Rorate Caeli

A Beautiful New Latin Edition of the “Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis

The new edition

(by Fr. Paolo D’Angona, priest of the Diocese of Roermond; translated from German here)

Among many other treasures of Tradition, the ascetical literature of the past has been lost to many modern Catholics. Instead of making use of the rich deposit that the great spiritual writers recognized by the Church have left us, some resort to shallow products, sometimes directly dangerous to the faith, such as those of the widely read modernist Anselm Grün, who has been called, not without reason, a “Drewermann light.” The destruction of faith, which has been observed for decades, finds its “spiritual” counterpart in such elaborations – just as, conversely, the works of the true masters of spiritual life are nothing other than “applied Catholic dogmatics” (Fr. Chad Ripperger).

Thus, a strangely fuzzy but above all self-centered “spiritual wellness” often takes the place of authentic Catholic spirituality: man, in typical modernist, immanentist manner, ultimately circles only around himself. In this way, however, the path to God is radically blocked; the restless human heart, which according to the well-known dictum of St. Augustine finds its rest only in God, is offered nothing except emotionally determined self-deception.

It is precisely here that the warning of Thomas à Kempis applies: “If you seek yourself, you will also find yourself everywhere, but to your own destruction.” The latter saying of Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) is taken from his Four Books on the Imitation of Christ, one of the greatest classics of spiritual literature, which has stood the test of time for centuries.

In this work, the Christian encounters in unique condensation a profound supernatural wisdom fed from the sources of the doctrine of faith and theology. It has offered countless people rich nourishment for their souls: it instructs, comforts, deters from the path of evil, and impels to good. The famous and highly learned Doctor of the Church, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, admitted of it: “I have read and reread this little book very often from my youth to my old age, and yet it has always seemed new to me; even now I find my greatest pleasure in it.”

It was also a constant companion to many other saints, such as Pope St. Pius V, St. Charles Borromeo and St. Ignatius of Loyola. St. Ignatius immersed himself daily in two chapters of the work, one in continuous reading, another as it caught his eye when he opened the book. The founder of the Jesuits never read the book without special benefit. That is why he strongly recommended the Imitation of Christ to his disciples.

The author of the well-known work The Spiritual Life, Adolphe Tanquerey, writes that he considers “very acceptable” the judgment that the Imitation is “the most beautiful book that came out of the hand of man, since the Gospel is not of human origin.” Thus, it is not surprising that Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ is probably the work that, after the Holy Scriptures, has undergone the most translations and editions.

He wrote it at first merely to instruct the novices at the monastery of Agnetenberg (near Zwolle, Netherlands), for whose formation he was responsible from 1420 and 1427. Soon, however, his notes were put into print and gradually spread throughout the Church. Particularly emphasized in the work is the combination of contemplative and active life, which characterizes the movement of “devotio moderna” that was flourishing at that time. The goal is the holistic formation of the personality in the spirit – in the imitation – of Jesus Christ.

Not only because of the background of our times described at the beginning, but also because of the lasting value of the Four Books on the Imitation of Christ, the Verlagsbuchhandlung Sabat, which has in the meantime earned merit for the publication of many important theological works, is to be thanked very much for once again bringing them to the attention of the public and making them accessible. The Sabat Latin edition of the Imitatio Christi follows the critical Vatican edition of 1982, which may at first seem strange, since knowledge of the Latin language has declined considerably in recent decades – even among the clergy, although they are expressly required by law to have a thorough command of the Latin language (cf. CIC, can. 249). This is obviously a serious problem: for those who do not have a thorough knowledge of Latin, the vast majority of the literary treasures bequeathed to us as a precious heritage by the Fathers of the Church, the Doctors of the Church, and the great theologians will remain inaccessible – a true terra incognita.

It is precisely here that a Latin edition of the Imitation of Christ could provide a first impulse. The Latinity of the work is relatively easily accessible, so that even students or others who have begun to learn Latin are offered spiritual benefits in addition to a deepening of fluency. Therefore, the book is also suitable as a gift for children, grandchildren, and acquaintances who already know the basics of Latin plus a little more.

Furthermore, it is especially suitable as a gift for members of the clergy. This is especially true in view of the reportedly increasing number of clergy in some countries who, with the best will in the world, have begun or are beginning to learn the traditional, timeless Roman Rite of the Church (Missale, Breviarium, Rituale, Pontificale), but are not yet quite at home in the language of the Church beyond their use of liturgical Latin. Thomas à Kempis’s simple and warm-hearted Latin will be a good help to them in making the language of the Church truly “their own.”

The fact that the publisher, at the suggestion of an experienced missionary and religious, has provided the Latin text with accent marks (which have also become common in liturgical books) is an added value of this edition, which thus also shows ad oculos that the Latin language of the Church does not have to be a “dead” language but can be rather a living and spoken language, which will, we hope, become general again in the course of time. Incidentally, these accent marks enable even initially less experienced readers at table (in monasteries and seminaries) to deliver the text fluently and comprehensibly.

The typeface of the edition is characterized by pleasing clarity; a ribbon bookmark ensures practical utility. Finally, the decorative binding should be mentioned, which makes the book a bibliophile gem: the front cover shows the crucifixion, the back cover a representation of the resurrection of Christ. Through this cover, the publisher has given the work an adequate external appearance.

Thomas Kempensis: DE IMITATIONE CHRISTI. Verlagsbuchhandlung Sabat, 2022. Hardcover, 240 pages, format: 14.8 x 21 cm. ISBN: 978-3-943506-42-6. Link to purchase (€ 25)