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There is no other Christian devotional book that has been deemed truly inspiring by both devout and ordinary Christians for so many generations than the Imitation of Christ. The book was revered by both Catholics and Protestants and was, at times, considered an indispensable resource for those who want to follow the life and works of Christ. No wonder, many saints have made the Imitation one of their guide and even memorized every line by heart. The Author Since the book was first published anonymously, the author of this devotional book has become controversial.
But scholars now generally agree that the author was a monk named Thomas a Kempis. Kempis (1379/1380-1471) was born in Kempen (located between Krefeld and Venlo near the modern Dutch border) as the second son of the metal craftsman Johann Hemerken and his wife Gertrud Kuyt, who is said to have run a small school. He attended the local Latin school until the age of twelve, before he moved to Deventer where he studied under his spiritual teacher Florentius Radewijns (or Radewyn).
In 1399 Kempis joined the newly-founded Augustinian convent of Agnetenberg (Mount St. Agnes) near Zwolle (today Netherlands), which was deeply influenced by the Windesheim Congregation and run by Thomas’s elder brother Johann (ca. 1365-1432). Finally, in 1406, when the major constructions were completed, Thomas was clothed as a novice according to the Augustinian convent rules, and on 12 April 1412 he was ordained as a priest. Thomas’s major tasks were to hold sermons in the convent, some of which have survived, and to copy important religious texts.
He also composed numerous religious tracts, such as Orationes et meditationes de vita Christi [Prayers and Meditations on the Life of Christ, 1425]; Soliloquium animae [Soliloquy of the Soul]; Hortulus rosarum [Rose Garden]; Vallis liliorum [Valley of the Lilies] and others. Historical Context The late Middle Ages have often been described as a time of general moral and ethical decline, and especially as a time of anti-clericalism, hence also of widespread secularization, which ultimately led, as a counter-reaction, to the Protestant Reformation in 1517.
In reality, however, there were many religious reform movements underway already since the late fourteenth century, most famously the <I>Devotio moderna</I>, initiated and deeply influenced by Jan van Ruysbroeck (1293-1381), Geert Groote (1340-1384) and Thomas a Kempis, who all aimed for a new form of spiritual, individualized piety, closely related to, but not to be confused with, medieval mysticism.
They insisted on a simple life style (simplicitas Christianismi) and a passionate dedication to Christ. Groote formed a circle of spiritual friends in Deventer (today in the Netherlands), who were soon supported by the (Devout) Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, primarily based in Munster, and who then also spread to Cologne, Wesel, Osnabruck, and Herford, and the Windesheim Congregation, originating from the Augustinian convent Windesheim near Zwolle.
The Devotio moderna primarily focused on the personal imitation of Christ in form of humility, devotion, an in-depth interpretation of the biblical word, self-healing, reaching out to the youth through teaching, and a certain degree of asceticism in parallel to the first Christian community. Influence According to de Vries, the Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis, has a world-wide fame, and its influence can hardly be overestimated. It is reported that in 1828, M. Languinais reckoned the editions and translations of the “Imitation” at more than two thousand.
He saw in the library of the Vatican, translations in the Catalan, Castilian, Flemish, Portuguese, Dutch, Bohemian, Polish, Greek, English, Hungarian, Illyrian, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Persian, and other languages; so that the words of Samuel Johnson, cited in the preface, “that the book had been reprinted as many times as there were months since its first production,” are not exaggerated, if we consider the many versions which have been printed of this singular book. ’1 The original Latin edition was spread over all Europe since the time of its first appearance in the year 1471.
English editions followed soon, within a few years after the printing press was introduced into England. During the nineteenth century many more English editions were published, and even at the present time, in nearly every book store, in America as well as in England, an English version of the Imitation is in stock. [155-156]. Not without reason one may ask: What was the attraction of this wonderful book? What was its influence? What was the spiritual and literary movement, and who was the author that produced this marvel in the history of human literature, and blessed with it the Christian world of the 15th century?
Let me answer these questions with a few words. Its attraction is in the wonderful piety and honesty, the simplicity and naivete with which the author speaks to the very heart of the reader. The author’s faith is so thoroughly that of a Christian ‘pure and simple,’ his love of God is so intense, his admiration of the love and mercy of God is so fresh, and ever present, that it not only attracts but overpowers, at least for a moment, every reader in whose soul is left the slightest idea of religion.
Its influence was, and is, in making a revival of religion in the heart of the reader; in laying the sound foundation of every real reformation; in interpreting the word of the Lord: ‘Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew XI:28); in bringing back the restless human soul face to face with its heavenly Father, and with the Christ Consolator.
The immense consequences of the influence of the Imitation on the religious movement of the 15th and the 16th centuries can hardly be overestimated. The Book The title of the book is derived from the from the heading of the first of four books, De imitatione Christi et contemptu omnium vanitatum mundi. It was discovered by K. Hirsche in 1874 that the work was written in meter and rhyme. The four books are not found in all the manuscripts, nor are they arranged invariably in the same order.
The work is a manual of devotion intended to assist the soul in its pursuit for holiness and communion with God. It is written in a humble instructive language, never argumentative, and are pitched with pieces of advice derived from the highest Christian experience. The theme that runs through the sentences is self-renunciation and living a simple life. The life of Christ is presented as the highest study possible to a mortal, as Jesus’ teachings far excel all the teachings of the saints.
The book gives counsel to read the scriptures, statements about the uses of adversity, advice for submission to authority, warnings against temptation and how to resist it, reflections about death and the judgment, meditations upon the oblation of Christ, and admonitions to flee the vanities of the world. Christ himself is more than all the wisdom of the schools and lifts the mind to perceive more of eternal truth in a moment of time than a student might learn in the schools in ten years.
Excellent as these counsels are, they are set in the minor key and are especially adapted for souls burdened with care and sorrow and sitting in darkness. They present only one side of the Christian life, which can be supplemented by counsels for integrity, bravery, and constancy in the struggle for daily existence which encompasses the bulk of humanity. It was written by a monk and intended for the convent. It lays stress on the passive qualities and does not advocate active service in the world.
What makes it acceptable to most Christians is the supreme emphasis it lays upon Christ and the possibility of immediate communion with him and God.
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