with those of the author. Secondly, even the more recent translations have been rendered in pseudo Jacobean English, which make them unnecessarily involved for the modern reader, and obscure the direct, vibrant phrases of the original Latin. Therefore, while it is not possible to reproduce the effect of Thomas's `rhythmic' Latin style in modern prose, I have attempted to retain something of its simplicity and directness. My purpose in attempting a completely new version is to provide an accurate, unabridged, and readable modern translation, and thus to introduce this spiritual classic to a wider public. If this is achieved, I am confident that many a new reader of the Imitation will come to treasure this little book, and read it again year by year.
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