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The Life Of Anne Catherine Emmerich

THE marvellous gifts with which Almighty God adorned the soul of this holy child, began to manifest themselves from the hour of her birth, and she could truly say, with St. Hildegarde (with whose infancy her own bore some resemblance), “From the very commencement of my being, from the instant in which God gave me the breath of life, whilst yet in my mother’s womb, He implanted the gift of miraculous knowledge in my soul.” A few hours only after her birth, whilst being carried to the parish church at Coesfeld for baptism, she was distinctly conscious of passing events, and narrated subsequently how much she felt her helplessness as a new-born infant, carried alternately by three old women, one of whom inspired her with an intense aversion. “I felt quite ashamed,” she said, “at being so small and feeble, when I felt so old. All was perfectly clear and comprehensible to me. I distinctly saw the old cottage in which we lived, and many things in it which I did not find there later, owing to changes having been made in the furniture. I knew that I was being carried along the road from Flamske to the parish church at Coesfeld, I felt and saw everything that went on around me. I saw all the sacred ceremony of my own baptism, for my eyes and heart were opened then in a miraculous manner. From that moment my guardian angel made himself visibly present to me, as he always did at a later time.

“During baptism I beheld my guardian angel, my patron saints, St. Anne and St. Catharine, standing near me, whilst the Mother of God herself came towards me, bearing the infant Jesus in her arms, Who placed a ring upon my finger, and chose me then and there for His spouse. At the same time everything holy, everything blessed, everything connected with the Church was made known to me. All the past, present, and future of the Church passed before my mind in a series of almost palpable pictures. I felt the presence of God in the Blessed Sacrament, I saw a bright light issuing from the relics of the Saints preserved in the Church, and recognized the Saints themselves, who appeared to me hovering in the air above. I saw all my own ancestors, from the first one who was baptized in the seventh century, and I recognized many nuns and hermits amongst them, two of whom had received the stigmata; a fact hitherto unknown. I saw them all in succession, until it came to myself, when my own future life was also laid before me in a series of allegorical pictures. I cannot describe how I felt all this, but so it was. When we left the church and I was carried through the churchyard on our way home, the actual condition of each soul belonging to the bodies lying there, was manifested to me. I could distinguish some of the bodies themselves shining brilliantly through their tombs; this sight filled me with a holy awe, for I knew them to be those of saints.”

Thus we perceive that from her very birth Anne Catharine had received the gift of spiritual vision in so exalted and powerful a degree, that her bodily senses were capable of a perception and activity far above the usual measure. The sphere of supernatural contemplation is the kingdom of grace into which man is incorporated by means of the Church at his baptism; hence Anne Catharine’s expression, “After baptism her eyes were miraculously opened.” On her way to the church she sees natural, earthly things; after receiving the Sacrament, when she has become a living member of the Church, the hidden mysteries of the tombs are rendered visible to her; she feels and recognizes the secret and manifold beauties of the Church, into which she has been born, although yet ignorant, in accordance with her age, of the Faith which shall be the key to open the inmost chambers of those wonders, which, as yet, she contemplated upon the surface.

Henceforth her infant soul turned to its spiritual mother the Church, as the nursling seeks the bosom of its earthly mother, and is quiet and calm, in her arms. Without knowing why, by a purely natural instinct, before she could speak, she understood the different feasts; the ceremonial of the Church was her greatest delight; all was so intensely palpable to her, that, whilst a babe in arms, she loved to dip her little hands into the holy water stoup, whenever she was taken into a church or chapel, for the sake of feeling the beneficial effects of the contact with that which the Church had blessed, whilst following the devotions and pious practices of her parents, as far as the weakness of her babyhood could keep pace with the miraculous illumination of her soul.

“I was scarcely four years old,” she says, “when my parents took me to church with them. I remember firmly expecting to find God there, and also men and women totally different from those I knew, much handsomer and different altogether. When I entered, I looked round on all sides, and nothing was as I had expected. The priest was at the altar; I thought he might be God; but I looked everywhere for the Blessed Virgin; I had imagined that everything would be far grander than I could possibly have dreamt, but I did not find what I had expected to find. Two years later I still had these same ideas, and I kept continually looking at two girls of a certain age, who wore mantles, and had a singular air of modesty and reserve; I thought one of them might be her whom I sought, but no! I was disappointed again. I always believed that Our Lady would wear a sky-blue mantle, with a white veil and a plain white gown. I had had once a vision of Paradise, and I was always looking for Adam and Eve in church, and expecting to see them beautiful, as they were before the Fall. However I consoled myself with thinking that after I had once been to confession I should see them. I went to confession, but still I did not see them. At last a very pious and noble family came into the church; the girls were dressed in white; I thought I saw something about them like my expectations, and they inspired me with great respect; but still they were not what I sought. I always had the impression that everything I did see was ugly and very dirty. I was so constantly absorbed in thoughts of this nature that I forgot to eat and drink, till my parents used to wonder and say, “What is the matter with that child? what has happened to little Anne Catharine?’

As the child grew in years, Our Blessed Lord Himself deigned to take her spiritual training into His own hands, and gave her for a constant companion one of His holy angels, who should teach her how to serve her God, in the practice of every virtue, how to turn every thought and affection of her heart to God alone, and to the imitation of her blessed Saviour in His purity, in His charity, and above all, in His sufferings.

Together with all the other graces of baptism, she seemed to have received in an especial measure that of the most angelic purity of body and mind. She was never known when a babe to be troublesome, to scream, or to fly into passions like other infants, but was always so quiet, gentle, and winsome in her ways that she was not the darling of her parents only, but of all the simple country people also amongst whom she passed her life. In the history of another holy child, afterwards the great St. Catharine of Siena, we read that all her neighbours and relatives disputed who should have the most of her company, and would scarcely bear to let her out of their sight; just so was this little peasant child the joy of all who knew her. The brightness of an indescribable purity which shone upon her sweet face gave an irresistible charm to every look, every gesture, and every word of the modest, gentle little girl, and invested all her actions as she advanced in years, unknown to herself, with a sanctity which shed a softening, hallowing influence upon all around. One of the effects of this spotless purity was, that until the day of her death Anne Catharine retained the unsuspecting guilelessness of an innocent child, knowing nothing of the world, because utterly free from all consciousness of self, and her whole being bound up in God alone. So pleasing was this simplicity to God that we find it clearly designated as the cause of all those marvellous operations of grace with which he honoured this chosen soul. Almighty God, throughout her life, ever treated her as a child, and in His admirable wisdom.

Amidst the wonderful outpourings of light with which He flooded her soul, He took care that she should always preserve her childlike ways and instincts, and her modesty and timidity. By the side of the heroism which perpetually thirsted for new sufferings and the terrible austerity of her earthly mission, beginning with her infancy, remained the innocent light-heartedness of the child, who knows no care because it knows no sin, who, the tears wet upon her cheek, turned smiling and joyous to every rare gleam of consolation which like a ray of sunlight momentarily beamed across the sea of sorrows whose waters broke over her soul in an endless succession of tempestuous waves. Such sun-beams were, in later life, the pictures of her childhood, which God in His paternal mercy caused to pass before her mind. At such moments Anne Catharine became a child again, felt herself once more a happy little peasant-maid in her parent’s cottage, and gained renewed strength and courage to press forwards upon the steep and rugged way of the Cross, which grew ever steeper and more rugged the nearer she drew to the goal.

The gift of this purity was, however, a treasure which could be procured by suffering and penance only, and maintained in its splendour and integrity by unintermitting acts of self-conquest and self-abnegation. Hence the career of patient endurance which began before the child was a year old. One day whilst her mother was in church at Coesfeld, she had a presentiment that something was wrong at home. She hurried back and found Anne Catharine lying on the ground with a broken leg from a fall. The limb was then unskilfully set, and so clumsily bandaged, that it wasted, and full three years elapsed before Anne Catharine could put it to the ground without pain. She had scarcely reached the age when she could impose voluntary austerities upon herself, before she eagerly embraced every opportunity which presented itself of self-conquest and mortification with a steadfastness and wisdom taught her by her Angel, whose guidance she followed implicitly in these practices. In one corner of the cottage she had hung up a picture of Our Lady with the Infant Jesus in her arms against the wall, and placed a block of wood in front of it to serve as an altar. Hither she brought all the little presents she received and all her toys, dear to her as to all other children, and left them as an offering to the Holy Child, fully convinced that anything of which she voluntarily deprived herself would be pleasing to Him, this she did so simply and joyously that it was impossible for anyone to find fault with her. Great was her delight when sometimes her gifts disappeared, as she was then sure that the Child Jesus had taken them away, and the harder the sacrifice had been to make, the greater joy had she in its acceptance.

To such a height did this purity of soul attain, that in her third year she would often be heard praying fervently: “Oh! my dear Lord, let me die; for when one grows up, one must offend Thee so often and by such enormous sins!” and again when crossing the cottage threshold she was heard to say, “Could I but fall down dead now, I should never offend God more!” As she grew older and associated with other children, she used to give them every thing that was in her power to give for God’s sake, and at the age of four had already risen to so high a pitch of mortification that she never allowed herself to satisfy her hunger at any meal, eating so sparingly that it appeared a miracle how life was supported within her, moreover invariably choosing the worst portions when at her parent’s table, mentally offering her own share to God for Him to bestow upon the poor who needed it the most. The poor and needy of every description lay so close to her heart that the first interior sufferings of her life were the pangs of an intense pity for the woes of others. If she heard of an illness or of any kind of misfortune whatever, her compassion was so deeply aroused, that she turned pale and sat motionless as if about to faint, until brought to herself by the anxious questionings of her parents. So burning was her desire to be of use to the sufferers, that she would, in glowing words implore of Almighty God to lay the sorrow upon herself, and spare her neighbour. If she saw anyone hungry or thirsty, she would run towards him, saying with touching simplicity, “Wait, oh! wait a minute, I will fetch you some bread from our house.” Her good mother never thwarted her in this, and received her guests very kindly, when they arrived. The child would even go so far as to take off and give away her own clothing, coaxing her mother’s consent in sweet prayers which were always irresistible from her lips. She never saw a child crying or in pain without begging God to lay upon her the cause of its tears, and give her the illness, provided the child might be cured. These prayers were often almost instantaneously granted. Anne Catharine received the pain and witnessed the child become calm and happy, when she would joyfully exclaim, “See! if we do not pray, we get no grace. Thou, my God, dost never help those who know neither how to pray nor to suffer, therefore I must do it for them.” Then again, if she saw a child fall into some bad habit or committing a fault, she would pray for its amendment, never failing however to lay some penance upon herself so as to ensure being heard, and being allowed to receive the punishment due to the child. In later years, when asked what could put the idea of such prayers into her head at that age, she replied simply “I cannot say who taught them to me, it came from my sympathy. I have ever felt that we are all One Body in Jesus Christ, and therefore, like the fingers to the hand, the grief of my neighbours was hurt to me. From my babyhood I always prayed to take upon myself the illnesses of others. I always thought that God had some special reason for every pain He inflicted, and that there must be a certain penalty to pay. When therefore I sometimes saw sufferings pressing so hardly upon some one person, I thought it was because there was no one willing to help him to pay his debt, and so I then implored God to let me acquit it, and I prayed to the Child Jesus to help me, Who soon sent me as much pain as I could wish. I remember once my mother was ill in bed with erysipelas in her face. I was alone with her and full of pity for her poor swollen head. Kneeling down in a corner of the room, I prayed with all my might; then I bound a cloth round her head and set to work praying again. Soon I was seized with a violent toothache and my whole face swelled up. When the others returned they found my mother quite well again, and I, too, soon got better. A few years after that I suffered indescribable anguish from seeing both my parents dangerously ill, and kneeling by their bedside, I prayed earnestly. As I prayed, I found my own hands folded and raised above their heads, and was bidden interiorly to lay one upon each of my sick parents and pray until they should be cured.”

If ever Anne Catharine saw or heard of any sin, her grief knew no bounds and she would sob bitterly. When asked what was the cause of her incomprehensible affliction, she was utterly incapable of giving a satisfactory answer, on account of which she received many a rebuke and was often called obstinate and eccentric, which however never diminished in the slightest degree the loving impulse of her heart to supplicate Almighty God and do penance for the spiritual necessities of others. One day, when about four years old, she was standing by the cradle of a dying infant, with its mother, when the father in a fit of drunken rage, threw a hatchet at his wife’s head, which threatened to fall on that of the child. Quick as thought, Anne Catharine placed herself in the way, and received the blow on her own head, thus saving the child’s life, and preserving the wretched father from the guilt of murder. Another time she beheld some children at play, committing an offence against modesty. So great was her distress, that she plunged into a bed of stinging nettles, imploring God to let the pain she suffered atone for their sin.

Another special object of her compassion was the Jewish people, whom she thought the most unfortunate of all unfortunate races in the world. Her father once took her, when a child, into a Synagogue, “Oh! how I pitied them,” she says, when relating the fact, “I could not look without weeping at all those poor unhappy people who are so hardened, they will not seek their own salvation. Oh! how I pity them. They have nothing in common with the dear holy old Jews of old that I so often see, but these Jews of the present day spring from the Pharisees, the perverse sect of the ancient Jews. Poor, poor things! I always feel deeply their misery and blindness, which seem the sadder when one hears them talk so beautifully of Almighty God as they do so sometimes. Once they possessed the living seed of salvation; but they would not recognize the fruit, even treading it under foot: and now they have left off even seeking for it!”

The most marvellous, in our eyes, of all the mortifications which Anne Catharine imposed upon herself was her unintermitting practice of nocturnal prayer. So early as in her fourth year, when the long night’s rest is of the utmost importance to the well-being of a child, she deprived herself of several hours’ sleep, in order to give the time to prayer. She always liked to pray in the open air, and her favourite haunt was a field, at some little distance up the hill, above the cottage, whence Coesfeld church could be seen, and here, when her parents had gone to sleep, the heroic child hastened from her bed, and knelt, with arms outstretched, supported by her good angel, praying fervently for two and three hours, sometimes until morning dawned. It must not be imagined, however, that because God, in His mysterious designs, required this nightly prayer of an innocent child, inspired her, through the medium of her familiar angel, with the wish to practise it, and gave her sufficient strength to accomplish it, that the sacrifice of her rest cost her nothing, or even grew easier to her from force of habit. On the contrary, we usually find, when observing God’s ways with favoured souls such as hers, that they attain step after step on the road towards the perfection which He designs for them, by dint of a faithful co-operation with the graces they receive, and an unceasing and incredibly painful warfare against the infirmities of human nature. Thus never did a night pass without nature asserting her rights, and clamourously demanding rest and refreshment for that tender little body, already wearied with the austerities of the day; but no sooner did the brave child hear the voice of her angel, bidding her rise and pray, than she sprang from her bed, obeying instantly, whilst wiping away the hot tears which the involuntary repugnance natural to a child wrung from her at the prospect of plunging into the darkness of the night. She bethought herself of a means by which to ensure an instantaneous alacrity in awakening at any hour, and this was to fill her bed with pieces of wood and coils of rope, thereby rendering rest almost impossible, and conquering by increased discomfort the remaining weakness of her nature. God could not long resist such constancy, and by degrees He permitted Anne Catharine’s soul to gain so great an ascendancy over her body that eventually she was enabled to exist without any sleep, and to the end of her life could worship her Lord day and night without rest or pause.

We may well wonder what subjects a child of four years old could find to occupy so many hours’ prayer. Those subjects were, however, as numerous and diverse as the causes for which the Almighty required her to plead. He Himself showed her her nightly task in visions. She saw, in a series of pictures, every sorrow and misfortune, mental and physical, which can befal mankind: not in their generality alone, but in every particular case in which God intended to make use of her and her supplications as His medium of succour and consolation. Thus she beheld all the hidden miseries and sins of prisons, hospitals, asylums, houses of correction, galleys, the holds and dungeons of pirate ships; she saw numbers of the sick and dying, of every age and condition—some groaning impatiently under their sufferings, some about to leave this world impenitent and unconfessed, others neglected and forsaken by all; travellers who had missed their way, and were in danger of perishing; thousands of homeless, starving, heavily-afflicted, despairing souls; and unfortunates hovering on the brink of a bottomless abyss, whose consolation and deliverance God chose should be her work.

And this, not of her own land alone, but likewise of Russia, China, the heathen in the far-off islands of the Pacific Ocean, the remote valleys of Switzerland, the Tyrol and Savoy, the mountain heights of Northern Asia, America—wherever trod the foot of man, there, did her compassion extend. Her angel seconded her requests, and the intensity of her charity made the little supplicator so eloquent, so daring, and so importunate, that the hours, far from appearing long, were too short for all her wants. When once asked what she generally prayed for, she replied: “I scarcely ever asked for anything for myself: I always prayed for others; that no sin might be committed and no souls lost. I asked everything of God, and the more I received the more I wanted. I was never satisfied. I thought to myself He possesses all things, and He must be pleased when we are bold in asking for everything we want.”

We may judge of the degree of perfection to which these practices had raised her soul, by the words of Overberg, her extraordinary confessor, who, speaking of these her youthful prayers, says: “From the time she was six years old, Anne Catharine knew no joy save in God, and no sorrow or affliction except that of seeing this her beloved Lord offended by His creatures; and once she had commenced her course of penance and mortification, so ardent a love of Almighty God was kindled in her heart that she was heard to pray: “Were there no such places as heaven, hell, or purgatory, I should love Thee, O my God, above all things, and with the whole strength of my heart.”

During the time of the French Revolution, many of the terrible and heart-rending scenes of those days were represented to her, and Anne Catharine was several times carried in spirit into the cell of the unfortunate Queen Marie Antoinette, in order to pray for her consolation and support. These visits made so deep an impression on her mind, that she used often to talk to her parents and brothers and sisters about the troubles of the poor Queen, imploring them to join their prayers with her own for her deliverance, till these simple peasants, utterly unable to understand the meaning of her words, declared she must either be dreaming, or if what she said was true, that she was a witch to know what was passing so far off. Their words created much disturbance and anxiety in the child’s heart, who immediately went to confession, and it was sometime before her confessor, to whom she narrated the circumstance, could set her mind at rest. She often received a charge to assist the dying with her prayers, as in the case of the King Louis XVI. and his fellow sufferers, the sight of whose patient resignation affected her deeply, and she amazed those around her with her allusions to the unfortunate royal family, saying how good it was that they had been taken away out of so much misery and horror.

The greater portion of her prayers was, however, bestowed on the holy souls, who perpetually came to her side, beseeching her aid. In winter-time, she knelt with her bare knees in the snow throughout the night, until she was almost frozen, praying for them with outstretched arms; and in summer, either upon sharp stones or nettles, with which latter plants she scourged herself, in order to make her prayers on their behalf more efficacious by her own suffering. As a reward she was often permitted to receive the thanks of the souls she had liberated. She related some years later that once, when a child, she was led by an unknown person into a place which seemed like Purgatory; “there I saw,” she said, “many souls in great pain, who begged me to pray for them. I seemed to be going into a deep abyss, where everything was very still and quiet, which terrified, and yet at the same time touched me, there were so many souls all looking so sad, and yet with something in their faces which told of joy somewhere still in their hearts, and it seemed as if their thoughts were all of the mercy of God. I saw no fire, but I felt that the poor creatures were suffering unutterable interior torments. When I used to be praying very fervently for the poor dear souls, I often heard voices near me, saying: ‘I thank thee! I thank thee!’ One day I lost a little locket on the road to church that my mother had given me, which loss distressed me very much, and I felt as if I had committed a sin in not taking better care of it. That evening I forgot to pray for the holy souls, but as I was fetching in some logs of wood, a white form, covered with black-looking spots, passed close to me, and whispered: ‘Thou hast forgotten me.’ I was very much ashamed, and immediately began the prayers I had omitted, and the next day I found my locket again in the snow. When I was old enough to go to a low Mass at Coesfeld, I always walked on by myself, in order that I might pray uninterruptedly for the suffering souls; and if the morning was yet dark, I often saw them flitting around me two and two, looking like shining pearls seen through a thick mist. They made the road quite light, and I was very happy in their company, because I knew and loved them, as for many a night they had been with me begging for my prayers.”

The ancestors of our Blessed Lady were amongst the most constant of these her companions, owing to her frequent contemplation of the Holy Family at Bethlehem, and her desire of learning more about the early years of the Mother of God. She had received a multitude of visions about the race from which the Blessed Virgin sprang, as far back as the fourth and fifth generations. They were shown always to her as wonderfully pious, simple-minded people, whose souls were entirely possessed and governed by the desire of the coming of the promised Messias, and who led peaceable, quiet, and charitable lives amidst rough and uncultivated tribes of comparative barbarians. Often when praying to God in the meadows, with her cows grazing quietly round her, she would find herself amongst them in spirit, and accompany them into the depths of forest and mountain solitudes, whence they fled to practise the mysteries of their religion, to devote themselves to acts of penance, and to escape from the curiosity and malevolence of their savage neighbours. These ancestors of the Blessed Virgin were called Essenians, and if the child took a special pleasure in dwelling upon their past lives, and in contemplating them in her dream-pictures, until she knew their faces and figures as well as those of her own family, her interest for their souls now languishing in Purgatory was still more intense, and she constantly felt the urgent desire to offer her prayers and satisfaction to God in payment for the debt of punishment they had incurred by the faults and omissions of their lives. It was at the season of Advent especially, when all Anne Catharine’s thoughts were occupied with the coming mysteries of Christmas, that these holy souls urgently besieged her sympathies, and they flocked round her in crowds as she knelt during the nights in prayer upon the hill above the cottage, or when she trudged through the fields, up to her knees in snow, which lay between her house and Coesfeld, in order to get to church for the “Rorate” at the Church of St. James. In narrating this circumstance she says naïvely: “Besides, I had a little personal interest in doing what I could to help them, for I knew that these dear souls, out of gratitude for my prayers and a constant wish for more, would wake me at the hour I wanted to get up, and not let me oversleep myself. And so they did to the very minute, coming in the shape of faintly-shining little lights, which hovered over my bed and woke me so punctually that I had always time to say my morning prayers for them. I then sprinkled some holy water upon them and upon myself, got dressed, and started for Coesfeld, whither these poor dear little lights accompanied me, ranged on either side of the road as in a procession, and as I walked along I used to sing psalms, with my heart filled with love towards God; and whilst I sang, fresh crowds of our gracious Lady’s forefathers came hurrying towards me over the mountains and plains, all filled with longing after the Face of God; and somehow or other I always got to the church in time for the Mass of the ‘Rorate’ though the dear souls often took me very much out of my way, by leading me along past all the Stations of the Cross.”

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