Thomas à Kempis


Thomas à Kempis, C.R.S.A. (Thomas van Kempen or Thomas Hemerken or Haemerken, litt. “small hammer”; c. 1380 – 25 July 1471) was a German canon regular of the late medieval period and the most probable author of The Imitation of Christ, which is one of the best known Christian books on devotion. His name means “Thomas of Kempen”, his hometown, and in German he is known as Thomas von Kempen.

The “Imitation” itself, the best known and the first in order of merit of his original writings, comprises in bulk about one-tenth of the works of à Kempis. Many were originally instructions for the novices and junior Canons of whom, as subprior, Thomas had charge; others are spiritual treatises of wider application and some of these indeed, as the “Oratio de elevatione mentis in Deum”, rise to sublime heights of mysticism. There are numerous prayers of sweet devotion and quaint Latin hymns of simple rhythm and jingling rhyme.

In person Thomas is described as a man of middle height, dark complexion and vivid colouring, with a broad forehead and piercing eyes; kind and affable towards all, especially the sorrowful and the afflicted; constantly engaged in his favourite occupations of reading, writing, or prayer; in time of recreation for the most part silent and recollected, finding it difficult even to express an opinion on matters of mundane interest, but pouring out a ready torrent of eloquence when the conversation turned on God or the concerns of the soul. At such times often he would excuse himself, “My brethren”, he would say, “I must go: Someone is waiting to converse with me in my cell.”

The school he attended at nearby Deventer in Holland had been started by Gerard Groote, founder of the Brothers of the Common Life. These were men devoted to prayer, simplicity, and union with God. Thomas of Kempen, as he was known at school, was so impressed by his teachers that he decided to live his own life according to their ideals. When he was 19 he entered the monastery of Mount St. Agnes, which the Brothers had recently started near Zwolle in Holland and which was then being administered by his older brother John. He spent the rest of his long life behind the walls of that monastery.

It is impossible to exaggerate the influence of those years in the formation of his character. The “new devotion”, of which Deventer was then the focus and center, was a revival in the Low Countries in the fourteenth century of the fervour of the primitive Christians at Jerusalem and Antioch in the first. It owed its inception to the fervid preaching of the Deacon Gerard Groote, its further organization to the prudence and generous devotedness of Florentius Radewyn. Its associates were called the “Devout Brothers and Sisters”, also the “Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life”. They took no vows, but lived a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience, as far as was compatible with their state, some in their own homes and others, especially clerics, in community. They were forbidden to beg, but all were expected to earn their living by the labour of their hands; for the clerics this meant chiefly the transcribing of books and the instruction of the young. All earnings were placed in a common fund, at the disposal of the superior; the one ambition of all was to emulate the life and virtues of the first Christians, especially in the love of God and the neighbour, in simplicity, humility, and devotion.

The pattern of Thomas’s life remained the same over the years. He devoted his time to prayer, study, copying manuscripts, teaching novices, offering Mass, and hearing the confessions of people who came to the monastery church. From time to time Thomas was given a position of authority in the community of monks, but he consistently preferred the quiet of his cell to the challenge of administration. He was pleasant but retiring. The other monks eventually recognized Thomas’s talent for deep thought and stopped troubling him with practical affairs.

Thomas wrote a number of sermons, letters, hymns, and information about the lives of the saints. He reflected the mystical spirituality of his times, the sense of being absorbed in God. The most famous of his works by far is The Imitation of Christ, a charming instruction on how to love God. This small book, free from intellectual pretensions, has had great appeal to anyone interested in probing beneath the surface of life. “A poor peasant who serves God,” Thomas wrote in it, “is better than a proud philosopher who ponders the courses of the stars.” The book advised the ordering of one’s priorities along religious lines. “Vain and brief is all human comfort. Blessed and true is that comfort which is derived inwardly from the Truth.” Thomas advised where to look for happiness. “The glory of the good is in their own consciences, and not in the mouths of men.” The Imitation of Christ has come to be, after the Bible, the most widely translated book in Christian literature. Thomas died in the same monastic obscurity in which he had lived, on July 25, 1471.


Excerpts from his writings:

“If your heart is straight with God, then every creature will be to you a mirror of life and a book of holy doctrine. No creature is so little or so mean as not to show forth and represent the goodness of God.”

“A humble knowledge of oneself is a surer road to God than a deep searching of the sciences. Yet learning itself is not to be blamed, or is the simple knowledge of anything whatsoever to be despised, for true learning is good in itself and ordained by God; but a good conscience and a holy life are always to be preferred. But because many are more eager to acquire much learning than to live well, they often go astray, and bear little or no fruit. If only such people were as diligent in the uprooting of vices and the panting of virtues as they are in the debating of problems, there would not be so many evils and scandals among the people, nor such laxity in communities. At the Day of Judgement, we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done; not how eloquently we have spoken, but how holily we have lived. Tell me, where are now all those Masters and Doctors whom you knew so well in their lifetime in the full flower of their learning? Other men now sit in their seats, and they are hardly ever called to mind. In their lifetime they seemed of great account, but now no one speaks of them.”

“If thou knewest the whole Bible by heart, and the sayings of all the philosophers, what would it profit thee without the love of God and without grace?”

“Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.”

“Man proposes, but God disposes.”

“First keep the peace within yourself, then you can also bring peace to others.”

“Love is swift, sincere, pious, pleasant, gentle, strong, patient, faithful, prudent, long-suffering, manly and never seeking her own; for whosoever a man seeketh his own, there he falleth from love.”

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

“Whoever would fully and feelingly understand the words of Christ, must endeavor to conform his life wholly to the life of Christ.”

“A pure, sincere, and stable spirit is not distracted though it be employed in many works; for that it works all to the honor of God, and inwardly being still and quiet, seeks not itself in any thing it doth.”

“There is no creature so small and abject, that it representeth not the goodness of God.”

“He is truly great that is great in charity. He is truly great that is little in himself, and maketh no account of any height of honor. And he is truly learned that doeth the will of God, and forsaketh his own will.”

“O Lord, self-renunciation is not the work of one day, nor children’s sport; yea, rather in this word is included all perfection.”

“Simplicity and purity are the two wings by which a man is lifted above all earthly things. Simplicity is in the intention — purity in the affection. Simplicity tends to God, purity apprehends and tastes Him.”

“Occasions of adversity best discover how great virtue or strength each one hath. For occasions do not make a man frail, but they show what he is.”

“My son, says our Lord, hear My words and follow them, for they are most sweet, far passing the wisdom and learning of all philosophers and all the wise men of the world. My words are spiritual and cannot be comprehended fully by man’s intelligence. Neither are they to be adapted or applied according to the vain pleasure of the hearer, but are to be heard in silence, with great humility and reverence, with great inward affection of the heart and in great rest and quiet of
body and soul.”

“A humble knowledge of ourselves is a surer way to God than is the search for depth of learning.”

“No man’s reason or inquisition can suffice to search God’s judgments. Commit faithfully to God whatever you cannot understand, for God will not deceive you; but he who trusts overmuch to himself will be deceived.”

“I find myself nothing but naught and naught, O substance that cannot be weighed! O sea that cannot be sailed! In You and by You I find that my substance is nothing, and above all, nothing.”

“When a man desires anything inordinately, he is at once unquiet in himself. There is, therefore, no peace in the heart of a man who gives himself all to outward things. But in the heart of spiritual men and women who have their delight in God great peace and inward quiet are found.”

“There is nothing created that can fully satisfy my desires. Make me one with You in a sure bond of heavenly love, for You alone are sufficient to Your lover, and without You all things are vain and of no substance.”

“All earthly joy begins pleasantly, but at the end it gnaws and kills.”

“You can in no manner be satisfied with temporal goods, for you were not created to find your rest in them. Forsake all things, and you will find all things. To desire nothing outwardly brings peace to a man’s soul, so a man, by an inward forsaking of himself, joins himself to God.”

“He who merely flees the outward occasions and does not cut away the inordinate desires hidden inwardly in his heart shall gain little.”

“We must set our axe deep to the root of the tree, so that, purged from all passion, we may have a quiet mind.”

“Keep yourself as a pilgrim and a stranger here in this world, as one to whom the world’s business counts by little. Keep your heart free, and always lift it up to God.”

“The more you withdraw yourself form the consolation of all creatures, the sweeter and more blessed consolations you will receive from your Creator.”

“Why are you so easily troubled? Because things do not happen to you as you desire. Who is the man who has all things as he would have them? Neither you nor I nor any man living, for no one lives in this world without some trouble or anguish, be he king or pope.”

“Nevertheless, all our peace, while we are in this mortal life, rests more in the humble endurance of troubles and of things that are irksome to us than in not feeling them at all.”

“He is not truly patient who will endure only as much as he pleases and from whom he pleases. A truly patient person bears all, and it matters not whether he is wronged by someone whose social standing is superior, inferior, or equal to his own. Nor is he concerned whether the person who wronged him be a holy man or evil. But whenever any adversity or wrong befalls him, whatever it be, no matter from whom it comes or how often it comes, he takes all faithfully from the hand
of God.”

“When a man comes to that point of perfection in which he seeks his consolation in no created thing, then God begins first to taste sweet to him, and then will such a man be content with anything that comes to him, whether he like it or not.”

“In what does true perfection stand? It stands in a man offering all his heart wholly to God, not seeking himself or his own will, either in great things or in small, in time or in eternity, but abiding always unchanged and always yielding to God equal thanks for things pleasing and displeasing, weighing them all in one same balance, as in His love.”

“Love alone makes heavy burdens light and bears in equal balance things pleasing and displeasing. Love bears a heavy burden and does not feel it, and love makes bitter things tasteful and sweet.”

“He who can inwardly lift his mind up to God, and can regard outward things little, needs not to seek for time or place to pray, or to do other good deeds or virtuous works, for the spiritual man can soon recollect himself, and fix his mind on God, because he never allows it to be fully occupied in outward things. Therefore, his outward labors and his worldly occupations, which are necessary for the time,
hinder him but little; as they come, he applies himself to them, and refers them always to the will of God.”

“What peace and inward quiet should he have who would cut away from himself all busyness of mind, and think only on heavenly things.”

“Let others seek what they will, but truly, there is nothing I shall seek, or that will please me but You, my Lord God, my home and everlasting help. I shall not cease my prayer until Your grace return to me, and until You speak inwardly to my soul and say: ‘Lo, I am here; I am come to you because you have called Me. Your tears and the desires of your heart, your humility and your contrition, have bowed Me down and brought Me to you.’”

“If you behold well what you are inwardly, you will not care much what the world says of you outwardly. Man sees the face, but God beholds the heart; man beholds the deeds, but God beholds the intention of the deeds.”

“Hold always in yourself a firm ground and a sure foundation of humility, and then the height of virtue will shortly be given to you, for the high tower of virtue cannot long stand unless it is based on the low foundation of humility. If you would learn anything and know it profitably to the health of your soul, learn to be unknown and be glad to be considered despicable and as nothing. Woe be to them who disdain to humble themselves as little children, for the low gate of heaven will not permit them to enter through it.”

“When spiritual comfort is sent to you by God, take it humbly and give thanks meekly for it. But know for certain that it is the great goodness of God that sends it to you, and not because you deserve it. See to it, then, that you are not lifted up to pride because of the comfort, and that you do not rejoice too much in it or presume vainly in it; instead, seek to be more humble for so noble a gift, and the more watchful and fearful in all your works. That time of comfort will pass away, and the time of temptation will follow shortly after. When comfort is withdrawn, do not be cast down, but humbly and patiently await the visitation of God. He is able and powerful to give you more grace and more spiritual comfort than you first had. Such alteration of grace is no new thing and no strange thing to those who have had experience in the way of God.”

“But insomuch as there are but few who labor to die to themselves and to overcome themselves perfectly, they remain in their fleshly feelings and worldly comforts and can in no manner rise up in spirit above themselves. Whoever, therefore, with a pure, simple heart lifts his intention up to God and empties out of himself all inordinate love or displeasure over any worldly thing will be the more ready to receive grace and will be the best worthy to have the gift of devotion. Where our Lord finds the vessel empty and void, there He gives His blessing, and the more perfectly a man can renounce himself and all the worldly things, and by despising himself can the more die to himself, so much the sooner will grace come and enter more plenteously into him and lift his heart higher unto God. Then his heart will see and be rich, and will marvel and be delighted within him, for the grace of our Lord is with him and he has completely put himself into His hand forever.”


About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have a number of blog sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: Essays on the Conscious Process: Compiled Poetry and Prosetry: Verses and ramblings on life as it is: Verses and Variations on the Investigation of Mind Nature: Verses on the Play of Consciousness: Poetic Fiction, Fable, Fantabulation: Poems of the Mountain Hermit: Love Poems from The Book of Yes: Autobiographical Fragments, Memories, Stories, and Tall Tales: Ancient and modern spiritual texts, creatively refreshed: Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: Thank You!
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