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Summary Article: Thomas à Kempis (c.1380-1471)
from The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization

Thomas à Kempis, monk and renowned ascetical writer, was born to a poor family in Kempen, near Düsseldorf (modern-day Germany). He is widely believed to have written The Imitation of Christ, which has influenced Christian spirituality perhaps more than any other book except the Bible. In 1399, after his education at Deventer at the school of the Brethren of the Common Life, he entered the monastery of the Augustinian Canons at Mount St. Agnes, near Zwolle, where his elder brother John had become prior. Here Thomas began his long and fruitful life as a monk. He took his solemn vows in 1406 and was ordained priest in 1413. With the exception of one short trip to visit his dying brother (who had gone on to found another monastery), he remained in the monastery at Mount St. Agnes for the rest of his life. In all he lived there for 72 years.

Thomas's primary work within the community was as a copyist. He produced two complete copies of the Bible — ten volumes each — in addition to numerous psalters and prayer books. He also served as sub-prior, chronicler, and master of the novices. Throughout his time in the monastery he wrote extensively. It was most likely during the years immediately preceding and following his ordination that he compiled the four books of the Imitation. In this spiritual masterpiece, he offers probing and candid reflections on the nature of Christian discipleship as a life of singular obedience to Christ. For Thomas, the high calling of the Christian is to imitate Christ himself.

Known for his learning and devotion, Thomas was an eloquent preacher and a wise counselor, highly sought after as a spiritual advisor. He did not seek personal fame, but epitomized Christian humility. This virtue was at the forefront of his life and thought, as represented by his writings. His works are of many different kinds, including ascetical, homiletical, biographical, and poetical. The same devotional spirit which permeates the Imitation is found in his other, lesser-known works, such as Prayers and Meditations on the Life of Christ, On the Discipline of the Cloister, The Soliloquy of the Soul, On True Compunction of Heart, Spiritual Exercises, Sermons to Novices, The Elevation of the Mind, and On Solitude and Silence. His feast day in the American Book of Common Prayer (1979) is July 24.

SEE ALSO: Devotio Moderna; Imitation of Christ; Mystical Tradition

References and Suggested Readings
  • Kettlewell, S. (1882). Thomas à Kempis and the Brothers of Common Life, 2 vols. G. P. Putnam's Sons New York.
  • Sherley-Price, L. (1986). Introduction. In Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, reprint edn (trans. and intro. Sherley-Price, L. ). Dorset Press New York, pp. 11-25.
  • Kenneth M. Loyer
    Wiley ©2012

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