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of the monastery which the Brethren had set up on Mount St. Agnes, near Zwolle, he was put to the kind of work he liked best—that of copying manuscripts. He had a high opinion of the value of such work, and in a sermon he says: If he shall not lose his reward who gives a cup of cold water to his thirsty neighbour, what will not be the reward of those who by putting good books into the hands of those neighbours, open to them the fountains of eternal life ? ”1 This copying of books was indeed a most important industry, carried on mainly in the quiet cloisters of monasteries. Printing from moveable type was not invented till more than fifty years after Thomas settled at Mount St. Agnes, where he lived till he was over 90.
But Thomas was more than a copyist of the Bible and other good books; he made an original contribution to the religious literature of the world, and it was a contribution of the utmost value and significance. His Imitation of Christ has, it is said, been published in more than 3,000 editions, and it has been translated into a multitude of languages. A work of the highest excellence is as rare a thing, and as difficult of achievement, in devotional literature as it is in any other kind of literature; and it is surely as worthy of the closest and most exhaustive study as regards its origin and antecedents, its teaching, and its literary structure.
How was it that the Imitation came into being, and what are its main conceptions and its outstanding literary features ? And above all, what is it that gives the book its permanent interest and value, that explains the amazing appeal which it has made and continues to make to all sorts and conditions of men ? These are some of the questions to which I would ask your attention.
1 Concio XX.
Among the things that Gerard Groot had encouraged the Brethren of the Common Life to do was to keep commonplace books in which they could put any fine sayings they came across in the course of their reading, or heard in conversation, or any good thoughts that arose in their own minds. From the fact that the main occupation of the Brethren was the copying of books, the practice of making extracts of passages that particularly impressed them would arise very naturally, and almost inevitably. We can imagine one of them, for instance, transcribing a work of Augustine or Bernard, and when he came upon something that especially struck him, saying to himself, “I must make a note of this, and speak about it to the brethren and others likely to be interested in it.” So from a shelf in his cell or scriptorium, he takes a note-book, and in it he enters the passage or saying. Possibly he kept a series of notebooks for different subjects. These note-books were called "rapiaria," a name that suggests spoil or plunder, things seized in passing.
Now it seems to have been from such rapiaria-such collections of things read or heard or thought-that Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ originated. Thomas may have begun with little or no idea of making a book of his own; and probably after the Imitation was completed he would have hesitated about claiming it as his own, so much would he feel that he was indebted to others for thought and inspiration. And indeed he did not put his name to the book as its author. At the end of the autograph manuscript in the Royal Library at Brussels, he does place his name, but only as copyist. Had he been a little less self-effacing, the great controversy that has raged for centuries as to the authorship of the Imitation would never have arisen. It may be said of him what has been said of Shakespeare, that he was like a man who has thrown a bag of gold into a house, and gone away without telling the inmates who it was to whom they owed the gift. He had taken as his motto a saying of St. Bernard, “Ama nesciri,"_love to be unknown. Besides he was anxious that the truth of a saying or book should be left to make its own impression, apart altogether from the question as to who said it or wrote it. Truth, he held, should be its own authority; it is not made more true by " the shadow of a great name," or less true by an obscure one. So he says, "Let not the authority of the writer move thee, whether he be of small or great learning ; but let the love of pure truth draw thee to read. Ask not who said this or that, but mark what is said.” (i. 5.)
Thus, for those who, contrary to Thomas' advice, wish to know who said this or that in the Imitation, and to discuss the authorship of the book, there is plenty of scope for research and speculation. There are still those who maintain that it was written by Jean Gerson (1363-1429) who had been Chancellor of the University of Paris, and had in other ways played a great part in the life of his time. They who take this view argue that the book is the result of an experience which could not have been gained by one who had led such a quiet, uneventful life as that of Thomas à Kempis. It is more likely, they say, to be the work of one like Gerson in whose career great worldly success had been followed by failure, and who had been humbled and chastened by that experience. But given spiritual genius—the seeing eye and the understanding heart—there is nothing surely in the Imitation that could not have been written by a monk in the monastery of St. Agnes ; for there, in himself and in those about him, he could study human nature as well as anywhere else, and learn the things that make for inward peace and the upbuilding of Christian character. Indeed in that monastery and in the life of its monks, there was much that was particularly favourable for the production of such a work as the Imitation. For, as we have seen, the chief business carried on there was the copying of books. The monastery thus became a kind of clearing house for ideas, in which all the best thought of the past and present was discussed by keenly interested minds.
The sources of many of the sayings in the Imitation have been traced, and those of others perhaps will be found. The Bible was naturally Thomas' chief source, and there are few pages in which he does not draw upon it. He quotes frequently from St. Augustine ; and it is evident throughout that the teaching of Augustine had entered into the very fabric of his thought. But indeed it would be difficult to find a mediaeval writer who did not feel the influence of that master mind. Another of Thomas' main sources of inspiration was the writings of St. Bernard. So much affinity has the Imitation with these writings, both in thought and expression, that Bernard's authorship of the book was at one time seriously maintained. But although the influence of Bernard is apparent throughout, the amount of direct or literal quotation does not seem to be very much. Mr. De Montmorency tells us that he read through some of Bernard's works in the Latin, and in doing so made a note of a number of passages which seemed familiar to him, and which he felt sure he would find in the Imitation. On searching there for them, however, he failed to discover them. It would appear, then, that although Thomas was indebted to Bernard for ideas, the form he gave to them was nearly always his own.
It is not known whether Thomas had read Dante, but the probability is that he had not, and that such resemblances as there are between the Imitation and the Divine Comedy are due in some cases to a common indebtedness to Bernard, and, in others, to ideas and beliefs that were widespread throughout the Middle Ages, and of which both Dante and à Kempis make use. Thus it was widely believed, on the authority apparently of an apocryphal work called the Apocalypse of St. Peter, that the punishments in hell would correspond exactly to the nature of the sins; so we have Dante's Inferno, in which this idea is elaborated and illustrated to the utmost, and we have such
passage in the Imitation as this : “There shall the slothful be pricked forward with burning goads, and the glutton be tormented with extreme hunger and thirst; there shall the luxurious and lovers of pleasures be bathed in burning pitch and stinking brimstone, and the envious, like mad dogs, shall howl for very grief.” (I. 24).
The Imitation is in some ways very remote from the mysticism of Tauler and the other Friends of God. Thomas' religion is almost entirely that of the cloister. There is an aloofness in his attitude towards the common