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Thomas Kempis

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Thomas Kempis (1380 - 1471) was a medieval Christian monk and author of "Imitation of Christ", one of the most well known Christian books on devotion.

I. Life, Minor Writings

Thomas Kempis, German mystic and author of the "Imitation of Christ," was born at Kempen[?], Germany (40 miles northwest of Cologne) in 1380 and died near Zwolle (52 miles east-north-east of Amsterdam) in 1471. His paternal name was Hemerken or Hammerlein, "little hammer."

In 1395 he was sent to the school at Deventer conducted by the Brethren of the Common Life[?]. He became skilful as a copyist and was thus enabled to support himself. Later he was admitted to the Augustinian convent of Mount Saint Agnes near Zwolle where his brother John had been before him and had risen to the dignity of prior. Thomas received priest's orders in 1413 and was made subprior 1429.

The house was disturbed for a time in consequence of the pope's rejection of the bishop-elect of Utrecht, Rudolph of Diepholt; otherwise, Thomas' life was a quiet one, his time being spent between devotional exercises, composition, and copying. He copied the Bible no less than four times, one of the copies being preserved at Darmstadt in five volumes. In its teachings he was widely read, and his works abound in Biblical quotations, especially from the New Testament.

His life is no doubt fitly characterized by the words under an old picture first referred to by Francescus Tolensis[?]: "In all things I sought quiet and found it not save in retirement and in books." A monument was dedicated to his memory in the presence of the archbishop of Utrecht in St. Michael's Church, Zwolle, Nov. 11, 1897.

Thomas Kempis belonged to the school of mystics who were scattered along the Rhine from Switzerland to Strasburg and Cologne and in the Netherlands. He was a follower of Geert Groote and Florentius Radewijns, the founders of the Brethren of the Common Life. His writings are all of a devotional character and include tracts and meditations, letters, sermons, a life of Saint Lydewigis[?], a Christian woman who remained steadfast under a great stress of afflictions, and biographies of Groote, Radewijns, and nine of their companions. Works similar in contents to the "Imitation of Christ" and pervaded by the same spirit are his prolonged meditation on the life and blessings of the Savior and another on the Incarnation. Both of these works overflow with adoration for Christ.

II. The Imitation of Christ

The work which has given Thomas Kempis universal fame in the Western churches is the De imitatione Christi. It is the pearl of all the writings of the mystical German-Dutch school of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and with the "Confessions" of Augustine and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress it occupies a front rank, if not the foremost place, among useful manuals of devotion, after the Bible. Protestants and Roman Catholics alike join in giving it praise. The Jesuits give it an official place among their "exercises." John Wesley and John Newton put it among the works that influenced them at their conversion. General Gordon carried it with him to the battlefield.

Few books have had so extensive a circulation. The number of counted editions exceeds 2,000; and 1,000 different editions are preserved in the British Museum. The Bullingen collection, donated to the city of Cologne in 1838, contained at the time 400 different editions. De Backer (Essai, ut inf.) enumerates 545 Latin and about 900 French editions.

Originally written in Latin, a French translation was made as early as 1447, which still remains in manuscript. The first printed French copies appeared at Toulouse 1488. The earliest German translation was made in 1434 by J. de Bellorivo and is preserved in Cologne. The editions in German began at Augsburg in 1486. The first English translation (1502) was by William Atkinson and Margaret, mother of Henry VII., who did the fourth book.

Translations appeared in Italian (Venice, 1488, Milan 1489), Spanish (Seville, 1536), Arabic (Rome, 1663), Armenian (Rome, 1674), Hebrew (Frankfort, 1837), and other languages. Corneille produced a poetical paraphrase in French in 1651.

The "Imitation of Christ" derives its title from the heading of the first book, De imitatione Christi et contemptu omnium vanitatum mundi. It consists of four books and seems to have been written in meter and rime, a fact first announced by K. Hirsche in 1874. The four books are not found in all the manuscripts, nor are they arranged invariably in the same order.

The work is a manual of devotion intended to help the soul in its communion with God and the pursuit of holiness. Its sentences are statements, not arguments, and are pitched in the highest key of Christian experience. It was meant for monastics and recluses. Behind and within all its reflections runs the council of self-renunciation.

The life of Christ is presented as the highest study possible to a mortal. His teachings far excel all the teachings of the saints. The book gives counsels to read the Scriptures, statements about the uses of adversity, advice for submission to authority, warnings against temptation and how to resist it, reflections about death and the judgment, meditations upon the oblation of Christ, and admonitions to flee the vanities of the world. Christ himself is more than all the wisdom of the schools and lifts the mind to perceive more of eternal truth in a moment of time than a student might learn in the schools in ten years.

Excellent as these counsels are, they are set in the minor key and are especially adapted for souls burdened with care and sorrow and sitting in darkness. They present only one side of the Christian life, and in order to compass the whole of it they must be supplemented by counsels for integrity, bravery and constancy in the struggle of daily existence to which the vast mass of mankind, who can not be recluses, are called.

The charge has even been made that the piety commended by the "Imitation" is of a selfish monkish type. It was written by a monk and intended for the convent; it lays stress on the passive qualities and does not touch with firmness the string of active service in the world. That which makes it acceptable to all Christians is the supreme stress it lays upon Christ and the possibility of immediate communion with him and God.

The references to medieval mistakes or superstitions are confined to several passages, viz., the merit of good works and transubstantiation (iv. 2), purgatory (iv. 9), and the worship of saints (i. 13, ii. 9, iii. 6, 59). In other works, however, Thomas Kempis exalts Mary as the queen of heaven, the efficient mediatress of sinners, and to her all should flee as to a mother. She should be invoked. He also gives prayers to Mary (cf. the De tabernaculis, and Hortus rosarum, Pohl's ed., ut inf., i. also iii. 357, vi. 219, 235 sqq.).

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