Thomas, the author (or compiler) of the most treasured devotional book The Imitation of Christ, was born in 1380, the son of John and Gertrude Hämerken (or Hemmerken), respectively a craftsman and a teacher in the town of Kempen in the sovereign Archbishopric of Cologne. He left home at thirteen to join his older brother in the Brethren of Common Life at Deventer, where he received his education. This order was founded by Geert (or Gerhard) Groote and received papal approval from Gregory the Eleventh in 1376. The brotherhood was composed of clergy and laity who cultivated a practical biblical piety and who supported themselves by copying manuscripts and by teaching. Their spirituality, known as the devotio moderna, the “new (or modern) devotion”, influenced later Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions of prayer and meditation. Thomas joined the Brethren in 1399 at the house of Mount St Agnes in Zwolle (where his brother had become prior), making his profession as an Augustinian Canon Regular (taking his vows) there in 1407. He was ordained a priest in 1413 and was elected subprior of Mount Saint Agnes in 1425, acting as master of novices and keeping the chronicle of the house.
Thomas’ successor as chronicler recorded that on the feast of Saint James (July 25), 1471,
…after Compline, our brother Thomas Hämerken, born at Kempen, a town in the diocese of Cologne, departed from this earth. He was in the ninety-second year of his age, the sixty-third of his religious clothing, and the fifty-eighth of his priesthood…He copied out our Bible and various other books, some of which were used by the convent, and others were sold [to raise funds for the monastery]. Further, for the instruction of the young, he wrote various little treatises in a plain and simple style, which in reality were great and important works, both in doctrine and efficacy for good. He had an especial devotion to the Passion of our Lord, and understood admirably how to comfort those afflicted by interior trials and temptations. Finally, having reached a ripe old age, he was afflicted with dropsy of the limbs, slept in the Lord in the year 1471, and was buried in the east side of the cloister….
Thomas’ remains were translated in 1672 by the Prince-Archbishop of Cologne from the ruined house of Mount St Agnes to the chapel of St Joseph; and in the nineteenth century his remains were translated to the Church of St Michael in Zwolle, where they are preserved to the present day.
The book that Thomas either wrote or compiled from extant sources, The Imitation of Christ, has been described as next to Dante’s Divina Commedia as “the most perfect flower of medieval Christianity”. Translated into more languages than any other book except the Holy Scripture, millions of Christians the world over have found this devotional manual a treasured source of edification in their life in Christ.
prepared from the New Book of Festivals and Commemorations
(Philip H. Pfatteicher) and Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
Holy Father, you have nourished and strengthened your Church by the inspired writings of your servant Thomas a Kempis: Grant that we may learn from him to know what is necessary to be known, to love what is to be loved, to praise what highly pleases you, and always to seek to know and follow your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Thomas à Kempis, Priest, are published at the Lectionary Page website.