The life of Thomas à Kempis was not outwardly remarkable. He was born in 1380 in the Lower Rhine region of Kempen, from where he gained his name. His paternal name was Hemerken which meant ‘little hammer’.
In 1392 he went to Deventer, and as we’ve heard, encountered the ‘Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life’. Deventer was the centre for the New Devotion and it was the saintly Florentius Radewijns who looked after Thomas during his time there. On leaving school, he went to the monastery at Zwolle where he stayed for the rest of his life - apart from a brief interlude when a papal interdict forced them to move out from the monastery for a couple of years.
He undertook various duties within the cloister walls. He was ordained priest in 1413; was made sub-prior in 1429, and was also responsible for the instruction of the novices. Apart from his prolific copying of scripture, he wrote other works of a devotional nature, including meditations on the incarnation of Jesus and a life of St. Lydewigis, a Christian woman who remained steadfast in the face of great suffering. But nothing he wrote caught the world’s attention in manner of The Imitation of Christ – the name given to it from the first heading of Book One.
In person, Thomas is described by his biographer as a man of medium height, dark complexion with a wide forehead and piercing eyes. He had the reputation of being kind and friendly to everyone in the community, especially those who were troubled or sad. Thomas was a fine writer, with a gift for expressing things well and memorably. He appears also to have been a modest man and one who tended to solitude both by nature and conviction. As he said of himself, silence is my friend; work, my companion and prayer my aid.
He apparently found it difficult to express an opinion on worldly matters but spoke eloquently and with passion if ever the subject turned to God or the soul. When tiring of company, he would sometimes excuse himself with the words: ‘I must leave you, my brothers. Someone is waiting to speak with me in my cell.’
Apart from these things, there is little to record of a life lived away from the public gaze. From the outside, his passing years would have appeared uneventful; but this would not have been Thomas’ understanding.
Thomas à Kempis passed away in 1471.