Thomas a Kempis
Life and teaching of Thomas a Kempis
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Thomas a Kempis : Biography

Thomas a Kempis Author of the "Imitation of Christ", born at Kempen in the Diocese of Cologne, in 1379 or 1380; died 25 July, 1471.

His parents, John and Gertrude Haemerken, were of the artisan class; it is said that Gertrude kept the village school, and most probably the father worked in metals, a common calling in Kempen, whence perhaps the surname Haemerken, or Haemerlein, Latinized Malleolus (a little hammer). We have certain information of only two children, John, the senior by about fourteen years, and Thomas. Thomas was only thirteen when he set out for the schools of Deventer, in Holland. His brother had preceded him thither by ten or twelve years, and doubtless Thomas expected to find him still there. On his arrival, however, he learned that he had gone two years since with five other brothers of the Common Life to lay the foundations of a new congregation of Canons Regular at Windesheim, about twenty miles from Deventer, where he then went and was lovingly received by his brother who provided him with a letter of introduction to the superior of the Brothers of the Common Life at Deventer, Florentius Radewyn. Radewyn gave a warm welcome to the young brother of John Haemerken of Kempen, placed him for the time being in the house and under the maternal care of "a certain noble and devout lady", presented him to the rector of the schools, and paid his first fees, though the master returned the money when he learned whence it came. These particulars we have from the pen of Thomas himself in the biographies, written in his old age, of Gerard Groote, Florentius Radewyn, and their followers (see "The Founders of the New Devotion", London, 1905). For seven years he remained at Deventer, numbered from the first among the disciples of Radewyn, and for a good portion of the time living in his house under his immediate care. It is impossible to exaggerate the influence of those years in the formation of his character. The "new devotion", of which Deventer was then the focus and center, was a revival in the Low Countries in the fourteenth cetury of the fervour of the primitive Christians at Jerusalem and Antioch in the first. It owed its inception to the fervid preaching of the Deacon Gerard Groote, its further organization to the prudence and generous devotedness of Florentius Radewyn. Its associates were called the "Devout Brothers and Sisters", also the "Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life". They took no vows, but lived a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience, as far as was compatible with their state, some in their own homes and others, especially clerics, in community. They were forbidden to beg, but all were expected to earn their living by the labour of their hands; for the clerics this meant chiefly the transcribing of books and the instruction of the young. All earnings were placed in a common fund, at the disposal of the superior; the one ambition of all was to emulate the life and virtues of the first Christians, especially in the love of God and the neighbour, in simplicity, humility, and devotion. Furthermore, partly to provide the Devout Brothers and Sisters with effective protectors and experienced guides, partly to afford an easy transit to the religious state proper for those of their number who should desire it, Gerard Groote conceived the idea of establishing a branch of the canonical order, which should always maintain the closest relations with the members of the new devotion. This scheme was carried into effect after his untimely death, at the early age of forty-three, by the foundation of the congregation of Windesheim, as it was afterwards called from the tract of land where the first priory was established (1386). These details are given as helpful to a better understanding of the life and character of à Kempis, a typical and exemplary Brother, and for seventy-two years he was one of the most distinguished of the Canons Regular.


Thomas a Kempis : Bibliography

- Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ in Four Books, trans. Joseph Tylenda, rev. Ed., Vintage Spiritual Classics (reprint: New York: Vintage, 1998) paperback, $9.

Thomas a Kempis : Portraits

Thomas a Kempis
Thomas a Kempis
Thomas a Kempis
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