Commemoration of Thomas à Kempis, monk, priest, and writer
Psalm 33:1-5, 20-21
Man proposes, but God disposes.
Of two evils, the less is always to be chosen.
Out of sight, out of mind. The absent are always in the wrong.
All men commend patience, although few are willing to practice it.
Wherever you go, there you are.
Do not be angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.
-- Thomas à Kempis
Thomas a Kempis was one of the quiet men of the world whose name is more familiar now than perhaps it was during his lifetime (ca 1380-1471). He was born in Kempen, Germany, a town with which Thomas Hammercken was to later be identified (Kempis). He attended a school run by an order called Brothers of the Common Life, and was so drawn to the life of simplicity, prayer and community that at age 19 he entered the monastery of Mount St. Agnes, under the auspices of the Brothers and whose prior was his own brother, John. He remained there for the remainder of his life, immersed in prayer, priestly duties and books -- reading them, copying them, and finally writing them. It is through one of his books that he is best known today; the Imitation of Christ is a compendium of wisdom in how to become more Christ-like in one's daily life. It is still one of the most-read and loved classics of religious literature.
What I didn't realize about Thomas à Kempis was that he reminded me of Benjamin Franklin. Although the two were as different as chalk and cheese, both men had a way of putting a lot of wisdom in a few words, culled from the larger works in which they appeared, and which bring to mind the same kind of sayings found in the wisdom books of the Bible, notably Proverbs. All deal with life, living, relating, doing, thinking and becoming, whether a quip from Poor Richard, a saying from Solomon (or another writer in Proverbs) or a bit of wisdom from Thomas. The difference is focus -- the life in the world, the life of the world, and the life of God.
Thomas's Imitation of Christ was and is a rule of life, a spiritual discipline, through which a follower becomes more attuned to God and in so doing becomes more Christ-like. Francis, Benedict and others wrote rules of life for those following their spiritual paths, but like Thomas's, they were more guidelines than straightjackets, quite often the kind of approach that Mama referred to as "the iron hand in the velvet glove." They are rules of community and there are penalties for disturbing that sense of community, but punishment is to encourage growth, much as pruning a rosebush produces new growth, with more and bigger blooms. Rules of life give a structure in which the soul functions and stretches toward God. All the rules of life and community, though, have a strong foundation upon which the rest of the rule is built and that foundation is prayer. Prayer provides the direct connection with God and the opportunity to not just have petitions heard or thanksgivings expressed but to hear what God is saying.
Thomas provides us with a beautiful prayer:
Grant me, O Lord, to know what I ought to know,
To love what I ought to love,
To praise what delights thee most,
To value what is precious in thy sight,
To hate what is offensive to thee.
Do not suffer me to judge according to the sight of my eyes,
Nor to pass sentence according to the hearing of the ears of ignorant men;
But to discern with a true judgment between things visible and spiritual,
And above all, always to inquire what is the good pleasure of thy will.
To me, that sounds like a rule of life all by itself. The thing to do now is to pray it and then consider it in light of what God wants. I would add one thought to it, though. To Thomas's "To hate what is offensive to thee" I would add, "What is really and truly offensive to thee, not what I think (or even someone else thinks) is offensive to thee." In short, I need to ask that I never substitute my opinion for God's. Hmmm....sounds a little like something paraphrased from Dr. Phil.
I've never read Imitation of Christ from cover to cover but I think I should put it on my reading list -- right near the top. I have a feeling I may find more pearls of wisdom in it than I can find by Google or even by Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. I think I'd find Thomas à Kempis a whole lot less intimidating than many of his spiritual brothers like Aquinas or Augustine. Besides, Thomas was devoted to books. I have a feeling he understood that a good book is not just something that improves you or entertains you but keeps you company, even when you're alone or living in isolation.
A good book will never look at me and tell me that I look fat in that dress or I really goofed up that report at work. A good book can, though, tell me that God loves me and wants to hear from me more often.
Never be entirely idle; but either be reading, or writing, or praying, or meditating, or endeavoring something for the public good. Sounds like good advice.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Tuesday, July 24, 2012, under the title "Thomas à Kempis."