Thomas à Kempis

Deutsch: Thomas von Kempen Nederlands: Thomas ...
Deutsch: Thomas von Kempen Nederlands: Thomas a Kempis, Thomas van Kempen, Thomas Hemerken (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thomas à Kempis  (1379-1471) Also known as Thomas Hemerken (with various spellings), à Kempis was born in Kempen, Germany. After his early schooling in Latin, he entered an Augustinian convent in 1406.

In 1413 he received Holy orders and and became sub-prior of the monastery in 1429. Primarily a copyist, he spent the rest of his quiet life as a religious, copying the Bible no less than four times. The only time we know that his peaceful life was disturbed occurred when the Pope didn’t accept the Bishop-elect of Utrecht, Rudolf van Diepholt. In a time when Church power meant everything, this would have been a big deal.

Thomas wrote several spiritual works but the most popular is his devotional classic, Imitatio Christi (The Imitation of Christ). This work became so influential that it rivaled the Bible in sales after Johann Gutenberg‘s invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s.

Reading The Imitation today, one cannot help but note its medieval outlook. While clearly a milestone, times have changed. The pace of material, technological and psychological development during the last century has been faster than ever before in human history.

English: The First chapter of The Imitation of...
English: The First chapter of The Imitation of Christ published by Chapman and Hall in 1878. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Based on biblical scripture, the sincere seeker of the 21st century might find some of the advice in The Imitation a bit outdated and inappropriate to the conditions and demands of today’s world. While some may say that “dogma doesn’t change,” many teachings and practices of the Church have changed over the years.

In 2002 New York photographer David Shankbone did a series of indoor pictures, using a cheap digital camera, of topless women vacuuming wearing only panties. This was part of a fashion show called The Imitation of Christ.  Shankbone’s images caused quite a stir among critics. However, one could perhaps interpret them along the lines of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s song, “Woman Is the Nigger of the Word,” which also sparked controversy in 1972. That is, Shankbone’s images portray “women’s subservience to men and male chauvinism across all cultures.”¹ Shankbone has uploaded some of his images at WIkipedia (warning: contains partial nudity).

English: John Lennon and Yoko Ono
English: John Lennon and Yoko Ono (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While this may seem all pretty far away from Thomas à Kempis, it might not be. If one looks at how many Catholic parishes are run, the all-male priesthood rarely does any housecleaning. Instead, they tend to rest, pray, watch TV, listen to music or socialize during their precious little free time while women volunteers do the housecleaning. Catholics tend to justify this gender-based, institutionally reinforced division of labor by saying that men and women are equal but different.

Well, yes. But how exactly do they differ, other than the obvious biological and anatomical differences? Moreover, do not men differ from other men, and women from other women? On this score, many believe that current Catholic attitudes and related practices contribute to traditional sex-role stereotypes—stereotypes that hinder the true liberation of men and women.

L'imitation de Jésus Christ - Édition Alfred M...
L’imitation de Jésus Christ – Édition Alfred Mame et fils – 1874 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But the debate doesn’t end here. Theologians often reply by asking what we mean by the word “liberation.” If you follow the rules and guidelines of the Church, they say, you will be liberated in heaven. No one is fully liberated down here on Earth because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.

To this argument, critics reply that it’s just a lame excuse to do little or nothing toward the elimination of repressive sex-role stereotypes. The Church does speak out on other social issues, they say. So why be concerned about some social problems but not all?



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