Thomas a Kempis
Thomas à Kempis
THOMAS À KEMPIS
Spiritual writer; b. Kempen, near Düsseldorf, the Rhineland, 1379 or 1380; d. Zwolle, the Netherlands, Aug. 8, 1471. À Kempis was the younger of two sons of a peasant family, Hammerken; his name, À Kempis, was derived from his native village. His first schooling he received in Kempen, possibly in the school for local children conducted by his mother. From 1393 to 1398 he was a student in Deventer, under the patronage of florentius radewijns, successor of Gerard groote, founder of the Brothers of the Common Life. In 1399, instead of joining the Brothers of the Common Life as he had planned, he entered Mt. St. Agnes, a newly founded monastery of the canons regular of st. augustine, where his brother, John, 15 years his senior, was prior.
À Kempis was not clothed as a novice until 1406, a fact sometimes alleged as evidence that he was a dullard, but the delay was due to the unfinished state of the buildings. In 1413 he was ordained, and the remainder of his long life he spent at Mt. St. Agnes, except for a period of three years when the community moved because of an interdict. Little is known of his activity, aside from his transcription of manuscripts and composition of numerous works. He was subprior in 1425 and again in 1448, and for a time acted as master of novices.
Besides the copying of numerous manuscripts, including one of the Bible, Thomas is most commonly credited with the authorship of the imitation of christ. He also wrote many works of devotion, collections of sermons, and contemporary chronicles. He is considered the most complete and outstanding representative of devotio moderna. This is evident especially from his treatises on the life of the soul and his spiritual conferences. Outstanding among these are: Soliloquium animae, considered one of the most characteristic works of the windesheim school, which contains practical counsels on fidelity to the movements of grace; De tribus tabernaculis, considerations on poverty, humility, and chastity; De fideli dispensatore, counsels to a contemplative in charge of the material goods of the monastery; Sermones ad novicios, 30 conferences for the novices at Mt. St. Agnes, concerned with the common life, keeping guard over the senses, the spiritual combat of the religious, and devotion to Our Lady.
À Kempis wrote a number of chronicles and lives of the saints. Among these are: Vita Gerardi Magni, an account of the life of Gerard Groote; Vita Florentii, a life of Gerard's successor; Chronica Montis Sanctae Agnetis, a history of Mt. St. Agnes, one of the principle sources for À Kempis's life. His works have been published in a critical edition: Opera Omnia ed. M. J. Pohle (7 v. Freiburg 1910–22).
Bibliography: j. mercier, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique 15.1:761–765. a. hyma, The Brothers of the Common Life (Grand Rapids, Mich. 1950).
Thomas à Kempis
Thomas à Kempis
The spiritual writer Thomas à Kempis (ca. 1380-1471) was a Roman Catholic monk in Holland whose "The Imitation of Christ" became a classic in religious literature.
Thomas à Kempis, whose family name was Hammercken, was born in the Rhineland town of Kempen near Düsseldorf in Germany. The school he attended at nearby Deventer in Holland had been started by Gerard Groote, founder of the Brothers of the Common Life. These were men devoted to prayer, simplicity, and union with God. Thomas of Kempen, as he was known at school, was so impressed by his teachers that he decided to live his own life according to their ideals. When he was 19, he entered the monastery of Mount St. Agnes, which the Brothers had recently started near Zwolle in Holland and which was then being administered by his older brother John. He spent the rest of his long life behind the walls of that monastery.
The pattern of Thomas's life remained the same over the years. He devoted his time to prayer, study, copying manuscripts, teaching novices, offering Mass, and hearing the confessions of people who came to the monastery church. From time to time Thomas was given a position of authority in the community of monks, but he consistently preferred the quiet of his cell to the challenge of administration. He was pleasant but retiring. The other monks eventually recognized Thomas's talent for deep thought and stopped troubling him with practical affairs.
Thomas wrote a number of sermons, letters, hymns, and lives of the saints. He reflected the mystical spirituality of his times, the sense of being absorbed in God. The most famous of his works by far is The Imitation of Christ, a charming instruction on how to love God. This small book, free from intellectual pretensions, has had great appeal to anyone interested in probing beneath the surface of life. "A poor peasant who serves God," Thomas wrote in it, "is better than a proud philosopher who … ponders the courses of the stars." The book advised the ordering of one's priorities along religious lines. "Vain and brief is all human comfort. Blessed and true is that comfort which is derived inwardly from the Truth." Thomas advised where to look for happiness. "The glory of the good is in their own consciences, and not in the mouths of men." The Imitation of Christ has come to be, after the Bible, the most widely translated book in Christian literature. Thomas died in the same monastic obscurity in which he had lived, on Aug. 8, 1471.
The most convenient modern edition of The Imitation of Christ is the translation by Justin McCann (1952). There are no modern works on the life of Thomas à Kempis, but several older books are still valuable: Francis R. Cruise, Thomas à Kempis (1887), and J. E. G. De Montmorency, Thomas à Kempis: His Age and Book (1906). □