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Thomas a Kempis

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Thomas a Kempis : Life

Thomas a Kempis At Deventer Thomas proved an apt pupil, already noted for his neatness and skill in transcribing manuscripts. This was a life-long labour of love with him; in addition to his own compositions he copied numerous treatises from the Fathers, especially St. Bernard, a Missal for the use of his community, and the whole Bible in four large volumes still extant. After completing his humanities at Deventer, in the autumn of 1399, with the commendation of his superior, Florentius Radewyn, Thomas sought admission among the Canons Regular of Windesheim at Mount St. Agnes, near Zwolle, of which monastery his brother John was then prior. The house had been established only the previous year, and as yet there was no claustral buildings, no garden, no benefactors, no funds. During his term of office, which lasted nine years, John Kempis built the priory and commenced the church. In these circumstances we find the explanation of the fact that Thomas was not clothed as a novice until 1406, at which date the cloister was just completed, nor ordained priest until 1413, the year after the church was consecrated. The point is worth noting, as some writers in their eagerness to discredit the claims of Kempis to the authorship of the "Imitation" have actually fastened upon the length of this period of probation to insinuate that he was a dullard or worse. Thomas was himself, to within a few months of his death, the chronicler of Agnetenberg. The story which he tells of the earthly struggles of the priory on the mount, its steady progress, and eventual prosperity is full of charm and edification ("The Chronicle of the Canons Regular of Mount St. Agnes", London, 1906). These records reveal to us the simplicity and holiness of his religious brethren. He was twice elected subprior, and once he was made procurator. The reason assigned by an ancient biographer for the latter appointment is one that does honour both to Thomas and his brethren, his love for the poor. However, we can scarcely imagine the author of the "Imitation" a good business manager, and after a time his preference for retirement, literary work, and contemplation prevailed with the Canons to relieve him of the burden. The experience thus gained he made use of in a spiritual treatise, "De fideli dispensatore".

His first tenure of office as subprior was interrupted by the exile of the community from Agnetenberg (1429), occasioned by the unpopular observance of the Canons of Windesheim of an interdict laid upon the country by Martin V. A dispute had arisen in connexion with an appointment to the vacant See of Utrecht and an interdict was upon the land. The Canons remained in exile until the question was settled (1432). The community of Mount St. Agnes had dwelt meanwhile in a canonry of Lunenkerk, which they reformed and affiliated to Windesheim. More than a year of this trying period Thomas spent with his brother John in the convent of Bethany, near Arnheim, where he had been sent to assist and confort his brother, who was ailing. He remained until his death (November, 1432). We find record of his election as subprior again in 1448, and doubtless he remained in office until age and infirmity procured him release. It was part of the subprior's duties to train the young religious, and to this fact no doubt we owe most of his minor treatises, in particular his "Sermons to the Novices Regular" (tr. London, 1907). We also know from early biographers that Thomas frequently preached in the church attached to the priory. Two similar series of these sermons are extant (tr. "Prayers and Meditations on the Life of Christ" and "The Incarnation and Life of Our Lord", London, 1904, 1907). They treat of Kempis' favourite subjects, the mystery of our Redemption, and the love of Jesus Christ as shown in His words and works, but especially in the sufferings of His Passion. In person Thomas is described as a man of middle height, dark complexion and vivid colouring, with a broad forehead and piercing eyes; kind and affable towards all, especially the sorrowful and the afflicted; constantly engaged in his favourite occupations of reading, writing, or prayer; in time of recreation for the most part silent and recollected, finding it difficult even to express an opinion on matters of mundane interest, but pouring out a ready torrent of eloquence when the conversation turned on God or the concerns of the soul. At such times often he would excuse himself, "My brethren", he would say, "I must go: Someone is waiting to converse with me in my cell." A possibly authentic portrait, preserved at Gertruidenberg, bears as his motto the words: "In omnibus requiem quaesivi et nusquam inveni nisi in een Hoecken met een Boecken" (Everywhere I have sought rest and found it nowhere, save in little nooks with little books). He was laid to rest in the eastern cloister in a spot carefully noted by the continuator of his chronicle. Two centuries after the Reformation, during which the priory was destroyed, the holy remains were transferred to Zwolle and enclosed in a handsome reliquary by Maximilian Hendrik, Prince-Bishop of Cologne. At present they are enshrined in St. Michael's Church, Zwolle, in a magnificent monument erected in 1897 by subscriptions from all over the world and inscribed: "Honori,non memoriae Thomae Kempensis, cujus nomen perennius quam monumentum" (To the honour not to the memory of Thomas Kempis, whose name is more enduring than any monument). It is interesting to recall that the same Maximilian Hendrik, who showed such zeal in preserving and honouring the relics of Kempis, was also eager to see the cause of his beatification introduced and began to collect the necessary documents; but little more than a beginning was made when he died (1688) and since that date no further steps have been taken.


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