Conversatio Divina

Part 14 of 17

Figures in the Fog: Thomas à Kempis on Discernment

William Griffin

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.

02.  There Are Many Misconceptions About à Kempis

  1. Imitation of Christ was a one-shot bestseller, leaving à Kempis too depleted to write another work. That the work has been in print since 1420 is impressive, but it gives the wrong impression that there were no others. Yet on looking into à Kempis’ Omnia Opera—seven compact volumes in hardcover with leather trim, ribbed spine, and gold lettering, published between 1902 and 1922—one may find, among many other jewels long and short, three other works every bit as good in style and content as the master work: Soliloquy of a Soul (Soliloquium Animae), Garden of Roses (Hortulus Rosarum), and Valley of Lilies (Valle Liliorum). I’ve translated them all; all have been published: Imitation under the same title, Soliloquy as Consolations for My Soul, Roses and Lilies as Meeting the Master in the Garden. Add to these, series of sermons, hymns and histories, maxims and minims, and how-to books on virtually every aspect of the religious life. I had thought him a slug who spent his life hovering over other people’s manuscripts, subsisting on meditation and mullet. But now I realize that he was something of a literary gent, and I was the slug.
  2. à Kempis had little use for Scripture. As I now know, in the back matter of Omnia Opera one can find a list of one thousand biblical references in Imitation, three in Soliloquy, forty-nine in Roses, and 134 in Lilies. Alas, the literal translations of Imitation—the other works have appeared in English perhaps once in the last 575 years—haven’t done full justice to à Kempis’ total immersion in Scripture. As a copyist he quilled the Bible four different times.
  3. à Kempis had no sense of humor. Well, a novice master, which he was on several occasions, may be no humorist to his novices, but to us, reading what he said and implied to his novices can be a howl. “The community’s regular spiritual exercises—participate in them wholeheartedly and single-mindedly. Beyond that—and God forbid there’s any time left over!— you can pray yourselves silly in any which way you want.” Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000) I:29, 33.
  4. à Kempis was anti-intellectual. He spent most of his life with intellectuals. For the most part they were pious gents, but some days they’d sell their souls for a distinctio rationis ratiocinatae minor. A word from à Kempis would bring them back to reality, pointing them toward the university within.“Why do the Schoolmen go on so, haggling about what’s a species, what’s a genus? That may be philosophy, but it’s in one ear and out the other. And yet, when the Eternal Word whispers—and this may be theology—you should stop and listen. That’s what John says at the beginning of his gospel.”Imitation, I:3, 7.
  5. à Kempis’ Latin was herkimer jerkimer. It was indeed herky-jerky, especially in Imitation. But what gives the appearance of being a modern paragraph is in reality a medieval paragraph in which every sentence was a topic sentence, and the paragraph a mere outline from which the speaker could develop his argument. Hence, the bumpy ride, not only in the Latin but also in the literal English translations that followed.In Garden of Roses, though, there’s an extended prose passage on caritas (charity) that’s every bit as good as the famous one in First Corinthians. Here’s a random Latin sentence revealing both Ciceronian and Pauline influence: “[Caritas] animam a peccato purificat; et ad amandum Deum toto corde toto affectu toto intellectu sursum trahit: ac mira dulcedine replet et accendit.” Thomas Hemerkin à Kempis Omnia Opera, Volume VII, Michael Joseph Pohl, ed. (Freiburg: Herder, 1918), XIII, p. 29. For translation of this sentence and indeed the whole passage on charity, please see Thomas à Kempis, Garden of Roses as it appears in Meeting the Master in the Garden (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2005), chapter 14, 8.
  6. à Kempis wasn’t for Protestants. Martin Luther wouldn’t agree with that proposition, nor would Calvin or the Wesleys. Nor did many of my Baptist friends who came upon the book in their teens; they saw the gold in the work where I saw only the dross.In the past, Protestant publishers have often found Book IV of Imitation, the one devoted to the Eucharist, off-putting. In more enlightened times, they’ve come to realize that à Kempis’ sentiments apply to the Eucharist not only as sacrament but also as remembrance.à Kempis has the last word here. “Without the food and without the light I wither. Without the bread and without the Bible I wander. Without the sacrament of life and the book of life, I perish.”Imitation, IV:11, 257.
  7. à Kempis was meant for Catholics only. Another way of saying this would be to suggest that that with Kempis, Eucharist and liturgy came first; the Bible, second. à Kempis would respond with an account of his vision.”From my prison cell I see—or think I see—an altar. A Holy Table from which rises Holy Church in all her splendor. On one side is the Holy Bread; that’s to say the precious Body of Christ. On the other, the Holy Bible; that’s to say, the Divine Law that contains Holy Doctrine.” Imitation, IV:11So much for my misconceptions. How could I have been so wrong? Reading à Kempis in Latin has helped; rendering his work into paraphrasal English has also helped, until at last I’ve come to a place where I can now enjoy his company.As serendipity I offer a forensic portrait of him, put together from biographical bits and bobs found in his works.

03.  On the Inside

After the main meal, in the common room, à Kempis could be quite a companionable fellow. Young Augustinians would approach the holy man, expecting to hear some pearl of spiritual wisdom. Instead he’d respond, sending them a spiritual zinger they couldn’t possibly return. Then he’d politely excuse himself, for he had another appointment. Those who followed him found that he went, not to the parlor, but to his cubicle.

In that humble space there was a bed, perhaps a table and chair, certainly a kneeler; there was no room for anything else. And yet he created a room within a room. As best the eavesdroppers could tell, he entered that room and tidied it up, then began to speak to another party. In the Imitation he described the process.

Clear out the rubbish within and prepare a cool bare place. Christ will come and take up residence. He’ll furnish it with ‘all his glory,’ as the Psalmist has sung (44:14), and turn it into a warm chatsworthy spot.Imitation, II:1, 59.

As for a chair to accommodate such an august visitor, Christ said he’d provide his own: not a designer chair, which would look rather smart and hold the body bolt upright, but something nice with cushions.Imitation, II:7, 70.

Odd thing, though. Every now and then Jesus would forget to come. At one point there was a showdown, à Kempis crying out in the darkness, “If you absent yourself one more time, I’ll break every commandment in the book!”Imitation, see III:50, 195–201.

When quiet descended again upon the darkness, à Kempis came to know that the Lord hadn’t gone off on a toot, withdrawn to more pleasant surroundings, or taken up with more congenial friends. In reality, he had never left the room. He was there all the time, brooding even as à Kempis was braying.

04.  On the Outside

By nature à Kempis wasn’t only a copyist and anthologist; he was also a chronic chronicler. He wrote short histories of everyone and everything around him and drew up such manuals of custom and usage as “Provisioning for Body and Soul” (De fideli dispensatore), which he based on his own experience.See Omnia Opera, Vol. VI, Epistula ad quendam cellerarium, (De fideli dispansatore qui vulgo dicitur), 129–187

During his several terms as procurator and sub-prior he had to feed not only the monks in the refectory but also the poor at the gate. That was fine with him, for when he couldn’t find Jesus on the inside, he could always find him on the outside, albeit in the guise of the down and out.

In his manual he encouraged the almoner to approach the gate with mischief in his eye and spring in his step. “That’s how Moses came down from Mount Sinai, wasn’t it, grinning from ear to ear? Apparently, Moses had gotten a peek at, or at least a whiff of, the divine delicatessen” (Exodus 34:29).Omnia Opera, “De hilaritate et promptitudine” (On Cheerfulness and Promptness), 184–185. Who said this man wasn’t funny?

On his way to the gate he intoned that verse from Isaiah in which the Lord God spoke to his people who were in despair (40:1). “It’s going to be all right! It’s going to be all right!”

In a chirrupy way, dispensing spiritual aid along with the material, he had a word for everybody, as he recorded in “Consolation for the Down and Out” (Consolatio pauperum).Omnia Opera, Vol. IV, 137–139.

“Shed tears if you like,” he said to the poor; “but not for much longer.”

“Complain until the cows come home,” he said to the sick, “but the healer’s on his way.”

“Limp no more,” he said to the lame; “you’ll soon be dancing for joy.”

“Come blow your horn,” he said to the dumb; “it will be fanfares for you from now on!”

Like all almoners he wore a soutane with hidden pockets, more than Houdini had in his tux or Copperfield in his cape. Most days they were nearly full; some days, nearly empty. “Even when you’re down to your last loaf,” he wrote in his manual, “split it with Jesus” (De fideli dispensatore).Omnia Opera, Vol. I, 136. On those latter days the monks would have to make do with half a loaf, and wonder of wonders, who knew how often that half loaf fed the whole community?

05.  Devotio Moderna

à Kempis was a leading figure in what medieval historians have called devotio moderna, a thoroughly modern spirituality that was in reality a return to the fervor of first-century Christianity. In this movement, varietals of which pop up in every century, à Kempis’ vast writings were the Scriptures.

Only a fragment of his work (Imitation) had been translated, and that into literal English, before I came along. Now Imitation and others (Soliloquy, Roses, Lilies) appear in paraphrasal English. These would be Scriptures enough to feed a devotio moderna in our own day, fanning the flame of our own first fervor. Happily, they have in them virtually every Christian theme prior to, and indeed posterior from, the fifteenth century.

Many today follow Christ, but in a loosey-goosey sort of way. They still cling to the idea that life is a cabaret, a crowded, ill-lit café, where raunchy entertainments with risqué lyrics are sung by characters with too much rouge. Their motto? A little naughtiness never hurt a soul.

It was the same in à Kempis’ day. “Many like to be seen breaking bread with Jesus, but they’re nowhere to be found when the passion cup is passed around. Alas, many are wowed by his miracles; few are wooed by his cross.” Imitation, II:11, 79.

For à Kempis and those who follow Christ more closely, life is a cubicle where one may pray and entertain extraordinary visitors, even Christ on the cross.

In that cubicle à Kempis also read. Yes, he remained first and last a bookman. A motto for that? Perhaps the maxim that he composed in a combination of Latin and Dutch: “For rest, respite, repose on this earth I’ve looked high and low but couldn’t find it, except perhaps in outof-the-way nooks with out-of-the-ordinary books.”

On August 8, 1471, in the ninety-second year of his age, the seventy-second year of his monastic life, the fifty-eighth year of his priesthood, he died; dropsy, known as edema today, was given as the cause.

A specific example of à Kempis at work as a spiritual director and discerner of souls may be found in his work Soliloquy of a Soul, published in English under the title Consolations for My Soul. It’s a dialogue between two persons, Discerner of Souls and Soul. Obviously, Soul is à Kempis himself, or someone very like him—say, the reader of this article. Discerner is also à Kempis, since he’s writing both ends of the dialogue, but may not Discerner of Souls also be a divine person or an intermediary of a divine person? I leave you to judge.

06.  "Preparing for a Visit"

“The Lord’s coming. Don’t worry. You look fine.” (1 John 2:28)

After a while Discerner spoke to Soul.

“This is our secret place, yours and mine. For friends only! That’s what our conversation will be. A little giddiness from you, a little arrogance from me, what does that amount to between friends? Let’s just enjoy this warm, chatsworthy place.”

“But what if He comes?” asked the Soul.

“If He does pop in, make another of His surprise visits, I think we can squidge a bit.”

“We can put Him right in the middle.”

“Remember, if He has something to say,” said Discerner, “give Him the floor.”

“I’ll bite my tongue.”

“Sometimes it’s just polite conversation,” said Discerner. “Other times, though, He’s just too heady for my taste!”

“What do you mean by that?”

“It just doesn’t matter what we say,” said Discerner; “His virtues and His magnificence sail on undiminished.”

“Are the Scriptures any help here?”

“Sometimes,” said Discerner, who proceeded to give some instances.

“If the heaven of heavens couldn’t catch the drift, as Solomon put it on a different occasion, then my poor descriptions won’t do the trick.” (VUL 2 Paralipomenon 6:18; NRSV, 2 Chronicles 6:18).

“‘I’ve heard it all already, and I’m about to toss my victuals,’ the prophet Habacuc cried out. ‘My teeth chatter when I hear their voices’” (3:16).

“Well,” asked Soul, “when our turn to talk comes, what’ll we say?”

“The first thing that comes into your head.”

“So, What’s Your name?”

* * *

Discerner told Soul how the Lord might respond.

“‘I Am Who Am’”—that’s what the Lord said to the Exodist—“‘and I don’t have a twin’! (3:14)

“‘Always the first and always the last, always the oldest and always the youngest—that’s who I am, creating everything and governing its operation.’”

“As John wrote in the Apocalypse (1:17), ‘I live,’ said the Lord; ‘I shall reign until the
last day, and even beyond, if all were known’” (22:5).

“As Solomon put it in the Canticle of Canticles, ‘Behold, your Beloved Bridegroom is speaking with you’” (2:10).

“‘I’m not one of your wandering minstrels or maundering wastrels. I’m unique among antiques. I don’t need friends or companions. I’m thoroughly at home conversing with Myself. Solo. Soliloquy. No symphony for me.”

“‘But if You were to ask, I could be good friends with you. As My Psalmist has said, ‘I like it here, clinging to the Lord, it’s a nice place, a comfortable place’” (VUL 73:28; NRSV 73:29).

“‘I come and I go when I want, though. And yes, since you’re about to ask, such is My Omnipresence that I do occasionally meet Myself coming and going.’”

Discerner went on to describe for Soul what a visit from the Lord was like.

“Yes, He pops in, and yes, He pops out. It drives me crazy, and it would drive you crazy too. One moment He brings you to the heights; the next, He sends you to the depths. But love, and the expectation of love, gently fill the intervals in.”

More from Discerner.

“Nice thing about His being gone, though, is that when He returns, He brings the most wonderful gifts. Pretty flowers. Precious stones. But it’s not so much the gifts that are so special; it’s the sentiments that come with them. Nothing in creaturedom tops His love. Indeed the rest of creaturedom looks rather shabby in comparison.”

A final word from Discerner.

“He’s touched me; there’s no doubt about that. It’s a touchy, tactile sort of feeling. A deep embrace, yes, but one that doesn’t rumple, dishevel the Soul. This, in sharp contrast with creatures. Every time I catch myself in damp embrace with one of them, I end up needing a bathe.“Preparing for a Visit” is taken from “Being Tracked Down by God,” chapter 4 of Thomas à Kempis, Consolations for My Soul (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2004) 31–33.

* * *

In these two short passages from the same chapter, à Kempis asks the age-old question, how can the Soul get to meet God? à Kempis’ answer is, one can do very little to hasten God’s coming. What to do while waiting? Well, there’s no place that doesn’t need a daily dust-up, and there’s no room that doesn’t need its furniture moved, its pictures straightened. But God will come when he will come—that’s à Kempis’ answer. Which is to say, he’ll come in eternal time, which is no time at all. Which is to say, God’s always ready to meet a soul. Which is to say, the Soul doesn’t have to look out the window to see God approaching. All he has to do is turn around and look back. God’s already in the room; he’s always been in the room; he’s been in the room since before there was a room. Yes, this is figurative language, born of contemplative prayer, and yes, à Kempis makes the point rather nicely.


William Griffin was a Jesuit from 1952 to 1960, “golden years all.” By profession he has been an editor and writer for forty-five years. Recently, he’s been translating Latin spiritual classics. Imitation of Christ, 2000; Consolations for My Soul (Soliloquy of a Soul), 2004; Meeting the Master in the Garden (Garden of Roses and Valley of Lilies), 2005; High Anxiety: A Brief Life of Augustine of Hippo in His Own Words, 2007. He is currently working on a biography of à Kempis. He lives with his writer-wife, Emilie, in Alexandria, Louisiana.