Death of Thomas à Kempis
IMAGINE spending a long time traveling to boarding school at thirteen years of age to join your older brother, only to find he had not been there for two years! Thomas à Kempis set out from Kempen, Germany and arrived in Deventer, Holland, expecting his brother John to warmly receive him, but found the older boy had left two years earlier! Thomas had to travel another twenty miles to Windesheim to catch up with him. John arranged for Thomas to study with the Brothers of the Common Life back in Deventer.
The Brothers of the Common Life warmly received Thomas once he arrived. Sickened by corruption in the Catholicism of their day, they had developed a form of discipline known as the “new devotion.” Their goal was to live as much like the early Christians as possible. They exalted Christ, labored to meet their own needs, and contributed to a common fund. They took no vows, but willingly chose poverty, chastity and obedience. Some lived at home, while others lived in communities. It was among these humble and devout people that Thomas was trained.
Under their tutelage, Thomas became a priest. He showed an aptitude for copying manuscripts and that became his vocation. He transcribed the Bible four times—a huge undertaking when one considers there are over eight-hundred thousand words in it. At the same time, he created writings of his own, including biographies of saints and a chronicle of his community, Mount St Agnes. However, the book linked most closely with his name is the devotional classic The Imitation of Christ.
Since he published it anonymously, it was credited to many other individuals. Some scholars still dispute his authorship, but most accept it. The book’s use of unusual words is like that of à Kempis’ other manuscripts. Copies exist with his name on them, and several people who knew him personally spoke of him as the author.
As one would expect from someone raised in the New Devotion, The Imitation of Christ encouraged mystical dedication to the Savior. For instance, in his chapter titled “Of Zeal in the Reformation of our Lives” he wrote:
Baptism represents your profession, which is to follow the example of our Savior, and to be made like unto Him; and yet, after so many years being called a Christian, you are still too far from being one—if ‘dying to sin, and living to righteousness,’ as your Jesus died and rose again for you, be that which makes a Christian, and distinguishes him from other men.
Thomas à Kempis died on this day, 25 July 1471, having lived a quiet, useful life. This was as he wanted it, for he is quoted as saying, “Everywhere I have sought rest and found it nowhere, save in little nooks with little books.”