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The Life Of Anne Catherine Emmerich

AS soon as Anne Catharine had recovered from her illness, she went out by the day in Coesfeld, as needle-woman, in the hopes of gaining a sufficient sum by industry and economy to take with her as dower into a convent. Hitherto God had drawn her towards the religious life by extraordinary paths; now, however, she was to tread the common road, learn its dangers and stumbling-blocks, and exercise herself in those struggles which are more or less the lot of all who are called to give up the world for God. He chose that she should experience the weakness of a creature when left to its own strength, and still preserve her bright shining faith when the sensible proofs of His extraordinary illuminations and consolations had vanished, and full freedom was given to external contradictions and obstacles to thwart and oppose her designs. This new phase of her spiritual training began with her seventeenth year and lasted till her twentieth.

Her fond hopes of earning money enough by her sewing to gain her an entry into a convent were soon dashed to the ground, as she found that the trifling wages she earned a week were gone as soon as received. All she had, she gave to the poor. Great as was her longing to enter the religious state, her love for the poor was yet greater, and when the latter were concerned, the thought that she was despoiling herself never entered Anne Catharine’s head. Meeting one day an old woman in a very worn and tattered garment, her pity was so deeply excited that she hastily took off her own skirt and wrapped it round the beggar woman, without stopping to consider that she had no other to take its place. She preferred to suffer want rather than that she should not have the means to help others; she hoped also, by imposing sacrifices upon herself, to strengthen her soul, and to regain that burning zeal which she felt had departed from her since her residence in Coesfeld.

All the consolations which she had hitherto enjoyed in her prayers and practices of devotion had been taken from her, and she fancied that she could discern within herself a great lukewarmness and repugnance to all spiritual occupations. This was a source of grievous anxiety to her, and her trouble increased in proportion as this interior desolation rendered each devotion more painful than the last. Her humility would admit of no other cause for this, than that she herself was guilty in having made a bad use of the graces she had received and had been wanting in zeal and fervour; and she now deemed herself so unworthy of the high calling she had received, that no penance appeared hard enough to make amends for her fault. Therefore she redoubled her accustomed austerities and mortifications, and was painfully careful to omit no devotional exercise, although her repugnance often required her utmost efforts to surmount. Although she had never once to confess the remotest voluntary consent to a disinclination for spiritual things, her sense of guilt and her fear afterward rose to such a height, that she did not dare receive Holy Communion so often as formerly, till she was compelled to do so, by the express command of her director. For three long years she persevered manfully in this warfare, until at last God allowed the light of His Presence to shine upon her once more, when the fervid love of her soul, and its noble joyous courage, rose up mightier and higher than ever.

At this time she had also to encounter many and divers exterior trials and afflictions. Everyone around her, parents, brothers, sisters, friends, all tried by every possible means to induce her to give up the idea of a convent. Her mistress, for whom she worked, took such an affection for her, that she made her frequent offers, accompanied by most urgent entreaties, of giving her a home and sharing all she had with her, if Anne Catharine could only bring herself to promise that she would never leave her whilst she lived. The girl’s piety had so touched this good woman’s heart, that she had conceived the plan of retiring with Anne Catharine far from the turmoil of the world, and leading a life wherein they should devote themselves to works of charity; and as she had never interfered in any way with the girl’s pious practices, but rather encouraged her in them, she made sure she would gladly accede to a proposal which had all the appearances of offering every compensation for the loss of conventual life. But Anne Catharine was not to be deluded, and declined all these friendly proposals with so much tact and wisdom that the good understanding subsisting between herself and her mistress was never disturbed. Her parents’ opposition was much harder to withstand, since they persisted in the conviction that if their daughter could only be brought to take a greater share in worldly dissipations and excitement, she would soon lose her wish to be a nun. They forced her therefore to appear at public places, dances, and the like, and to their commands were joined the persuasions and entreaties of all her acquaintances and companions of her own age.

Difficult as she had always found it to refuse anyone anything that seemed to give pleasure, it now appeared utterly impossible to continue always to refuse, and to distress her parents when they begged of her to go with them to some apparently harmless country festivity. Twice therefore she gave in, hoping by this compliance to be spared further importunities, and she thus relates the circumstance: “My eldest brother tried hard to persuade me to go with him to a dance, but as I would not, and persisted in my refusal, he flew into a passion, abused me violently, and rushed out of the house. In a few minutes he returned weeping bitterly, and throwing himself upon his knees at my feet in presence of both my parents, he begged forgiveness for his hastiness. Until this time we had never disagreed, and never did so again. When I had once, out of a false idea of giving way to others, consented to go to one of these places of amusement, the deepest sadness fell upon me, and I followed the others in a state of half desperation. Certainly my soul was not present, for I suffered all the pains of hell at the time, and felt as if to get out I must. However I kept staying on and staying on, thinking it would look unseemly if I went away, till at last it seemed to me as though my Celestial Bridegroom Himself were calling me out, and then I rushed from the room, looked all around, and at last found my Betrothed standing under some trees, with a sorrowful and yet angry countenance, His face all disfigured and covered with blood. Then He said to me, ‘How faithless thou art! How thou hast forgotten Me! how ill thou hast treated Me! Canst thou not recognize Me now?’ Then I besought His forgiveness, and learned what I had to do in order to be preserved from the sins of others: namely, to go and kneel in an obscure corner and pray with arms outstretched until I had hindered a sin which was about to be committed.

“On one other occasion when I had again, out of a false idea of obedience, allowed myself to be dragged to a public merrymaking, the same power which had torn me away before became stronger and stronger, the more my companions pressed me to stay with them. I escaped, feeling as if the earth would swallow me up; and whilst sorrowfully wending my way homewards, a wondrously beautiful lady came towards me, and with a look of pain on her countenance said: ‘What hast thou done? thou, who art bethrothed to My Son, wilt thou thus forsake Him?’ The fair youth Himself, Whom I loved so well, now joined us, His face all tearful and woe-begone, and His reproaches pierced me to the quick. To think that I had lingered in such bad company, whilst He was in pain and waiting for me! I thought I should have died of grief, and implored His mother that she would beg for my forgiveness, promising never to be so weak again. She granted my prayer; I received pardon, and gave my solemn word that I would never be found at such meetings again. Then they left me. I was perfectly wide awake, in full possession of my senses, and they had walked beside me, talking, like any living people. I went home weeping and sobbing bitterly, and the next day was laughed and jeered at for having run away from the others.

“At last I was left in peace, for my father, happening to read in a book one day that parents should not allow their children to go to dances and such like entertainments, repented deeply of having made me attend them against my will, saying, ‘God knows how well I meant it!’ and he fell into such a state of distress about it, that I was obliged to comfort him as best I could.”

Anne Catharine still could not prevail upon either of her parents to waive their great objection to her embracing the religious life, and before we blame them too severely for opposing their child’s evident vocation, we must reflect what a great treasure she was to them both. Ever since God had given her to them, she had been an unmixed source of consolation and delight. A mysterious blessing had rested upon her infancy, which communicated itself insensibly to all around, and influenced all her sayings and doings, the charm of which they seemed to appreciate more keenly whenever it seemed probable that she would be taken from them.

As she grew up, her unspeakable sweetness, gentleness, and unselfish eagerness to anticipate every wish of her parents even before it was uttered, combined with the brightness radiating from a soul ever at peace with itself and in close communion with God, endeared her day by day more and more to their hearts, whilst they looked forward to this daughter as the prop and comfort of their old age. And now the whole fabric of their natural anticipations was to be shattered, and their child lost to them for ever behind the stern walls of a convent, her dear voice never to be heard again save through the barrier of a parlour grating; for they knew her character well enough to be persuaded that no mitigated rule would suit their child, and that if she entered a convent at all it would be the most austere and strict she could find. Thus they would far rather have been parted from her by marriage, since that condition would not have entailed a perpetual separation. So in giving their consent to their daughter’s embracing the path in life to which God had called her, they would be crushing the sunshine out of their lives with their own hand, and receiving no compensation in return. Therefore they besieged the poor child with prayers, supplications, tears, reproaches, violent outbreaks of grief and even of anger, accusing her at times of wishing to take refuge from the trials of a life of poverty and hard work in the world, until she hardly knew which way to turn, and her sensitive loving heart shrank from the pain she was inflicting on those nearest and dearest to her.

Her refuge in these difficulties was in prayer, where she earnestly sought for light and strength to carry out the object of her desires. “My parents,” she told her confessor some time later, “used often to bring me proposals of marriage, to which state I had the greatest repugnance. The thought, however, struck me that my aversion might perhaps spring from a mere idle dread of the toils and anxieties of married life, and therefore I besought God that if it were His Will that I should marry and give in to my parents’ wishes, that He would remove this repugnance from my heart. But my desire for the religious life only grew the stronger after this; and on taking my confessor into my confidence, and asking his advice, he told me that were I the only child of my parents, I should be wrong in entering a convent against their wishes; but that as I had eight brothers and sisters who would care for them in their old age, I was perfectly free to adhere to my resolution.”

The next great event of Anne Catharine’s life was her Confirmation, in the eighteenth year of her age, at a time when she was suffering acutely from interior desolation and tormented with the fear of having fallen into a permanent state of lukewarmness. Thus, when she received her invitation to the reception of this holy sacrament, it came to her like a call from heaven, and she made her preparation with the firm conviction that she would recover hereby the strength and joyousness of heart after which she had now sought and striven in vain for one whole year. She made but one prayer at her first communion, “that God would make her a good child;” and now her request was equally simple, namely, “that He would always enable her to suffer for Himself and for her fellow-creatures;” and in order that she might be heard, she redoubled her penances and practices of mortification, already severe and painful enough in truth.

The desire to serve God by prayer and penance, alone and unknown in a foreign land, welled up mightier than ever at this time in her heart; and as she was once expressing this wish before a friend of hers, saying how that to be a true follower of Jesus Christ, one must forsake all else for Him as did the saints of old, her glowing words made such an impression on her friend that the girl sprang up, declaring herself ready to follow Anne Catharine wherever she chose to lead, in imitation of the example of the saints. Anne Catharine joyfully accepted this proposition, and the two girls agreed forthwith upon a plan to leave their homes, but found afterwards that it could not be carried out.

Anne Catharine describes her reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation thus: “We candidates walked two and two in procession to Coesfeld. I and my companions waited some little time outside the church door for our turn to go up before the bishop. I had a keen sense of the sacredness of the office which was then going on in the church, and beheld the interior changes which had thereby been effected in those who came out depicted on their countenances.

“When I entered the church I saw the bishop, looking bright and shining, and, as it were, surrounded by hosts of heavenly gifts and graces; the holy chrism shone also quite brilliantly; likewise the foreheads of those upon whom it had been laid. When it came to my turn to be anointed, I felt as if a strengthening fire penetrated through my forehead into my heart. Since then I have often seen the bishop on different occasions, and have hardly recognized him as the same person.”

The wonderful strength and increase of grace which Anne Catharine now received is are shown by the fresh charges of expiation which God laid upon her, and which grew more painful and more bitter day by day. They were often inflicted upon her by purely supernatural means. It was always the guilt of others for which she had to atone, and to bear their share of punishment and anguish. Sometimes this was effected by apparently accidental circumstances, such as falling over a hidden obstacle and cutting and bruising herself painfully, having scalding water upset over her, or falling ill of some inexplicable complaint, which was put down by her neighbours as either hypocrisy or madness. She met all such occurrences with the utmost patience and serenity. Not even the constant blame, mockery, and unjust treatment she received had power to bring a petulant word from her lips, and this was the more admirable in her, since by nature she was of a quick, excitable disposition, and many and many were the hard fights she had with herself to enable her not merely to maintain outward sweetness of demeanour, but to forgive her offenders from the bottom of her heart, and, as was her custom, to implore of God at that very moment that He would exact the punishment from herself instead of from those in fault. Her voluntary expiations for the guilt of others increased tenfold from this memorable strength-giving day. From morning till night her hours were devoted to unwearied toil, whilst her nights were entirely given up to prayer and to the mortification of her body by severe disciplines. From childhood she had kept secret all the penitential instruments—waistbelts, chains, prickly cords, and the like, which she was in the habit of using.

Another of her practices of penance was the manner in which she visited the Stations of the Cross at Coesfeld, which she did at night, as her days were fully occupied with her work. The gates of the town were shut soon after dark, and to reach the Stations Anne Catharine had to climb over the half-ruined walls, and force her way through a gloomy, tangled pine-wood. To a girl who, by nature, was extremely shy and timid, preferring to stay at home unseen and unheeded, these adventurous expeditions in the dead of night, and in all weathers, were particularly painful, and cost many a hard struggle with herself; yet she never failed to obey when either the entreaties of the souls in Purgatory or the commands of her good angel laid the task upon her. If the night were very tempestuous, she would persuade a friend of pious habits like to her own to bear her company. “Once,” she relates, “my friend and I made the Way of the Cross about three o’clock in the morning, and had as usual to clamber over a gate in the town walls, and when we had been round the Stations and returned to the church to pray, I beheld the great Crucifix, covered with all its silver ex votos come down towards us, outside the church doors. I saw it quite clearly and distinctly; my companion did not, but heard the silver hearts rattle against one another. After this I generally used to go and pray before this miraculous cross, and have often beheld the crucified figure of our Saviour bend down towards me.”

On another occasion she was commissioned to make this act of devotion in order to bring peace between a husband and wife: “The hatred of those two people in Coesfeld for each other,” she says, “grieved me so much that on Good Friday I went round the Stations for them. This excited the fury of the devil, who fell upon me in one of the narrow and darkest streets under the form of a man, and tried to murder me. However, I cried out to God with all my strength, and at that Name he fled away from me. From this time the husband was kinder to his wife.”

These midnight devotions apparently renewed all the fury of the powers of hell against the brave girl, and remind us of the days when, as a child of a few years old, her nocturnal adoration by the old field cross was disturbed by their persecutions, as the following instances will show. “My compassion was warmly enlisted,” she-told Overberg, “by the sorrow of a poor girl, who had been seduced, and then deserted by her lover. I was quite beside myself with grief to think that there should be such wickedness in the world, and agreed with two friends that we would spend the night of Easter Sunday in going fifty-two times into the churchyard at Coesfeld, to pray for the holy souls, in order to induce Almighty God to help the poor girl. The weather was rough and cloudy. We were all barefoot, my two friends walking on either side of me. Whilst I was praying, the devil fell upon me under the form of the girl’s seducer, and knocked me from side to side up against my companions; this happened several times, but I only prayed the more fervently, as I saw how any good work enraged the evil one. My friends trembled and cried out loud with fear, though to this day I do not know whether they saw what befel me. When we had fulfilled our task, we were so exhausted that we could do nothing more. So we went home, but on the way back the same apparition seized me again, and threw me head downwards into a tan-pit twenty feet deep. My companions screamed loudly, and thought I must have broken my neck; but I fell quite lightly, and called out, ‘Here I am.’ At the same moment I felt myself lifted out again, without knowing how, and we continued our way home, praying as we went, without any further interruptions. On Easter Thursday the poor young girl came, with joy beaming in her face, to tell me her lover was going to marry her, which he did soon afterwards.

“Another time, when crossing the fields with a friend to pray together, as usual, when we had reached a certain narrow place in the road which we could not avoid, Satan appeared, disguised as a black dog, about as big as up to my shoulder, and barred our passage. As often as I made the sign of the cross, he drew back a few steps, and then came to a standstill again. This lasted for full a quarter of an hour. My companion was so terrified that she clung to me shaking with fright, and was for turning back. However at last I addressed the evil thing in these words, pressing forwards as I said them, ‘In the name of Jesus, go we will! We are sent by God, and we will do our work for God. Didst thou come from God, thou wouldst not stop us! Go thy way, and let us go ours!’ At these words the monster disappeared. My friend seeing this regained her composure, and exclaimed, ‘Why didst thou not say those words at first?’ I replied, ‘Yes, indeed; but they did not come into my head at first.’ After this we had peace, but often when in church, praying before the Blessed Sacrament, the devil would fling himself upon the seat beside me, until the wood creaked again. I used to turn hot and cold with terror, but he never drove me away, and the more I prayed, the sooner he vanished.”

When once asked what sort of prayers she used when making the round of the stations, she replied, “At each stage of Our Lord’s passion I pray for a different class of afflicted persons, and then visions come and show me the people who are in want of help, either to the right or left of the picture before me. Thus, last night I prayed at the first station for those who were preparing their confessions for to-day’s feast, asking God to give them the grace of a true contrition for their sins, that none might be overlooked or omitted. Whilst praying I beheld people in various places, examining their consciences, either in their houses, or as they went about their business. I saw the state of their consciences, and I incited them by my prayer not to allow themselves to sink back into the slumber of sin. At the second station I prayed for those whose affliction or employments deprived them of sleep, that God might send them hope and consolation. I saw, then, several poor creatures turning about on their miserable straw pallets, thinking that they had no bread for the morrow, whose eyelids God mercifully closed upon their troubles. At the third station I prayed for the cessation of disputes and quarrels, and I saw a husband and wife who had come to blows in their anger, suddenly ask each other’s pardon. At the fourth station I prayed for travellers, that they might put aside all worldly thoughts, and imagine themselves journeying in spirit to adore the child Jesus at Bethlehem. At the fifth I prayed for poor prisoners, who in their despair forgot that this was the holy season of Advent, and deprived themselves of much consolation, and so I went on from station to station.”

Anne Catharine had been so accustomed, from her earliest infancy, to keep all her practices of devotion and penance secret, that it never occurred to her to mention in confession the way in which she chastised her body, as her humility was too great to allow her to speak of herself, unless questioned directly. Her director, therefore, knew nothing of her vigils, her hair cloths, and disciplines, until they were brought to his knowledge by the girl’s mistress, who had accidentally discovered them. After this he questioned her and put her under obedience to follow his advice, and moderate her excessive rigours within the degrees which he considered prudent. He reassured her at the same time as to her fitness for the religious life, and when she told him how she feared that her poverty would prove an obstacle to her ever being received in a convent, he comforted her by bidding her place all her confidence in Almighty God, and by promising to intercede on her behalf with some Augustinians at Borken. He kept his word, and soon came to Anne Catharine with the joyful news that she was to present herself to the Reverend Mother, who after what he had said about her, was strongly inclined in her favour.

Anne Catharine lost no time in hastening to Borken, and met with a most gracious reception from the Reverend Mother, when suddenly a profound sadness fell upon her, and she could hardly speak for sobs and tears. This extraordinary change of demeanour was occasioned by an interior revelation she received of the relaxed manner in which the rule was observed by the community, and the almost total forgetfulness of the spirit of its holy founder. The abbess, very much astonished at this inexplicable weeping, asked Anne Catharine what could be the matter with her? The girl gave a true, but yet an evasive answer; “I weep,” she said, “because I feel that I revere the holy St. Augustine far too little, and that I am not worthy to become one of his children.” Hereupon she was dismissed with the recommendation to weigh her project more maturely, and to come to the convent again after she had finally made up her mind. This proposal, however, she entirely rejected in her own mind from that moment. For a space of three years Anne Catharine had now patiently and steadfastly endured her interior desolations, and her heavenly Bridegroom, seeing this, was pleased to give her once more the comfort of His near presence, and to dwell with her in an ever Increasing sweet familiar intercourse. Without this supernatural aid, indeed, she could never have carried through the terrific austerities of her earthly mission.

But how mysterious are the ways of God! Now that she clearly received help and comfort from the presence of her Lord, every attempt she made to gain admittance into a convent failed. For the last three years she had toiled unwearedly in order to put by a sum for her dowry, and now she found herself as poor as at the beginning. Her betrothed had sent her such a number of His poor, and shown her so many occasions wherein her alms were required, that she had nothing left for herself. But the obstacle that even more than her poverty seemed to rob her of all her hope, lay in her incessant illnesses. She was shown in visions why and wherefore she suffered, but these hidden motives were of small comfort to her daily avocations and the ordinary duties of her state. As the pains of real sickness insisted on making themselves felt, and gradually consumed all strength, she was soon completely unfit to do her usual work, and her confessor, whom, after her ill success with the Augustinians at Borken, she entreated to give her a recommendation to the Trappistines at Darfield, declared that he could not give his consent to such a weak delicate person’s going into that severe order; but seeing the dismay involuntarily depicted on her expressive countenance at these words, he comforted her by promising to do what he could for her with the Poor Clares at Munster. From them he received a favourable answer, and sent Anne Catharine to make her request in person.

Disappointment again awaited her, for these nuns declared that as their house was so poor, and she could bring no dowry, they could only receive her on condition of her learning to play the organ, so as to make herself of use to the community. Determined not to be defeated in her resolve, Anne Catharine made up her mind at once to learn; first of all, however, her ill health, which got worse every day, necessitated her going home for some time to recover strength. A friend of her’s, who accompanied her on this expedition to Munster, gives the following account of it: “I became acquainted with A. C. Emmerich in Coesfeld, where we grew very intimate, and knowing her intense desire of becoming a nun, I volunteered to accompany her to the Poor Clares, as I had two relations in their convent. Her longing to be a nun was so great, that when I explained to her how likely it was that all convents would shortly be confiscated and dispersed, she assured me that if she could only get inside one, with the full knowledge that in eight days she would be hanged, she still would go in. The strictest orders were her favourites. Our talk together was always on religious subjects: she used to teach me the duties of a Christian, and tell me portions out of the lives of holy women, such as Sts. Mechtilde, Gertrude, Catharine, and Clare. She went to Communion every Sunday and holiday, and used to pray all night long upon her knees when in our house, when she often told me that her especial devotion was to the Five Sacred Wounds, and to the Three Wounds which Christ had upon His shoulder, because those pained Him the most. She never wore anything but the roughest woollen stuffs next her skin. On holidays she generally abstained, and at night would often make the way of the Cross as a fresh devotion, after the prayers of the day. Her patience was something marvellous; and whenever I had any pain to bear, she always managed to comfort me by the way she talked to me of Christ’s sufferings. People used to say she wanted to be a nun out of pride and laziness, which pleased her very much; for then she said she was like her Lord, Who was so often unjustly accused. She was equally kind and pleasant to all, very industrious, and so generous that she gave away everything she possessed. I never heard her speak ill of any one.”

We should, perhaps, weary our readers if we related more of the testimonies given to Anne Catharine’s worth by the companions of her youth, for they all agree in describing her loveable qualities, her charity, her obedience to her parents and superiors, her piety, and her zeal for the welfare of the souls and bodies of her neighbours. By some her avoidance of dances, her fasts, and the occasional discoveries they made of her self-imposed penances, such as finding her bed filled with nettles, or hard lumps of wood, were deemed fanatical madness, and she was laughed at accordingly, but by the generality she was held in veneration, little short of that evinced towards a saint, and her friends, whether in the workroom or the field, would love to crowd round her and listen to the moving tales she had ever on her lips, of the sorrows and sufferings of her dear Lord, or of the joys of Bethlehem and sweet ways of the Mother of God, according to the time of the Church’s year. And in conclusion she always knew how to give some little bit of advice, some word of comfort or hint of warning, adapted to the wants of each one, which sent her young hearers from her side better and more thoughtful than they came.

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