Despite the fame attaching to The Imitation of Christ, it is surprising just how little we know of its author. Hailing from Kempen, Germany, Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380-1471) was sent by his parents at age thirteen to a school in Holland where he was to study alongside his older brother John. Upon his arrival, however, he learned that John had joined the Brethren of the Common Life, founded near Deventer by the famous mystic Geert de Groote. Thomas decided to join this new religious community as well. According to the old Catholic Encyclopedia
They took no vows, but lived a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience, as far as was compatible with their state, some in their own homes and others, especially clerics, in community. They were forbidden to beg, but all were expected to earn their living by the labour of their hands; for the clerics this meant chiefly the transcribing of books and the instruction of the young. All earnings were placed in a common fund, at the disposal of the superior; the one ambition of all was to emulate the life and virtues of the first Christians, especially in the love of God and the neighbour, in simplicity, humility, and devotion.
While the spiritual aspect of Thomas’ life is preeminent, his love of books is a particularly endearing characteristic. His motto was: “Everywhere I have sought rest and found it nowhere, save in little nooks with little books.” Thomas was noted for his skill in transcribing manuscripts. Eventually he moved on from copying the writings of others to composing works of his own. Unfortunately few of these are readily available. Just a few years ago, Ignatius Press reprinted On the Passion of Christ. However, his chronicle of the Canons Regular of Mount St. Agnes (a community he joined in later life) has been out of print for over a century, and anyone who enjoys biographies by a talented writer must lament its obscurity.
Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation seems, at first glance, to take an unduly harsh view of the intellectual life. After all, he admonishes us that “At the Day of Judgement, we shall not be asked not we have read, but what we have done.” But a closer perusal reveals a man widely read in both Christian and ancient literature. He quotes Seneca alongside Scripture. What, in fact, Thomas was concerned about was the possibility of being distracted from our chief purpose in life. While for some that might happen with purely sensual temptations, for others it could take the form of intellectual indulgence.
A humble knowledge of oneself is a surer road to than a deep searching of the sciences. Yet learning itself is not to be blamed, nor is the simple knowledge of anything whatsoever to be despised, for true learning is good in itself and ordained by God; but a good conscience and a holy life is always to be preferred.