Challoner’s Notes on The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, Part 1

By the Right Rev. R. Challoner, D.D., V.A., circa 1873.1
Part 1 of 3

Thomas à Kempis was born in 1380, at Kemp, a village situated near Cologne. His parents were of low condition, and highly respected for their piety. “He was brought up” (to use tha language of one of the writers of his life) “in poverty and hardship: his father earned his bread by incessant labour and the sweat of his brow; his mother assiduously watched over the education of her children, she was always attentive to the concerns of the family; abstemious,2 silent, and extremely modest.” Thus, in his earliest years, he acquired those respectable habits which decent poverty inculcates; he experimentally felt how great a friend it is to virtue; and all his writings show how much he respected it.

He was placed in one of the houses belonging to the Society of Brothers and Sisters of Common Life, when about six years old: Gerard de Groote, whose life he afterwards wrote, a person remarkable for his piety and erudition, was its founder. It was divided into two classes, the Lettered Brothers, or Clerks, who lived according to the rule of St. Augustine, and applied themselves with exemplary zeal and assiduity to sacred and profane learning for the education of youth; and the Unlettered, who were employed in mechanical arts and manual labour. The female part of them, called Sisters, was employed in the same manner, and in the education of girls in works of laborious industry, suitable to their sex and condition. The whole society held their property in common; they had stated hours of prayer, but made no vow; and, when they thought proper, were at full liberty to retire from the community.

The school in which Thomas à Kempis entered himself was in the town of Daventer, in West Friesland; where Florentius, the immediate successor of Gerard de Groote, was vicar of the principal church. Florentius received Thomas à Kempis with great tenderness, and after having supplied him with all the books which he wanted for the prosecution of his studies, and kept him some time in his family, he placed him with a respectable matron, by whom he was furnished, without charge, with his board. Her house was filled with members of the same society, to whom she showed the same gratuitous hospitality.

The account which Thomas à Kempis gives (De discipulis Florentii, ch. I) of the manner in which the members of this little household spent their time is very edifying. “Much was I delighted,” he says, “with the devout conversation, the irreproachable manners, and the humility of my brethren. I had never seen such piety or charity. Taking no concern in what passed beyond their walls, they remained at home, employed in prayer and study, or in copying out useful books, and sanctifying this occupation by short but frequent ejaculations of devotion. They appeared to have but one heart and one soul. Their dress was homely–their diet spare, their obedience to their superiors without reserve; their prayer continual. By degrees, the uniform tenor of their blameless, unpretending lives, gained them general good-will; and they became universally respected, as true disciples of Christ, and true lovers of their neighbour.”

While Thomas à Kempis remained in this community, his favourite occupation appears to have been the copying of useful books; and he warmly exhorted others to the same occupation. In his sermon, Christus scribit in terra, he thus expresses himself on this subject: “To transscribe works which Jesus Christ loves, by which the knowledge of Him is diffused, His precepts taught, and the practice of them inculcated, is a most useful employment. If he shall not lose his reward, who gives a cup of cold water to his thirsty neighbour, what will not be the reward of those, who, by putting good works into the hands of their neighbours, open to them the fountains of eternal life I Blessed are the hands of such transcribers I Which of the writings of our ancestors would now be remembered, if there had been no pious hand to copy them?”

  1. Right Rev. R. Challoner, D.D., V.A., The Imitation of Christ, (Dublin: McGlashan and Gill, 1873), “A Brief Abstract of the Life of Thomas à Kempis”, p v.
  2. Sparing in diet; refraining from a free use of food and strong drinks; temperate; abstinent; sparing in the indulgence of the appetite or passions. (1913 Webster)