Thomas A Kempis: Biography

Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471) was born in the village of Kempen near Düsseldorf, Germany. During his lifetime, he was usually known as Thomas a Kempen, after his birthplace. When he was a boy, he attended a school operated by the Brethren of the Common Life. He was so impressed with their spiritual ideals, they he joined the community when he finished his schooling.

The Brethren of Common Life

Thomas a Kempis lived the rest of his life in one of the communities operated by the Brethren. Although he carried out whatever tasks were assigned to him, Thomas preferred to devote his time to reflection, prayer, reading, training new brothers, and copying manuscripts. He copied the entire Bible four times. Although he was offered administrative positions in the community several times, Thomas a Kempis preferred the quiet of his own room, where he could pray, meditate, and study. The other brothers eventually recognized Thomas’s calling to meditation and writing, and they tried not to bother him with the mundane affairs of running a community.

Thomas a Kempis and the other members of the Brethren of Common Life did much to bring spiritual revival throughout the Netherlands. They brought spiritual instruction to common people, and they helped to bring about reforms in monasteries and convents. The spiritual groundwork they laid is one of the reasons why the Netherlands so eagerly embraced the Reformation and provided fertile soil for the Anabaptists.

Thomas a Kempis’ Writings

The most famous work of Thomas a Kempis is The Imitation of Christ, which has endured for over 500 years and has been translated into more languages than any other book. However, Thomas wrote several other devotional works, biographies, sermons, letters, poems, and hymns. A deep adoration of Christ runs throughout all of his works.

Thomas wrote: “When Jesus is with us, everything is well. Nothing seems difficult. However, when Jesus is absent, everything is hard. When Jesus does not speak to our heart, all other consolations are unavailing. However, if Jesus speaks but a single word, we are comforted enormously. Did not Mary rise at once from the place where she cried when Martha said, ‘The Master has come and is asking for you’? Oh, how happy is the hour when Jesus calls us from tears to joy. How dry and hard your heart is without Jesus. You are truly foolish and empty if you desire anything other than Jesus.”  © 2010

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