About Thomas à Kempis
Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380 – 25 July 1471; German: Thomas von Kempen; Dutch: Thomas van Kempen) was a German-Dutch canon regular of the late medieval period and the author of The Imitation of Christ, written anonymously in Latin in the Netherlands c. 1418–1427, one of the most popular and best known Christian devotional books. His name means "Thomas of Kempen",Kempen being his home town. 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.
TAN Books has published three of Thomas à Kempis' works; The Immitation of Christ, Humility and Elevation of the Mind to God, and Meditations on Death.
The Immitation of Christ is said to have made more saints than any other book - next to the Bible, of course. Countless saints from Thérèse of Liseux to Ignatius of Loyola have kept this book on their nightstands, used it to direct their minds during adoration, and carried it in their pockets as a soldier carries his weapon into battle.
Humility and Elevation of the Mind to God along with Meditations on Death are both part of TAN's new initiative TAN Resurrection, who's mission is to bring back to life, and translate into English for the first time, the classic works of the Saints.
Thomas à Kempis Works
THE LIFE OF THE VENERABLE THOMAS À KEMPIS
by Heribert Roswed, SJ
Thomas à Kempis was born in the village of Kempen, located in the diocese of Cologne, and it is from this place that he received his surname. His parents were Johannes and Gertrude. Considered from a worldly point of view, they were distinguished neither by noble lineage nor by wealth. Indeed, their nobility consisted solely in their piety, and their wealth in their probity of life. Yet they lived in a contented manner, supporting themselves by the labor of their hands. To this couple were born twin sons, Thomas and Johannes. Johannes, named after his father, had been the first to be born. He undertook studies in the city of Deventer. Subsequently, he entered the Order of Canons Regular of the Congregation of Windesheim, joining the community at Mount St. Agnes in the municipality of Zwolle. Having commendably fulfilled various roles and offices for his community, Johannes was eventually to die there a peaceful and holy death.
Thomas was born in the year of the Lord 1380, during the pontificate of Urban VI and the reign of the Emperor Charles IV. After spending his first years with his parents, he was seen to be well suited to literary studies and took himself to Deventer for this purpose. At this time, he was no more than thirteen years of age. One of the factors that encouraged him in this endeavor was the fame of a certain learned priest, scholar, and teacher who resided there, Florentius, whose acquaintance he desired to make. This Florentius was the prefect of a distinguished house of studies. In fact, all manner of studies flourished at Deventer at that time, and it could truly be described then as the “Athens of Belgium.”
Having arrived at Deventer, the first concern of Thomas was to meet with his twin brother, Johannes, who was already a student there, and to solicit his advice and guidance about what steps he should take. His brother recommended him to the renowned Florentius, who graciously accepted him into his establishment—known as the Brotherhood of Common Life—as a student. Thus Thomas, an affable youth of good habits, entered a fraternal community of men who were illustrious both for learning and piety, living and studying under the supervision of Florentius. Needless to say, he delighted in their companionship and profited greatly by their example. He exhibited himself as diligent in his duties within the community, assiduous in his studies, and devout in his prayer.
There, in the space of a few years, he progressed steadily in his academic accomplishments, and no less so in his piety. Indeed, the several volumes of spiritual writings that he authored during this time attest powerfully to this. These works are of such wonderful devotion and utility that they may never be sufficiently praised. While in this house of studies, he dedicated himself to the copying of many ancient manuscripts, thereby bringing considerable benefits to his fellow students and to the community.
From his boyhood, Thomas nourished a fervent attachment to the Blessed Virgin, and it was his custom to offer daily devotions to her. However, the piety of youth is seldom firm or stable, and in the course of time, he became somewhat less consistent in this practice. Sometimes, when he was busy or distracted, he would skip his daily devotions. Later, such omissions extended to two, three, or four days, and eventually even a week. Alas! Finally, he abandoned altogether his former custom of offering daily homage to the great Mother of God.
Then a vision came to him one night in a dream. He was standing in the lecture room with an assembly of other scholars. His master of studies, Florentius, was there also, and the students were listening attentively as he read to them the words of Scripture. Suddenly, Thomas beheld a cloud coming down from heaven on which stood Holy Mary, the Queen of heaven and earth. Though she was invisible to everyone else, Thomas saw her move around the room and embrace and kiss each of the students in turn with maternal love. He himself felt his devotion to her burn with renewed ardor. Joyfully, he waited for her to arrive at him, hoping and expecting to receive her gracious and kindly embrace.
But when the Mother of God arrived at him, she did not embrace him at all but instead reprimanded him bitterly. “You expect to receive my embrace? You, who neglect to pay me the honor you had once promised to me? Where have your customary devotions gone? Why have your prayers vanished, the homage which you formerly poured out to me with sighs and tears? Has your love for me grown cold and your ardor become dull? Why does your former piety vacillate thus? Depart from me! For you are surely unworthy of my embrace, since you have neglected such an easy thing as to offer a daily greeting to your beloved!”
And with these well-deserved admonitions having been pronounced, the Blessed Virgin disappeared into the heavens. Thomas, awakening from his slumber, then recognized his own failing. He immediately committed himself to the amendment of his ways. And, lest once more he should lose the embrace of the Mother of God, he resumed his former devotions and thenceforth did not allow one day of his life to pass by without offering his homage to the Blessed Virgin. O happy correction that renewed the bond of love and erased previous negligence by a fresh commitment!
While living in the Brotherhood of Common Life, he was often afflicted by various sufferings of soul and of body. In such cases, he would pray fervently before a crucifix placed upon his wall, expressing himself more by his tears than by his words.
After living for some seven years in the brotherhood, he felt a more determined vocation to consecrated life. Florentius encouraged this vocation strongly, and in 1399, Thomas went to the house of the Canons Regular at Mount St. Agnes near the city of Zwolle. At this time, this community was but a small and obscure one. He took with him a letter of recommendation from his former teacher, Florentius. His brother, Johannes, had entered the same house some years previously and now occupied the position of prior there. He was received readily and with great delight and fraternal affection in accordance with the words of the psalmist: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”1
As a candidate for consecrated life and sacred orders, he was fervid and enthusiastic in his vocation, yet without any trace of temerity or presumption. After five years in initial formation, he received the habit of religious life, and in the following year, he bound himself to the consecrated life by solemn vows. He was outstanding in his piety, his obedience to his superiors, and his charity and benevolence towards his confreres.
He never gave rein to idleness, which is truly the font of all evil. Rather, he constantly devoted himself to reading or copying sacred books, both for the common use of the community and his own education. Indeed, he spent much of the night—the time between Matins and Lauds—occupied in this manner. This was done, of course, not without taking its toll upon his physical vigor and mental energies. Out of the books he copied in this manner, there remains in existence a complete Bible, a missal, and many of the writings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. These superb manuscripts attest both to the artistry of his penmanship and the magnitude of his industry.
In liturgical prayers within the oratory and the church, Thomas exhibited a degree of reverence and spiritual presence which almost exceeds description. Whenever he chanted the psalms, his face was raised towards the heavens, and he was observed to be captured and seized beyond himself by the very sweetness of the psalmody. It was as if he escaped the bounds of the material world and his soul flew into the celestial realms! Indeed, it was only the toes of his feet which maintained contact with the earth, while all his other members were transported upwards. He would always chant the psalms standing erect, never sitting nor resting on a bench or stool. And he was always the first to enter the oratory for prayer, and always the last to leave.
Such was the visible delight and enthusiastic animation he displayed in singing the psalms that one of his confreres, making an amusing pun, commented, “Thomas savors these psalms as if he were eating fine salmon!”2 Now, the salmon is indeed a most delectable fish to eat. Thomas replied to his confrere’s jocular observation with the following pithy retort:
The salmon is a wondrous fish;
Well cooked, it is a tasty dish.
But, if consumed without due care
Can health, and even life, impair.
And thus the psalms, if sung with heart,
All joys of heaven shall impart;
But if with spirits dull they’re read
Can leave one’s soul dismayed and dead.
The conversation of Thomas always pertained to God and Sacred Scripture. Even in the presence of important people, if the discussion concerned only worldly matters, he would be silent, as if he were mute or without the capacity for speech. He would not respond, nor would he ask anything, unless some unavoidable necessity compelled him to do so. He much preferred to be seen as entirely ignorant and dull in such matters. However, if the conversation was about God and divine mysteries, his discourse was like a ceaseless river of words, flowing forth with miraculous beauty and crystalline clarity. Whenever he was asked about such things, he would never fail to give a comprehensive and enlightening reply. Nevertheless, it was his practice in such matters always to take some moments for meditation and reflection before answering.
Such was his remarkable eloquence and accomplishment in speech that he quickly became widely renowned as an orator, preacher, and conversationalist. Many would travel from distant cities and regions to visit his community, drawn by the desire of hearing the wonderful words of Thomas.
His brethren were constantly filled with admiration and amazement at the imperturbable patience of Thomas in tolerating adversities and difficulties of all kinds. He not only mildly and benignly tolerated the vices and shortcomings of others but even kindly made excuses for them as much as he possibly could. Throughout his life, he always displayed exemplary temperance, moderation, modesty, and humility. His care in providing for the needs of others was diligent and indefatigable, and his enthusiasm for the cultivation of the liturgy and the beautification of the oratory and church was unbounded. Yet he viewed all things, except those pertaining to God and to true religion, as mere vanities and passing shadows. Indeed, his detachment from worldly vanities and mundane business was such that the mere mention of them was apt to fill him with tedium and distraction.
Thomas was so greatly enamored of sacred reading and the solitude of his monastic cell that he formulated a kind of personal motto expressing this love. This he frequently repeated verbally and would inscribe in his books. It read thus: “In all things I have sought rest. But I have found it nowhere, except in hidden corners and in books!”
His mercy and kindness was such that while still a young man, he was chosen as subprior of his community. Afterwards, he was elevated to the position of procurator, or domestic prefect. Although he performed these duties with all diligence, the primary calling of his heart remained that of divine contemplation and prayerful studies. For this reason, he was soon relieved of these onerous offices and returned to his former role of subprior. This role he fulfilled creditably for a great many years.
In stature, he was rather below average height but of muscular build. His complexion was ruddy and somewhat swarthy. His vision was most acute, so that he never had recourse to the aid of spectacles or other such devices, even as he approached his final days.
When Thomas had meritoriously completed seventy-one years of religious life at Mount St. Agnes with great fruitfulness to his community, he was called by the Lord to the Mount of Eternity. Indeed, he had long contemplated his return to his heavenly homeland with the most fervent longing and joyful anticipation. His blessed soul, departing from the earthly dwelling place of his mortal body, ascended to the eternal tabernacle of heaven to enjoy there the wonderful vision of God forever. He died peacefully in the ninety-second year of his mortal life, in the year of our Lord 1470, on the twenty-fifth day of July.
This text is an excerpt from our book Humility And Elevation of the Mind to God
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