One of my favorite books is The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis. I first read this during my days at Trinity and I immediately fell in love with it. A couple of times a year I pull it off the shelf and read portions of it and with every reading I come away enriched. Yesterday we received in the store a new book from Paraclete Press called The Complete Imitation of Christ. This is not only a fresh translation of this classic but it also contains a wonderful introduction to the book and to the man. Many who have read this time-honored classic have never read anything about its author. Fr. John-Julian does a masterful job of introducing the book and Thomas. The format of this edition features the text of The Imitation of Christ on the right side of the page with commentary on the left side of the page. As I perused some of the commentary I realized there is so much more to this book then I ever knew and now many of those gaps will be filled in for me. This will be a book I will take my time in reading and, no doubt, savor every page. As I read through the introduction I listed twelve things I thought some of my readers may not be aware of about Thomas and his classic. Here they are in no particular order.
- Thomas Kempis was Catholic – For many this is common knowledge but for many Protestants this is not known.
- Thomas was “part of a group formally charged with heresy on two occasions.”
- The Imitation of Christ was not written solely by Thomas. Fr. Julian believes that Thomas did edit, compile, and partially author the work as we know it today but that it was probably written by three different authors: Thomas, Gerhard Groote and Florens Radewyns. There have been as many as thirty-five different authors suggested for the work.
- There are over 6,000 editions of the Imitation of Christ. That’s more than one edition per month for over five hundred years.
- The Imitation of Christ “has been published more often and read more widely than any other book in history except the Bible itself.”
- Thomas’s family name was Hamerken.
- The “a” in a Kempis is Latin for “from” and, if used, should never be accented. Thomas signed his own copy of the Imitation of Christ simply Thomas Kempis.
- Thomas copied the entire Vulgate Bible. It took him sixteen years to complete.
- “During his monastic life, Thomas wrote thirty-one books, treatises, and articles including a chronicle of his monastery and several biographies. . . . He also left behind him three manuscripts of sermons, a number of letters, some hymns and, of course, the famous The Imitation of Christ.
- In 1471, just before his death, he had the joy of seeing his The Imitation of Christ published by Günther Zainer at Augsburg. This was one of the earliest books ever printed.
- At least two attempts have been made to canonize Thomas (once in 1655 and once in 1911) but both have failed.
- Thomas may have been buried alive. “The most bizarre (but entirely consistent) legend had it that when Thomas’s remains were discovered in 1672, it was found that the inside of the coffin lid was covered with scratches and there were splinters of wood under the fingernails of the corpse . . .” (439n73)
The Complete Imitation of Christ by Fr. John-Julian is from Paraclete Press. It is a paperback with 400 pages and sells for $29.99.