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The Life Of Anne Catherine Emmerich

ON the 8th of September, 1774, a little procession wended its way to the parish church of Coesfeld, an obscure village in Westphalia. It consisted of a few poor peasants, bearing a scantily clad infant in their arms, which babe, puny, frail, and delicate as she appeared, was destined to show forth in her subsequent life how wonderful are the ways of God with His servants, Who chooses the weak things of this world to confound the strong, and Who, in the person of this humble peasant child, raised up an instrument of help for His Church in an hour of sorest need and darkness.

When the name of Anne Catharine, daughter of Bernhard and Anna Emmerich, had been duly inscribed in the baptismal register, the little company retraced their steps to Flamske, the hamlet in which the Emmerich family dwelt. Their home consisted of a low tumbledown hovel built of wood and mud, and roofed over with old moss-grown thatch, whilst all the interior it could boast of was one square apartment divided into partitions by thin strips of board, in which men and animals lived peacefully together, the straw and fodder of the latter serving as bedding for the former. Near the door, a small space roughly floored with beaten-down mud formed the common living-room, one corner of which was occupied by a fire-place of the most primitive description, possessing naught by way of cooking apparatus save a large nail affixed to an iron plate in the wall, whence hung an enormous kettle. Chimney there was none, and therefore the smoke was free to find egress where it could, or, as usually happened, to cling about the beams and rafters and the great hanks of wool and flax suspended thence, in a dense, blinding cloud. Round the hearth stood a few old ricketty chairs, a table, a spinning-wheel, piles of hay and straw, and some kitchen utensils, all blackened and saturated with the smoke. In this dark, murky hole, where the light of heaven never penetrated, and of which the sole ornament was a tattered, dingy picture of the Blessed Mother of God, a pure, refined, and gifted being was born and reared; here she lived and grew in innocence and holiness of thought, word, and deed!

As we contemplate this infancy amidst such surroundings, are not our thoughts irresistibly carried back to another lowly birth-place, where, in company with beasts, enveloped in darkness and obscurity, a Child was born, and laid upon straw by the hands of His Mother? This parallel with her Lord the new-born child was destined to work out to the end, living, suffering, and dying as He lived, suffered, and died, for the welfare of His Church and the salvation of souls.

The interior of the Emmerich household, as we have described it, might be taken as an average picture of ordinary Westphalian peasant-life at that period. The people were for the most part simple, industrious, hospitable and pious; instances of quarrelling, scandalmongering, or breaches of morality were almost unknown amongst them. Anne Catharine’s parents were no exception to the rule, and their daily life, in its cheerful, contented, submission to God’s Will amidst all the hardships of extreme poverty, in its fervent piety and conscientious fulfilment of all the duties of a lowly position—a life, in fact, modelled upon the precepts of the Gospel—was of all others the one most calculated to prepare her for the steep and rugged path she was hereafter to tread. Thus her cottage home was, in very truth, a school of godliness for Anne Catharine, and in later years she used often to express her heartfelt gratitude for the training she received from those good parents.

A faithful idea of the worthy couple, and the kind of education they gave to their little daughter, may best be gleaned from her own words.

“My father,” she says, “was a devout and upright man, outwardly grave and reserved, but of a bright, sanguine disposition. He had to toil hard, for poverty often pressed him sorely, but he was naturally industrious and never greedy of gain. With child-like confidence he left all in God’s hands, and did his hard work bravely, as a good servant should. His conversation was ever full of beautiful thoughts and pious maxims, expressed in the simple language of a child. He it was who first taught me to pray, and then taking me on his knee, and doubling up my little fingers in his own, he would show me how to make both the great and the small sign of the Cross. I remember that the first words I spoke distinctly were the ‘Our Father,’ which he had taught me before I was a year old. My father was very strict about having us all brought up to work, and, when quite a tiny child, I had to fetch the horse up from the paddock by break of day, summer and winter. This animal was a vicious beast, who used to kick and bite, and was often more than my father himself could manage. With me, however, he was always gentle, would let me catch him at once, and sometimes even come trotting to meet me, when, leading him to a big stone, I used to climb up upon his back, and ride him home. If he ever turned his head and made a snatch at my foot, I gave him a slap on the nose, and he then jogged along quite quietly. I had also to feed and rub him down, and to this day I cannot imagine how, a mere baby as I was then, I could manage him so well.

“Sometimes my father would take me out to the field with him of a morning, and when the sun rose, he never failed to take off his cap, kneel down, and thank God for giving us the beautiful sun. He would say what a detestable habit he thought it was for people to lie so long a-bed that the sun shone in upon them as they slept, and that such a habit was the origin of the ruin of many a house, country, and people. Once I recollect answering that that could not apply to me, since the rays of the sun never reached my bed. He, however, corrected me, saying that whether I could see it or not, the sun was shining all the same and could see me, and knew all that I was doing; which made me think a great deal, and ever after I took great care to be up betimes. Other days, when we were out early together, he would draw my attention to the fresh dew on the grass, saying: ‘Look at this dew: it is quite fresh, and untrodden by the foot of man! We are the first to touch it, and if you pray very devoutly you will draw down a blessing upon the land. It is so beautiful a thing to walk through the fresh sparkling dew, just as it is, with heaven’s blessing on it, before a sin has been committed or one bad word spoken in the fields. When men begin to stir and the dew is all trodden down, it seems always to me as if all things were bedimmed and sullied together!’ Often, too, when I was helping him in the field, leading the horse, or searching for the eggs, he would lay his hand on my head and say: ‘Stop a minute and look round: all is so fair and beautiful. Over there we can see right into Coesfeld, and worship our God hidden in the little Tabernacle in the church! He can see us all the time, and will give His blessing upon our work.’ If we heard the sound of the bell ringing before Mass, he used to take off his cap, and say that though we were at work we would follow the whole of the Mass, bidding me kneel down and bless myself when the priest would be saying the Gloria or the Sanctus, or else to join him in singing a hymn. In every little event that happened he traced the hand of God, and directed my thoughts to Him.”

As to her mother, Anne Catharine was never weary of relating anecdotes of her piety, refinement of feeling, and tenderness to her children. Although Anna Emmerich was, to outward appearances, a stern and somewhat forbidding woman, on account of the hard work and anxiety inseparable from the bringing up of a family of nine children upon the barest means of subsistence, she had a large, warm heart, overflowing with charity and kindness towards all, and heavy as might be her own burthen, she ever strove to remove, or at any rate to lighten, those of others. Never a word of discontent was heard to pass her lips, and so thoroughly was she filled with the spirit of prayer, that she went so far as to welcome fresh toils and privations as so many graces sent from God to enable her to stand worthily one day before His face, and give up her account as a true and faithful housewife. We can imagine the tender and almost reverent care which this pious, prayer-loving mother would bestow on the spiritual training of her little Anne Catharine, whom from her birth she perceived to be no ordinary child. She it was who first taught her her Catechism, and to lisp, even before she scarce understood the sense of the words, “Lord, not as I will, but as Thou wilt! Lord, give me patience, and then strike hard!”—words which entered deeply into the child’s soul, and were the constant cry of her heart through life. When sending her off to play with companions of her own age, her mother used to tell the little thing that if children were good and played amiably together, the holy Angels or the Child Jesus would come and join in their games, which Anne Catharine, in her innocent faith, of course, literally believed, and would often stand and look longingly towards heaven, expecting to see them coming, and indeed she was fully persuaded often that they were invisibly present. “My mother also bade me,” she relates, “in going and coming to and from church, to walk either a little in front or a little behind the others, that I might hear nothing that was not quite right, and to say short prayers as I went along; so I bethought me I should be quite safe by making the sign of the Cross on my forehead, mouth, and breast, which crosses should be so many keys which I would give to the Infant Jesus for Him to lock up my thoughts, heart, and mouth, and let nothing wicked enter therein.”

However tired Bernhard Emmerich might be after a long day’s work, he never omitted calling his children round him at nightfall to pray for travellers, wounded soldiers, and all in distress; and on fasting days he made them all say five “Our Fathers” prostrate on their faces, with arms extended, in reparation for the sins that had been committed during the day.

Such was the atmosphere of Anne Catharine’s home. Dearly loved as she was, however, by both parents, their fondness manifested itself in no external marks of tenderness or indulgence. On the contrary, whatever appeared blameable in her conduct was invariably punished with as much severity as in the case of the other children, whilst the hardest work always fell to her share. Her deft little hands were almost indispensable to her father in his outdoor labour, where her merry prattle sweetened many a long hour’s toil, and yet those baby-fingers were never spared. To quote but one occasion; when a very few summers had gone over her head, little Anne Catharine was made to carry no less than twenty loads of corn to the waggon, without pausing for a moment to rest; a task which she accomplished in half the time which a strong farm-lad would have taken! Under this stern tuition the poor child had often much to suffer, for besides the corporal austerities laid upon her, her parents, who, when unseen by her, would weep tears of joy and gratitude over the abundance of graces gradually developing themselves in the soul of their child, invariably sought to hide their wonderment and delight under a harsh exterior, chiding her when blame there was none, in order that the innocence and unconscious purity of her inner life might remain unknown to herself as to others, and untarnished by word of praise, admiration, or curiosity.

The very country in which she dwelt seemed as though specially adapted for the unfolding of a pure, beautiful child’s life, with its gently undulating hills, smiling meadows, fine old groups of trees, and the greenest of green coppices, carpeted with moss and flowers, and shady nooks and glades, thickly overhung with those great luscious blackberries so dear to the heart of every true child, where no sound was heard the livelong day save the song of birds, the gentle lowing of grazing cattle, and ever and anon the musical tinkle of the Angelus bell, telling its glad tidings over mountain and valley, wood and plain. However coarse the work, however lowly the task over which Anne Catharine bent, there was always a something unnameable in her appearance which made the most casual passer-by turn and look and look again after the little maiden with the large clear brown eyes, beaming so brilliantly, yet with so soft, indefinable, and winning an expression from under her broad, arched brows, with her long hair combed straight back from her temples, and wound in thick coils round and round her head, her sweet lips ever parted in half audible prayers, and her whole countenance radiant with the joyousness of her pure and innocent youth.

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