Thomas à Kempis

Thomas à Kempis

Thomas à Kempis, CRSA (1380–1471) was a German-Dutch canon regular of the late medieval period and the author of The Imitation of Christ, one of the most popular and best known Christian books on devotion. His name means Thomas "of Kempen", his hometown, and in German, he is known as Thomas von Kempen (in Dutch, Thomas van Kempen).

He was a member of the Modern Devotion, a spiritual movement during the late medieval period, and a follower of Geert Groote and Florens Radewyns, the founders of the Brethren of the Common Life

Thomas was born in Kempen in the Rhineland. His surname at birth was Hemerken, literally "hammerkin" (little hammer). His father Johann was a blacksmith and his mother Gertrud was a schoolmistress.

In 1392, Thomas followed his brother, Johann, to Deventer in the Netherlands in order to attend the noted Latin school there. While attending this school, Thomas encountered the Brethren of the Common Life, followers of Gerard Groote's Modern Devotion. He attended school in Deventer from 1392 to 1399.

After leaving school, Thomas went to the nearby city of Zwolle to visit his brother again, after Johann had become the prior of the Monastery of Mount St Agnes there. This community was one of the canons regular of the Congregation of Windesheim, founded by disciples of Groote in order to provide a way of life more in keeping with the norms of monastic life of the period. Thomas himself entered Mount St Agnes in 1406. He was not ordained a priest, however, until almost a decade later. He became a prolific copyist and writer. Thomas received Holy Ordersin 1413 and was made sub-prior of the monastery in 1429.

His first tenure of office as subprior was interrupted by the exile of the community from Agnetenberg (1429). A dispute had arisen in connection with an appointment to the vacant See of Utrecht. Pope Martin V rejected the nomination of Bishop-elect Rudolf van Diepholt, and imposed an interdict. The Canons remained in exile in observance of the interdict until the question was settled (1432). During this time, Thomas was sent to Arnhem to care for his ailing brother. He remained there until his brother died November, 1432.

Otherwise, Thomas spent his time between devotional exercises, composition, and copying. He copied the Bible no fewer than four times, one of the copies being preserved at Darmstadt, Germany in five volumes. In its teachings he was widely read and his works abound in Biblical quotations, especially from the New Testament.

As subprior, he was charged with instructing novices, and in that capacity wrote four booklets between 1420 and 1427, later collected and named after the title of the first chapter of the first booklet: The Imitation of Christ. Thomas More said it was one of the three books everybody ought to own.

Thomas died near Zwolle in 1471.


The Imitation of Christ
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The Imitation of Christ

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