Imitation of Christ
Imitation of Christ
IMITATION OF CHRIST
One of the best-known classics of devotional literature. It is generally claimed to be the work, indeed the chief work, of thomas À kempis, but it would be a more accurate expression of scholarly opinion to say simply that this book and the name of Thomas à Kempis are inseparably linked. It is a work that opens the way to an understanding of the spirit of the devotio moderna and of late medieval piety in general and is among the most widely read books in the whole of world literature. It has appeared in innumerable editions and has been translated into more than 50 different languages. This accounts for the great attention that has been given to the problem of its authorship—a problem that was first raised shortly after the death of Thomas à Kempis and is still discussed. The many editions and translations testify that the question of authorship has not detracted from the attention given to its content. On the contrary, the controversies about its origin appear to have stimulated an ever increasing interest in the Imitation itself, and the counsel of the author—"Ask not who said this, but give your attention to what is said; for men pass away, but the truth of the Lord abides forever"—has not been entirely unheeded. After reviewing the controversy about the authorship, Lucidius Verschueren, OFM, expressed satisfaction that not only was the Imitation being debated, but that its contents were being taken to heart.
Authorship. If anything is to be said about the origin, composition, sources, and inspiration of the Imitation, the problem of authorship must be faced. Among the first to discuss the question was Nicholas of Winghe, the earliest translator of the Imitation, who in 1548 published a Dutch version. (It can be safely assumed that the Latin text is to be considered the original.) Winghe opposed the claim that Jean gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris, was the author. In this he was supported by Heribert Rosweydus, who in his Vindiciae Kempenses (1617) and later in his treatise Certissima testimonia a quibus Thomas a Kempis asseritur auctor librorum de Imitatione Christi concluded that the book was written by à Kempis. His argument was based on the testimony of John Busch, chronicler of Windesheim, and the abbot, trithemius. Rosweydus's work was written in reaction to a claim to the authorship made on behalf of the Italian abbot, Giovanni Gersen, to whom the work was attributed in certain old Italian MSS of the Imitation.
From the beginning of the 17th century onward, there appeared a long succession of controversial works on the question of authorship, and even by 1965 the controversy was not completely settled. The discussion waxed keen during the 19th century, and as late as the end of the century various works were being published defending the authorship of Thomas à Kempis with sound arguments. The evangelical theologian Karl Hirsche, the Catholic theologian O. A. Spitzen, and J. B. Malou, Bishop of Ghent, defended the authorship of Thomas à Kempis vigorously and incisively. About the turn of the century a period of silence began, and it appeared as if the opinion in favor of Thomas à Kempis had become generally and firmly established. However, the authorship of Giovanni Gersen was still being advocated by P.E. Puyol, and that of Jean Gerson by J. B. Monneyeur.
More impressive, however, was the series of writings published after 1925 by J. van Ginneken, SJ, favoring the view that not Thomas à Kempis but Gerard groote was author of the famous work. Van Ginneken's thesis was that Thomas à Kempis only formulated and edited posthumously the diary notes of Groote, and this version was later erroneously taken to be an original work of Thomas à Kempis himself. According to Van Ginneken, the original text existed before Thomas à Kempis came to work upon it. This idea was adopted and further developed by Fritz and Liselotte Kern, who tried to reconstruct the text that supposedly preceded that of Thomas à Kempis.
L. M. J. Delaissé brought the problem closer to a solution with his basic and detailed study Le Manuscrit autographe de Thomas a Kempis (MS Bruxellensis 5855–5861) et l'Imitation de Jésus-Christ. First, he rather satisfactorily ruled out the authorship of Giovanni Gersen and of Jean Gerson. Second, he convincingly proved that there never was a pre-Kempian text of the Imitation as a whole. On the basis of a profound archeological analysis of the Brussels manuscript, Delaissé showed it probable that Thomas à Kempis wrote 13 short and independent treatises (libelli ) and brought them together in one and the same codex. Afterward he conscientiously and thoroughly rewrote the text of each of these treatises and, as it were, made them ready for the press. Therefore, this codex (MS Bruxellensis 5855–5861) is an autograph that makes it possible to bring the problem of the origin of the Imitation closer to solution. In it are found four treatises that came—at a time when printing was not in common use everywhere—to be copied together. They thus came to be considered as one coherent work to which the name De Imitatione Christi was given, drawn from the thought expressed in the first words of chapter one of the first treatise: "Qui sequitur me non ambulat in tenebris, dicit Dominus. Haec sunt verba Christi quibus ammonemur quatenus vitam eius et mores imitemur." When at a later date this collection of the four libelli came to be printed, the same tradition was adopted. Thus, not only the title of the book, but also the book itself in its familiar form does not date back to Thomas à Kempis; however, the four libelli are by his hand.
Sources. Thomas à Kempis drew from a number of sources. In the first place, he drew from the New Testament, as Gerard Groote had already commended: "Radix studii tui et speculum vitae sint primo evangelium Christi, quia ibi est vita Christi." Second, Thomas drew from the writings that were being read at the time in the circles of the Devotio Moderna and were therefore at his disposal. Enough is known about the copying of MSS done by the Brethren of the Common Life and the religious of the Windesheim Congregation to justify the assumption that a series of more or less complete manuscripts of devotional works were available to Thomas. Among these
were the Collationes patrum of John cassian and the Vitae patrum, a collection of monastic biographies. Both works were very much read among the devoti (as is shown in the chronicle of the Augustinian chapter-house at Frenswegen). The study of these works had also been recommended by Gerard Groote. In the Imitation, Thomas mentions his sources only in a number of cases in which he deals with passages from the Bible, but through studies of certain sections it has been established that, besides the more than a thousand Biblical passages pointed out by M. J. Pohl, there are also indications of the influence of the great masters of the spiritual life upon Thomas in his writing of the Imitation; especially noticeable is that of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose sermons, and particularly his Sermones in canticum, were greatly esteemed by the devoti. In addition, some other writings, mistakenly attributed to St. Bernard, very probably exercised an influence on the Imitation. Among these were the Speculum monachorum (also called Speculum Bernardi or Speculum peccatorum ), the Meditationes, and the Epistola ad fratres de Monte Dei of William of Saint-Thierry. All these works are recorded in biographies of devoti as being among their daily reading matter; for example, in the Conclusa et proposita of Gerard Groote and in the chronicle of Frenswegen. Furthermore, the Speculum monachorum of David of Augsburg and the Scala paradisi of John Climacus deserve mention. Both works were much read, often quoted, and parts of their text have found a place in various rapiaria. Of the older texts, the Homiliae of Gregory the Great and his Moralia in Job should receive particular mention.
The library of the brethren in Deventer undoubtedly included copies of these works, and considering the scriptorial activity of the devoti, which contributed much to the circulation of these works, one has the right to assume that they were also to be found at Mount St. Agnes, the monastery near Zwolle where Thomas wrote the Imitation. Among the works mentioned in the chronicle of the brethren's house at Emmerich as copied by the devoti at Deventer during Thomas's life were: the Horologium aeternae sapientiae of Henry Suso (which was much read and frequently quoted in the circle of the Devotio Moderna), the Dialogus miraculorum of Caesarius of Heisterbach, the Vitae patrum, the Libellum de arte moriendi (another name for the Quattuor novissima of Dionysius the Carthusian), et multa huiusmodi quibus usque hodie layci nostri utuntur, as the chronicle of Emmerich says. It is not likely that all these works were available to Thomas in their complete version. It is rather to be assumed that he partly used spiritual notebooks (or rapiaria, as they were called among the devoti ) that included extensive quotations from these works. Thus, for example, the Omnes, inquit, artes of Florentius Radewijns was a rapiarium that belonged to the inventory of every house of the brethren and of the Augustinian house of Windesheim. The treatises of Gerard Zerbolt of Zutphen, equally familiar to Thomas, can also in part be traced back to this work. Finally, the affinity of the Imitation with the two works of Gerard Groote, the Dicta and the Conclusa et proposita non vota, should be noted.
As yet no systematic investigation has been undertaken to discover all the sources not mentioned by name in the Imitation. This would be no simple task, since Thomas, following the medieval manner of quoting, did not, in most cases, reproduce the exact text of the source. This style of quotation was used not because the writer wished to conceal his source, but because he had to use texts that had perhaps been altered or incorrectly quoted by other authors, or because he had made the original text his own by way of personal assimilation.
Content. It is impossible to summarize the contents of the Imitation in a few lines. The book shows that Thomas, like other devoti, was moved by a strong desire to serve and to imitate Christ. This ideal permeates all his thoughts and his whole life in all its manifestations. The Imitation has opened the way to a more personal and inner life of faith for many people, especially for those who want to renew their spiritual lives without contracting permanent ties in a religious community. The Imitation was intended to strengthen them in their striving for communion with God and in their effort to prepare themselves for eternal life. The first book contains admonitions useful to the spiritual life and deals with the means of liberating oneself from worldly inclinations and of preparing for conversation with God. The second book contains an appeal and admonitions to promote the interior life that leads to conversation with God and the interior consolation of the third book, starting with the words: "audiam quid loquatur in me Dominus Deus." The fourth book urges the reader to receive Holy Communion in a devout manner. The Imitation has impressively summarized the religious attitude of the Devotio Moderna and given it its most representative expression. In this light it is possible to explain its impact upon later generations. The renewal in spiritual life brought about by the Devotio Moderna did not come from the introduction of new ideas opposed by the Church or contrary to its doctrine. On the contrary, the movement aimed at leading people closer to God within the Church. Although Protestants, as well as Catholics, have found inspiration in it, it is incorrect to speak of a unilateral continuity between the Devotio Moderna and Protestantism.
Bibliography: w. jappe alberts, "Zur Historiographie der Devotio Moderna und ihrer Erforschung," in f. petri and w. jappe alberts, Gemeinsame Probleme deutsch-niederländischer Landes-und Volksforschung (Groningen 1963) 144–171, discussion of much of the lit. on the Imitatio. Thomae Hemerken a Kempis opera omnia, ed. m. j. pohl, 7 v. (Freiburg 1902–22), v.2 contains the Imitatio, v.7:87–109 contains G. Groote, Conclusa et proposita non vota. s. axters, Geschiedenis van de Vroomheid in de Nederlanden, 3 v. (Antwerp 1950–56), v.3 for Devotio Moderna, 3:170–198 on Thomas à Kempis, an excellent work; The Spirituality of the Old Low Countries, tr. d. attwater (London 1954). r. r. post, Kerkgeschiedenis van Nederland in de Middeleeuwen, 2 v. (Utrecht 1957) 1:367–414, a clear, orderly discussion of the spirituality and writings of the Devotio Moderna. a. hyma, The Brethren of Common Life (Grand Rapids, Mich. 1950); Hyma's thesis that Gerard Zerbolt is the author of the first book of the Imitatio is rejected by several scholars, such as P. Grootens and B. Spaapen. See Ons Geestelijk Erf 25 (1951) 300; 28 (1954) 91. g. bonet-maury, Quaeritur e quibus nederlandicis fontibus hauserit scriptor libri cui titulus est "De Imitatione Christi," 1384–1464 (Paris 1878). j. j. van ginneken, De navolging van Christus naar de oudsten teksten in de authentieke volgorde bewerkt (Amsterdam 1944); Van Ginneken's ideas are disputed by many authors. l. m. j. delaissÉ, Le Manuscrit autographe de Thomas à Kempis et "L'Imitation de Jésus-Christ": Examen archéologique et édition diplomatique du Bruxellensis 5855–61, 2 v. (Brussels 1956), reviewed by r. post, in Bijdragen voor de geschiedenis der Nederlanden 13 (1958) 59–62, and e. f. jacob, English Historical Review 75 (1960) 302–303. m. van woerkum, "Het libellus Omnes, inquit, artes een rapiarium van Florentius Radewijns," Ons Geestelijk Erf 25 (1951) 113–158, 225–268, esp. important for the literary sources of the Imitatio. w. jappe albert and a. l. hulshoff, Het Frensweger hand-schrift betreffende de geschiedenis van de Moderne devotie (Groningen 1958), text of the chronicle of the Augustinian chapterhouse at Frenswegen, with extensive bibliog.
[w. jappe alberts]