Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Life of Thomas a Kempis

The Life of Thomas a Kempis

Thomas was born in Kempen in 1379/80, the son of John and Gertrude Haemerken (the family name means ‘hammer’).  His father was a blacksmith and his mother ran a school for small children. 
Even at this early age Thomas yearned for education and the quiet life of reading and study. 

His favorite motto is said to have been: “I sought for rest but never found it, save in a little corner with a little book.  Perhaps he also felt even so early the call to the religious or the monastic life.  Which of these two impulses was the more urgent we will never know.  But what an important day it was for the whole history of Christian life and asceticism, even for the course of Western literature.

On a day in 1392, Thomas Haemerken, a German boy of some twelve years, knocked on the door of Florent Radewijns in the town of Deventer, in the Low Countries.  He made the journey from his native Kempen, fifteen miles northwest of present-day Dusseldorf.  His older brother John had made the same trip some years earlier, in order to join a small community founded by Gerard Groote and now directed by Radewijns, where Latin studies and the copying and illustrating of manuscripts flourished.
Example of Early Manuscripts

Seven years after his arrival, he determined to enter religious life.  His older brother was prior of the monastery of Mount St. Agnes, at Agnetenberg, beyond the walls of the city of Zwolle, but the Rule forbade two brothers to live in the same community, without special dispensation which was granted, because of the good character of both the brothers.

In 1425 he was appointed sub-prior of the monastery, and was also entrusted with the training of the novices.  For a brief time he was procurator (treasurer) of the house, but it was soon recognized that he had little talent for this kind of administration.

The world at the time of Thomas was a particularly confused and bewildered one.  The very foundation of the Church—and hence the Western civilization—seemed to be shaken and crumbling.  Monasteries and convents were often torn by inner dissensions; the tumult of the outside world made its way into places and souls there the peace of God should have reigned.  Religion, it may be said, was in not too healthy a state... 

Thomas knew from intimate and agonizing experience—what the religious disorders of the time meant and could lead to.  This is probably one reason why the pages of The Imitation are so sincere, so convincing in their tone of immediate experience, rather than seeming to echo spiritual teaching which is good and sound but rather remote and theoretical.  Thomas knew the world from which he was so strongly to recommend withdrawal—thought that withdrawal must be understood as Thomas meant it, not as some commentators have read their own meaning into it...

After his brother died around the year 1429, Thomas held various other posts in the monastery and in 1448 was elected sub-prior for the second time. 

For the next twenty years, his was the quiet life of student, counselor, copyist, and writer.  From his pen, in addition to The Imitation, came a remarkable quantity of work (of which The Imitation comprises only one-tenth), including sermons, treatises for the instructions of the novices and monks, devotional works, and two biographies—of St. Lydwine, virgin, and of Gerald Groote...

Thomas Kempis on Mount St. Agnes painted in 1569
He died on July 25, 1471, in his 92nd year, the 63rd of his religious life—and 58th of his priesthood  says the Chronicle of Mount St. Agnes...

The Imitation was first translated from Latin into English in 1460 by an unknown translator who omitted the fourth book.  This was a manuscript version.  The first English version to be printed was made in 1502 by William Atkinson, Cambridge scholar--also without the fourth book.    In 1503, Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII and patron of St. John Fisher, translated the fourth book from a French version...

The Imitation breathes a spirit of humility and peace as well as a salutary fear.  If Thomas insists strongly on compunction for sins, and a filial fear of the God whom we have offended, he does not forget the goal of such compunction and fear is Christian confidence and joy...
 By Harold C. Gardiner, S.J. 1955

Excerpts from the Introduction of The Imitation of Christ, Image Books Doubleday, 1955
The Imitation of Christ 
is one of the best known 
Christian books on devotion.


The following quotes are attributed to him:

           "Without the Way, 
                there  is no going,
          Without the Truth, 
               there is no knowing,
          Without the Life, 
              there is no living.”

"If thou wilt receive profit,
read with humility, 
simplicity, and faith,
and seek not at any time the fame of being learned."

"At the Day of Judgement we shall not be asked 
what we have read,
but what we have done."
  The Imitation of Christ, Book I, Chapter 3

"If, however, you seek Jesus in all things, 
you will surely find Him. "
The Imitation of Christ, Book II, Chapter  7