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The Life Of Anne Catherine Emmerich

IT is not surprising that as this miraculously gifted soul grew in years, the desire of living for God alone became mightier in her soul and more engrossing day by day; and that she was perpetually occupied with thinking over ways and means by which she might accomplish this work. For a long time she cherished the idea of secretly leaving her parent’s house and seeking some distant place, where she would be unknown, and could lead a life of penance. After God Himself, her parents and brothers and sisters were the only beings to whom she clung with tender love, and therefore she imagined that her fidelity to Him was incomplete so long as she remained at home. This project she found impossible of execution; but her longing to lead a hidden contemplative life increased in intensity, till it became the one end and aim of all her earthly wishes. Her affection towards all religious orders was so great, that, as she often related later, she knew not how to contain her emotion if she caught sight of the habit of a member of one of the austere orders, but she hardly dared allow herself to contemplate the possibility of ever being clothed in such a garment herself. God, Who had implanted this desire in her heart, deigned at this period to become her guide and to assist her in attaining her coveted end. This guidance is all the more remarkable a fact, both from Anne Catharine’s own character and the position of the Church at that date; for therein we discern one of the mysterious ways by which God comes to the aid of His Church in all her needs and difficulties, as also the unmistakeable proof that His all-powerful wisdom is ever at her side when her enemies are most numerous and combined together for her overthrow. At the time when Anne Catharine was called to the religious life armed and prepared by Divine foresight for a life of, as seemed probable, unusual activity, events were already threatening, and indeed had partially commenced, which in a few short years were to lay waste the vineyard of the Church. Thus Anne Catharine was not called upon, like the Blessed Colette and others to re-establish conventual discipline, and found new communities, but a far harder work fell to her share, that of giving herself as an expiatory sacrifice to God, upon whom He, as formerly in the case of Lidwina of Schiedam, in equally terrible times, laid the atonement for all the Church’s wounds and sufferings, and all the guilt of the crimes committed against her, in order to bring her renewed health and safety.

This immeasurable, all-embracing mission of suffering, God entrusted to a humble child, condescending to woo her as a bridegroom his bride, and to elevate her by the wooing to the highest steps in the ladder of spiritual perfection. Never had the Church been more deeply bowed down into the dust; never had the pestilential breath of unbelief worked more universal devastation, or the enemies of the faith made more inordinate efforts to bring about her ruin, and never had a more feeble resistance been offered to their attacks, than at the time when God chose Anne Catharine as His bride.

And now a poor sickly child was to encounter and defeat this array of hostile forces. Poor and feeble the instrument indeed was, but the weapons with which her heavenly Bridegroom armed her, were strong and mighty, they were the same with which He Himself in His Most Sacred Humanity overcame the powers of hell; and step by step He trained her in those tactics upon which victory can never fail to ensue; ways which perhaps are not according to human wisdom and reckoning, but which accord with the decrees of His inscrutable wisdom.

The more powerfully Anne Catharine was strengthened in spirit by this tuition, the farther reached the circle of her blessed interposition, until finally it embraced all parts and ordinances of the entire Church.

It was in either her fifth or sixth year that she received the distinct call from God to the religious life. “I was a very little girl,” she tells us, “employed in minding cows—always a most laborious and difficult task to me—when the wish arose in my heart to run away from cows and home and go to some place far away, where I could serve God in solitude without anyone’s knowing me. Whilst so thinking, I fell into a vision and found myself on the road to Jerusalem. Suddenly a nun came to meet me, whom I afterwards discovered to be Jeanne de Valois; she was very grave, and was accompanied by a wonderfully beautiful boy of just about my own size. She did not lead him by the hand, so I knew he was not her son. She asked me what I was fretting about, and when I had told her my trouble, she comforted me and said: ‘Have no fears! Look at this little boy! will you have him for your bridegroom?’ I said, ‘Yes, I will,’ and she bade me be contented and wait patiently till he should come and fetch me; and that I should be a nun. This appeared to me quite impossible, but she assured me I should go into a convent, for all things were possible to my bridegroom. Then I felt quite happy and sure it would be so. When I awoke again, I was driving the cows quietly homewards. The vision came over me in full midday. I was never disturbed by such visions, for I thought everyone else had the same intercourse with the spiritual world as myself.” Another similar vision was granted her some time later, which so encouraged her that she ventured to make a vow that she would follow the call of her Divine Bridegroom when old enough, and enter a convent. She thus describes the occurrence: “My father had made a vow, to present a fatted calf once a year to the Convent of the Annunciation at Coesfeld, and used always to take me with him when he gave it. The nuns used to be very fond of playing with me; they would lift me up into the broad window-seat of the parlour, with my face towards them, and give me little presents, and then turning me round with my back to the Convent, ask me ‘in fun whether I would not stay with them? I always said ‘Yes,’ and did not want to go away again. Then they used to say that the next time I came they would keep me. Little as I was, I loved that convent dearly. Whenever I could hear the bells of their church, I used to pray with the intention of uniting my devotion with that of its pious inmates, and of becoming in some sort a member of the Community. One very hot summer’s day, about two o’clock, I was with my cows, when all on a sudden the sky clouded over, and a violent thunderstorm began. With the first claps of thunder the cows showed signs of growing wild and unmanageable, they had been fidgetty all day owing to the sultriness and the flies, and I was in the greatest trouble to know what I should do with them, for I had the cows of the whole village to look after, and what could I, a weak child, do if they got off into the forest? The rule of the place was that according to the number of cows each person had, so many days must he mind the entire herd. When it was my turn I used to spend the time between prayer and visions; generally betaking myself either to Bethlehem or Jerusalem.

“Thus, when the storm broke over my head in all its fury, I crouched down behind a sand-hill covered with juniper trees, which made a kind of shelter, and there I prayed and was soon absorbed in a dream-picture. An aged nun clothed in the habit of the Annunciation Convent came and talked to me. She told me that if we really wished to love and honour the Blessed Mother of God, we did not prove it by decorating her image and carrying it in procession, or saying long prayers to her, unless we added thereto the imitation of her virtues, especially those of humility, love, and purity. She also said that there was no better shelter in times of storm and danger than in the Wounds of Jesus, adding that her special devotion had always been to them, in consequence of which she had been permitted to feel what their pain was like, a grace never before conferred on man. She told me how she always wore a hair-shirt with five nails upon her breast, and a chain round her loins, and that she had always kept this pious practice a secret.

“She related also what a great devotion she had always felt towards the mystery of the Annunciation, and that it was disclosed to her that Mary, from her earliest childhood, had always looked forward with longing to the arrival of the Messias, and wished that she herself might act as servant to the Mother of her Lord. She related also the manner in which she beheld the archangel make his wonderful announcement, and then I confided to her how I had seen the same event, and thus we became real good friends. At about four o’clock I woke up. The convent bell was ringing for prayers, the storm over, and my cows quietly grazing round me, without so much as a hair wet upon them! I made a vow upon the spot to be a nun, and thought at first of going into the Convent of the Annunciation, but then decided I had rather go quite away from my own family, but I did not breathe a word about this resolve to anyone. Some time later I was interiorly informed that my friend on this occasion was Jeanne de Valois, and that she had been compelled to marry. I often saw her after that, especially when I was journeying in spirit to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of Francisca and Ludovica.”

From this date Anne Catharine made a firm determination to enter a convent. She saw no human possibility of accomplishing it, and knew of no convent where she was the least likely to be received; but her vow had taken so deep a root in her soul, that she felt in her deep confidence in God’s power the irresistible conviction that He would find means to complete the work His guidance had begun. And therefore she, even at this early period, bent all her efforts to lead as far as she knew how, and as far as her outward circumstances would permit, the life of a religious. Her parents and elders she represented to herself as her spiritual superiors, to whom she rendered the most punctilious obedience, and practised all conventual discipline, mortification, self-denial, and seclusion to the letter, as taught by her interior knowledge.

One of her playfellows, in giving her testimony about Anne Catherine many years afterwards, before the ecclesiastical authorities, said: “I have known Anne Catharine Emmerich ever since her childhood. We grew up together, and lived almost under the same roof. She was kept in very strict order by her parents, but was not unkindly treated. Hers was a thoroughly good disposition. She was tenderly affectionate to parents, and brothers, and sisters alike—always modest and well-behaved. Even as a child, her great wish was to be a nun; and all her thoughts were of church-going and religious things, instead of games and merry-making, from which she always stole away if she could to get to church instead. She was exceedingly pious in a very quiet way, and said very few words at any time, being always occupied and industrious. She was amiable and unselfish towards everybody, and got many a present from people for her ready helpfulness. Her heart was warmth itself, if her head were sometimes a little hot, and her sorrow, if she had been hasty, knew no bounds. In her dress she was always neat and clean, and did not know the meaning of the word vanity.”

When twelve years old Anne Catharine was sent by her parents as servant-girl to some relations, whose name was Emmerich also, and who were well-to-do farmers, her parents being under the impression that if the child were brought into contact with a greater number of people she would by degrees lose her strange, silent, shy ways. This mysterious child-life, so detached from creatures and worldly objects, and so entirely wrapped up in God, became daily more and more of a riddle to these simple folk, when they were perpetually receiving new proofs of her vivacious, active disposition, and of her cleverness and good sense, and they feared lest her great love of retirement should be a hindrance to her worldly prospects in after years. This would-be wisdom on the part of her parents, however, utterly failed in its ends, for no matter with whom Anne Catharine lived, with how many people she might be surrounded, whether working in solitude or toiling in the fields in company with others, she was always the same, her inclination for seclusion and silence growing stronger with her increasing years. If the general conversation turned upon spiritual things, she would put in a few words now and again without looking up from her employment, which seemed to be done by magic under her skilful, ever-busy fingers. If suddenly addressed, however, it often happened that she did not hear, or else gave an answer that had nothing to do with the subject, like a person awaking out of a dream, and would gaze at her interlocutor with wide-opened eyes, whose depths betrayed to even those simple folk that her mind was far from earthly concerns; yet almost before they had time to know what to make of her strange look, her touching amiability, and eagerness to be of use, made the startling impression vanish from their minds.

The farmer’s wife, with whom she lived for three years, spoke of her as “a quiet, gentle little girl, who lived in our household and took care of the cows. No one had a fault to find with her, she was so industrious and obliging, and we all grew very fond of her. She never joined in any village sports, but always went to church instead, for she was truly pious, and of very quiet, shy habits. She was extremely good-natured, spoke well of everyone, and could not bear to be praised herself. She fasted a great deal, under the excuse that eating did not agree with her, and wore a coarse woollen shift next her skin. When I used to try and persuade her against her project of becoming a nun, saying she would have to part from all her relations, she would shake her head at me, and say: ‘You must not talk like that, or else we cannot remain friends. I must and will be a nun.’ ”

After these three years it was thought better for her delicate health that Anne Catharine should be apprenticed to a dressmaker; but before putting this new plan into execution, her parents sent for her home to assist in fieldwork for a short time. During these few weeks an event occurred which gave Anne Catharine a good pretext for announcing to her parents her firm and irrevocable determination of going into a convent.

About three o’clock one afternoon, as they were all out at work together, father and mother, brothers and sisters, the convent bell at Coesfeld began to ring as usual for Vespers. Often as she had heard it before, when the wind was in a favourable direction, on this occasion the sound filled her heart with such a marvellous longing for the convent that she was on the point of fainting. It seemed to her as though a voice kept crying out to her: “Go into the convent, let happen what may!” She could work no more that afternoon, and had to be taken home. “From this moment,” she says, “I fell ill, was perpetually sick, and felt very depressed. Seeing me always moping about in this sorrowful frame of mind, my mother asked me what was the matter, and what I was brooding over? So I told her that I wished to be a nun. She was very angry, and asked me how could I ever expect to get into a convent, poor and sickly as I was? She complained bitterly to my father, and they both tried all they could to dissuade me from the idea, depicting the religious life itself as most unsuited to me, who would be sure to be despised as a poor peasant child. However, I replied: ‘Although I possess nothing, God is infinitely rich. He will bring it about for me.’ This opposition from my parents went so deeply to my heart, that I sickened more and more, and finally had to take to my bed. One afternoon during this illness, when the sun was shining brightly through the window of my little bedroom, I saw two nuns and a very saintly-looking man come to my bedside. They were all bright and shining, and brought me a great book like a Missal, saying: ‘If you study these pages, you will know what is required in a religious.’

“I took the book upon my knee, promising to read it. It was in Latin, but I understood every word. They left it with me, and vanished. The leaves of the book were parchment, filled with writing in red and gold letters, and pictures of saints of the olden times. The binding was yellow, and there were no clasps. I still had this book in my possession when I went into the convent. Once I had laid it down upon a table, and some nuns went in and tried to take it away, but they could not move it from its place. I often heard a voice say to me, ‘Now thou must read such and such a page,’ and as soon as I had finished one portion it immediately disappeared. I saw this book once in a place where I was carried in spirit, amongst a number of the prophetical writings of all countries and ages, and was given to understand that in it I beheld my own share of those treasures.”

This mysterious volume was not a mere allegory, but was a true record of prophetical knowledge, comprised under the form of a book, and treated of the foundation and ulterior meaning of all religious orders, and the position they have held with respect to the Church in all ages, together with their future mission therein. Its perusal was like a series of pictures to Anne Catharine’s mind, unfolded by the words before her eyes, as was invariably the case with all reading to her; for instance, in a psalm, in the Magnificat, or the Benedictus, in the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel, in one of the Church’s prayers, or in the Litany of Loreto, the words opened themselves before her mind like the husk of a seed, displaying the manifold historical references and hidden meanings to her gaze. In this volume she saw that the aim and mission of all religious orders was the soul’s espousals with the Heavenly Bridegroom; but besides this general view she saw her own especial share in this, and the ways and means, the obstacles and the aids, the labours, fatigues, the self-annihilation, immolation, and sufferings, which stood before her in her path towards the attainment of her end, and this not merely in regard of her own salvation, but also with reference to the situation and necessities of the Church herself, since she had received the grace of so high a vocation, not for her own personal perfection alone, but also because she was destined to be an instrument in the hands of the Eternal Father, Who, by means of the graces given to her, and their consequent operations, intended to save the Church in a period of universal apostacy and oppression. Hence all the teaching which Anne Catharine drew from this volume, and put into practice according to the directions it contained, turned incessantly upon self-sacrifice, atonement, expiation, and satisfaction for the guilt of others. The works that she did to relieve her neighbour’s infirmities, whether spiritual or physical, might be likened to a seed sown in tears, conflicts, anguish, and blood, whose flower was to bloom for the Heavenly Bridegroom alone, and whose fruits were to be dispensed for the nourishment and refreshment of the entire Church.

The deeper Anne Catharine dived into the treasures of this book, the richer grew her contemplations, and the more varied and beautiful her outward as well as inner life. From time to time she was allegorically shown portions of her future life in pictures, which were invariably fulfilled, yet not blindly, nor without constant exertion, prayer, and toil, on her own part, the obstacles to their fulfilment which her own fault or negligence might create being held before her eyes in warning. Thus they were rather in the form of parables, strengthening and enlightening her how to do right and keep clear of wrong, or else how to avoid some imminent danger by the exercise of her own energy and will; how to cure herself of her faults, and make good her shortcomings; putting before her also many human wants and requests for aid, which she could not have foreseen naturally, and directing her how to correspond to them, either by prayer or by manual relief. All the works and undertakings which Anne Catharine was called upon to fulfil and bring to perfection, were given her, in the express view of preparing her to become the Bride of the King’s Son.

Even as carefully as a wise, anxious mother would bring up and educate a daughter who was about to become the consort of a prince of this world, was Anne Catharine supernaturally trained for her exalted destiny. In these visions she had to make all the ordinary arrangements attending an earthly marriage, and provide for all the necessities of a bride elect, but with a far higher and deeper significance. Thus she began at the very beginning; she tilled the ground, then sowed the flax, gathered it in, roasted, bruised, combed, spun it, wove it, and finally bleached it, in preparation for the bridal garment; and then she had to cut it out, sew, and make it up, as shown in her spiritual lessons, after the most varied and complicated manner. These visionary undertakings were an allegory or type of the toils, mortifications, and self-conquests of her daily life. Every stitch she made with the needle in the bridal robe was the stab of a pain patiently borne, which increased her merit, and brought her nearer to her destination. A virtue which had no depth, and whose effects were incomplete, was represented by a crooked seam, which had to be undone and re-commenced. Every movement of impatience and of hastiness, and the slightest omission or failing appeared as spots and stains which must be removed with infinite pains and trouble. All these tasks increased in arduousness with every succeeding year, rising from the plainest, white linen robe, to all the most elaborate details of bridal array. Every article cost some sacrifice, which was carefully stored up against the day of espousal.

All these varied labours were so simply and naturally amalgamated with her ordinary life, that, as she says herself, “I do not know how it was that my contemplative tasks did not clash with my ordinary occupations, but I always tried my best never to omit anything I had been set to do in my exterior life; and the others came of themselves.”

Anne Catharine had hardly recovered from her illness when her mother apprenticed her to a dressmaker in Coesfeld, in hopes that this new life, and the constant intercourse with all sorts and kinds of people, would shake her resolve of going into a convent. God, however, so arranged it, that this short space of time, hardly extending over two years, should be the most (outwardly) peaceful of her life. She had no occasion to learn her business, for, as she formerly had fulfilled all her outdoor and indoor tasks without desisting from contemplation, even so now her hands skilfully guided needle and thread whilst her eye was never once diverted from heavenly objects, and her fingers faultlessly accomplished the most troublesome pieces of work, without the slightest mental distraction. The first day after her arrival Anne Catharine went up with an anxious heart to the work table, because she knew that vision-pictures would crowd in upon her mind, and that she would be utterly incapable of keeping her attention fixed upon her work, and the fear of hereby exciting the suspicions of her companions troubled her truly. However, her urgent prayers for assistance were heard in heaven, whilst her good angel placed the right word upon her lips as often as she was suddenly addressed, and guided her fingers so deftly, that she finally grew so clever with her hands, whilst her mind was abstracted far from earthly objects, that to the last moments of her suffering life her worst nights were not employed in purely spiritual activity alone, but also in making clothes for poor children, for nurses, and for the sick, without the assistance of either eye or brain. In giving an account of this double life, when pressed to describe her own sensations at the time, she says, “While I am talking to people, different things and scenes suddenly place themselves before me. Then my own words sound to me like the voice of another person, who is trying, in inarticulate, muffled sounds, to make herself heard from the bottom of a cavern. I feel as if I were giddy, and on the point of falling, nevertheless my conversation goes on of itself quite connectedly, and is sometimes more animated than usual, without my knowing in the least what I am saying. This double life is extremely fatiguing at the time. The objects actually around me look dim and confused; I feel towards them like a person overcome with heavy sleep: objects I see with my mind imperiously demand my attention, and they look clearer than what is seen with the naked eye.”

The dressmaker with whom she lived had known her from childhood, and gave a testimony to her character similar to that of her former mistress. “The child came to me at fifteen to learn sewing,” she says, “and only remained for two years, as she fell ill, and went home to be nursed. She did her work well, and was industrious and attentive to what I told her, without making any talk about it. She was a very quiet little thing, always shy and silent. She came to me on week-days only; Sundays and holidays she spent with her parents. I never had any fault to find with her, except that she was rather fond of smart clothes. When asked by her confessor about this time, whether she gave way to the indulgence of vanity in her dress, she answered, “I was always neat and tidy in my dress, for the sake of pleasing not men, but God. My mother was frequently dissatisfied with my appearance, and then I went before a looking glass, or some clear water, and put myself to rights. I think it is good for the soul that we should be cleanly and orderly in our dress. If I went to Holy Communion on a dark morning, I always took as much care over my clothes as at bright midday, because I did it for God, and not for human beings.”

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