Thomas à Kempis (1379/1380–1471)

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Thomas à Kempis, the writer on asceticism and probable author of The Imitation of Christ, was born in Kempen, near Düsseldorf, Germany. He belonged to the Brethren of the Common Life, a group that was much influenced by Jan van Ruysbroeck and whose organization centered on the Windesheim community. The major part of Thomas's life was spent at the Augustinian monastery of St. Agnes, near Zwolle.

Thomas's writings on the interior life and ways of practicing virtue are not philosophical or theoretical but are purely practical in intent. This is true also of The Imitation of Christ, about whose authorship there has been much dispute. It is not altogether certain that the work, really a set of four treatises, should be attributed to Thomas. The oldest manuscripts date from about 1422 and contain only the first book, and the first complete edition goes back to 1427. Since the work is not quoted earlier than the fifteenth century, it seems likely that it originated during Thomas's lifetime. Moreover, the style is remarkably like that of writings that can certainly be ascribed to him (a statistical investigation has also supported this). For these reasons we can rule out certain speculative attributions (to Jean Gerson and to John Gersen, in the thirteenth century). On the other hand, the first attribution of the book to him occurred rather late, in the second edition of an account of the Windesheim community written in the latter part of the fifteenth century. The fact that Thomas signed a manuscript of the Imitation is not conclusive, for he was, like his fellow monks, a copyist and also signed a Bible. But the balance of probability is that Thomas himself compiled the work anonymously, and he certainly incorporated into it materials not original to himself, especially in the first book.

The wide circulation of the book was partly due to the efforts of the copyists at Windesheim, but it was also due to the kind of piety it recommended. The second part of the full title (Of the Imitation of Christ and of Contempt for All Worldly Vanities ) indicates that its teachings were adapted to the monastic lifeand indeed it was primarily intended as a handbook for monks. But its tender concentration on the figure of Jesus made attractive its doctrine of resignationthe surrendering of all worldly concerns to the service of, and imitation of, Christ. Moreover, it gave very concrete guidance on many problemsfor example, how to distinguish the results of grace from natural acts and propensities. The most notable feature of the book, however, is its uncompromising and uncomfortable insistence on self-mortification as preparation for grace and the presence of the true Lover of the soul, Christ. The "imitation" of Christ that Thomas recommends is not a simple copying of Jesus but acting by analogy with Jesus, whose life was mainly characterized, according to Thomas, by suffering and self-sacrifice.

The first book has mainly to do with the moral reform of the individual. The second concerns the preparation for the interior or illuminative life. The third consists in a dialogue between Christ and the soul that gives a further exposition of ascetic practices, and one or two passages give a hint of the kind of mystical experience awaiting those who truly love Christ. The fourth book is a manual for those who receive Holy Communion.

There is very little theology in the Imitation. Thomas seems to have been reacting against the speculations of academic theology, for he wrote: "Of what use is your highly subtle talk about the blessed Trinity, if you are not humble?" and "I would rather feel compunction than be able to produce the most precise definition of it." The strongly practical bent of the work, in any event, gave it a continuing relevance to the Christian life and enabled it to achieve the status of a classic ranking, in Christian piety, with Pilgrim's Progress.

See also Asceticism; Gerson, Jean de; Ruysbroeck, Jan van; Virtue and Vice.


works by thomas

Opera et Libri Vite Fratris Thome a Kempis. Edited by P. Danhausser. Nuremberg: Per Caspar Hochfeder, 1494. Critical edition by M. J. Pohl, 7 vols. Freiburg im Breisgau, 19021922.

Prayers and Meditations on the Life of Christ. Translated by William Duthoit London, 1904.

The Founders of the New Devotion. Translated by J. P. Arthur. London, 1905.

The Chronicle of the Canons Regular of Mount St. Agnes. Translated by J. P. Arthur. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1906.

Meditations and Sermons on the Incarnation, Life and Passion of Our Lord. Translated by Dom Vincent Scully. London, 1907.

Sermons to the Novices Regular. Translated by Dom Vincent Scully. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1907.

The Imitation of Christ. Translated by Ronald Knox and Michael Oakley. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960. The freshest and most direct translation.

works on thomas

Huijben, Jacques, and Pierre Debougnie. L'auteur ou les auteurs de L'Imitation. Louvain, 1957. On the question of authorship of the Imitation.

Scully, Dom Vincent. Life of the Venerable Thomas à Kempis. London: R. and T. Washbourne, 1901.

Yule, George Udney. The Statistical Study of Literary Vocabulary. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1944. On the question of the authorship of the Imitation.

Ninian Smart (1967)