Thomas, whose family name was Hammercken, was born in the Rhineland town of Kempen near Düsseldorf in Germany. The school he attended at nearby Deventer in Holland had been started by Gerard Groote, founder of the Brothers of the Common Life. These were men devoted to prayer, simplicity, and union with God. Thomas of Kempen, as he was known at school, was so impressed by his teachers that he decided to live his own life according to their ideals. When he was 19 he entered the monastery of Mount St. Agnes, which the Brothers had recently started near Zwolle in Holland and which was then being administered by his older brother John. He spent the rest of his long life behind the walls of that monastery.
The pattern of Thomas’s life remained the same over the years. He devoted his time to prayer, study, copying manuscripts, teaching novices, offering Mass, and hearing the confessions of people who came to the monastery church. From time to time Thomas was given a position of authority in the community of monks, but he consistently preferred the quiet of his cell to the challenge of administration. He was pleasant but retiring. The other monks eventually recognized Thomas’s talent for deep thought and stopped troubling him with practical affairs.
Thomas wrote a number of sermons, letters, hymns, and information about the lives of the saints. He reflected the mystical spirituality of his times, the sense of being absorbed in God. The most famous of his works by far is The Imitation of Christ, a charming instruction on how to love God. This small book, free from intellectual pretensions, has had great appeal to anyone interested in probing beneath the surface of life. “A poor peasant who serves God,” Thomas wrote in it, “is better than a proud philosopher who … ponders the courses of the stars.” The book advised the ordering of one’s priorities along religious lines. “Vain and brief is all human comfort. Blessed and true is that comfort which is derived inwardly from the Truth.” Thomas advised where to look for happiness. “The glory of the good is in their own consciences, and not in the mouths of men.” The Imitation of Christ has come to be, after the Bible, the most widely translated book in Christian literature. Thomas died in the same monastic obscurity in which he had lived, on Aug. 8, 1471.