THE IMITATION OF CHRIST
by Thomas Hamerken (Thomas a Kempis)
Translated by Ronald Knox and Michael Oakley
(Ignatius Press, 2005, hardback, 265 pages, $30.00, ISBN: 978-0-89870-872-1. Available from Freedom Publishing)
The Imitation of Christ is the most popular spiritual book of all time after the Holy Bible. There have been 3,000 editions since 1441 and 750 hand-written copies survive. The Imitation has never been out-of-print!
Thomas a Kempis' final redaction is dated 1441, autographed by Thomas and is held in the Royal Library in Brussels.
This is an attractive hardback edition, handsomely produced by Ignatius Press.
It is interesting that the Imitation was viewed by its author as a book for beginners in the spiritual life and it reflects the style and thinking of the first generation of the "Modern Devout" (Devotio Moderna) of the 1380s.
The Devotio Moderna was a spiritual reform movement whose leaders were horrified by the worldly career-oriented lives of many contemporary priests and bishops. The founder was Gerard Grote, son of a rich businessman of Deventer in eastern Holland.
Gerard had, himself, been a lax cleric but experienced conversion during a life-threatening illness, and after three years preparation at a Carthusian monastery embarked on an intense tour in the cities and towns of the Netherlands preaching reform in the early 1380s.
In response to Gerard's preaching some of the men and women he inspired began to gather in small communities in private homes in Deventer to practise more intense spiritual lives based on prayer, the sacraments, reading the Scriptures and careful living of the Gospel.
During this "gathering period", in 1384, Gerard caught the plague (Black Death) and died. However, prior to his demise he advised his followers to develop as two religious associations: one a traditional religious order using the Augustinian Rule and the other, the Brethren of the Common Life, groups of pious laymen, living in community, supporting themselves by quiet work.
The Brethren managed secondary schools, hostels for teenagers attending the town colleges, and were involved in all areas of the book trade.
Gerard wanted reform and the agents of reform were to be small Christian communities of the "devout" and the "spiritual", clusters of revitalised Christians forming communities on a voluntary basis and without binding vows.
Meanwhile, Thomas Hamerken was born in Kempen, a town a few kilometres from Deventer in 1380 and as a young teenager came to Deventer for his secondary education. Thomas boarded at the Brethren's hostel and after graduation requested and was admitted to the Community as a young nineteen-year-old.
Thomas thrived on the deep interior life the Brethren encouraged: union with Jesus Christ via prayer, the liturgy and the sacraments and the desire for a serious moral life of quiet usefulness as a copyist.
However, in 1406, after some seven years with the Brethren, Thomas applied to join their associated Augustinian monastery at Mount St Agnes near Zwolle. He was ordained 1413 and then during a long religious life as Novice Master, Sub-Prior, and writing many books he passed away at an advanced age (for the times) in 1471.
The Imitation of Christ was his most famous work. In the contemporary world, many devout people collected private summaries of pithy sayings and spiritual aphorisms to nourish their private prayer. Thomas did the same; he read widely and collected and edited the thoughts of many contemporaries, adding his own, and when he was satisfied with the final version of his work - as we saw - released his book in 1441. He was already over sixty years old.
This book is one of the timeless classics of spiritual insights. It should be in the libraries of Catholic secondary and tertiary institutions and religious houses. Moreover, this particular printing of the Imitation is a handsome addition to any personal or public library.