In a previous post I talked about the new release of The Complete Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis. Because this new edition comes with commentary I said that it would probably fill in many gaps for me and indeed it has. I’ve been reading this again over the Memorial Day weekend and I can’t tell you how much I love this book. The commentary is really very helpful. Consider just a few examples below. (All the examples in this post are from book 1.)
The Imitation was not written for the general public.
On the meaning of “Devout”
In chapter three we read, “The good and Devout person, first inwardly plans the things that he needs to do in the world.” In my Penguin edition it reads, “A good and devout man firstly sets in order in his mind whatever tasks he has in hand . . .” The first thing I noticed is that the new edition capitalizes the “d” in Devout. There is a reason for that. Fr. John Julian comments. “The Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life referred to themselves as ‘the Devout’ (or ‘Devout,’ in the singular). (A related practice might be the Quaker use of ‘Thee.’) The reader also needs to be reminded that ALL of The Imitation is addressed to monks.” (10) This is an important observation because previously I thought The Imitation was written with the common man in mind. Fr. John-Julian later notes, “Thomas is compiling this book as encouragement specifically for young monks and novices, not for a broad general public.” (16)
Good women “in community.”
I saw this again in chapter 8 with this statement, “Stay with the lowly and simple, with the Devout and the obedient, and talk of those things which are edifying.” And again in the sentence which follows reads, “Do not be intimate with any woman, but commend all good women in community to God.” In my Penguin edition this reads “Avoid undue familiarity with the other sex, but commend all good women to God.” Fr. John-Julian comments are instructive. “‘All good women in community’ surely refers specifically to the Sisters of the Common Life. Note: The words ‘in community’ are written in extremely abbreviated form in the manuscripts, and they are omitted in most translations, but Thomas commends good women in religious communities, not just good women in general.” (18)
“Religious” vs. “Devout” persons
In another example from chapter 14 my Penguin edition reads, “Similarly, differences of opinions and beliefs only too often give rise to quarrels among friends and neighbors, and even between religious and devout people.” Had you asked me what is the difference between a “religious” person and a “devout” person I wouldn’t have had a guess. Not a good one anyway. Here John-Julian’s translation clarifies the issue along with his commentary. It reads, “Differences of feelings and opinions often enough spring up between friends and neighbors, between the Monastics and the Devout.” His note reads, “The ‘Monastics’ are the Canon Regulars (such as Thomas himself); the ‘Devout’ are the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life living in the Brother- and Sister-Houses. Thomas reveals that there was apparently friction even between the Canons Regular and the laity in the Common Life communities who were on such close terms.” (34)
On the meaning of “conversion”
This notion of the monastery is also helpful in understanding an important word in The Imitation: conversion. As a good evangelical I thought I understood exactly what conversion meant: our conversion to Christ but as it turns out this interpretation is very anachronistic. I’ve come across the term twice so far in my reading. In chapter 11 we read, “If every year we could root out one single vice, before long we would have produced a perfect person. But often just the opposite: we sense that we found ourselves to be better and more pure at the very beginning of our conversion.” And again in chapter 13: “Some undergo their most serious temptations early in their conversion; some at the end; some suffer extremely through the whole of their lives.” What does conversion mean here? John-Julian explains, “For Thomas the beginning of conversion would be the entry into the monastic novitiate. In the Rule of St. Benedict, the monk takes three vows: stability, chastity, and conversion of life (conversation). (24) In chapter 13 he reminds his readers, “Again, ‘conversion’ would refer to entry into the religious order as a novice.” (30)
On the meaning of “Disorderly Affection”
With all of this in mind the following commentary is very significant. Chapter six is entitled “Of Disorderly Affections.” My Penguin edition reads “On Control of Desires.” The difference is no small one. He comments, “The title of Chapter 6 is De Inordinatis Affectius, which translates quite properly as ‘Of Disorderly Affection.’ The term ‘inordinate affection’ has for centuries been common monk-speak for homoerotic attraction, so, although all other translators are either ignorant of this or flee from it, we ought at least to recognize that it may hover in the background of this and other such passages.” (14)
As I said the commentary in this volume is extraordinarily helpful in putting this classic in its proper context. The difference is like watching an old black and white movie which has been fully restored in vibrant rich color. I’ll provide updates and quotes as I continue reading.