Imitation of Christ: New Reading of an Old Book
- Dr. Stanley J. Ward
- 2011 18 Feb
With all the new Christian books available, why should believers bother with reading, or (gasp!) re-reading old ones? C.S. Lewis offered great advice for readers choosing between new or old books:
"The more ‘up to date' the book is, the sooner it will be dated."
"The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I've read it already' to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. . . . Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life."
"I can't imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once."
Thomas a' Kempis's Imitation of Christ is an old book that deserves a new reading, and William C. Creasy's A New Reading of the 1441 Latin Autograph Manuscript provides both scholarly and practical readers an introduction to or a reacquaintance with one of Christianity's classics. Some critics suggest Thomas' On the Imitation of Christ is second only to the Bible in its popularity among Christian readers. After rereading this book, which charged my sophomore year of college with spiritual significance, I can again appreciate the Imitation's classic status.
Rereading the Imitation proved the wisdom of Lewis's advice on reading old books, and reminded me that classic books both demand and deserve more than one reading.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR AND TRANSLATOR
Thomas a' Kempis (ca. 1379-1471) spent 72 years of his life at the Mount St. Agnes Monastery and died from plague. Besides writing the Imitation sometime between 1420-1427, Thomas also wrote a biography of Gerrard Groote and a chronicle of life at Mt. St. Agnes monastery. Like his contemporaries, he wrote in Latin.
William C. Creasy is the creator of www.logosbiblestudy.org and a retired UCLA professor whose love for the Imitation is both professional and personal. He first discovered the book as a college student and read it out of academic interest. In graduate school, he used 16th century English translations of the Imitation to study the development of English prose. And when, like Dante, he found himself lost at the halfway point in life's journey, he returned to the Imitation and found spiritual guidance that led him to Christian faith. So for Creasy, translating the Imitation is not merely an academic activity - it is a labor of love and spiritual devotion.
Like the Bible, The Imitation of Christ is not just one book; it is a collection of resources now compiled into one book. The Imitation includes four books that vary in both length (book two has only 12 chapters, and book three has 59) and themes. Book one contains "useful reminders for the spiritual life." Book two contains "suggestions drawing one toward the inner life." Book three includes advice "of inner comfort." And book four is "the book on the sacrament." Each chapter begins with a woodcut illustration from various 16th century translations of the Imitation.
Though critical of the world, Thomas is not critical of education. The evidence for this is not what he says (i.e., he critiques knowledge for the sake of impressing others) but rather how he says it. Each chapter is rife with scriptural allusions rather than outright quotations. He even quotes classical sources like Seneca.
Books one and two are full of practical and straightforward advice for spiritual growth. For example, Thomas has no patience with the vanities of this world (including things as simple as self-praise), and asserts that spiritual progress is possible here on earth. Thomas admonishes, "by working a little now, you will find great rest later" (p. 30). Such work includes patiently enduring suffering, which is crucial to spiritual progress. That patience includes putting up with others' faults -- a practice equally appropriate in a medieval monastery or a modern business office.
Books three and four take a new tone. Instead of practical advice, these books offer an exchange of intimate words between Jesus and an unnamed disciple. Sometimes these exchanges read like a worshipful prayer and response, and other times the content reads like a simple dialogue.
Like many classics, the Imitation deserves re-reading. That might explain why so many translations are prevalent, ranging from an inexpensive Dover Thrift Edition paperback to hardbound gift editions, or evenThe Imitation of Christ for Children -- and these publishers include secular, evangelical, and Roman Catholic publishing houses.
With so many translations on the market, the primary critical question becomes "what does Creasy offer that is new?" Creasy's translation method attempts to recreate for modern readers what an "informed reader" of the 15th century would have experienced (xi). He argues that the medieval reader would have been steeped, like Thomas, in both scripture and classical sources. Thus, ideas from Thomas' text would provoke ideas from other significant sources readers would know. Because modern readers lack Thomas' literary context, Creasy's goal is both lofty and admirable. Creasy's success will be determined by the experience of individual readers.
To help readers recognize such allusions, Creasy provided an eight page list of scriptural references and allusions. Thomas does not quote chapter and verse references, yet his meditations are full of scriptural allusions. One thing about allusions -- they may or may not be accurate, as there are multiple passages of scripture with similar themes. Creasy admits as much. For example, the end of 1.1 reminded me of Galatians 1:10, which was not on Creasy's list.
This list also includes apocryphal books, which reminds readers of the book's original context -- Roman Catholic spirituality. Some Evangelicals will be uncomfortable with this influence from apocryphal work. My response: that Thomas was influenced by apocryphal writings should not discredit his work any more than being influenced by Max Lucado should discredit the local pastor's Sunday sermon.
Creasy's introduction also discusses Lectio Divini. Lectio Divini is a slow reading style that includes reading, prayer, meditation, and contemplation. According to Guigo II, Lectio Divni allows readers to "taste and see that the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8), by encouraging them to savor each morsel of scripture, experiencing the scripture at every level possible. Advice on Lectio Divini reminds readers that even in an age obsessed with speed reading, the Imitation should be read slowly.
For readers who are uneasy with possible relativism from Creasy's emphasis on devotional readings that emphasize a reader's personal response, Creasy also discusses how to guard against inappropriate Lectio Divini readings. He explains that medieval monks knew both scripture and The Fathers. I suggest an equivalent for Evangelicals: know both scripture and our scholar-pastors (like John Piper).
In spite of the Imitation's Catholic influences, Evangelical readers who emphasize a personal relationship with Christ should still find much to like because of its emphasis on intimacy with Christ and simple, practical spirituality. These same desires once drew me to the Bible Church movement.
Recommended for any believer who feels modern worship and devotional practices are shallow. Also recommended for anyone who wishes to reconnect with the great spiritual streams of living water offered by the medieval church.
Besides Creasy's translation, the Imitation is available in a number of translations and internet versions. For example a PDF is available (http://wesley.nnu.edu/wesleyctr/books/1201-1300/HDM1212.pdf) and a MP3 is available (http://librivox.org/the-imitation-of-christ-by-thomas-a-kempis/) The Christian Classics Etheral Library Version is at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/kempis/imitation.all.html. And finally, the project Gutenberg version can be found at http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/t#a682.
 Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.
 An Experiment in Criticism.
 The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves.
 Though meant to shelter men's souls from the dangers of the world, the monastery was still no protection from plague. The black death wiped out nearly 1/3 of Europe during the 14th century, and continued to be virulent for centuries afterward.
 Groote (1340-1384) founded the Brothers of the Common Life and began the Devotion Moderna movement. Thomas' monastery followed Groote's spiritual practices.
 Cf. Imitation 1:20 and Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales 7:3-4.
 Please do not take my comments to Evangelical readers as a critique of the Roman Catholic Church. My experience within Evangelicalism suggests a general suspicion towards anything associated with Roman Catholicism. I shared similiar suspicions until I studied Church history and grew to appreciate different contributions from the varying denominations in the Body of Christ (both before and after the Protestant Reformation). For more on such contributions, see Richard Foster's Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Christian Faith.
Stanley J. Ward serves as the Biblical Worldview Director at The Brook Hill School (www.brookhill.org) and frequently speaks at conferences (www.stanleyjward.com). He is also a PhD candidate and napkin theologian (www.napkinvideo.com).
Publication date: February 18, 2011