Eucharistic Crusade
Saints who loved the Blessed Sacrament

Thomas à Kempis {1379 - 1471}


Thomas is the great author of the world famous book, "The Imitation of Christ." His name will be remembered until the end of time, because of this famous work. Priests, nuns, and lay people have used it for hundreds of years, and it has helped many to become very holy Christians and saints for Heaven. His book is so beautiful, that you would almost think that an angel had come and told Thomas exactly what to write. We can be sure that his Guardian Angel and the Holy Ghost were nearby, helping him to write this beautiful book.

Saint Thomas à Kempis

Thomas was born in 1379, in Kempen, a small village near Cologne, Germany. His real name was Thomas Haemerken, but later his last name was made up from the name of the town where he was born.

John Haemerken, the father of Thomas, was most probably a metal worker, which was one of the popular trades in Kempin, and his mother was a teacher at the village school. They were somewhat poor but they were happy, and the grace of God was with them.

Around 1392, when Thomas was only thirteen years old, he set out on a one hundred mile journey, for the schools in Deventer, Holland. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his brother John. Twelve years before, John had left home and headed for Deventer, because he wanted to enter the community of the Devout Clerics of the Common Life.

The founder of this community was Gerard Groot, also known as Gerard the Great. He was born and raised in Deventer, Holland. His parents were quite rich, and when Gerard was fifteen, they sent him to the University of Paris, France. Two years later at the age of seventeen, he received his Masters Degree. Because he was very talented and rich, Gerard had many friends; and he was in fact the leader of those friends. He had the whole world before him and wanted to take life easy and enjoy himself. He decided to become a religious, but not for spiritual reasons. He wanted to enjoy getting land or money heaped upon him. Gerard was not evil, but he was very worldly, and wanted worldly honours. God was watching over Gerard, and was about to make some changes in the young man's life.

The Prior of the Carthusian Monastery in Utrecht had been a long time friend of Gerard. When Gerard was in Utrecht, the Prior went in search of him. When he found the young man, he encouraged him to give up his worldly ways of thinking. Gerard was converted right then and there. He threw off his expensive clothing and gave up his riches of land and money. Gerard decided live the life of a religious that would be more pleasing to God.

So great was the change in his way of life that all his friends thought he was crazy. For three years Gerard lived at the Carthusian monastery, leading the penitential life of the monks. He became a great lover of the Blessed Sacrament. He would hear Mass daily with great devotion and afterwards he would devote himself to the service of his neighbour. When he entered the church, he did not stand up and gaze upon the stained glass windows, but humbly knelt before God.

Saint Thomas à Kempis

He would hide among the monks and lay on the floor, prostrate in prayer, gazing upon the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. He would pray, "Oh my God, I beg Thee to pardon my past sins, and to cleanse me from the passions of my past life and the temptations which threaten me. God, my Heavenly Father, I beg Thee also, to protect me for the future and to bless me, as Thou hast done in the past."

After three years, he went back to the world in order to give a good example to others whom he had given a bad example before. Gerard became a Deacon, but he never became a priest, because he thought himself unworthy of such a position. He went about preaching in many of the cities and towns, and he converted crowds of people. Many clergy and laity asked him for spiritual guidance and followed his holy way of life. But it was not easy for Gerard and his companions. He was criticized and later, he was forbidden to preach any more.

It was very Providential, and now Gerard could give more time to the training of souls and to the foundation of the community which he would soon start up. Many people came to see him at his home in Deventer, and among all his favourites were the poor clerical students.

In order that they might be able to continue their education for the religious life, Gerard taught them how to copy manuscripts, and paid them out of his own pocket. They worked and studied and were trained in the spiritual life, but it was a little difficult because they did not all live under the same roof.

One day, one of his disciples, named Florentius Radewyn begged him, "Deacon Gerard, could you please arrange for all of us to live in one building? And, could we put all of our wages together into one pot, and live as a community from that money?"

Deacon Gerard thought for a minute, "Yes, that's an excellent idea! I will give you my own house so that you can all live a community life." Before long, some priests, clerics and laymen went to live in Gerard’s house. There, they practiced a kind of religious life, praying, studying and copying manuscripts. They were called, "Brothers of the Common Life."

Another house was opened for women, and they followed a rule of life similar to that of the men. They were called, "Sisters of the Common Life." So quickly did this new movement spread, that soon there was one or more houses in every city and town of Holland. The members of these communities took no vows. They were laymen or clerics in minor orders and Gerard placed these communities under the guidance of the Augustinian Monks.

Saint Thomas à Kempis


But good Deacon Gerard died before he could see the results of all this. During the plague, Gerard caught the disease while attending the sick. He urged his companions to build a monastery as soon as possible. He then appointed Florentius Radewyn to be his successor, as Superior of the houses of the Congregation.

When Thomas arrived in Deventer, he found out that his brother John, and five other religious had gone to Windeshiem, to set up a new Congregation of Canons Regular. The young lad then headed for the town of Windeshiem, where his brother lovingly received him. John gave Thomas a letter of introduction which was to be given to Florentius Radewyn, the Superior in Deventer. Thomas returned to Deventer, and there the Superior gave him a warm welcome.

Thomas remained in Deventer for seven years, under the direction of Radewyn. Here the youth proved to be an intelligent pupil. He was also very neat and skillful in writing copies of books by hand, as the printing press had not been invented yet. In addition to his own writings, Thomas copied many articles from the Fathers of the Church, especially St. Bernard. He also copied a Missal for Community use, and the whole Bible, in four large volumes!

In 1399, after finishing his studies at Deventer, Thomas, now twenty years old, entered the Congregation of Canons Regular, at the monastery on Mt. Ste. Agnes. His brother John, the Superior, was happy to have his young brother there. He explained, “I will try and examine you with regard to your studies, your health, and your behaviour, to see whether you are able to live this type of life."

Thomas was taken to see the other novices and remained with them for eight years, before he took was professed. During his novitiate, Thomas worked at writing copies by hand, so that he could make money for the community, which was very poor. During the nine years that he was Superior, John à Kempis built the priory, and also started building the monastery church.

In 1406, the cloister was finally built and in the same year, on the Feast of Corpus Christi, Thomas was clothed as a novice. In 1413, at the age of thirty-four, after the church was consecrated, Thomas was ordained a priest. To his great joy, he was now able to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. After his ordination he wrote the last three books of the "Imitation of Christ." The fourth book on the "Holy Eucharist," had been written, before these three books.

Saint Thomas à Kempis

Some time after Thomas was ordained, he was elected Sub prior of his community. As Sub prior, it was his duty to train the novices and young religious. But during his first term of office, in 1429, the monks had to leave their monastery at Agnetenberg, because of some land problems, caused by another person. They moved to the monastery of Lunenkerk, and helped those monks to become more holy.

During this time, Thomas spent more than a year at the monastery of Bethany. He was sent there to help his sick brother, and remained there until John's death, in 1432. In this same year, the land problem was corrected, and the monks moved back to their monastery in Agnetenberg. Thomas was elected Sub prior again, in 1488.

Thomas led a very holy life. One of his companions said of him, "Thomas gave all his attention to God in church, and when he carried out other religious ceremonies. While he chanted the Psalms, his eyes were ever raised towards Heaven, and he appeared to be filled with a Divine energy. As he prayed and meditated, only the tips of his toes touched the floor; the rest of his body lifted towards Heaven. He was always the first to enter the choir and always the last one to leave, because he had a very great love for the Divine worship, and all the services of the Church."

During his life, Thomas often preached at the monastery church. He often preached on his favourite subjects; the mystery of our Redemption and the Love of Jesus Christ. Thomas always kept himself busy, by reading, writing or praying. His favourite motto was, "In all things I have sought rest, but I could only find it in little nooks with little books." His whole religious life was spent for God. God was always on his mind and in his heart.

Thomas was a very humble man, kind and friendly towards all, especially those who were unhappy, sick or poor. He was filled with a loving devotion towards the Passion of Our Lord, and had a wonderful way of consoling the tempted and afflicted. Thomas practiced great charity towards all, and he often liked to give alms to those in need.

Because of his great charity, the brothers elected him as Procurator, (the person who takes care of all the money affairs in the monastery).

Thomas carried on with his duties from day to day, and as the years passed by, he grew older and more tired. He could not do as much as before, so he resigned from his job as Sub prior. When he was ninety years old he got a disease called dropsy. But though he was sick, he still carried on his work of keeping records, for the monastery.

Thomas died on July 25, 1471, when he was ninety-two years old. He was buried in the eastern cloister. In the same year that he died, the Priory of Mt. St. Agnes was destroyed. But the glory of the place remained, because the site of the Priory became known as the "Miracle Mount," on account of all the miracles that took place there.

Many years later, during the Protestant Reformation, the Priory was destroyed, but the body of Thomas was left untouched. In 1672, two hundred years after Thomas died; the French took possession of the Netherlands. The first thing they did was to search for the holy remains of Thomas à Kempis. When they found the body, they carried it in procession to St. Joseph's Church, in Zwolle, and placed it in a beautiful reliquary. Later the relics were moved to St. Michael's Church, and placed in a beautiful shrine.

St. Ignatius of Loyola was one of the many saints who loved to read the "Imitation of Christ." He read it every day and encouraged others to read it too. He loved the Blessed Sacrament, and was greatly inspired to encourage people, to come to Holy Communion more often.

Hundreds of years ago, Bishop Maximilian started the cause for the beatification of Thomas à Kempis. But when the Bishop died in 1688, the beatification process came to a stop. Let us hope and pray that one day we will be able to say: St. Thomas à Kempis, Pray for Us!

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