My the fifteenth century, the church in Europe was filthy with corruption. Popes, cardinals and bishops lived in gross sin. But among the common people, there was a hunger for decency and a longing for closeness to God.
This showed itself in good ways and in bad. Reform movements and heresies sprang up and were crushed by the leaders of a corrupt church. Mystics gained multitudes of followers. And the Brethren of the Common Life came into being. A wealthy Dutchman named Gerard Groot was its founder. After living for many years in the luxury of the corrupt church, his heart changed and he began to preach repentance. After a time, he was forbidden to preach. Then he became a teacher and youth flocked to him. He spent his entire inheritance promoting his vision of a simple life enriched with mysticism and ordinary work. The chief concern of the Brethren was to imitate the life of Christ.
Gerard died young of the plague, but his work lived on. Soon there were several communes of the Brethren in the Netherlands. To one of these communities, young Thomas Hammerken (Little Hammer) came from the German town of Kempen, following in the footsteps of an older brother who had already joined the Brethren. Thomas received a warm welcome and ended up spending seventy years with the Brethren, holding various positions, and earning his keep by copying manuscripts.
Thomas became a priest and preached sermons, some of which survive in written form. Among his other writings was a chronicle of his community, Mount St Agnes. But his most famous writing was a devotional classic called The Imitation of Christ.
Since he published it anonymously, it was credited to many other individuals. Some scholars still dispute his authorship, but its use of unusual words is like that of his other manuscripts. Copies exist with his name on them and people who survived him spoke of him as the author. Today, most scholars agree that, at the very least, he compiled the book.
The Imitation of Christ encouraged mystical devotion to our Savior and distrusted the human intellect. Here is a little of what Thomas had to say about the Eucharist (the Lord's Supper):
"What means this most gracious honor and this friendly invitation? How shall I dare to come, I who am conscious of no good on which to presume? How shall I lead You into my house, I who have so often offended in Your most kindly sight? Angels and archangels revere You, the holy and the just fear You, and You say: "Come to Me: all of you!" If You, Lord, had not said it, who would have believed it to be true? And if You had not commanded, who would dare approach?"
Thomas à Kempis died on July 25, 1471. Although contemporaries considered him a saint, Thomas was not named one by the Catholic church. However, the Episcopal Church honors him on this day, July 24.
- Creasy, William C. "Introduction." The Imitation of Christ; a timeless classic for contemporary readers, by Thomas à Kempis. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1989.
- De Montmorency, J. E. G. Thomas à Kempis; his age and his book. New York: Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1970.
- D'Souza, Dinesh. The Catholic Classics. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1986.
- Kempis, Thomas à. The Imitation of Christ. The Family Inspirational Library. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, n.d.
- Kiefer, James. "Thomas à Kempis; priest, monk and writer." Various web sites.
- Scully, Vincent. "Thomas à Kempis." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles.
Last updated June, 2006.