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The Life Of Anne Catherine Emmerich

THE ritual of the Church was as an open book to Anne Catharine. Every detail connected therewith afforded her the greatest delight. She had the gift of recognizing the presence of consecrated objects and relics by their touch or smell. Holy relics invariably appeared to her surrounded by a shining light; sometimes she saw tiny human faces hovering about them in the air. When once asked what were her sensations on touching relics, she replied: “I cannot describe what I feel; I not only see, but I feel that there is a bright light, sometimes stronger than at others. This light seems to come towards me, just as a flame follows a current of air, and I feel that there is a connecting link between that ray and another luminous body, and again between that body and a whole world of light, which light derives its source from a greater brilliancy still; but who can explain such things? That light charms me. I cannot resist pressing it to my heart, and then it feels as though I entered by that light into the body to which it belongs, and into the scenes of the Saint’s life, into his sufferings, trials, and triumphs.”

As when a babe in arms, her great delight was to dip her little hands in the great bénitier of the church and bathe her face in it with joy at the contact of what the Church had blessed; so throughout her life she never heard the sound of consecrated bells without a thrill of ecstacy passing through her, from the conviction that, as far as the sound of that peal could reach, it showered a blessing over the land, and drove out every evil spirit thence. “I believe firmly,” she said one day, “that Satan is scared away by the sound of blessed bells. When I used to pray as a child in the fields above Coesfeld, I often felt and saw wicked demons round me, but the moment the church bells began to ring for Mass I always found they were gone. There is no sound so joyous, so soul-stirring, so invigorating or sacred to me as the metal tongues pealing forth God’s blessing over hill and dale, and putting his enemies to flight on every side. Compared with them, all earthly music, even the great organ itself, is feeble and unmelodious to my ears.”

The language of the Church spoke even more forcibly to her heart than her beloved bells. The Latin prayers at Holy Mass and every one of the various ceremonies were familiar to her as her mother-tongue. “I never knew,” she once observed, “of there being any difference in languages where holy things were concerned, for I was never conscious of the words employed, but of the things themselves alone.” So deep and vivid an appreciation had she of the power and beneficial effects of the priestly blessing, that, if ever a priest approached her home, she was supernaturally aware of the fact, and drawn to seek his blessing; and if it so happened that she was minding her cows at the time, she confidently commended them to the care of her angel whilst she hastened to receive the coveted blessing.

She had the same feeling for the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel, which she carried rolled up in a little cover next her heart, and always declared that it was a protecting shield to which she turned in all her dangers or tribulations, repeating the words, “And the WORD was made flesh and dwelt among us.” She often expressed her extreme surprise how any one could fail to be penetrated at once with the sense of those words; indeed she flatly refused to credit such a possibility, until assured by her confessor that such unbelief, alas! but too often existed in the world.

At a later period of her life, when, owing to the general suppression of convents and confiscation of church property, an innumerable number of holy relics were scattered broadcast over the country to be trampled under foot, hurled into the flames, or sold by sacrilegious hands for whatever they might fetch, Anne Catharine’s grief and horror knew no bounds, and she eagerly seized every opportunity of awakening in the hearts of all who came into contact with her the desire of rescuing these objects, and an increased reverence for them. It soon became known far and wide, that no greater pleasure could be devised for Anne Catharine than by the bringing to her of some of these treasures, or by the asking her advice as to where they should be placed, in order that, by their greater veneration, atonement should be made for the insults to which they had been recently subjected. When she died, more than three hundred relics were found in her possession. She traced the history of each one intuitively at a glance, and had generally related it to those around her.

In the same degree with which Anne Catharine’s soul was filled with reverence and devotion by the contact ot holy places and consecrated objects, was she aware (and with a corresponding horror), in certain spots, of the sins that had been there committed, and of the curse which rested upon the land in consequence: a curse which she was then, through her unfathomable pity, impelled to remove by supplication and penitential expiation. Not far from the cottage in which she lived, there was a strip of ground, utterly barren, lying between two abundantly productive meadows. Whenever she crossed this spot as a child, she shuddered involuntarily, and invariably felt as though she were being pushed backwards by an invisible hand; she frequently fell to the ground for no reason whatever, and often she saw two dark shadows hovering about this field, and perceived that the cattle and horses in the adjacent fields began to grow shy and scared, refusing to approach that hedge within several yards. As she noticed that these mysterious signs occurred more and more frequently, she asked the country-people what was the history of that piece of waste ground, and subsequently ascertained that during the seven years’ war a Hanoverian soldier had been executed on this spot, who was innocent of the crime imputed to him by the malice of two comrades. When she heard this, Anne Catharine, as she afterwards related, “chose this field for my nocturnal prayer, and knelt there with my arms extended in the form of a cross. The first time I had a hard struggle to keep my post; the second time a monster in the shape of a hideous dog sprang upon me. I looked round and saw his dark muzzle and two flaming red eyes glaring over my shoulder, which terrified me exceedingly, but I would not give way, and thought to myself, ‘My Lord prayed in an agony of terror, and had to recommence more than once; He is near me now, and will not let this evil thing hurt me.’ So I began to pray again, and the beast disappeared. Again I was carried away by force, and held over the brink of a deep pit, but I put all my trust in God, and said: ‘Satan, thou hast no power over me!’ and I was left in peace. I continued my prayers more and more fervently, and from that time the hideous shadows were seen no more, and the grass began to grow as in the other fields around.”

In her confidential freedom with God she would often complain to Him about His allowing such and such a sin to exist; she could never understand, when He held all in His hand, why sin should be! The eternity of punishment also was incomprehensible to her, since her visions constantly taught her how undefinably loveable and merciful God is.

We come now to what we may term the second period of Anne Catharine’s childhood, beginning with her seventh year, in which she made her first confession. Hitherto we have followed her character chiefly in its supernatural aspects, and it is time to consider more in detail what that character was in itself, in its dispositions, temper, and relationships with the little world in which she dwelt. She describes herself as having been naturally quick tempered and wilful, and adds that the subduing of this self-will cost her more pain than all the rest of her internal warfare. “My parents were always scolding me for it,” she says, “till at last, as I perceived that they were perpetually finding fault with me, and never giving me one word of praise, and as I heard other children commended by their parents, I looked upon myself as the most wicked child in the whole world, and was often terribly frightened lest God should turn away from me. Once, however, I saw some other children behaving naughtily to their parents, and though I felt very grieved for their fault, it gave me fresh courage, for I thought ‘There is still hope for me with God, for I could never do a thing like that.’ ” Her clear, musical voice, and rapidity of utterance betrayed her natural vivaciousness, and words would come tumbling out almost in spite of herself as to things which sounded strange and mysterious to those around her; but no sooner did she perceive, by the severe or sneering looks which the momentary revelation of her divine gifts had brought forth, the impression she had made, than by increased simplicity and greater humility she instantly strove to efface it. She set herself so determinately to conquer her natural impetuosity and to crush her own will and inclinations in everything, that it seemed as though she lived only to do the will of others. The delicate sensibility of her whole nature, the softness of her heart (which was perpetually being wounded by a thousand circumstances unheeded by others), her burning zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of her neighbour, all combined to inspire her with so constant a spirit of self-oblivious sweetness and mildness, and such a ready obedience, that the very first symptom of opposition was quelled in her heart, before it had time to make itself heard. So thoroughly did this valiant soul gain the victory over self, that she could truthfully say “Obedience was my strength and my consolation. Through obedience I learnt how to pray joyously and freely; I learnt how to be ever with God, and to keep my heart free and detached from aught else.”

No one could help loving Anne Catharine. She was so gentle and winning and so ready and anxious to serve and assist all who came across her path, that young and old alike sought the little girl in every kind of circumstance for either advice or consolation; there was not a sick-bed for miles round where her presence was not eagerly desired, and she herself confesses that “even as a child, all the neighbours came to me to bind up their wounds, because I had a light hand and was careful not to hurt them more than I could help. When I first saw an ulcerated sore throat, I thought to myself, now if I press that it will make it sorer, but still the root of the evil must be got out, so at last I hit upon the plan of sucking the poisonous matter out with my lips very slowly and gently, and after that I found the wound very soon healed. No one taught me how to nurse the sick; I learnt it from my intense desire to be of use. At first, I felt rather squeamish, but I determined at once to get over that as being a very false kind of pity, and whenever I overcame a feeling of repugnance, the joy it gave me was very sweet, for I thought of our Blessed Lord, Who healed the wounds of all mankind.” The colour of her face would often fade from its glowing pink to the most ashen white, and the light fade out of her eyes, whilst a deep cloud of unmistakeable grief would settle down upon her face, causing her parents to exclaim anxiously, “What can be the matter with the child?” The cause of this sudden change would be the disclosure to her soul of some trouble or misery, which would draw her in spirit with an irresistible force to the theatre of the suffering. She felt the sorrow of others as if it were her own; the certainty, however, that her sympathy and her offering to bear part of the pain gave relief and comfort to the sufferers, was like renewed strength and life to her, so that every day the furnace of human sympathy, as we may call it, burned more and more fiercely in her heart. Her family, however, not comprehending the wonderful operations going on within her soul, became exceedingly amazed at these wonderful changes, especially her mother, who when she found sickness and disease disappear as suddenly as they had taken the place of blooming health, imagined the poor child was either feigning, or giving way to a whimsicalness which she must cure her of by blows and punishments. Therefore when at times her little daughter, weighed down under the load of interior anguish could scarcely stand upright, her mother would push her angrily away, or chastise her severely. Such unjust corrections were borne, however, with the greatest patience and submission by Anne Catharine, who grew more and more cheerful and contented under them, not only because the admonitions of her angel taught her to receive such treatment joyfully for Christ’s sake, but also because she fully believed herself deserving of it, since she deemed herself the lowest and least of all mankind. Her angel would not admit of her retaining the smallest stain of imperfection, and punished every fault with a stern rebuke, admonishing her to perform the most painful and humiliating penances. She got into the habit of judging and correcting herself implacably for every slight omission, whilst her own heart was overflowing with loving-kindness towards the whole world. When only five years old, she one day caught sight of a round rosy apple lying on the other side of the garden hedge, and child-like, longed to eat it. No sooner had the wish crossed her mind than she conceived so deep a remorse for her momentary feeling of covetousness, that she laid upon herself a penance never to taste an apple as long as she should live, and to this resolution she adhered faithfully.

Another time she felt a dislike to a certain peasant woman whom she had heard speaking against her parents, and made up her mind to pass her for the future without addressing her. She did so once with a heavy heart, and then, stung by remorse, she hurried back, and begged the woman’s pardon for her incivility. It would not have been surprising if so much early interior suffering, combined with her austere mission of expiator for the sins of others, had quenched the harmless gaiety in Anne Catharine’s heart, natural to an innocent child; but this was not the case, for God in His far-reaching providence over every minute want of His servants, ordained that she should find her full share of pleasure in the innumerable delights she derived from the contemplation of His greatness and magnificence in the wonders of creation, and in familiar intercourse with all members of the animal kingdom. If she wandered alone through woods or meadows, she was generally accompanied by a flight of little birds, chirruping round her, perching on her shoulders, and eager for her caresses, as she joined her voice to theirs in singing God’s praises, and when she had discovered a nest, her little heart beat for joy as she gazed at its tiny occupants, murmuring her most endearing words to them, whilst their mother fluttered in loving confidence round her head. She knew every spot where the first flowers of spring opened their blossoms to the light, and her delight was, to weave wreaths with them for the Child Jesus and His blessed Mother. At the age when other children enjoy picture-books and painted representations of flowers and creatures, Nature and her beauties were the books into whose pages little Anne Catharine loved to dive, ever finding new joys in her fresh discoveries of the wisdom and goodness of her God; and so learned did she become in all the mysteries of the floral world, that when speaking of St. John the Baptist’s sojourn in the wilderness, she said: “It never surprised me that St. John learnt so much from the flowers and dumb animals in the wilderness, for even when I was a little child, every leaf and every flower were like an open book to me. I felt the hidden signification and loveliness of each colour, form, and variety. If ever I tried to tell other people what I knew about them, I was always laughed at, but when once I got out into the open air there was nothing created I could not converse with; I saw God in every flower and in every creature; and I cannot describe how sweet it was to talk to them all of Him! I had once a very bad sort of fever, and every one thought I should soon die, but I was still able to get out of doors, and one day a beautiful child came towards me and pointed to some herbs, which he told me to gather and eat, and I should get well again. I remember these plants well; they were a sort of bindweed filled with a delicious juice. I sat down under a hedge, and did as I was told, and soon felt quite well.

“One of my special favourites was the camomile flower; there was something indefinably sweet and mysterious to me in its name; I don’t know what it was. I used to pick the blossoms early in a morning, so as to have them prepared for the sick people who kept coming to show me their wounds or bruises, and to ask me what I thought of them, and I used to amuse myself by discovering all kinds of simple, harmless remedies, by which the injured parts were always very soon cured.”

In her seventh year Anne Catharine went to confession for the first time, with several other children, and so overcome was she by the force of her contrition, and the anxiety and emotion she felt in approaching this holy sacrament, that her strength gave way upon the road to the church, and she had to be carried almost the whole way to Coesfeld by her little companions, who loved her as fondly as did all who knew her, and were proud to render her this little service. Besides the few faults she had committed in her childhood, and long since atoned for by many a painful self-inflicted penance, all her incessant visions weighed upon her conscience, as she had made up her mind to narrate them fully, and with every detail, to the priest, and be guided by his advice and direction upon the subject, since the constant blame she received on account of these dream-pictures from her relations, especially from her mother, who never ceased warning her about her superstitious and visionary fancies, made her extremely uneasy, although she felt herself guiltless of sin. And here we cannot fail to admire the ways of God, who put this anxiety into the heart of the little girl, in order that she might be led thereby to place the gifts of revelation and prophecy, which had been committed to her care, into the hands of her spiritual Father, that they might serve to the edification of the whole Church, and bring about a new infusion of faith into an age wherein heresy, infidelity, and indevotion were reigning paramount in the hearts of men.

Whilst making the examination of her conscience Anne Catharine was filled with fear lest self-love or a false shame might conceal a fault from her own eyes or lend it some palliation; therefore, she kept repeating over and over to herself: “Whatever the devil has robbed me of, that he may keep; so if he has taken away from me the shame for my sins, I will not have it back any more from his hands.” Selfishness was more terrible to her than the very devil himself; for she had learnt in her interior contemplations that mankind would never have fallen into its present depth of degradation had not Adam laid the blame of his fall on Eve and Eve upon the serpent. She accused herself, therefore, with the deepest contrition, of many mortal sins, as she imagined, and would scarcely accept a modification of their enormity even from the mouth of her confessor himself. She remembered on one occasion having quarrelled with a child; on a second, of having answered another mockingly; and these were faults she was firmly convinced were mortal sins, since “had she not heard from the schoolmaster that God commands us, if we receive a blow to turn our other cheek to our offender?” Her confessor, Overberg, indeed said of her that at this early period of her life she had attained to so great a strength of soul that it was her keenest joy to be able to oblige any person from whom she had ever received an injury. Thus, when confessing these heinous crimes, as she believed them to be, she was so terrified lest her confessor should refuse her absolution that, when he sought to comfort her by saying, “My child, thou cans’t not yet commit a mortal sin,” she broke down into such floods of sobs and tears, that she had to be carried out of the confessional.

Her parents had given her some pence before she started, with which to buy herself a loaf of white bread, as was the children’s custom after making their confessions. This time, however, she gave it to a beggar, in order that God might pardon her sins; and on future occasions bought the bread, as her parents gave her the money to do so, but carried it home to them untasted.

That her scruples did not proceed from a false species of solicitude, but were the consequence of her extreme purity of conscience, may be plainly seen from the following fact, which good Bernhard Emmerich was very fond of relating: “When Anne Catharine first began to read, she was very fond of seating herself with her prayer-book on the ground by the fire-side, and piling up splinters of wood to make a blaze. One day her father was working at a carving-block belonging to a neighbour, in which he had to insert a piece of new wood, and observing his little daughter carefully picking up all the splinters of new wood to throw into the fire, and leaving the others on the ground, he asked her why she did not take them all? to which she replied: “I only take those that are of the new wood, for the others that are chipped off from the block do not belong to us.” Another of her favourite practices for some time was, when her parents had gone to sleep, to get up and read (if the fire was out) by the light of any stray candle-ends she could find. At first she thought there was no harm in taking these candle-ends, but a little while later made it a cause of confession, and thenceforth never made use of anything belonging to her parents without first asking their permission.

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