Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471)

Light of truth

Thomas à Kempis was born in Kempen (hence à Kempis) near Krefeld in Germany. Little is known of Thomas himself, and he is known for little else than writing the “Imitation of Christ” although this one contribution has made him famous enough. It appears there was only Thomas and a brother, some fourteen years his senior, in the family. When Thomas was about thirteen years old, he followed his brother’s example of journeying to enroll at the famous school established by the “Brethren the Common Life” at Deventer in the Netherlands. When he arrived at Deventer Thomas found that his brother, John, had moved on to a newly established community of Canons Regular at Windesheim. He was nonetheless able to get admitted to the school at Deventer and it was there that he was attracted to the movement Devotio Moderna, encouraged by the Brothers of the Common Life. This “new devotion” was based on personal experience of Christ and the simplicity of the early Church.

The “Brethren of the Common Life” called into life by Gerard Groote lived more or less as a monastic community, but without the taking of vows. All were expected to work in support of the community but everything was held in common.In 1399, Thomas sought admission to the community of Mount St. Agnes near Zwolle which at that time had Thomas’ brother John for its prior, and was in the early stages of establishment.There he was ordained as a priest in 1413. Thomas was from time to time called upon to fill diverse offices within the community but it had become apparent that his character was more that of a contemplative than an administrator and organizer. He died in 1471 and his mortal remains were interred within the grounds of the Priory of Mount St Agnes. They were re-interred at Zwolle more than two hundred years after his death.

Thomas is considered the author of the “Imitation of Christ,” arguably the most popular Christian book after the Bible. Sir Thomas More, England’s famous Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII said it was one of the three books everybody ought to own. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, read a chapter a day from it and regularly gave away copies as gifts. Founder of the Methodists, John Wesley said it was the best summary of the Christian life he had ever read. Remarkable for its simple language and style, it emphasizes the spiritual rather than the materialistic life, affirms the rewards of being Christ-centred, and supports communion as a means to strengthen faith. His writings offer possibly the best representation of the spirit of the Devotio Moderna that sought to make religion intelligible and practicable for the “modern” attitude arising in the Netherlands at the end of the 14th century. Thomas stresses asceticism rather than mysticism. He makes a painfully accurate analysis of the soul and suggests remedies for its ills.He lays out the primary requirement for the spiritually serious: “We must imitate Christ’s life and his ways if we are to be truly enlightened and set free from the darkness of our own hearts.” The highest virtue, from which all other virtues stem, is humility. Thomas bids all to let go of the illusion of superiority. “This is the greatest and most useful lesson we can learn: to know ourselves for what we truly are, to admit freely our weaknesses and failings, and to hold a humble opinion of ourselves because of them.”

Thomas goes on to tell his readers that if they are serious about the spiritual life, they must be willing to suffer. “The only man who can safely appear in public is the one who wishes he were at home. He alone can safely speak who prefers to be silent. Only he can safely govern who prefers to live in submission, and only he can safely command who prefers to obey.” Throughout the book, Thomas’s advice is consistent: do not trust yourself, do not indulge yourself, do not put yourself forward; instead put your full trust in God and, out of love for God’s will, yield to all the circumstances of life into which God places you.

Isaac Padinjarekuttu
(Professor of Church History at Oriens Theological College,

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