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The Life Of Anne Catherine Emmerich

FOUR years elapsed between Anne Catharine’s first Confession and first Communion. As the great day approached on which she was to receive the real Body and Blood of her Lord for the first time, the burning love of her heart which had hitherto, all her life long, found its vent in communicating spiritually, knew no bounds; she felt that she could never do enough in preparation for so high an honour; the greatness of her desire for the heavenly food could only be measured by the intensity of her anxiety that her soul might be found worthy of being the habitation of her Lord. She now made a particular examination of every hour of her past life with yet greater zeal than for her first Confession, in order that no trace of sin should remain in her soul. Her fears lest self-love should have blinded her to her faults returned with tenfold force, and to them was added the further alarm lest her subsequent confessions might not have been made with all the candour and completeness required by God. She had never lost the conviction that of all children in the world she was the naughtiest, and her humility on this point would admit of neither excuse nor mitigation. She besought her parents, with tears, to assist her in discovering all the sins that had ever stained her conscience, saying, “I will not suffer a secret nor a fold to remain in my heart. Were an angel to come to me in whom I could discern one hidden corner, I should be forced to believe that the devil had some share in him; for the enemy of souls loves to conceal himself in the nooks and secret places of our hearts.” It is not to be wondered at that Anne Catharine should have approached the greatest of all Sacraments with an overwhelming sense of loving awe, since from the day of her baptism (which it will be remembered was also the day of her birth), the Blessed Sacrament had ever had so powerful an attraction for her, that when in Its vicinity, she experienced a mysterious sensation of joy and well-being physically as well as spiritually, and from that time had never entered a church without being accompanied by her guardian angel, and learning, from his worship of the Divine Goodness, the kind of reverence with which mortals should adore in His Presence. Her visions constantly instructed her in the greatness and magnificence of this mystery, and our Blessed Lord Himself did the same. The knowledge she thus gained had imbued her with so deep a veneration for the priestly offices of the Church, that nothing upon earth appeared worthy in her eyes of comparison with them. When kneeling before the Altar, she dared not in the fervour of her devotion so much as look to the right or to the left, but with eye and heart fixed upon the Holiest of Holies, the deep recollection of her soul blending with the solemn stillness of the sacred spot, she spoke with sweet and loving familiarity to the Blessed Sacrament, telling her Lord all her wants very simply, and joining with the Church in her hymns of praise. As, however, she could not get to the church so often, or for as long a time as she could have wished, she invariably turned spontaneously, during her nocturnal prayers, towards that place which was her heaven upon earth, a church which she knew to contain the Tabernacle of her Lord.

When the day of her Communion had, arrived, Anne Catharine kept her eyes shut the whole way to the church, that they might see nothing which could distract the recollection of her spirit. Her one thought, her one longing was to give herself utterly into God’s hands, and to dedicate every force of her body and soul to His service. Her confessor declared that at her first communion she made very few requests. Her principal prayer was that God would make her a good child, and that she should do nothing but what He wished her to do. That the utter and perfect resignation with which Anne Catharine surrendered herself into God’s hands found favour in His sight, is sufficiently proved by the marvellous results which the reception of the Blessed Eucharist produced in her heart. Divine love was thereby kindled within her into such a burning flame, that this child of twelve years old felt herself driven to embrace a life of mortification and self-renunciation, which for ingenuity of penitential austerity could not have been surpassed by all the combined wisdom of the severest orders of religious and the Anchorets of the desert. How this strange and rugged destiny was carried out, with what heroism of soul, depth of understanding, and perfect interior as well as exterior self-possession the sequel will show. She had no guide and director but the illuminations and operations of this heavenly food. All those bye-ways which serve to entice the affections of mankind towards created objects and detach their hearts from God, she put away from her at once with a strong hand, so that God, Who had now deigned to take up His habitation within her heart, might alone rule over and possess it.

“From this day forth,” says Overberg, “the spirit for self-abnegation and self-humiliation became yet more deeply rooted in her than before, for she was firmly persuaded that without mortification no one could give himself over entirely to God; and it was her personal love of Jesus Christ which taught her this truth.” She also often made the remark how much the mere love of creatures impelled men to undertake and persevere in difficult and laborious enterprises; “Then why,” she would say, “should not the love of Jesus incite us to do a great deal more?”

Anne Catharine practised mortification in all her senses. Her eyes she mortified by turning them away or lowering them if any object presented itself which could encourage curiosity or give pleasure, doing this especially in church, where she allowed them no freedom whatever, saying to herself, “Do not look at this or that, you will lose your interior recollection,” or, “you might take too much pleasure in what you see. And what good would it do you when you have looked at it? Leave it alone, out of love to God!” In the same way, if there was anything new or amusing related in her hearing, she would stop her ears, offering the pleasure she denied herself to God. With the tongue she practised mortification, by imposing silence upon herself when there was something she particularly wished to say, and also in not eating different kinds of food which she fancied; in which latter practice she had a double mortification, for her parents seeing her refuse to eat of this and that dish, imagined she was whimsical, and chid her sharply for being dainty. Her feet came in for their share equally; if she felt a desire to go hither or thither, she said to herself (unless duty or charity called her), “No, I will not go, it is better to stay away for the love of God; if I went, I might have to repent of it hereafter;” and she also adopted a practice, in the same intention, of making the whole of the Coesfeld stations of the cross (a long distance over a very rough road) barefooted. Her inclinations she thwarted in every possible manner, not allowing herself many a little pleasure which she might innocently have enjoyed. She contrived to punish her body also in a multitude of ways, flogging herself with nettles, and wearing pieces of knotted rope, or chains, round her waist next the skin. For a long time it was her custom to sleep upon two pieces of wood, placed across one another in the shape of a cross, that so she might never know what it was really to rest.

After receiving Holy Communion she had a vision, in which she saw herself dwelling in the catacombs, in the companionship of St. Cecilia, and assisting at the worship of God with her. “I knelt,” she described it, “on the ground in a subterranean place like the inside of a mountain, amongst a great many other people. Lights were burning against the walls, and two candlesticks were lit upon a stone altar. There was a tabernacle on this altar also of stone, with a stone door. A priest said holy Mass, and the people made the responses. Towards the end of Mass he opened the tabernacle, and took out thence a chalice, which contained the Blessed Sacrament, gave the sacred particles to the people one after another, upon little white cloths, which cloths they folded carefully and laid next their hearts; after this they all dispersed and went away.” This vision seems to have been an assurance to Anne Catharine that God had heard her prayers and had accepted the offering of herself, body and soul, which she had made to Him, showing that the purity of her heart and the severity of her life made her worthy of taking place amongst that band of ancient Christians who derived courage to face the martyr’s death by a worthy reception of the Divine Eucharist, showing also that her own life was, henceforth, to be a perpetual martyrdom, the strength for enduring which she was ever to draw from the same life-giving fountain. Like St. Cecilia, she was in later times to suffer a grievous if yet an unbloody persecution for the Faith, and would have to publicly stand forth and glorify her Saviour with all the heroism of the virgin martyr of old, when innumerable tongues of men would deny and forsake Him.

The first part of the time which elapsed between each communion was devoted by Anne Catharine to thanksgiving, and the second part to preparation for her next reception of the Blessed Eucharist; she invited all the saints to assist her in praising and thanking God, and begged them to join with her in her supplications. She implored of Almighty God that He would deign Himself, by his love to Jesus and to Mary, to prepare her heart to receive His beloved Son worthily.

The second time she approached the holy table, an occurrence befel her which was apparently the symbol of her future relations with the Blessed Sacrament, and also of the graces and blessings she should draw down thence upon herself and others. Upon the occasion in question she was to set out for Coesfeld with her mother before daybreak, in order to communicate there, and, as she went to put on her best clothes (always kept in her mother’s chest), she perceived in taking them out, a number of small loaves of fine white flour lying amongst the things. At first she thought her mother must have put the bread there to try her, but she soon found there was such a quantity of them that she had to unpack the whole box before she could count the loaves. Hardly had she replaced them in the chest, when her mother came back to enquire angrily what was the cause of her delay, and hurried her so much, that she forgot to put on a neck-handkerchief. She did not notice the omission until they had got some distance along the road, when she dared not run back for it, and so followed a little way behind her mother, in terror lest the latter should turn round and discover that she was not properly dressed, and praying with all her might for assistance in the difficulty. Suddenly, as her mother was walking carefully over a slippery place in the road, and in the act of giving the child her hand to help her along, before she could look round Anne Catharine felt a handkerchief put about her neck. Joy and astonishment at this sudden answer to her prayer made her so bewildered, that she could scarcely keep pace with her mother, who, as usual, reproved her sharply for her strange behaviour. The moment she arrived at the church, she hastened weeping to make a confession of the curiosity which had led her to take the bread out of the chest, at the same time her ardent loving to receive the holy Eucharist burned within her like a furnace, and she felt an indescribable fiery glow of heat within her breast, and upon her tongue; this she thought was sent her as a punishment for being inquisitive, and she soon got so frightened at it, that she applied a little picture on parchment of the Five Wounds, which she possessed and valued very highly, to her tongue, in hopes that it would cure the burning sensation. It did so in some degree, but on going up to receive Holy Communion, she beheld the sacred particle, surrounded with what seemed to be a brilliant light, come towards her and disappear in her heart at the same moment in which she received the Blessed Sacrament upon her tongue from the hand of the priest. Then tongue and breast began to glow with a still fiercer heat than before, and this sensation remained in her mouth all the way back from the church to Flamske. On nearing home she was filled with a new dread, for she had discovered that the handkerchief she was wearing was a great deal prettier than her own. “It has a fringe; what will my mother say?” she thought. The moment she reached the cottage she laid it upon her bed, in fear and trembling; but on turning round to look at it again, to her great comfort the handkerchief had vanished, without her mother ever having perceived it.

We may interpret the allegory of the fine white loaves, which were visible to Anne Catharine only, as signifying the rich gifts which were hers in reward for her good preparation for Communion, and which she should distribute as spiritual food and drink to countless hungry and thirsty souls; and the bread lying concealed under her clothing, may have meant gifts and graces, which being hidden within her heart, were increased a hundred-fold by her own co-operation. It seems, too, that those who were the most needy, were to receive the largest share in her bounties, namely, the holy souls in purgatory, for whom she was accustomed to give all her actions and prayers in perpetual suffrage. The gratitude of the holy souls was often evinced by their interceding on her behalf as far as lay in their power, and it was to their aid that Anne Catharine considered herself indebted for the handkerchief.

At this period her confessor was an old ex-Jesuit, Fr. Weidner, by name, of whom she once related as follows: “Fr. Weidner, my confessor, lived with his sisters in Coesfeld. On Sundays I had always to go to early Mass that I might remain at home to cook whilst the others went to High Mass. Coffee was not so generally used at that time as it is now, and therefore, if I had been able to save a couple of pieces of silver during the week, I used to run round after Mass to the sisters Weidner, who sold coffee, and have a good cup made ready for my parents when they came back from church, as a pleasant surprise. I was very fond of going to that house, for the good old father and his two sisters led such a pious, happy life together, and were so gentle and kind to each other, it did me good to see them.”

As soon as Anne Catharine had received that Bread of the strong, which, through her steady, unfaltering confidence in God, rendered her powerful enough to withstand and conquer all the attacks of the Evil One, God permitted that she should be exposed to his persecutions, for her greater perfection. There was soon not a means in his power which the devil did not employ to turn her aside from her earnest aspirations after perfection; but all in vain: she despised alike his cunning, malice, and power, and the deeper grew her humility, the less could she comprehend how it was possible that Satan should be capable of instilling terror into a soul. Before this time his efforts to gain an entrance into her heart had been limited to disturbances during her nightly prayers—as, for instance, when she and her eldest brother, also a singularly pious child, were praying together on their knees, and with outstretched arms, beside their little beds, the room would be filled with a bright light, and Anne Catharine lifted up in the air, as her brothers several times witnessed, whilst a voice would be heard, bidding them go back to bed, which the boy, trembling with terror, obeyed, but his sister only prayed the longer, and more fervently, until the evil spirit departed in chagrin, and left them in peace.

Now, however, the devil discarded all masks, and laid in ambush for her soul behind the corporeal dangers with which he sought to terrify the child. Alluding to these occurrences, she tells us that, “when quite young, I was often in extreme peril of my life, but God always came to my assistance and rescued me; and I was then given inwardly to understand that such dangers are never accidental, but are allowed by Almighty God to overtake us for our good, at some unguarded moment in which we have not kept ourselves recollected in His presence, or have fallen into some fault through carelessness. Thus I could never believe in the theory of chance. Is not God always our shield and defence, unless we stray from His side? His angels are ever near us, ever ready to watch over and protect us, if we prove ourselves worthy of their care. The devil is equally on the look-out for our souls; his emissaries are unceasingly beside us, spying and listening to all we say, do, or think, that they may bring about our ruin; and, therefore, if they gain any power over us and work us any ill, it is because we have not sufficiently trusted in God our Father, not sufficiently implored His protection, not shown ourselves to be sufficiently grateful children to such a loving Parent.

“The first instance of the devil’s temptations I recollect was one day that my father and mother were out, and had left me in charge of the house, bidding me not to leave it. When they were out of sight an old woman came in, and, whether out of curiosity, or in order to do something behind my back which she should not have done, I know not, she said, ‘Run across into the garden and fetch some pears; quick, before your mother returns!’ I fell into the temptation, forgot my mother’s injunctions, and ran with such haste into the woman’s garden that I stumbled up against a plough that was hidden under some straw, and fell senseless to the ground. In this state my mother found me, and brought me to my senses again by a sound whipping; but I felt the pain of the blow on my chest for weeks; and some time after I was taught that the devil had made use of that old woman’s bad disposition to tempt me into an act of disobedience by means of the greediness of my nature, and thereby to place my life in imminent peril. This event impressed upon my mind more deeply than ever the necessity for mankind to learn how to mortify themselves in their appetites and inclinations.”

The devil’s fury was specially excited by the sight of Anne Catharine’s unintermitting nightly prayer. He sought to turn her from it by terrifying noises, apparitions, and even by personal violence. She sometimes felt herself seized by the feet with icy hands, hurled to the ground or lifted up to an alarming height. Although this treatment would cause her an involuntarily feeling of very natural terror, she never for all that lost her composure, but prayed the more vigorously, until she had conquered her enemy, and then returned to the same spot where he had just maltreated her, saying, “Thou wretched one, thou shalt not drive me away! Thou hast no part in me!” These interruptions occurred the most frequently when Anne Catharine was praying for the holy souls, or when she performed an act of penance; but as she was never without interior direction as to how she should encounter the devil, and was generally surrounded visibly by her beloved souls, who overwhelmed her with words of thanks for the consolation accruing to them through her assistance, every attack from the Evil One served only to redouble her courage and exertions.

The old cross erected in a field on the top of a high hill has been alluded to before as a favourite place for the child’s midnight prayer, and the way to this hill led along an extremely narrow path. In the middle of this path she often found a horrible animal with a huge head, somewhat resembling a dog, confronting her. At first she trembled with fright, and turned back a few steps; but recollecting herself, she made the sign of the Cross, and walked on boldly towards the monster, though her hair stood on end with terror. She flew rather than walked towards the old cross, the beast running by her side and occasionally making a snap at her. By degrees she overcame all fear at him, and drove him away by the fervour of her prayers. Another night, in the same spot, the devil, finding it impossible to shake her firmness through fright, incited a bad man to lie in wait for her beside the cross. He, however, was equally powerless against her, and Anne Catharine, with the aid of her good angel, speedily drove him away out of her sight. Sometimes also the devil tried to kill her by flinging her into a pit, into a bog, or into a deep pond, holding her under water in hopes of suffocating her; but her angel invariably came to the rescue, and landed her safely upon the edge.

These diabolical persecutions contain a deeper meaning than we should be tempted to suppose at first sight; for we see therein not only the rage and malice invariably displayed by the citizens of hell against one of God’s chosen instruments, but also the accomplishment of Anne Catharine’s earthly mission—namely, of drawing the whole fury of hell upon herself, and thus warding it off from others whose guilt had exposed them thereto. She stood in the stead of all criminals, of all who were in peril, all who were weak and wretched, or who would have been lost, had not some innocent person suffered and striven in their behalf. Just as she took the bodily maladies of weeping children upon herself, that they might be cured, so in the same way she stood forth to receive the whole rage of the devils, that she might bring salvation to many in peril of their souls: and all this, not merely of her own free will, but by the direction of her angel or the interior commands received in her visions.

Thus she would one night make the Way of the Cross upon her knees to atone for the heedlessness of some sleepy-headed, lazy shepherd, who had permitted a wolf to steal into his flock, and would take upon herself the struggle with the animal to save the lives of the poor harmless sheep. Another time, when cast into a deep pond, she would be expiating a mortal sin, and robbing hell of an otherwise sure prey; and at others, when her whole soul was filled with an agony of terror at the horrible forms and terrifying pictures the Evil One thrust before her eyes, she would be soothing the last moments of a dying person by thus removing the horror with which the devil sought to distract him in his agony.

Satan’s onslaughts became the more relentless when Anne Catharine had hindered the commission of some sin upon which he had made sure, by disconcerting his plans and ruining his plottings. “Once,” she says, “I was going to church before it was light, and a form like that of a dog brushed past me, and as I held out my hand to protect myself, it gave me such a blow in the face that I was knocked quite off the path-way. Whilst I was in church my face, where I had been struck, and my hand, swelled enormously, and broke out in blisters, so that by the time I got home I was quite unrecognizable, until I had washed them well with holy water. Our way to the church led across a paling, which I was obliged to climb over; and one St. Francis’s day, very early in the morning, as I came to this place, I felt some great black object trying to pull me down again. I fought with this thing until it let me go; but I felt no fear of it, and since that I have constantly found it in my way, trying to trip me up, but it has never yet succeeded.”

The devil also sometimes tried insidious intellectual methods of temptation upon Anne Catharine, as he found other assaults to be an utter failure, whispering suggestions in her ear that she should mitigate the austerity of her life, or practise less mortification. As soon, however, as she had discovered his artifices, she redoubled her severities. Then he laid a new snare for her, urging her on to an excess of strictness, upon which she grew more cautious, and sought the advice of her director. From this time forward to the end of her life there was not a stone which Satan left untried to seduce her from her allegiance to God; yet never once did his machinations succeed in sullying by so much as one thought the unclouded purity of a soul which God had given in especial charge to one of His own angels, and whom He led by a path too rugged and too steep to admit of the slightest breath of concupiscence finding an entrance therein.

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