St. Thomas à Kempis:
Workaday Mysticism

By Matt McKeown

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.

What does it profit you to discuss the heights of the Trinity, if you lack humility and thus displease the Trinity?

St. Thomas à Kempis

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. The Jesuit order, the single largest Catholic religious order in the world (Pope Francis himself is a former Jesuit), uses it as a primary element in forming its members, and John Wesley, the father of Methodism, considered it one of the principal works in his own conversion.

Given the our stated goal of reuniting knowledge and virtue, it is interesting to reflect on what St. Thomas à Kempis would think of the CLT. 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.”

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