Thomas a Kempis: A Beautiful Model for Moral imitation for our Time

What does a fifteenth-century devotional book have to do with modern education?

Thomas à Kempis, or van Kempen, was a German-Dutch priest of the early fifteenth century. He was associated with the Brethren of the Common Life, an informal religious movement that fostered the devotio moderna, a form of popular piety that concentrated on humility and charity as cornerstones of the Christian life, in contrast to the doctrinal focus of Scholasticism. The proponents of devotio moderna did not consider learning a bad thing by any stretch—they influenced such luminaries as Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, and St. Ignatius de Loyola—but their focus was on simple piety as the animating force of all activities, including study.

À Kempis himself was a prolific copyist and author. He made at least four complete copies of the Bible, one of which has been preserved to this day in the German city of Darmstadt, as well as writing several collections of sermons and biographies of devotio moderna founders. But his most famous work, whose original manuscript now resides in the Bibliothèque Royale in Brussels, is the Imitation of Christ. Arguably the single most influential religious work in Europe after the Bible, the Imitation has won an audience not only among Christian minds (crossing the Catholic-Protestant divide), but even in other faiths: Swami Vivekananda, a nineteenth-century Hindu ascetic and lecturer, constantly carried both the Bhagavad Gītā and the Imitation of Christ with him, and produced a translation of his own in 1899.

The work is intensely single-minded. All pretensions of the ego are given short shrift: from wealth to scholarship to good repute, everything is subordinated to Christ. À Kempis is a mystic, but he is anything but airy and abstract; one gets the impression that the simple daily affairs of the Brethren of the Common Life wore through any head-in-the-clouds tendencies. He often drily throws out caustic prompts to humility like “Learn to be patient with the defects of others, whatever they may be, because you also have plenty of flaws that others have to put up with.” Yet the work is written with such sweetness that the effect of these remarks is tonic rather than gloomy, and the reader comes away with an appetite for more.

To this day, the influence of the Imitation can be felt across the world.

Given the our stated goal of reuniting knowledge and virtue, it is interesting to reflect on what St. Thomas à Kempis would think of our world today. A shallow reading of his work might prompt people to think he would reject our interest in learning; yet he once remarked himself, “In omnibus requiem quaesivi, sed non inveni, nisi in angulo cum libro“—that is, “I have looked everywhere for peace, but never found it, except in a corner with a book.”

  • Thomas a Kempis:

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 (or Hammerlein), meaning the family’s profession, “little hammer,” Latinized into “Malleolus.”] His father, Johann, was a blacksmith and his mother, Gertrud, was a schoolmistress.] Although almost universally known in English as Thomas à Kempis, the “a” represents the Latin “from” and is erroneously accented. In his writings he signed himself “Thomas Kempensis” or “Thomas Kempis”

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 Orders in 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 in November, 1432.

Otherwise, Thomas spent his time between devotional exercises in writing and in copying manuscripts. He copied the Bible no fewer than four times,[8] one of the copies being preserved at Darmstadt, Germany, in five volumes. In its teachings he was widely read and his works abound with biblical quotations, especially from the New Testament.

As subprior he was charged with instructing novices, and in that capacity wrote four booklets between 1418 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.] Thirteen translations of the Imitatio Christi and three paraphrases in English seem to have been published between 1500 and 1700.] Thomas died near Zwolle in 1471. There is a legend that he was denied canonization some 200 years after his death by the Catholic Church due to the presence of scratch marks on the interior of his coffin lid, which supposedly disqualifies him from sainthood as it would mean he did not peacefully embrace death. However, there is scant evidence to support that he was buried alive or the idea that the Church would have denied him sainthood if they did discover he died in this manner.

Kempis’s 1441 autograph manuscript of The Imitation of Christ is available in the Bibliothèque Royale in Brussels (shelfmark: MS 5455-61).

He also wrote the biographies of New Devotion members—Gerard Groote, Floris Radewijns, Jan van de Gronde, and Jan Brinckerinck. His important works include a series of sermons to the novices of St. Augustine Monastery, including Prayers and Meditations on the Life of Christ, Meditations on the Incarnation of Christ, Of True Compunction of Heart, Soliloquy of the Soul, Garden of Roses, Valley of Lilies, and a Life[14] of St. Lidwina of Schiedam.


The following quotes are attributed to him:

“Without the Way, there is no going, Without the Truth, there is no knowing, Without the Life, there is no living.”

“If thou wilt receive profit, read with humility, simplicity, and faith, and seek not at any time the fame of being learned.”

“At the Day of Judgement we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done.” — The Imitation of Christ, Book I, ch. 3

“For man proposes, but God disposes” — The Imitation of Christ, Book I, ch. 19

“If, however, you seek Jesus in all things, you will surely find Him. ” — The Imitation of Christ, Book II, ch. 7

  • Contents Imitatio Christi:

The Imitation of Christ is divided into four books which provide detailed spiritual instructions.

Book One

Book One of the Imitation is titled “Helpful Counsels of the Spiritual Life”. The Imitation derives its title from the first chapter of Book I, “The Imitation of Christ and contempt for the vanities of the world” (Latin: “De Imitatione Christi et contemptu omnium vanitatum mundi”). The Imitation is sometimes referred to as Following of the Christ, which comes from the opening words of the first chapter—”Whoever follows Me will not walk into darkness.” Book One deals with the withdrawal of the outward life—so far as positive duty allows and emphasizes an interior life by renouncing all that is vain and illusory, resisting temptations and distractions of life, giving up the pride of learning and to be humble, forsaking the disputations of theologians and patiently enduring the world’s contempt and contradiction.

Kempis stresses the importance of solitude and silence, “how undisturbed a conscience we would have if we never went searching after ephemeral joys nor concerned ourselves with affairs of the world…” Kempis writes that the “World and all its allurements pass away” and following sensual desires leads to a “dissipated conscience” and a “distracted heart” (Chap. 20). Kempis writes that one should meditate on death and “live as becomes a pilgrim and a stranger on earth…for this earth of ours is no lasting city” (Chap. 23).On the Day of Judgement, Kempis writes that a good and pure conscience will give more joy than all the philosophy one has ever learned, fervent prayer will bring more happiness than a “multi-course banquet”, the silence will be more “exhilarating” than long tales, holy deeds will be of greater value than nice-sounding words (Chap. 24).

Kempis writes one must remain faithful and fervent to God, and keep good hope of attaining victory and salvation, but avoid overconfidence. Kempis gives the example of an anxious man who, oscillating between fear and hope and with grief went to the altar and said: “Oh, if only I knew that I shall persevere to the end.” Immediately he heard the divine answer, “What if you knew this? What would you do? Do now what you would do then, and you will be very safe.” After this the man gave himself to God’s will, and his anxiety and fear of future disappeared (Chap. 25).

Book Two

Book Two of the Imitation is “Directives for the Interior Life”. The book continues the theme of Book One, and contains instructions concerning “inward peace, purity of heart, a good conscience—for moderating our longings and desires, for patience, for submission to the will of God, for the love of Jesus, for enduring the loss of comfort, and for taking up the Cross.”[34] Kempis writes that if we have a clear conscience God will defend us, and whomever God chooses to help no man’s malice can harm.] Kempis writes that when a man humbles himself, “God protects and defends him…God favors the humble man… and after he has been brought low raises him up to glory” (Chap. 2).Kempis stresses the importance of a good conscience—”The man whose conscience is pure easily finds peace and contentment … Men only see your face, but it is God who sees your heart. Men judge according to external deeds, but only God can weigh the motives behind them” (Chap. 6). Kempis writes we must place our faith in Jesus rather than in men and “…Do not trust nor lean on a reed that is shaken …All flesh is grass, and all its glory shall fade like the flower in the field” (Chap. 7).Kempis writes that false sense of freedom and overconfidence are obstacles for spiritual life. Kempis writes that “Grace will always be given to the truly grateful, and what is given to the humble is taken away from the proud” (Chap. 10).

Kempis writes that we must not attribute any good to ourselves but attribute everything to God. Kempis asks us to be grateful for “every little gift” and we will be worthy to receive greater ones, to consider the least gift as great and the most common as something special. Kempis writes that if we consider the dignity of the giver, no gift will seem unimportant or small (Chap. 10). In the last chapter, “The Royal Road of the Cross”, Kempis writes that if we carry the cross willingly, it will lead us to our desired goal, but on the other hand if we carry our cross grudgingly, then we turn it into a heavy burden and if we should throw off one cross, we will surely find another, which is perhaps heavier. Kempis writes that by ourselves we cannot bear the cross, but if we put our trust in the Lord, He will send us strength from heaven (Chap. 12).

Book Three

Book Three, entitled “On Interior Consolation”, is the longest among the four books. This book is in the form of a dialogue between Jesus and the disciple.

Jesus says that very few turn to God and spirituality, since they are more eager to listen to the world and desires of their flesh than to God. Jesus says that the world promises things that are passing and of little value, which are served with great enthusiasm; while He promises things that are most excellent and eternal and men’s hearts remain indifferent (Chap. 3). Jesus says that the “man who trusts in Me I never send away empty. When I make a promise I keep it, and I fulfill whatever I have pledged—if only you remain faithful…unto the end” (Chap. 3).

Jesus says that spiritual progress and perfection consists in offering oneself to the divine will and not seeking oneself in “anything either small or great, in time or in eternity” (Chap. 25). Jesus says not be anxious about future—”Do not let your heart be troubled and do not be afraid.” Jesus advises the disciple that all is not lost when the result is not as planned, when one thinks he is farthest from Jesus, it is then that Jesus is nearest, when one thinks that all is lost, it is then that victory is close at hand. Jesus says not to react to a difficulty as if there were no hope of being freed from it (Chap. 30).

Joseph Tylenda summarizes the central theme of the third book with the teaching in Chapter 56, “My son, to the degree that you can leave yourself behind, to that degree will you be able to enter into Me. Just as desiring nothing outside you produces internal peace within you, so the internal renunciation of yourself unites you to God.” Jesus gives his important teaching, “Follow Me…I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Without the Way, there is no going; without the Truth, there is no knowing; without Life, there is no living. I am the Way you are to follow; I am the Truth you are to believe; I am the Life you are to hope for” (Chap. 56).

Book Four

Book Four of the Imitation, “On the Blessed Sacrament”, is also in the form of a dialogue between Jesus and the disciple.[33] Kempis writes that in this Sacrament spiritual grace is conferred, the soul’s strength is replenished, and the recipient’s mind is fortified and strength is given to the body debilitated by sin (Chap. 1).[55]

Jesus says that the sooner one resigns wholeheartedly to God, and no longer seeks anything according to one’s own will or pleasure, but totally places all in God’s hands, the sooner will one be united with God and be at peace.[56] Jesus continues, “Nothing will make you happier or please you as much as being obedient to the divine will” (Chap. 15).[56] Jesus also delivers his “changeless teaching” — “Unless you renounce all that you have, you cannot be my disciple” (Chap. 8).[57]

To receive the Sacrament, Jesus says “make clean the mansions of your heart. Shut out the whole world and all its sinful din and sit as a solitary sparrow on a housetop and, in the bitterness of your soul, meditate on your transgressions” (Chap. 12). Jesus says that there is no offering more worthy, no satisfaction greater, for the washing away of sins than to offer oneself purely and completely to God at the time the Body of Christ is offered in the Mass and in Communion (Chap. 7).

“What would Jesus do?”

That’s the primary question Thomas à Kempis answers in his universally acclaimed work, The Imitation of Christ. In 114 short chapters organized into four simple parts, this handbook on the spiritual life offers guidance on dozens of topics such as resisting temptation, avoiding hasty judgments, putting up with others’ faults, remembering God’s many blessings, self-surrender, minding our own business, and performing humble works.

Read here The Imitation of Christ

  • Tte “Soliloquy of the Soul

Although the world wide popularity of the “Imitation of Christ” has somewhat thrown into the shade the other works of Thomas à Kempis, no apology is needed for the publication of a revised edition of the “Soliloquy of the Soul.” Its authorship has never been disputed, and internal evidence—perhaps the best amid the interminable disputes on the subject—unhesitatingly decides that the “Soliloquy” and the “Imitation” are by one and the same hand. They are, as Dean Milman observed, more than kindred in thought and language. The same spirit of exalted piety and of fervent devotion, making use of the sublime imagery of the inspired writers of the Old Testament, is conspicuous in both works. Read Here