Thomas à Kempis is known primarily for his book, The Imitation of Christ, one of the most popular and influential Christian works of all time, second only to the Bible.
Describing Thomas à Kempis as “a very great saint,” Paramhansa Yogananda recommended his book “unreservedly” saying, “It is a wonderful book. It is no mere imitation of Christ: It is Christ.”
The book’s message is simple: to become a follower of Christ one must imitate his life. Thomas writes: “Let it be our main concern to meditate on the life of Jesus Christ. It is impossible to imitate Christ without first knowing him, and the best way to do that is to meditate on his life as described in the four gospels.”
Thomas à Kempis was a key figure in the Catholic reform movement known as the “new devotion,” whose followers sought to emulate the virtues of the early Christians, especially their simplicity, humility, and love of God and neighbor. The Imitation of Christ, with its deep devotion and commitment to the interior life, beautifully captures the spirit of this movement.
An innately spiritual child
Thomas à Kempis was born in 1379 in Kempen, Germany, a small town near the modern Dutch border, the son of devoutly religious people. His parents nurtured his innate spirituality, teaching him the values of humility, patience, simplicity, and honest labor.
At age thirteen, in 1392, Thomas was enrolled in a well-known school in the Dutch city of Deventer, which was the center of the “new devotion” movement and the home of his brother, John, his elder by fifteen years.
A reaction to corruption
The “new devotion” movement developed in reaction to the widespread laxity and corruption within the Catholic Church. Rooted in the teachings of Meister Eckhardt and the German mystic tradition, it stressed meditation and the inner life, and attached little importance to rituals and outward practices.
The followers of “new devotion” were known as “The Brothers of the Common Life,” and included both laypersons and clerics. They lived together in-group houses and combined a personal striving for union with God with service to others.
Forbidden to beg, each member was required to support himself and the money was put into a common fund. Many worked as “copyists”—copying Latin manuscripts and books, a well-paid position in the days before the printing press.
Their special mission was education at a time when learning was in decline all over Europe. They sought not only to deepen the spiritual life of the times, but also to provide sound learning for the young. By the end of the fifteenth century, schools of the brotherhood had sprung up all over Germany and the Netherlands.
The “new devotion” movement eventually spread to France and parts of Italy and included communities for women.
An exemplary student
Upon Thomas’ arrival in Deventer, his brother, a member of the brotherhood, introduced him to the superior of the group, the saintly Florentius Radewyns.
Impressed with Thomas’ spiritual potential, Radewyns took him under his wing. He found accommodations for him in one of the brother-houses, paid his first school fees, and planned his course of study. Under Radewyns’ watchful eye, Thomas flourished.
An exemplary student, Thomas strove to progress in learning, not only for its own sake but to show his gratitude for the loving attention he received. He supported himself as a copyist and copied the entire Bible and numerous treatises by the Church Fathers.
Gradually imbibing the spirit and principles of the brotherhood, he fully embraced their way of life. He became a model brother and strongly recommended this mode of living to others, saying, “Never before do I remember having seen men so devout, so full of love for God and their fellow men. Living in the world, they were altogether unworldly.”
Though inflamed with spiritual fervor, attunement to God’s will did not come without inner struggles. Samuel Kettleman, Thomas’ main biographer, explains:
It is true that as he grew in years he grew in grace and in the knowledge of divine things, but it is true also that it was by perpetually striving against the desires that rose up within him, and by tenaciously keeping hold of God, and seeking His aid through the various means of grace.
A monastery without walls
In 1399, at age nineteen, Thomas became one of the first novices of the brotherhood’s newly formed monastery, Mount St. Agnes, in the nearby city of Zwolle. The monastery supported the spiritual life of the lay communities by providing experienced guides. Thomas’ brother, John, served as the first prior.
In the beginning, Mount St. Agnes was literally “a monastery without walls,” and Thomas’ acceptance into the monastic order and priesthood were delayed until the first buildings could be completed. Finally, in 1413, at age thirty-four, he was ordained a priest.
The power of the written word
During the years leading up to his ordination, Thomas anonymously wrote a number of widely acclaimed short devotional treatises. He tried to conceal his identity as author, but when his name became known, people began to seek him out him for spiritual guidance. Gradually he began to feel that he could draw souls to Christ through the written word.
Thus, in 1415, at age thirty-five, he began writing The Imitation of Christ, a task that would occupy him for the next ten years. After fulfilling his daily monastic duties, he would often write long into the night and early morning hours, seeking to infuse others with a deep love for Christ.
The Imitation of Christ was intended primarily as a handbook for monks, but it was also suitable for a much wider audience. Remarkable for its simple language and style, more than two hundred and fifty manuscript copies were in existence as early as 1450.
A burning love for Christ
Throughout, Thomas urges the reader to seek the joy and fulfillment of the inner life.
In passages that reflect his deep commitment to the experience of Christ’s inner presence, he writes:
Had you but once entered perfectly into the heart of Jesus, and tasted something of His burning love, you would care nothing for your own gain or loss.
To be without Jesus is hell most grievous; to be with Jesus is to know the sweetness of heaven. If Jesus is with you, no enemy can harm you.
In numerous passages he emphasizes the importance of humility:
Of what use is a learned discourse on the blessed Trinity, if you are not humble? I would rather be humble than be able to produce the most precise definition of it.
Other passages suggest his own personal challenges and struggles:
Always be ready for battle if you wish for victory; you cannot win the crown of patience without a struggle; if you refuse to struggle, you refuse the crown. Without labor no rest is won; without battle, there can be no victory.
Banish discouragement from your heart as best you can, and if trouble comes, never let it depress or hinder you for long. At the least, bear it bravely if you cannot bear it cheerfully.
Inwardly focused on God
Thomas loved solitude where he could devote himself to prayer and meditation. In the company of his fellow monks, unless the topic turned to God or the divine life, he remained silent and inwardly focused on God.
If he felt inwardly drawn to meditate, he regarded it as a call from Christ. To his fellow monks he would excuse himself saying, “My brethren, I must go: someone is waiting to converse with me in my cell.”
Despite his love of solitude, Thomas was always available to those who sought his counsel, and was especially sympathetic toward the poor and the physically afflicted. During his later years, people came in great numbers to seek his guidance.
A prolific writer
The Imitation of Christ was only one-tenth of Thomas’ lifetime literary output. He also wrote sermons, devotional tracts, books for youths, hymns, meditations on the life of Christ, and biographies of the leading “new devotion” figures.
Active until the end of life, his daily duties included copying manuscripts, the Bible (four times), teaching novices, offering Mass, and hearing confessions.
He died in 1471, at the age of 92. Inscribed at the bottom of an old painting, said to be his portrait, are the words: “In all things I sought quiet, and found it not, save in retirement and in books.”
This article first appeared in print in Fall 2009: “Thomas à Kempis (1379-1471),” Swami Kriyananda, Clarity Magazine.
Nakin Lenti, a minister and longtime member of Ananda, lives at Ananda Village where he serves in the Sangha Office. For further reading on Thomas à Kempis, contact him at email@example.com.