The Great Schism completed the spiritual degradation of the mediaeval church. For almost seventy years popes had ruled in exile from Avignon, escaping the violence and mortal dangers of Rome, only to drift into political sycophancy to France and to become the fons et origo of every human vice. No sooner had the papal residence returned to the Eternal City than the Romans compelled the College of Cardinals to elect Urban VI, an Italian, pope. A group of frightened cardinals fled the scene of their deed and elected Clement VII, who took up residence in Avignon. The competing popes dutifully excommunicated one another, damning one another's souls to fire and brimstone, and enthusiastically denounced each other for crimes and vices each knew only too well. The Christian world divided its loyalties along nationalistic lines and accepted the pervasive influence of the god of transitions, cynicism. The doctrine of priestly powers was completely divorced from the requirements of moral worthiness and even from adherence to the simplest external rules. Common people abandoned religion or sought out purist and reformist movements, whilst those of more intense religious feeling withdrew from life entirely. The Christian world was decimated spiritually, ethically and socially.
Nonetheless, there were quiet retreats where the simple life of individual purity and the rule of altruistic love and benevolent action were pursued without regard to the turbulence shaking Europe. There were public outcries from a few reformers like Wycliffe and Hus, and they represented the anticipation of the Reformation to come later. Most sincere men and women followed their spiritual lights as best they could in spite of the mutual recriminations of two, and sometimes three, popes and the ugliness such struggles unleashed. Jan van Ruysbroeck represented the serene life that grows irrespective of circumstances, and his example had a power to influence that would far outlast the gaudy trappings and noisome fulminations of prelates. Geert Groote, feeling the movement of awakening soul-consciousness within himself even whilst he was in Rome watching the Great Schism loom over the deathbed of Urban V, returned to his native Deventer to renounce his offices and to take up the spiritual life as a deacon. Seeking the guidance of Ruysbroeck, he became an itinerant preacher, and, when his licence to preach was withdrawn by Rome, he founded the Brethren of the Common Life and the complementary Sisters of the Common Life.
Under the influence of his first disciple, Florentius Radewyn, and with the full blessing of Ruysbroeck, Groote established monastic communities under the Order of St. Augustine at Deventer and Zwolle. They prospered, and Groote came to see the need for establishing a central monastery to oversee the expanding communities. He had already given away his own large fortune and had no funds for such a venture. Nevertheless, he chose a site, "a waste and uncultivated spot" between Deventer and Zwolle, known as Windesem (Windesheim). Suddenly a friend who had caught the plague provided the money, and Groote rushed to his side to console him. Contracting the disease himself, Groote died in his friend's house in 1384 without realizing his dream. Several years later, others would fulfil it, and the monastery was destined to give birth to others, including Mount St. Agnes (Agnetenburg) near Zwolle, which was fortunate to become the home of the most remembered and read mystic of the early fifteenth century.
Thomas Haemmerlein was born in Kempen, about forty miles north of Cologne, in 1380. His parents were modest citizens who possessed some education, a firm reputation for piety and a pervasive sense of the sacred. Frau Haemmerlein probably taught in a small school, and she devoted a great deal of care to her two children. John, the elder brother of Thomas by about sixteen years, had been sent to Deventer before Thomas was born, and there he became one of the first members of Groote's monastic community. When Windesem was founded after Groote's death, John a Kempis (renamed after the village of his birth) became one of its first six Canons Regular. In 1392, when Thomas was thirteen years old, he went to Deventer to join his brother, not knowing that he had already moved to the new monastery. John came to Deventer to receive Thomas – perhaps the first meeting of two brothers who would grow spiritually close to one another – and drew him to Florentius. True to the remarkable educational pattern of the Middle Ages, in which boys who showed intellectual ability and moral entitlement were trained without charge, Florentius and Boheme, the rector of Deventer, accepted Thomas and looked after him. Boheme, a distinguished university scholar, placed Thomas in the course preparatory for the university and enrolled him in the parish choir. In addition to a classical education, Thomas learnt the essentials of music and ritual. Florentius imbued Thomas with Groote's advanced and humane educational views. For seven years Thomas immersed himself in the exceptional atmosphere of Deventer and drew even nearer to the House of the Brothers of the Common Life, until he entered it even before completing his studies.
In 1400 Thomas was sent to Mount St. Agnes to the monastic community where his brother John now lived. Florentius was justly pleased with his industrious student and felt that his life-work had reached its culmination. He died within months of the departure of Thomas. Weeping for this loss of "a star of so bright a lustre", Thomas entered the monastery that was to be his home for seventy years. There Thomas lived unaware of the turmoil engulfing Europe, free from entanglement in the war between Rome and Avignon, and not knowing that he abided in the almost invisible heart of a contemplative spiritual movement that was to influence profoundly his own time and the succeeding centuries. The monastery did not seek to involve itself in politics and debate, nor did it shun the world through cloistered withdrawal. The Brothers worked to sustain their life by tilling fields and tending orchards, and they raised needed money by copying and illuminating manuscripts. Charity was exemplified in sound education for the young and in care for the sick and elderly. Living selflessly and in simplicity, the Brothers sought to walk with Christ. On June 10, 1406, Thomas was invested as a Canon Regular, and in 1408 he watched his brother take leave of Mount St. Agnes to found a new community at Bommel. By 1412 the Brothers completed the Church of St. Agnes, built largely by their own hands, and in 1414 Thomas was ordained priest.
About this time Thomas penned the work which has carried his name down the centuries past those popes, princes and politicians who desperately sought the fame he willingly avoided. De Imitatione Christi (The Imitation of Christ) set forth the life he had found worth living. He made copies for use in the scattered communities, and then in 1425 undertook a fifteen-year labour of copying the whole Bible in Latin. In the same year he became sub-prior, and four years later experienced the only dramatic event to affect him. When the citizens of Zwolle and Deventer refused to accept Sweder de Culenborgh as bishop of Utrecht, the towns were placed under interdict. The Canons followed the interdict and the outraged populace drove them from the monastery. With heavy hearts they made their way by ship to Friesland and the House at Lunenkerc, where they lived for almost three years. Shortly before they were able to return to Mount St. Agnes, Thomas was called to minister to his brother John, who lay sick in the House of Bethania near Arnheim. After fourteen months of illness John died and was buried by his brother. Returning to Mount St. Agnes, Thomas laboured quietly until again elected sub-prior in 1447.
Three years later the plague ravaged Cologne, and the Brothers bravely left their seclusion and moved into the city to give what comfort they could. Thomas was now known as a saintly man, a reputation which annoyed him, for he did not wish to be considered particularly holy. As he grew older, he watched each of his friends die, and, wishing them well on their way to that destiny he yearned to greet, he turned to mystical contemplation. He kept the chronicles of the House, but retired from strenuous labours and even refrained from speaking for days at a time. On July 26, 1471, in his ninety-first year, shortly after a service near the end of the day, Thomas a Kempis died as peacefully as his life had been lived. Unknowingly, he had exemplified the spirit that formed the foundation of the Reformation.
Though he wrote a few other treatises, The Imitation of Christ was his witness to the self-validating reality of the spiritual life. In Thomas a Kempis the heart was united with the head, resulting in a work expressing the spontaneity of direct experience in the language and style of the classical Christian scholar. In the Latin version copied in his own hand, Thomas a Kempis used a peculiar form of punctuation to indicate the rhythm and cadence running through the whole work. According to Ruelins, there is "the full stop followed by a small capital, the full stop followed by a large capital, the colon followed by a small letter, the usual sign of interrogation, and, lastly, an unusual sign, the clivis or flexa, used in the musical notation of the period". De Imitatione Christi is the musica ecclesiastica, the music of the inner life which reflects the canor, the divine music accessible only to the ear of the mystic. It is in harmony with the gospels which tell the life of Jesus, the musica ecclesiastica first generated by the apostles. Thomas a Kempis chose this mode because the whole treatise is a sustained exhortation and detailed explanation of the Christian life, which consists in walking in the footsteps of Christ. If Ruysbroeck emphasized the sublime union with the Divine, the transcendence of linear time and empirical space, Thomas a Kempis elucidated the spiritual life in time, the moving image of eternity.
The Imitation of Christ is composed in four books, analogous to the four-movement symphony of later centuries, beginning with a call to the devout life, moving to an explication of the way of illumination, followed by an exhortation to choose the Divine exclusively with counsels on maintaining one's spiritual balance, and concluding with a mystical yet existential interpretation of the sacrament of Communion. Thomas a Kempis opened his treatise with the stirring affirmation of Jesus in the Gospel According to John: "He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness." He then set out the quintessence of his message:
Humility is essential even before the first step of the spiritual adventure. Love of sensation and of objects is a hindrance to growth, but so is love of knowledge for its own sake. "If you desire to know or learn anything to your advantage, then take delight in being unknown and unregarded." Truth does not come in signs and words, but as it is in itself. Only the Eternal Word speaks Truth, and that is the Voice of the Divine, which is Living Truth.
Just as one should act with care, so one should read and study for meaning. Control of desires prevents restlessness and permits the inner peace necessary to spiritual progress, but only if fantasy, conceit and talkativeness are minimized and adversity is used as an opportunity to search out one's heart. "We must live in charity with all men, hut familiarity with them is not desirable. "Warning against gossip, Thomas a Kempis advised:
Distractions will precipitate with the resolve to live within oneself, and habitude will be an obstacle, but new modes can be cultivated to overcome old ones, and meditation on death can help put the ephemeral enticements of the world in proper perspective.
In the second book Thomas a Kempis reiterated all of these themes at the level of the inner life. Having been called to the spiritual path, one must begin with the affirmation that "The Kingdom of God is within you." Nonetheless, to receive joyously the Christos one must prepare a worthy dwelling in the heart. The pure heart is found in the human being who is dead to self and who selflessly loves all creatures. At the practical level – the ethical sphere – one does not know oneself, and so passion is mistaken for zeal, and criticism of others completely obscures devotion. Renunciation of the desire for comfort, loving the Lord and seeking the friendship of Jesus, and gratitude are prerequisites for the spiritual life.
Thomas a Kempis rejected extreme ascetic practices and self-torture as forms of inverted pride, a focus on the self which should be crucified. His injunctions and counsels were all aimed at answering the question, "For what am I living?" with the loftiest possible answer: "Not for myself, hut for the Eternal in me."
The third book, "On Inward Consolation", was the plea of Thomas a Kempis to choose the Divine as the only true end of the human being. It naturally began with the affirmation from Psalms: "I will hear what the Lord God speaks within me." That Voice comes only in silence. It is spirit and life. Devotion brings the grace of understanding, yet devotion itself is a kind of grace: in this sense, the higher always uplifts the lower if the lower ceaselessly desires it. This desire is not a yearning to be rescued from the troubles of the world; it is a positive, effulgent love of the Divine.
For Thomas a Kempis this is less a description of love than a set of criteria for measuring the degree of authentic love within oneself. Thus, "a wise lover values not so much the gift of the lover as the love of the giver". Because of love's intensity the aspirant must learn to control even the heart through mastery of patience. Patience in turn will point the way to inner peace. In the dialogue between the disciple and Christ that fills much of The Imitation of Christ, Jesus set forth four paths to peace.
The disciple's prayer is for the Light that is beyond him and yet can shine in and through him when his heart is pure. Without that Light, one is formless and empty. Pure-heartedness is the pre-condition of a free mind, and neither can exist where there is self-love. "You must give all for All, and keep back nothing of yourself from me."
One who achieves this condition will find that whilst there is no mechanical guarantee against any temptation, one's utter surrender of self frees the heart from every possible disorder and defilement. Thus, there is no need to be anxious about the world, oneself or one's eventual spiritual victory. This is the sense in which one should always trust the Divine and its myriad manifestations in the workings of the world. Life can never be perfect and utterly without flaw; there will be times when one has no strength for the loftiest tasks. Then one is wise to resort to humble tasks and good works which will refresh one and restore strength. "Why are you so distressed? . . . There is no reason for your being disturbed. Let it pass. It is not your first mistake, or anything new; nor, if you live long, will it be your last." There is never reason for despair.
With insight into the real purpose of all sacred ritual, Thomas a Kempis expounded the value of Holy Communion. In tasting the bread symbolic of the body of Christ, one participated in the magic of spiritual transubstantiation. The ritual of Communion is no outward activity or allegorical drama: it is the authentic re-enactment of the divine vision and spiritual mission of Jesus. Taking the bread is an inverted reflection on the physical plane of the entrance of the disciple into the transcendental body of the Christos. When one is purified, purged and prepared, the sacred re-enactment of the Last Supper becomes the experience of leaving the corpse of the world and joining the hosts of light-beings who constitute the Invisible Church, the living form of the Divine in space and time. Thus, one lives the inner meaning of the words "Come to Me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you."
Thomas a Kempis wrote for those who wished to eschew dogmas and debates, personal pride and worldly prudence, avarice and ambition, and live the life Jesus showed. His book is simple and seemingly unphilosophical, for he continually repeats his basic teachings in language always as gentle as it is uncompromising. But it is a symphony of the practical spiritual life in which the same problems and possibilities are encountered again and again, like musical phrases whose recurrence gives coherence to the piece whilst rejoicing in fresh combinations on new levels of development and unfoldment. His fervent prayer stands as a description of this noble and selfless Brother of the Common Life: