Paramhansa Yogananda, referred to Thomas à Kempis as a very great saint and highly recommended his book to others saying, It is no mere imitation of Christ. It is Christ.
Thomas a Kempis was a 15th-century German monk, scholar, and mystic whose whole life was dedicated to inner communion with Christ. At age 19, he joined the Augustinian order where he spent over seventy years of his life as a monastic, actively engaged in serving others through his devotional writings, sermons, hymns, biographies, and books for youth. He became a key figure in the Catholic reform movement known as the Devotio Moderna (New Devotion).
During the Middle Ages, the Catholic church, particularly the office of the papacy, had become deeply involved in the political life of Western Europe. This contributed to the bankrupting of the church as a spiritual force. Abuses such as the sale of indulgences and relics and the corruption of the clergy further undermined the church’s spiritual authority.
The New Devotion was a reaction against the corruption within the church. Rooted in the teachings of Meister Eckhardt and the German mystic tradition, the New Devotion, with its emphasis on inner devotion to Christ, revitalized religious life throughout much of Europe during the 15th century and preceded the Protestant Reformation by 150 years.
Dedicate yourself to the inner life and you shall see the Kingdom of God grow within you.
Revered today as a great Christian mystic, Thomas a 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. In this famous spiritual classic, he reminds the reader that in order to become a follower of Christ one must imitate his life. To accomplish this he says, “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.” Yogananda, referred to him as “a very great saint,” and highly recommended his book to others, saying, “It is no mere imitation of Christ. It is Christ.”
Thomas a Kempis, whose family name was Hemerken, was born in 1380 in Kempen, Germany, a small town about forty miles north of Cologne in the Rhine river country near the modern Dutch border. He was the younger of two sons. His parents, John and Gertrude, were both devoutly religious people of some education. His father, a metal worker, supplemented the family income with a small farm, and his mother kept a school for the younger children of the town.
Quiet and inward from early childhood, Thomas a Kempis seemed to be well disposed toward a holy life. His parents nurtured this innate spirituality by their own example of Christian living, teaching him the values of honest labor, humility, patience, and simplicity. His mother, in particular, as Thomas later wrote, exercised a strong influence on his life instilling in him the habits of right living and devotion for God.
Educated in the local grammar school where he was encouraged in his studies, he divided his time between his education and helping his father provide for the family.
At age thirteen Thomas was sent to a well-known public school in the city of Deventer, the Netherlands, to further his education. He was put under the care and supervision of John, his elder brother by fifteen years, who was a member of an informal religious community known as the Brethren of the Common Life. Although not affiliated with the school, the Brothers worked with them for the mutual benefit of the students, gladly providing housing, a small stipend, and job prospects to needy students.
Founded in Deventer in 1383 by Gerard Groote, a church deacon, educator and a leader of the New Devotion movement, The Brothers of the Common Life was a community of men, lay and clerics alike, who wanted to live for God. Attracted to the ideals of the new devotion, their aim was to emulate the life and virtues of the early Christians. They took no vows, voluntarily observing the rules of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and devoted themselves to a life of prayer, simplicity, and constant meditation on the life of Christ. Unlike the monasteries, begging was forbidden. Each member was required to support himself, and the money was put into a common fund. For most of the members, this meant working chiefly as educators and copyists for which they were well paid in the days before the invention of the printing press.
A major part of their outward service was education at a time when learning was in decline all over Europe. They either started schools where needed or affiliated with existing schools, providing teachers and other resources.
At the height of its growth in the 14th and 15th centuries, this community’s movement had spread throughout Europe and included communities for women called, the Sisters of the Common Life. The Brothers also founded a monastic counterpart, which was intended to oversee the spiritual life of the communities.
Upon Thomas’s arrival in Deventer in 1392, John recommended him to Florentius Radewyns, the chief disciple of Groote and Superior of the order, who took an immediate liking to him, seeing in him something of a spiritual son. (Groote had passed away in 1384).
He allowed Thomas to move into his own house temporarily, got him placed in the school, and supplied him with necessary books. Afterward, he found accommodations for him in the house of a pious and benevolent lady, until he was able to move into one of the brother-houses.
Diligent and persevering in his studies, Thomas attended the public school regularly. He strove to make progress in his learning, not only for its own sake but also to prove that he was not ungrateful for the loving affection he received and to make himself a fit instrument for God’s service.
The seven years Thomas a Kempis spent at Deventer set the tone and direction for his whole life. He was much influenced by the New Devotion movement and encouraged by the Brothers of the Common Life. Gradually imbibing the spirit and principles of the community, he adopted their habits and way of life. He became not only a model brother himself but greatly commended this mode of living to others, saying of his companions, “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.”
When not engaged in his studies, he spent his free time copying books and manuscripts, such as the Bible and numerous treatises by the Church Fathers. Thomas became an excellent calligraphist, which he greatly valued not only as a means of supporting himself and the Brotherhood but as a way of serving others.
He perfected himself in Latin and engaged in those studies that were clearly meant to prepare him for his novitiate. He was taught to read and understand the Scriptures; he attended lectures and informal discussions on topics such as devotion and morality; and most importantly, he learned how to meditate on the divinity of Christ’s life.
Inflamed with spiritual fervor, he entered fully into the spirit of the brotherhood, daily deepening his devotion and attunement to God’s will. However, it did not come easily and not without great 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.
In one prayer he cries out: “My Lord God, Who hast created me after Thine own image, grant me the grace to overcome this most corrupt nature of mine which draws me to sin and perdition. For within my flesh, I feel the law of sin warring against the law of spirit. Neither can I resist its passions unless Thy most holy grace, ardently infused into my heart, assist me.”
During his years at Deventer, he realized the value of community life and the strength he gained in support for his spiritual aspirations.
In 1399, with the approval of Florentius Radewyns, Thomas sought admission to the Augustinian monastery of Mount St. Agnes, where his brother had become Prior. He was one of the first novices to this new monastery, which the brothers had recently founded in the nearby city of Zwolle. In 1406 he was received into the Order of the Canons Regular and was ordained a priest in 1414, at age 34.
During the years leading up to his ordination, he wrote and distributed anonymously a number of short devotional treatises, which were met with great acclaim. Although he did his best to conceal his identity, his name became known first among the members of the brotherhood and later by others who began to look to him for further instruction and spiritual guidance. In this way, he began to feel the inner guidance that the written word would be a good way to draw souls to Christ.
In 1415 he began compiling the first books of The Imitation of Christ, which occupied him for the next ten years. Although busy copying manuscripts and attending to other monastic duties during the day, he often wrote long into the night and early morning hours, seeking to infuse others with a deep love for Christ.
All four books emphasize the importance of the inner life and the need to seek God alone if we are to find true peace and happiness.
Consisting of four separate books, The Imitation of Christ is a devotional work that was intended primarily as a handbook for monks but also appealed to a much wider audience. Remarkable for its simple language and style, all four books emphasize the importance of the inner life and the need to seek God alone if we are to find true peace and happiness.
In a typical passage he says, “Turn to the Lord with all your heart and disdain that which is superficial. Dedicate yourself to the inner life and you shall see the Kingdom of God grow within you. For the kingdom of God is peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
Secondarily, he talks about right attitudes necessary for the spiritual life. Prizing humility above all else, he says, “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.”
On inner peace: “Firstly, be peaceful yourself, and you will be able to bring peace to others. A good and peaceable man turns all things to good.”
His life and his writings reflect his commitment to the interior life and how much he valued the inner presence. All that he wrote was well considered and passed through the crucible of his own experience.
In 1425 he was elected sub-prior and again in 1448, at age 68. He acted as master of the novices and was charged with the spiritual welfare of the monastery, particularly its younger members. Although a lover of solitude, and given to much prayer and meditation, he was very conscientious in the performance of his duties and to those who willingly sought his counsel.
During these latter years, people came in great numbers to seek his guidance. Kind and affable, he was especially sympathetic to the poor and the afflicted and practiced great charity towards all.
In person, Thomas a Kempis was described as a man of middle height, with a fine broad forehead, dark complexion and vivid coloring. His eyes, large and grave, reflected his absorption with the inner life. He rarely spoke on matters of mundane interest, and for the most part remained silent and recollected unless the topic turned towards God or concerns of the soul. Constantly practicing the presence of God, he didn’t hesitate to excuse himself from his fellow monks if he felt inwardly drawn to meditate, regarding it as a call from Christ. At such times he would say, “My brethren, I must go: someone is waiting to converse with me in my cell.”
One of his fellow monks said of him, “Thomas gave all his attention to God in church, and when he carried out other religious ceremonies. While he chanted the Psalms, his eyes were ever raised towards Heaven, and he appeared to be filled with a Divine energy. As he prayed and meditated, only the tips of his toes touched the floor; the rest of his body lifted towards Heaven. He was always the first to enter the choir and always the last one to leave, because he had a very great love for the Divine worship, and all the services of the Church.”
During his long life as a monastic, his daily routine varied little. He devoted his time to prayer, study, copying manuscripts, teaching novices, offering Mass, and the hearing of confession. He continued to be usefully occupied to last days of his life.
In addition to his masterpiece, The Imitation of Christ, which achieved unparalleled popularity throughout Europe, he wrote many other works which also reflected his learning and devotion but which are less well known today. These include Prayers and Meditations on the Life of Christ, Sermons to Novices, Spiritual Exercises, The Elevation of the Mind, The Soliloquy of the Soul, The Garden of Roses, On the True Compunction of the Heart, On Solitude and Silence, On the Discipline of the Cloister, as well as several biographies, including those of Gerard Groote and Florentius Radewyns.
Finally, having reached ripe old age, he was afflicted with dropsy of the limbs and died in the Spring of 1471. He was 92 years old. He was buried in the east side of the cloister.
Under an old picture, which is represented as his portrait, are the words, “In all things I sought quiet, and found it not save in retirement and in books.”