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  • Writer's pictureFr. Gustavo

“Summer Saints VII – A Man after God’s own Heart”

Thomas à Kempis, Stained glass by William Francis Dixon
Thomas à Kempis, Vorhalle, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Had Dickens written a book about the late 1300s and early 1400s, he may have describe the time as, “It was the worst of times. And it was the not-so-good of times.” For those days were no the “Best of Times.”

Starting in the mid-1300s, in just a little over six years, the Black Death spread from North Africa all the way to today’s Moscow, Oslo, and the far corners of Ireland, all the way to Iraq. Almost a quarter of the known world’s population died as a result of the pandemic.

On the throes of the Byzantine Imperium slow decadence – it was almost at its last’s – Medieval Europe was divided into small kingdom influenced by the big shots of the day, Edward I of England, Philip IV of France, James II of Aragon, and Alfonso X of Castile lording over the early nation states, each and every one trying to elbow themselves into the new era. Eventually, the period became known to us as “The Hundred Year War.”

The state of the church in those days was a very mixed bag. Corruption, simony, and Hanky-Panky with the secular powers was the norm. Morality? Well, let’s leave it at that.

To top it off – if that were to be possible, during the forty years between 1378 and 1417 there were no less than three popes, all claiming themselves to be the real one! Considering the current arguments about the last presidential election, Yogi Berra might have said, “Déjà vu even before there was Déjà vu.”

The corrupted ways of the day spurred individuals and groups to seek a return to the basics or at least a cleaning up of the act. Of course, those in power and those who would have something to lose would have none of it.

So, the Inquisition went into high gear as a means not only to eradicate critics of the status quo, but it was used for political gain, or just as a power play.

But, at the same time, there were spots of light among the darkness. There were movements of reform within the monasteries and even in some isolated parishes. Movements and individuals that somehow kept themselves under the radar.

One of those bright spots was a Roman Catholic pietist religious community founded in the Netherlands in the 1300s by Gerard Groote known as The Brethren of the Common Life. They spoused a life of simple devotion to Jesus Christ. “They believed that Christianity should be practiced not only in formal religious settings, but also in everyday life, and they sought to promote a practical spirituality that emphasized personal piety and devotion.

“The Brethren of the Common Life were an important religious movement of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and their emphasis on education, personal piety, and social justice had a profound influence on the religious and intellectual culture of Europe.” (Wikipedia)

It was that community that Thomas Hemerken eventually joined. Thomas was born in the little town of Kempen [Only 7 miles west of today’s Krefeld!] and close to the border between Germany and The Netherlands.

In 1392, Thomas followed his brother, Johann, to Deventer, in the Netherlands in order to attend the noted Latin school there. In 1406 Thomas joined the Monastery of Mt. St. Agnes, were his brother was one of the leaders. Thomas spent his time between devotional exercises in writing and in copying manuscripts. He copied the Bible no fewer than four times.

Later on, Thomas was put in charge of instructing the novices. In that capacity between 1418 and 1427 Thomas wrote four booklets, later collected and named after the title of the first chapter of the first booklet: The Imitation of Christ.

The Imitation of Christ is divided into four books of detailed spiritual instructions: (i) "Helpful Counsels of the Spiritual Life", (ii) "Directives for the Interior Life", (iii) "On Interior Consolation", and (iv) "On the Blessed Sacrament". In other words, it was a “How to” of the spiritual life.

Although the Imitation was written for the new members of their community, somehow it resonated widely in the general population, and it was quickly embraced all over. By 1650 there were no less than 750 editions. And beyond the Bible no other book has been so much translated. Today there are over two thousand editions in all formats – even Kindle!

As I said before, the book was a road map towards a deepened knowledge of Jesus Christ – what made Jesus tick, so to speak – and a call to respond to our Savior’s invitation, “Learn from me,” (Matthew 11:29).

In his book Thomas tried to flesh out the ancient prayer which we found in today’s Psalm, “Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth”, (86:11).

Against the self-indulgence and intemperance of the Medieval Church, and the emphasis on doctrinal knowledge, the practice of the sacraments in general and in particular penance, Thomas proposed a simpler and personal approach – something that all and everyone could do.

The Imitation is sometimes referred to as Following of the Christ, which comes from the opening words of the first chapter—"Whoever follows Me will not walk into darkness."

In his book, first and foremost, Thomas stresses the need to know Jesus. To know what the Church taught about Jesus was not enough. To read the Scriptures was not enough. For Thomas getting to know Jesus as a person was essential. In fact, his readers were asked to actually immerse themselves into the person of Jesus and the way in which he lived.

In fact, this is what Jesus taught in today’s parable. He said that eventually the pressures of life would grow strong enough to crowd the good seeds. That’s a fact of life. However, the key to a faithful life is to get to know the difference between the good seeds and the weeds.

And to get to know the difference there was no other way than to follow Jesus.

But the most extraordinary thing about what Thomas wrote was that it was completely at odds with the theological understanding of his day – and even ours!

Professor Nicole Archambeau describes Thomas’ times this way, “Religious Christians encountered the sacrament of penance throughout their lives. By the 14th century, penance was a private sacrament that each person was supposed to do at least once a year.

“The ideal penance was hard work, however. People had to recall all the sins they had committed since the ‘age of reason,’ which started when they were roughly 7 years old. They were supposed to feel sorry that they had offended God, and not just be afraid that they would go to hell for their sins. They had to speak their sins aloud to their parish priest, who had the authority to absolve them. Finally, they had to intend to never commit those sins again.

“After confession, they performed the prayers, fasting or pilgrimage that the priest assigned them, which was called ‘satisfaction.’ The whole process was meant to heal the soul as a kind of spiritual medicine.

And yet, as you know, most would soon realize that they may have not been able to make a complete confession or others, like soldiers, they would never commit themselves not to kill or to accept the spoils of war.

Others had larger problems – like having an extra wife or two. Then those who were on the take of the powers that be, the higher ups who had one too many bodies in their closets, and some others had not time for doing penance, pilgrimages or accepting corporal punishment. For all of them, there was a way out – Indulgences.

“Indulgences were papal documents that could forgive the sins of the holder. They were supposed to be given out only by the pope, and in very specific situations.”

However, the market for indulgences was so hot that “some traveling confessors who had received religious authorities’ approval to hear confessions sold indulgences – some authentic, some fake – to anyone with money.”

And so big cathedrals and churches were built – with indulgence money. And many bishops and cardinals amassed personal fortunes off the back of those who could pay. And who would not be in any better position to judge how much the penitent was worth but the confessor?

It is against such backdrop that Thomas wrote that there was a better way – To look up to Jesus for grace, mercy, and a new Life.

No one realized how large impact Thomas’ book was going to have. Thomas advocacy for a simpler but nevertheless committed approach found a great and willing audience. Even to this day.

As I said earlier, the Imitation is not just one book, but a collection of four books, one closely related to the other.

In his first book Thomas stresses the importance of solitude and silence, “How undisturbed a conscience we would have if we never went searching after ephemeral joys nor concerned ourselves with affairs of the world..."

Now, at first glance it could be understood as a message for those who were preparing themselves to the monastic life. But here is the thing. How much of our lives is drowned by the constant noise of the fleeting stuff, while we miss “the good part,” as the super-busy Martha did.

Even today, like in the Middle Ages, there are some who may have given up any hope in God because they may have come to believe that they are “beyond repair.” Or that so much is at stake – or that they can’t see themselves having the strength to change. So, they believe that there is no possible way out of the circle of doom of their own making.

But here is the Good News. Thomas wrote, “If you want to learn something that will really help you, learn to see yourself as God sees you and not as you see yourself in the distorted mirror of your own self-importance.”

Self-importance grows out of the feeling that one may have become the rock so large that not even God can move. Looking up to Jesus will help all and anyone to be seen as a beloved child of God, so loved by God, that He would not spare His own Son to bring you back home.

So, if you are in such a place, take a moment to set aside your regrets and your questions, your hows and whens, and learn to look up to Jesus, so full of grace and love that “The things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”

Let me finish with this quote from whom eventually became known as Thomas à Kempis. In his Imitation Thomas wrote,

“He who follows Me, says Christ our Savior, walks not in darkness, for he will have the light of life. These are the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by them we are admonished to follow His teachings and His manner of living, if we truly be enlightened and delivered from all blindness of heart. Let all the study of our heart be from now on to have our meditation fixed wholly on the life of Christ”. Amen.

Fr. Gustavo

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