Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 20 March 2011
20 March 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
Thomas à Kempis
During the three Sundays of March which fall during Lent, I am using these sermons to speak about the life and work of three spiritual writers from the end of the fourteenth century. Last week I spoke about Mother Julian of Norwich, the anchoress who wrote Revelations of Divine Love, and this week I am moving on to another writer, Thomas à Kempis; this time not from England, but Germany and living in the Netherlands, not writing in English or even Dutch, but in Latin.
And whereas there was a clear resonance for us in the Abbey with Mother Julian and the period of her life which coincided with the age of Chaucer, the Black Death, the Peasants’ Revolt, and the Battle of Agincourt, you would be forgiven for thinking that there was no connection between Westminster Abbey and Thomas à Kempis, the sub-Prior of the Monastery of Mount St Agnes in Windesheim. In fact, there is a rather remarkable connection in the form of Margaret Beaufort who, as you may remember, was married to Edmund Tudor, bore the future Henry VII, and made a pact with Elizabeth Woodville for Henry to marry Elizabeth of York, the marriage which ended the Wars of the Roses. Margaret was an outstanding individual, and in 1503 produced the first English translation (from French) of Book Four of Thomas à Kempis’ best-known work, The Imitation of Christ.
In my introduction last week, I outlined some of the major cultural and social changes which swept across England from 1350 onwards. It goes without saying that similar changes were going on just over the channel in the Low Countries. This was the pre-Reformation world where the influence of the Roman Catholic was all-pervasive but not without its critics and reformers, of which the Carthusians would be just one example of ecclesia semper reformanda—the church always in need of reform.
The spiritual movement which nourished Thomas à Kempis is known as the Devotio Moderna, a spiritual and devotional off-shoot of the school of nominalist theology, best known to us in England through William of Ockham. The Devotio Moderna had its roots both in the religious women’s movement and in the life of Geert Grote of Deventer. In the 1380s an order was established in Windeshiem under the tutelage of Grote’s disciple Florentius, and it was from there that Thomas à Kempis followed his brother in 1399 to the new monastery of Mount St Agnes. By the time of the Reformation, there were ninety-seven such monasteries spread across the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany.
The Devotio Moderna emphasised for each and every Christian—not just those who became monks and nuns—the value of the vita communis, the common life of the early church, and of personal discipleship of Christ in poverty and humility. The early communities were quasi-monastic, located in urban settings and had separate houses for men and women: they were known as the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life.
Many of their traits are strikingly modern to our ears: they promoted a literary culture with a keen interest in copying and handing on books. In fact, one of the expressions attributed to Thomas à Kempis, and which has passed into modern Dutch, is ‘Met een boekje in een hoekje’—with a book in a corner, the perfect picture of a bibliophile, or as we would say, a book-worm. This was in reality an adaptation of a rather lovely expression in Latin: ‘In omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro’, which translates: ‘I have sought peace everywhere, and nowhere have I found it except in a corner with a book’.
Literature in the vernacular—translations of holy biographies, as well as portions of Scripture—discourse about the meaning of the Bible, the Christian reform of schools, as well as the pastoral care of the pupils who boarded in them. These were the distinctive facets of the Brotherhood of the Common Life and of the Devotio Moderna which fed it.
Another of the key features of this movement was that it was never a purely clerical affair. Even those who became involved in formal monastic houses were discouraged from being ordained. Almost to make a point, the Sister houses, and some of the Brothers’, were put under the control not of the Church, but of the local civic authorities. As Diarmaid McCullough puts it: ‘Married couples (and of course their children) might be involved on an equal basis in a lifestyle inspired by the Devotio. Its promise was that serious-minded laity could aspire to the high personal standards which had previously been thought more easily attainable by clergy … The idea of imitating Christ was not much older in the Western tradition of Christianity than the twelfth century; it sat uneasily with Augustinian assumptions about fallen humanity. It was also a solvent of that assumption, which had developed particularly in the West, that clergy and religious had a better chance of getting to heaven than laity’.i
So what did Thomas à Kempis say in his Imitation of Christ? Well, the first thing to note is the title: the Imitation of Christ. This was never going to be a book about the universe, cosmic theology, history or even the part Christ played in our salvation. The title tells us that this is about spirituality and religious devotion, and in particular how we live our lives practically in a way which aligns our lives to that of Christ. If Mother Julian of Norwich was about mystical union with God, Thomas à Kempis is about how faith is worked out in practice, what it looks like.
The four books which make up the Imitation cover different areas of spirituality: Counsels on the Spiritual Life; On the Inner Life; On Inward Consolation; On the Blessed Sacrament. They contain some wonderful aphorisms which have passed into spiritual parlance but are worth noting for their origin:
Man proposes, but God disposes, and man’s destiny is not in his own hands.ii
Strive to be patient; bear with the faults and frailties of others, for you, too, have many faults which others have to bear.iii
Jesus has many who love his kingdom in heaven, but few who bear his cross … he finds many to share his feast, but few his fasting.iv
But perhaps it’s best just to pick out three key passages and let them speak for themselves. The style is direct, almost to a fault; uncomfortable, restless, and not unlike a visit to the dentist who assures us that the pain is all in a good cause!
So firstly, on making a holy way of life, rather than book learning, a priority:
At the Day of Judgement, we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done; not how eloquently we have spoken, but how holily we have lived. Tell me, where are now all those Masters and Doctors whom you knew so well in their lifetime in the full flower of their learning? Other men now sit in their seats, and they are hardly ever called to mind.v
And here we shouldn’t forget that Thomas spent most of his life dedicated to books and was the monastery’s librarian, charged with copying out manuscripts in the days before printing. This criticism isn’t anti-academic or anti-book as such, but rather—in the manner of Jesus telling us that we should hate our mother or father in comparison to our love for God—Thomas is saying that the spiritual life is not primarily a matter of book-learning, but of quality of living.
This theme continues and is made more explicit in a passage which is about loving Jesus above all things:
It is a great art to know how to hold converse with Jesus, and to know how to keep Jesus is wisdom indeed. Be humble and a man of peace, and Jesus will abide with you. But if you turn aside to worldly things, you will soon cause Jesus to leave you, and you will lose his grace … Therefore, of all dear friends, let Jesus be loved first and above all. Love all men for Jesus’ sake, but Jesus for himself.vi
What is striking about this is the manner in which he describes the believer’s relationship with Jesus: there is no fear of a cosmic judge, but rather a conversation with a friend, whose friendship might be won or lost through the quality of our relationship. This is taking the humanising of Christ to a far point of application.
And in case we had any thought that we might escape Lent without a good deal of soul-searching:
Grieve that you are still so carnal and worldly so undisciplined in your passions, and so full of bodily cravings; so unguarded in your outward sense; so often engrossed in vain fancies; so absorbed in worldly affairs and so indifferent to spiritual; so easily moved to laughter and levity, so disinclined to sorrow and penitence … so greedy for food, so deaf to the Word of God; so quick to rest, so slow to work; so wide-awake to listen to idle tales, so sleepy at holy vigils; so hurried in your devotions, so wandering in attention; so careless in reciting the Hours, so lukewarm at the Eucharist; so lacking in devotion at Communion ... When you have confessed and grieved over these and your other faults with deep sorrow and contrition at your own weakness, make a firm resolve to amend your life and to advance in holiness.vii
The words used are in themselves powerful descriptors of human relationships: engrossed, unguarded, laughter, sorrow, grieve, resolve, amend. This kind of contemplation of the divine begins and ends with an imitation of the human character of Jesus, The Imitation of Christ.
And if this combination of personal piety, discipleship of Christ, reform of education, literature in the vernacular, and dialogue about Scripture seems faintly familiar, we should recall that it was with the Brothers of the Common Life that one Herasmus Gerritszoon was educated. Under his more usual name of ‘Erasmus’, he was one of the foremost intellectual minds at the cusp of the Reformation, travelling widely throughout Europe. On one of his visits to England, full of admiration for John Colet’s biblical learning, he undertook to learn Greek and in 1516 he provided both an edition and a translation of the New Testament, a centre-piece for the Reformers just a few years later. This paved the way for the translation of the Bible into German, Dutch, French, and English—into our mother tongues—which was the source of so much controversy in the Reformation.
So, once again, I commend to your spiritual devotions this Lent the writings of one who was happiest when sat in a corner with a book. Thomas à Kempis’ deep understanding of the humanity of Jesus led him to a sincere hope that, in a simple life of holy living, we might dare to seek to be imitators of Christ.
To end, a prayer from the end of that work:
Grant me, most dear and loving Jesus, to rest in you above created things; above health and beauty, above all glory and honour; above all power and dignity, above all knowledge and skill; above all fame and praise, above all sweetness and consolation; above all hope and promise, above all merit and desire; above all gifts and favours that you can bestow and shower upon us; above all joy and jubilation that the mind can conceive and know; above angels and archangels and all the hosts of heaven; above all things visible and invisible; and above everything that is not yourself, O my God.viii
i The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis, transl. Leo Sherley-Price (Penguin, 1986), Bk 1, Ch 19, p.48
ii The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis, transl. Leo Sherley-Price (Penguin, 1986), Bk 1, Ch 19, p.48
iii The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis, transl. Leo Sherley-Price (Penguin, 1986), Bk 1, Ch 16, p.44
iv The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis, transl. Leo Sherley-Price (Penguin, 1986), Bk 2, Ch 11, p.83
v The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis, transl. Leo Sherley-Price (Penguin, 1986), Bk 1, Ch 3, p.31
vi The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis, transl. Leo Sherley-Price (Penguin, 1986), Bk 2, Ch 8, p.77
vii The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis, transl. Leo Sherley-Price (Penguin, 1986), Bk 4, Ch 7, p.196–197
viii The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis, transl. Leo Sherley-Price (Penguin, 1986), Bk 3, Ch 21, p.120