A Review of
THE COMPLETE IMITATION OF CHRIST
Reviewed by Brandon D. Waite
Friar John-Julian must possess a heaping portion of courage to have written this book. After all, to attempt a fresh translation of Thomas Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ is to tinker with one of the most beloved works of Christian spirituality outside canonical Scripture. Err too far on the side of innovation, and one risks misrepresenting a volume that has provided spiritual direction for everyone from Ignatius of Loyola to Bill Clinton. On the other hand, republishing a Latin text written for 14th century European monastics without making it accessible it for 21st century English speakers misses the opportunity to introduce a new generation to Thomas’s powerful tour of the contemplative life. Fortunately, John-Julian settles comfortably between these poles and creates space for veterans and novices alike to experience The Imitation afresh.
I fall into the aforementioned “novice” category. Though I frequently steep myself in works championing Christocentric social justice as the pinnacle of discipleship, my reading list includes embarrassingly few medieval mystics. In fact, I had never cracked The Imitation of Christ prior to this review. For those who find themselves in a similar situation, it may be helpful to know that Thomas, like many mystical writers, favors discussion of the interior life over exhortation toward outward expressions of devotion. The latter remains an integral part of the Christian life, to be sure, but true discipleship for Thomas begins with the arrest of our disordered passions, which must be submitted to Christ himself in order that our will might be transformed into his own. In so doing, we strive for more than the tangential rewards of paradise; we yearn to attain God’s own person. For this reason, we must strive to imitate our beloved Jesus.
Though all this sounds a bit intimidating, the book remains accessible throughout, thanks in large part to Friar John-Julian’s commentary. His introduction to the primary text, though brief, provides a wealth of background information on Thomas’s family, writing, and monastic station, as well as a thoroughly fascinating examination of the book’s authorship, in which he concludes that large portions of The Imitation were likely written by multiple authors and only later compiled and edited by Thomas Kempis. Even those readers who are uninterested in such matters will find that, by the time one begins wading through the actual text, the seven-century gap between author(s) and reader seems significantly less daunting. However, John-Julian does not restrict his contributions to the introduction alone. The book’s easy-to-read format features his translation on right-hand page and, on the left page, his relevant commentary on superscripted potions of the text. These notes offer much appreciated explications of the book’s historical context—particularly those regarding life among the Augustinian Canons, the monastic order to which Thomas belonged—so that even during especially esoteric passages, like those extolling the mysteries of the Eucharist, John-Julian’s asides never allow the reader to feel lost in translation. He even goes so far as to explain Thomas’s numerous allusions to the various biblical and theological texts that may be unfamiliar to today’s readers and includes some revealing remarks on the stickier aspects of translating Latin text (with Flemish idioms, no less) into readable English.
Yet even with this wealth of supportive information, Friar John-Julian’s additions never distract from the primary text. He clearly intends his commentary to highlight the theological and literary prowess of The Imitation, which remains the star of the show throughout the book. His lucid, approachable translation works in conjunction with his notes to remove all barriers for new readers, allowing Thomas’s spiritual direction to speak truth into the lives of the devout as powerfully as today as ever before. Furthermore, by arranging the text in poetic form and adding a system of symbols to mark the lines that rhyme in the Latin text, the good Friar offers something for Imitation veterans as well (in addition to his background notes) by revealing the text’s literary merits as clearly as its spiritual virtues. Even those who have read Thomas for years will find new reasons to marvel at his brilliance as they discover his ability to offer line after line of spiritual prescriptions as elegant as they are insightful.
If you have yet to drink deeply from the wisdom in these pages, The Complete Imitation of Christ removes any excuse for further procrastination. Thomas offers his readers the chance to probe the depths of their spirituality and reminds us that even our well-intentioned oblations remain stained with selfishness unless we constantly seek to root out our egocentrism and pursue the very heart of God. Make no mistake, this text was written for monks by a monk, but with a little help from Friar John-Julian, its challenges remain potent and relevant for everyone who will take the time to hear them.
I must also mention that a simple Google search reveals no shortage of attempts to revive this classic for new generations, but this edition, the fifth entry in Paraclete Press’s Paraclete Giants series and the second entry in that series from the Friar John-Julian himself, adds enough tools and commentary to the marvelous translation to make this volume by Thomas Kempis—and likely the entire series—an easy recommendation for anyone. This is the version to get.