By the Right Rev. R. Challoner, D.D., V.A., circa 1873.
Part 3 of 3
From the time’of his profession till his decease,
a period of sixty years, Thomas à Kempis remained in the monastery of Zwoll, and in the continual practice of every virtue of his state. He was visited by many and long interior trials and temptations; but his prayers, his self-denial, and his watchfulness over himself, were constant. “Silence,”
he says himself, “was his friend, labour his companion, prayer his auxiliary.”
An interesting account of his progress in spirituality seems to be given us by himself, in the 15th, 16th, and 17th chapters of his “Soliloquy of the Soul.” He begins it by mentioning his many sins, and the great mercy of God, in withdrawing him from his repeated infidelities, and healing the general deformity, as he terms it, of his soul.
Of his sins, he speaks in the strongest terms, but we must not understand his expressions in their strict sense; they are the language of a soul, whom God has raised to a view, not ordinarily given in this life, of his adorable perfections. Such a soul has an exquisite sense of the beauty, wisdom, and justice of the Divine will; and therefore considers even the slightest deviation from it as an act of heinous rebellion.
He mentions, that the spiritual delights which he experienced, when he first dedicated himself to God, were very great: for God, he says, would not then visit him with great sufferings; wisely considering that the tender shoot, just brought uuder the shelter of his wings, would shrink at the first rough blast. By degrees God lovingly prepared him for the trials which he designed him; he showed him the conflicts which the saints of the Old and New Testament sustained, their vigilance, their exertions, their constancy, their rewards. He declares that at first he was terrified, and seemed to sink under every wave, but God was always his refuge and support. “O, how great,” he exclaims, “hath been the mercy of God to me! How often, when I was almost overcome, has He been my deliverer! Sometimes my passions assailed me as a whirlwind; but God sent forth His arrows, and dissipated them. The attack was often renewed, but God was still my support. By degrees I was weaned from every thing earthly, and adhered to God alone. Then I experienced how sweet, how full of mercy, God is to those who truly love him. O my God! How merciful hast Thou been to me! Many have been forsaken by Thee, and are lost, who were less guilty than I am. But Thy mercies are unspeakable!”
From the “Imitation of Christ,” it appears that he had frequently before his eyes the abuse of human learning, and was too often obliged to see that it was attended with the worst consequences. It also appears, that he was sometimes the subject of slander and obloquy.
Thomas à Kempis was successively promoted to the office of bursar, master of the novices, and sub-prior. The first volumes of nis works contain his sermons: the greatest part of them are addressed to the novices. The reader must not expect to find in them the splendour, pathos, or dignified instruction of Massillon, Bossuet, or Bourdaloue; but he will find in them much solid precept, much that invigorates his devotion, and many touches of piety by a master’s hand.
By degrees his reputation for virtue and piety extended beyond the monastery. Many persons in the neighbourhood wished to place themselves under his spiritual direction; and numbers sought his pious and edifying conversation. But he avoided their visits as much as he could. At the first moment that Christian civility allowed, he took leave of company saying, that “he must leave them, as one was waiting for him in his cell.” What passed between him and the visitant of his cell, he himself has described in the 21st chapter of the third book of “The Imitation of Christ.” Every such hour was dearer to him than the last. “I have sought for rest everywhere,” he often said, towards the close of hfs life, “but I found it nowhere, except in a little corner with a little book.”
He died on the 25th of July, in the year 1471, in the 92nd year of his age. He is described to have been of small stature, well proportioned, and to have had a piercing eye. His biographers mention, that when he sung the divine office in the choir, his countenance had a holy irradiation, which filled the spectators both with awe and piety. His body was discovered in 1672.