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§ 35. The Imitation of Christ. Thomas à Kempis.

... mild saint

À Kempis overmild.

—Lanier.

The pearl of all the mystical writings of the German-Dutch school is the Imitation of Christ, the work of Thomas à Kempis. With the Confessions of St. Augustine and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress it occupies a place in the very front rank of manuals of devotion, and, if the influence of books is to be judged by their circulation, this little volume, starting from a convent in the Netherlands, has, next to the Sacred Scriptures, been the most influential of all the religious writings of Christendom. Protestants and Catholics alike have joined in giving it praise. The Jesuits introduced it into their Exercises. Dr. Samuel Johnson, once, when ill, taught himself Dutch by reading it in that language, and said of its author that the world had opened its arms to receive his book.514514   Art. The Worldly Wisdom of Thos. à Kempis, in Dublin Review, 1908, pp. 262-287. It was translated by John Wesley, was partly instrumental in the conversion of John Newton, was edited by Thomas Chalmers, was read by Mr. Gladstone "as a golden book for all times" and was the companion of General Gordon. Dr. Charles Hodge, the Presbyterian divine, said it has diffused itself like incense through the aisles and alcoves of the Universal Church.515515    System. Theol., I. 79. For Gladstone’s judgment, see Morley, II. 186. Butler, p. 191, gives a list of 33 English translations from 1502-1900. De Quincey said: "The book came forward in answer to the sighing of Christian Europe for light from heaven. Excepting the Bible in Protestant lands, no book known to man has had the same distinction. It is the most marvellous biblical fact on record." Quoted by Kettlewell, I.

The number of counted editions exceeds 2000. The British Museum has more than 1000 editions on its shelves.516516    Backer, in his Essai bibliogr., enumerates 545 Latin editions, and about 900 editions in French. There are more than 50 editions belonging to the fifteenth century. See Funk, p. 426. The Bullingen collection, donated to the city library of Cologne, 1838, contained at the time of the gift 400 different edd. Montmorenci, p. xxii sq., gives the dates of 29 edd., 1471-1503, with places of issue.

Originally written in the Latin, a French translation was made as early as 1447, which still remains in manuscript. The first printed French copies appeared in Toulouse, 1488. The earliest German translation was made in 1434 and is preserved in Cologne, and printed editions in German begin with the Augsburg edition of 1486. Men eminent in the annals of German piety, such as Arndt, 1621, Gossner, 1824, and Tersteegen, 1844, have issued editions with prefaces. The work first appeared in print in English, 1502, the translation being partly by the hand of Margaret, the mother of Henry VII. Translations appeared in Italian in Venice and Milan, 1488, in Spanish at Seville, 1536, in Arabic at Rome, 1663, in Arminian at Rome, 1674, and in other languages.517517    Corneille produced a poetical translation in French, 1651. A polyglot edition appeared at Sulzbach, 1837, comprising the Latin text and translations in Italian, French, German, Greek and English.

The Imitation of Christ consists of four books, and derives its title from the heading of the first book, De imitatione Christi et contemptu omnium vanitatum mundi, the imitation of Christ and the contempt of all the vanities of the world. It seems to have been written in metre.518518    Hirsche discovered the rhythm and made it known, 1874. The four books are not found in all the manuscripts nor invariably arranged in the same order, facts which have led some to suppose that they were not all written at the same time. The work is a manual of devotion intended to help the soul in its communion with God. Its sententious statements are pitched in the highest key of Christian experience. Within and through all its reflections runs the word, self-renunciation. Its opening words, "whoso followeth me, shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life," John 8:12, are a fitting announcement of the contents. The life of Christ is represented as the highest study it is possible for a mortal to take up. He who has his spirit has found the hidden manna. What can the world confer without Jesus? To be without him is the direst hell; to be with him, the sweetest paradise.

Here are counsels to read the Scriptures, statements about the uses of adversity and advice for submission to authority, warnings against temptations, reflections upon death, the judgment and paradise. Here are meditations on Christ’s oblation on the cross and the advantages of the communion, and also admonitions to flee the vanities and emptiness of the world and to love God, for he that loveth, knoweth God. Christ is more than all the wisdom of the schools. He lifts up the mind in a moment of time to perceive more reasons for eternal truth than a student might learn over books in ten years. He teaches without confusion of words, without the clashing of opinions, without the pride of reputation,—sine fastu honoris,—the contention of arguments. The concluding words are: "My eyes are unto Thee. My God, in Thee do I put my trust, O Thou Father of mercies. Accompany thy servant with Thy grace and direct him by the path of peace to the land of unending light—patriam perpetuae claritatis."

The plaintive minor key, the gently persuasive tone of the work are adapted to attract serious souls seeking the inner chamber of religious peace and purity of thought, but especially those who are under the shadow of pain and sorrow. The praise of Christ is so unstinted, and the dependence upon him so unaffected, that one cannot help but feel, in reading this book, that he is partaking of the essence of the Gospel. The work, however, presents only one side of the Christian life. It commends humility, submission, gentleness and the passive virtues. It does not emphasize the manly virtues of courage and loyalty to the truth, nor elaborate upon Christian activities to be done to our fellow-men. To fall in completely with the spirit of Thomas à Kempis, and to abide there, would mean to follow the best cloistral ideal of the Middle Ages, or rather of the fourteenth century. Its counsels and reflections were meant primarily for those who had made the convent their home, not for the busy traffickers in the marts of the world, and in association with men of all classes. It leans to quietism, and is calculated to promote personal piety for those who dwell much alone rather than to fit men for engaging in the public battles which fall to men’s usual lot. Its admonitions are adapted to help men to bear with patience rather than to rectify the evils in the world, to be silent rather than to speak to the throng, to live well in seclusion rather than set an example of manly and womanly endeavor in the shop, on the street and in the family. The charge has been made, and not without some ground, that the Imitation of Christ sets forth a selfish type of religion.519519    This is Milman’s judgment. Hist. of Lat. Christ., Bk. XIV., 3, Milman said, "The book’s sole, single, exclusive object is the purification, the elevation of the individual soul, of the man absolutely isolated from his kind, of the man dwelling alone in the heritage of his thoughts." Its soft words are fitted to quiet the soul and bring it to meek contentment rather than to stir up the combatant virtues of courage and of assistance to others. Its message corresponds to the soft glow of the summer evening, and not to the fresh hours filled with the rays of the morning sun. This plaintive note runs through Thomas’ hymns, as may be seen from a verse taken from "The Misery of this Life" :—

Most wonderful would it be

If one did not feel and lament

That in this world to live

Is toil, affliction, pain.520520    Mirum est, si non lugeat
   Experimento qui probat

   Quod vivere in soeculo

   Labor, dolor, afflictio

   Blume and Dreves: Analecta hymnica, XLVIII. 503. Thomas à Kempis’ hymns are given Blume and Dreves, XLVIII. 475-514.

Over the pages of the book is written the word Christ. It is for this reason that Protestants cherish it as well as Catholics. The references to mediaeval errors of doctrine or practice are so rare that it requires diligent search to find them. Such as they are, they are usually erased from English editions, so that the English reader misses them entirely. Thomas introduces the merit of good works, transubstantiation, IV. 2, the doctrine of purgatory, IV. 9, and the worship of saints, I. 13, II. 9, II. 6, 59. But these statements, however, are like the flecks on the marbles of the Parthenon.

The author, Thomas à Kempis, 1380–1471, was born in Kempen, a town 40 miles northwest of Cologne, and died at Zwolle, in the Netherlands. His paternal name was Hemerken or Hämmerlein, Little Hammer. He was a follower of Groote. In 1395, he was sent to the school of Deventer, under the charge of Florentius Radewyn and the Brothers of the Common Life. He became skilful as a copyist, and was thus enabled to support himself. Later he was admitted to the Augustinian convent of Mt. St. Agnes, near Zwolle, received priest’s orders, 1413, and was made sub-prior, 1429. His brother John, a man of rectitude of life, had been there before him, and was prior. Thomas’ life seems to have been a quiet one, devoted to meditation, composition and copying. He copied the Bible no less than four times, one of the copies being preserved at Darmstadt. His works abound in quotations of the New Testament. Under an old picture, which is represented as his portrait, are the words, "In all things I sought quiet, and found it not save in retirement and in books."521521    In omnibus requiem quaesivi et non inveni nisi in een huechsken met een buexken. Franciscus Tolensis is the first to ascribe the portrait to à Kempis. Kettlewell’s statements about à Kempis’ active religious services are imaginary, I. 31, 322, etc. See Lindsay’s statement, Enc. Brit., XIV. 32. They fit well the author of the famous Imitation of Christ, as the world thinks of him. He reached the high age of fourscore years and ten. A monument was dedicated to his memory in the presence of the archbishop of Utrecht in St. Michael’s Church Zwolle, Nov. 11, 1897. The writings of à Kempis, which are all of a devotional character, include tracts and meditations, letters, sermons, a Life of St. Lydewigis, a steadfast Christian woman who endured a great fight of afflictions, and the biographies of Groote, Florentius and nine of their companions. Works similar to the are his prolonged meditation upon the Incarnation, and a meditation on the Life and Blessings of the Saviour,522522    Pohl’s ed., II. 1-59; V. 1-363. both of which overflow with admiration for Christ.

In these writings the traces of mediaeval theology, though they are found, are not obtrusive. The writer followed his mediaeval predecessors in the worship of Mary, of whom he says, she is to be invoked by all Christians, especially by monastics.523523    De disciplina claustralium, Pohl’s ed., II. 313. For prayers to Mary III. 355-368 and sermons on Mary, VI. 218-238. He prays to her as the "most merciful," the "most glorious" mother of God, and calls her the queen of heaven, the efficient mediatrix of the whole world, the joy and delight of all the saints, yea, the golden couch for all the saints. She is the chamber of God, the gate of heaven, the paradise of delights, the well of graces, the glory of the angels, the joy of men, the model of manners, the brightness of virtues, the lamp of life, the hope of the needy, the salvation of the weak, the mother of the orphaned. To her all should flee as sons to a mother’s bosom.524524    Pohl, III. 357; VI. 219, 235 sq.

From these tender praises of Mary it is pleasant to turn away to the code of twenty-three precepts which the Dutch mystic laid down under the title, A Small Alphabet for a Monk in the School of God.525525    III. 317-322. Here are some of them. Love to be unknown and to be reputed as nothing. Love solitude and silence, and thou wilt find great quiet and a good conscience. Where the crowd is, there is usually confusion and distraction of heart. Choose poverty and simplicity. Humble thyself in all things and under all things, and thou wilt merit kindness from all. Let Christ be thy life, thy reading, thy meditation, thy conversation, thy desire, thy gain, thy hope and thy reward. Zaccheus, brother, descend from the height of thy secular wisdom. Come and learn in God’s school the way of humility, long-suffering and patience, and Christ teaching thee, thou shalt come at last safely to the glory of eternal beatitude.

NOTE. – The Authorship of the Imitation of Christ. This question has been one of the most hotly contested questions in the history of pure literature. National sentiments have entered into the discussion, France and Italy contending for the honor of authorship with the Lowlands. The work is now quite generally ascribed to Thomas à Kempis, but among those who dissent from this opinion are scholars of rank.

Among the more recent treatments of the subject not given in the Literature, § 27, are V. Becker: L’auteur de l’Imitat. et les documents néerlandais, Hague, 1882. Also Les derniers travaux sur l’auteur de l’Imitat., Brussels, 1889.—Denifle: Krit. Bemerk. zur Gersen-Kempis Frage, Zeitung für kath. Theol., 1882 sq.—A. O. Spitzes: Th. à K. als schrijver der navolging, Utrecht, 1880. Also Nouvelle défense en réponse du Denifle, Utrecht, 1884.—L. Santini: I diritti di Tommaso da Kemp., 2 vols., Rome, 1879–1881.—F. X. Funk: Gerson und Gersen and Der Verfasser der Nachfolge Christi in his Abhandlungen, Paderborn, 1899, II. 373–444.—P. E. Puyol: Descript. bibliogr. des MSS. et des princip. edd. du livre de imitat., Paris, 1898. Also Paléographie, classement, généalogie du livre de imitat., Paris, 1898. Also L’auteur du livre de imitat., 2 vols., Paris, 1899.—Schulze’s art. in Herzog.—G. Kentenich: Die Handschriften der Imitat. und die Autorschaft des Thomas, in Brieger’s Zeitschrift, 1902, 18 sqq., 1903, 594 sqq.

Pohl gives a list of no less than 35 persons to whom with more or less confidence the authorship has been ascribed. The list includes the names of John Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris; John Gersen, the reputed abbot of Vercelli, Italy, who lived about 1230; Walter Hylton, St. Bernard, Bonaventura, David of Augsburg, Tauler, Suso and even Innocent III. The only claimants worthy of consideration are Gerson, Gersen, and Thomas à Kempis, although Montmorency is inclined to advance the claim of Walter Hylton. The uncertainty arises from the facts (1) that a number of the MSS. and printed editions of the fifteenth century have no note of authorship; (2) the rest are divided between these, Gerson, Gersen, à Kempis, Hylton, and St. Bernard; (3) the MSS. copies show important divergencies. The matter has been made more difficult by the forgery of names and dates in MSS. since the controversy began, these forgeries being almost entirely in the interest of a French or Italian authorship. A reason for the absence of the author’s name in so many MSS. is found in the desire of à Kempis, if he indeed be the author, to remain incognito, in accordance with his own motto, ama nesciri, "love to be unknown."

Of the Latin editions belonging to the fifteenth century, Pohl gives 28 as accredited to Gerson, 12 to Thomas, 2 to St. Bernard, and 6 as anonymous. Or, to follow Funk, p. 426, 40 editions of that century were ascribed to Gerson, 11 to à Kempis, 2 to Bernard, 1 to Gersen, and 2 are anonymous. Spitzen gives 16 as ascribed to à Kempis. Most of the editions ascribing the work to Gerson were printed in France, the remaining editions being printed in Italy or Spain. The editions of the sixteenth century show a change, 37 Latin editions ascribing the authorship to à Kempis, and 25 to Gerson. As for the MSS. dated before 1460, and whose dates may be said to be reasonably above suspicion, all were written in Germany and the Lowlands. The oldest, included in a codex preserved since 1826 in the royal library of Brussels, probably belongs before 1420. The codex contains 9 other writings of à Kempis besides the Imitation, and contains the note, Finitus et completus MCCCCXLI per manus fratris Th. Kempensis in Monte S. Agnetis prope Zwollis (finished and completed, 1441, by the hands of brother Thomas à Kempis of Mount St. Agnes, near Zwolle). See Pohl, II. 461 sqq. So this is an autographic copy. The text of the Imitation, however, is written on older paper than the other documents, and has corrections which are found in a Dutch translation of the first book, dating from 1420. For these reasons, Funk, p. 424, and others, puts the MS. back to 1416–1420.

The literary controversy over the authorship began in 1604, when Dom Pedro Manriquez, in a work on the Lord’s Supper issued at Milan, and on the alleged basis of a quotation by Bonaventura, declared the Imitation to be older than that Schoolman. In 1606, Bellarmin, in his Descript. eccles., was more precise, and stated it was already in existence in 1260. About the same time, the Jesuit, Rossignoli, found in a convent at Arona, near Milan, a MS. without date, but bearing the name of an abbot, John Gersen, as its author; the house had belonged to the Benedictines once. In 1614 the Benedictine, Constantius Cajetan, secretary of Paul V., issued his Gersen restitutus at Rome, and later his Apparatus ad Gersenem restitutum, in which he defended the Italian’s claim. This individual was said to have been a Benedectine abbot of Vercelli, in Piedmont, in the first half of the thirteenth century. On the other hand, the Augustinian, Rosweyde, in his vindiciae Kempenses, Antwerp, 1617, so cogently defended the claims of à Kempis that Bellarmin withdrew his statement. In the nineteenth century the claims of Gersen were again urged by a Piedmontese nobleman, Gregory, in his Istoria della Vercellese letteratura, Turin, 1819, and subsequent publications, and by Wolfsgruber of Vienna in a scholarly work, 1880. But Hirsche and Funk are, no doubt, right in pronouncing the name Gersen a mistake for Gerson, and Funk, after careful criticism, declares the Italian abbot a fictitious personage. The most recent Engl. writer on the subject, Montmorency, p. xiii. says, "there is no evidence that there was ever an abbot of Vercelli by the name of Gersen."

The claims of John Gerson are of a substantial character, and France was not slow in coming to the chancellor’s defence. An examination of old MSS., made in Paris, had an uncertain issue, so that, in 1640, Richelieu’s splendid edition of the Imitation was sent forth without an author’s name. The French parliament, however, in 1652, ordered the book printed under the name of à Kempis. The matter was not settled and, at three gatherings, 1671, 1674, 1687, instituted by Mabillon, a fresh examination of MSS. was made, with the result that the case went against à Kempis. Later, Du Pin, after a comparison of Gerson’s writings with the Imitation, concluded that it was impossible to decide with certainty between these two writers and Gersen. (See his 2d ed. of Gerson’s Works, 1728, I. lix-lxxxiv) but in a special work. Amsterdam, 1706, he had decided in favor of the Dutchman. French editions of the Imitation continued to be issued under the name of Gerson, as, for example, those of Erhard-Mezler, 1724, and Vollardt, 1758. On the other hand, the Augustinian, Amort, defended the à Kempis authorship in his Informatio de statu controversiae, Augsburg, 1728, and especially in his Scutum Kempense, Cologne, 1728. After the unfavorable statement of Schwab, Life of Gerson, 1858, pp. 782–786, declaring that the Imitation is in an altogether different style from Gerson’s works, the theory of the Gerson authorship seemed to be finally abandoned. The first collected edition of Gerson’s Works, 1483, knows nothing about the Imitation. Nor did Gerson’s brother, prior of Lyons, mention it in the list he gave of the chancellor’s works, 1423. The author of the Imitation was, by his own statements, a monk, IV. 5, 11; III., 56. Gerson would have been obliged to change his usual habit of presentation to have written in the monastic tone.

After the question of authorship seemed to be pretty well settled in favor of à Kempis, another stage in the controversy was opened by the publications of Puyol in 1898, 1899. Puyol gives a description of 548 manuscripts, and makes a sharp distinction between those of Italian origin and other manuscripts. He also annotates the variations in 57, with the conclusion that the Italian text is the more simple, and consequently the older and original text. He himself based his edition on the text of Arona. Puyol is followed by Kentenich, and has been answered by Pohl and others.

Walter Hylton’s reputed authorship of the Imitation is based upon three books of that work, having gone under the name De musica ecclesiastica in MSS. in England and the persistent English tradition that Hylton was the author. Montmorency, pp. xiv, 138–170, while he pronounces the Hylton theory of authorship untenable, confesses his inability to explain it.

The arguments in favor of the à Kempis authorship, briefly stated, are as follows:—

1. External testimony. John Busch, in his Chronicon Windesemense, written 1464, seven years before à Kempis’ death, expressly states that à Kempis wrote the Imitation. To this testimony are to be added the testimonies of Caspar of Pforzheim, who made a German translation of the work, 1448; Hermann Rheyd, who met Thomas, 1454, and John Wessel, who was attracted to Windesheim by the book’s fame. For other testimonies, see Hirsche and Funk, pp. 432–436.

2. Manuscripts and editions. The number of extant MSS. is about 500. See Kentenich, p. 294. Funk, p. 420, gives 13 MSS. dated before 1500, ascribing the Imitation to à Kempis. The autograph copy, contained in the Brussels codex of 1441, has already been mentioned. It must be said, however, the conclusion reached by Hirsche, Pohl, Funk, Schulze and others that this text is autographic has been denied by Puyol and Kentenich, on the basis of its divergences from other copies, which they claim the author could not have made. A second autograph, in Louvaine (see Schulze, p. 730), seems to be nearly as old, 1420, and has the note scriptus manibus et characteribus Thomae qui est autor horum devotorum libellorum, "written by the hand of Thomas," etc. (Pohl, VI. 456 sq.). A third MS., stating that Thomas is the author, and preserved in Brussels, is dated 1425.—As for the printed editions of the fifteenth century, at least 13 present Thomas as the author, from the edition of Augsburg, 1472, to the editions of Paris, 1493, 1500.

3. Style and contents. These agree closely with à Kempis’ other writings, and the flow of thought is altogether similar to that of his Meditation on Christ’s Incarnation. Spitzen seems to have made it at least very probable that the author was acquainted with the writings of Ruysbroeck, John of Schoenhoven, and other mystics and monks of the Lowlands. Funk has brought out references to ecclesiastical customs which fit the book into the time between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Hirsche laid stress on Germanisms in the style.

Among recent German scholars, Denifle sets aside à Kempis’ claims and ascribes the work to some unknown canon regular of the Lowlands. Karl Müller, in a brief note, Kirchengesch., II. 122, and Loof’s Dogmengesch., 4th ed., p. 633, pronounce the à Kempis authorship more than doubtful. On the other hand, Schwab, Hirsche, Schulze and Funk agree that the claims of Thomas are almost beyond dispute. It is almost impossible to give a reason why the Imitation should have been ascribed to the Dutch mystic, if he were not indeed its author. The explanation given by Kentenich, p. 603, seems to be utterly insufficient.


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