Finding one’s way in the spiritual life is like wandering around in the fog. Sometimes you see figures moving ahead, sometimes you hear people talking behind, but you haven’t a clue where you are. It’s a strange city, and what you need desperately is a guide. Fortunately, in the history of Christian spirituality, there have been many spiritual guides and directors of wide and varied competence to help. Thomas à Kempis is one of those, and therein lies a tale.
I first came across à Kempis in 1952 when I was a novice in the Society of Jesus. Fifteen, perhaps thirty, minutes of each day were devoted to reading in English the fifteenth-century Latin spiritual classic, De imitatione Christi (The Imitation of Christ). For the life of me I couldn’t figure out how the pedestrian à Kempis was connected to the galloping Loyola in the pursuit of perfection, as it was called then.
Forty-five years later, while chatting with a learned group of ecumenicals, someone casually mentioned that à Kempis was my favorite spiritual author. Indignant, I jumped up and did fifteen minutes on why I thought à Kempis a flop and the Imitation a fluke. Then I sat down, quite mystified by what I’d just done.
Five years later, I translated an à Kempis chapter for my writer-wife’s inclusion in an anthology. I tried literal translation first, translation faithful to the meaning of the Latin words, but all my old troubles came back. Then I tried paraphrasal translation, translation faithful to the meaning but not necessarily to the wording of the Latin text. It worked.
Parenthetically, it’s well to note here that all modes of translation are doomed to failure. Neither literal nor paraphrasal is a substitute for à Kempis’ Latin. But if one must use an English translation, literal is more appropriate for scholarly work, and paraphrasal for personal devotion.
For me, the paraphrasal translation released the meanings, the connotations I’d been looking for. That produced also a rather remarkable portrait of à Kempis, an amiable fellow with a strong sense of devotion, keen sense of humor, and uncanny eye for encapsulating spiritual wisdom in anthologies. I’ve been reading and translating him ever since.
Three volumes of translation later, I can now see with some clarity just what my original misconceptions about Kempis were and, in some cases, what he might say to me in reply. (Note: all à Kempis and Vulgate translations in the paragraphs that follow are mine and paraphrasal.)
01. Who was Kempis, anyway?
As a historical figure (1379/80–1471), he’s shadowy, spidery, the sort that surveillance cameras could catch but without recording one identifiable characteristic. If he were put into a police lineup, it wouldn’t be his face that gave his identity away, but his fingers, stained with ink beyond scour. He was a copyist by trade.
When it came to putting together his major anthologies, he added at least two other identities, that of Gerard Groote and Florent Radewijns, founders of a burgeoning lay group, the Brethren of the Common Life—yes, there was a “Sistern” of the Common Life, whose numbers exceeded the Brethren by three to one.
As a lad arriving in the big city, he joined the group and became a protégé of the two Brethren founders. After several years with them, he went uphill to the monastery of St. Agnes, where he became an Augustinian monk and priest.