By R. Jay Magill, Jr.
Nearly six centuries ago, between the years 1420 and 1427, in a modest monastery just outside the Dutch city of Zwolle, a German-born monk named Thomas à Kempis was working on a little book that would change the world. With the exception of the Bible, no other book would be translated into more languages or be read by more people—certainly by more Christians. That book is called The Imitation of Christ.
The Imitation of Christ offers instructions about how to lead a more fulfilling and perfect spiritual life. Through short chapters and direct voice, it offers a kind of roadmap back to an ideal inward state that many proto-Reformation believers thought had gone lukewarm, if not plain cold, inside the Vatican and among fellow Christians during the early fifteenth century. The Imitation is, in short, one of the first early-modern advice books.
The structure of The Imitation is supposed to represent the organic movement of the soul’s spiritual journey to God. The first two Books are divided into short chapters, with titles such as “Superfluous Talking,” “Avoiding Too Much Familiarity with Others,” “The Benefits of Adversity,” “The Recluse Life,” and “Works of Charity.” The third and fourth Books are dialogues between Jesus and a disciple. Throughout, the author suggests that the best way to begin spiritual renewal is to hate the flesh and the world, infested as they are with hierarchies, jealousies, animosities, power struggles, and desperate quests for fame and riches. “Endeavor therefore to withdraw thy heart from the love of visible things,” Thomas advises, “and to turn thyself to the invisible.” The true believer should cultivate the revolutionary Christian virtues of forgiveness, gentleness, compunction, charity, forbearance, peacefulness, and humility. Book Two, “The Inner Life,” begins with Luke’s admonition that “the Kingdom of God is within you,” suggesting that the reader “learn to despise outward things, and give thyself to things inward, and thou shalt perceive the kingdom of God to come in thee.”
Such a move, perhaps unsurprisingly, mirrored the life of Thomas à Kempis himself. Born in 1380, near Cologne, he was the son of a robust craftsman, John, who owned a bit of property, and Gertrude, a bookish woman who ran a school for village children. They had an older son, John Jr., Thomas’s senior by a dozen years, and they exemplified the embryonic middle-class family of Northern Europe in the late fourteenth century: educated, employed, and possessed of some disposable income, they had hopes for the future and for their children.
In 1393, Thomas left his hometown to attend secondary school in a Dutch city across the Rhine called Deventer, an intellectual vibrant trading city that would be home to one of Europe’s first printing presses. There, under the intoxicating spiritual spell of the Brethren of the Common Life, he was drilled daily on the grammatical nuts-and-bolts of the official language of the Holy Roman Empire, then spanning from the tip of Italy’s boot to the North Atlantic. He learned the Latin trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and, later, the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), a curriculum to prepare young minds for the administration of empire. “Here, at the Brother-house at Deventer,” Thomas later reflected, “I learned to write.”
Not just to write, but to write beautifully. Thomas possessed an elegant penmanship that impressed both his tutors and schoolmates. He also displayed the fundamental virtues of a professional scribe: correctness, distinctness, and order. Training as a manuscript copyist remained one of the most effective ways for students to gain access to the spiritual innards of classical and biblical texts—and to share them with others. “Putting good books into the hands of neighbors,” Thomas wrote, “open(s) to them the fountains of eternal life. Blessed are the hands of such transcribers.”
In 1399, at tender age of 19, Thomas headed off Mount St. Agnes monastery, where we would remain for the rest of his life. He spent his days as monks did: reading, writing, copying manuscripts, meditating, singing, and praying. He was ordained in 1413 and became sub-prior in 1429. He was immensely prolific: he copied two entire Bibles, each in ten volumes, as well as several missals and hymnals. He wrote religious treatises and biographies of figures who had influenced him in Deventer: Gerard de Groote, Florentius Radewijns, John van der Gronde, and John Brinckerinck, each active in the Devotio Moderna movement that had so influenced his youth and sparked the Reformation in Central Europe.
Thomas never left the Netherlands, nor did he travel 75 miles beyond his birthplace. In fact, during the seven and a half decades he lived at Mount St. Agnes, he left the grounds only twice: once for a short trip on clerical business, and the other for three years, beginning in 1429, when he and the Brethren were exiled from the Bishopric of Utrecht. A contemporary portrait of Thomas shows a bookish monk atop a Latin motto that sums up how he spent his life: “In omnibus requiem quaesivi et nusquam inveni nisi in een Hoecken met een Boecken.” (“Everywhere I have sought rest and found it nowhere, save in little nooks with little books.”).
But Thomas did find rest, the final kind, on July 25, 1471, at age 91. “Having attained a ripe old age,” reads the St. Agnes chronicle, “Brother Thomas was afflicted with dropsy [edema] of the limbs, slept in the Lord in the year 1471, and was buried in the East side of the Cloister.”
He left behind The Imitation of Christ, of course, widely considered a cornerstone text of the Devotio Moderna movement and a spiritual bedrock of the Reformation. Esteemed for more than five centuries by Catholics and Protestants alike, the book has spoken to every generation of believers: Martin Luther, Thomas More, Erasmus, John Wesley, Samuel Johnson, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, Thomas Merton, St. Therese of Lisieux, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Noted British military officials carried the book onto the battlefield. The nineteenth-century French theologian Hugues Felicité Robert de Lamennais wrote, that when reading the Imitatione, “One would almost imagine that it was written by one of those pure spirits who have seen God face to face.” And although that professional holy-basher Friedrich Nietzsche carped that the Imitatione was one of those books he “could not pick up without a physiological feeling of revulsion,” the card-carrying positivist Auguste Comte admitted that Kempis’s guide was one of his “principal daily sources of nourishment and consolation.”
Today, no other book except for the Bible has been translated into more languages—over 340 of them. By the year 1900 alone, over 6000 editions of De Imitatione Christi had been in circulation. That’s the equivalent of one new edition appearing each month for the last five hundred years. Equally as amazing is that De Imitatione Christi has never once been out of print—despite the fact that for over a century after it was published, no one knew who wrote it.
The post above is adapted from the author's article, “Turn Away the World,” published in Christianity & Literature 67.1 (2017), a special issue on sincerity. Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.