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The Life Of Anne Catherine Emmerich

AT last Anne Catharine has reached the summit of her long awaited hopes, and has reached them under circumstances which were indeed a real and worthy conclusion to the long wearisome path of suffering, which the bride, with unvarying fidelity, had followed on her way to meet her bridegroom.

A few days before she and Clara Sontgen left the world, as they thought for ever, to shelter themselves behind the walls of the Augustinian convent in Dulmen, Anne Catharine paid a last visit to the old cottage-home at Flamske, to bid farewell to her sorely afflicted parents. She thanked them, with heartfelt emotion, for all the love they had shown her, and begged their forgiveness, and that of her brothers and sisters, for the pain she was giving them all by her inability to forsake the vocation to which God had called her. Her mother could give no other answer save tears, but her father, generally so kind a man, when she humbly asked him for a little money to pay for her journey, overcome by the bitter grief of a now irrevocable parting, exclaimed in reply: “If you were to be buried to-morrow that ever is, I would gladly pay all costs of the burial, but not one farthing will I give to help you into a convent!”

Weeping, therefore, but with a deep fount of joy springing up in her heart, poor and denuded of all this world’s goods, she left the home of her youth that same evening, in order to hasten all the sooner to meet her bridegroom. She and Clara were to have started from Coesfeld for Dulmen by break of day, but at the very last moment the two friends met with a fresh hindrance. Cantor Sontgen had recently received the promise of a loan of ten thalers, under the sole condition that Anne Catharine should go security for him. He now came forward to her with his request, and did not cease to beg and pray of her, until she consented to sign the bill, trusting that God would come to her aid. Of money she had not one farthing, and of clothes only what was of the strictest necessity. These few garments were kept in an old wooden chest, amongst a quantity of old bed furniture. Here Anne Catharine’s mother had secretly hidden a linen shift, in order that her dear daughter should not leave her without receiving a gift of some sort. When Anne Catharine discovered this treasure, she did not consider herself justified in keeping it for herself, but at once made it over to Clara Sontgen as a token of gratitude for her having facilitated her entry into the convent. For this act of self-denial she received a rich reward in the mysterious book of prophecy of which we have already spoken.

Since the foundation of the convent, never had a postulant been received who was so destitute of all earthly things, or so rich in spiritual graces as this young girl. But, alas for human nature! in spite of the urgent desire she evinced on all occasions to be considered the least in the house, and the servant of all, her every word and look testifying the real joy it gave her to fulfil the hardest task obedience could lay upon her, she never succeeded in overcoming the general dislike and indignation excited amongst all the community by a person so poverty-stricken and in such delicate health, having the audacity to impose herself as a fresh burden upon their already needy house. This convent of female Augustinians was founded in the latter years of the fifteenth century, and had always been in very poor circumstances. During the Thirty Years’ War the nuns were reduced to so great distress, that had it not been for the generosity of the inhabitants of Dulmen, they must inevitably have been disbanded. From that time their condition improved very slightly, and at no time was the convent in a position to provide for all the wants of its members, or to organize a complete community-life, according to the letter of the rule. The house was just kept together by the dowries of some of the nuns, or by the earnings of others at needlework, and therefore, as can be easily imagined, they often had to endure actual distress and want, which was only mitigated by the uncertain gifts they received from friends without the walls. With regard to its spiritual condition, this convent at the time of Anne Catharine’s arrival was in much the same state as most of the female communities in Germany at that disturbed period. As for a punctual observance of the rule, such a thing was not thought of, nay, the very rule itself was almost buried in oblivion. Those doors, formerly so sternly closed, stood now-a-days open to visitors of all kinds, without any distinction, and the silence, calmness, and tranquillity proper to a religious house, had long since been out of the question. The nuns lived more like visitors who had met together by accident, and had resolved to pass the remainder of their lives sociably together, than like members of a spiritual family knit together by rule and vow, and bound by all that was most sacred to aim at nothing short of perfection. The force of habit and poverty kept them within the bounds of some sort of outward order and decency, but still it was the habit alone, and not the increase of piety in the wearers, which distinguished the community from ordinary Christians living in the world. It was into the midst of a disorder such as this that God sent Anne Catharine, that she might even here climb the few yet remaining steps of the ladder of perfection she had hitherto ascended so faithfully. The disadvantages of her position would be to her as slight a hindrance as had been the many unsuccessful attempts thrown in her path, to prevent her from effecting an entrance into the convent. As it was her mission to be a victim of atonement for the sins of others, so everything which would have been the cause of stumbling and ultimate ruin to other people, was converted for her into a means of maintaining her fidelity to God in greater purity and perfection. The decay of cloistral order and discipline, the dissolution of all ties of obedience, the destitution of all judicious spiritual training, in a word the total want o decorum in the religious houses of that date, which drew down upon them their terrible judgment, in the shape of the universal suppression of convents, became for Anne Catharine so many royal roads to perfection, and were but as a spur which urged her on perpetually to serve God with heightened zeal and fervour.

The first few months she passed as a postulant, still in the clothes she wore when in the world. She occupied the same cell as Clara Sontgen, and was uncertain from one moment to another whether she should not be sent away again. However, God gave her so much strength during this trying time that she was enabled to be of use to the community by her needle, and earned sufficient besides to pay for her own trifling wants, and for the cost of her clothing with the habit, thereby escaping the danger of being dismissed on the ground of uselessness.

On the 13th November, 1802, at the age of twenty-six, she had the happiness of receiving the habit, and of being formally received as a novice. The worst cell in all the house was now appropriated to her use. It had for all its furniture one chair without a back, and another without a seat, with the window sill as a table; “Yet this my poor cell,” she related in after years, “was always so richly adorned, and so full of joy to me, that it seemed to me that I beheld all heaven therein!” It is easy to imagine the kind of spiritual education which the novices received, in a community where all rule had disappeared, with all those practices by which formerly the sincerity of the vocation was tried and attested. Anne Catharine longed for the austere mortifications, humiliations, and proofs of solid obedience, which the old convent rule prescribed, but there was no one there to impose them upon her. To her it appeared ever far more meritorious and efficacious to practise humiliation by obedience than by voluntary acts of penance; and here there would have been no one to offer her the opportunity of thus meriting had not her Divine Bridegroom Himself come forward as her Teacher, and led a willing pupil step by step up the hill of spiritual progress, by means of the very circumstances of her position which seemed outwardly so unfavourable, and by every apparently casual circumstance of her position.

For instance, if Anne Catharine had had an experienced and discreet novice-mistress, the latter would soon have discovered her ardent longings after perfection, would have undertaken their guidance, and have suffered nothing resembling an imperfection or a failing in her conduct. By nature, as has been remarked, she was of a quick, excitable disposition, easily provoked by the sight of any injustice, and the governing of this impetuosity was a task she could not have accomplished by her own unaided efforts. Therefore God allowed it to come to pass that from the earliest days of her noviciate she should be suspected and accused of things of which she was totally innocent, and publicly punished for them—a treatment which she endured without a murmur or one word of exculpation or self-defence.

One of these trials took place as follows. The small revenues of the convent were increased by any little ways which could be devised, and amongst these was that of boarding for a very moderate sum some poor French nuns who had been expelled from their own country, and likewise an aged brother of the reverend mother. After a while the poor little French nuns casually discovered that the latter paid less for his food than they did for theirs, who could ill afford to pay anything, and they complained bitterly to the Superior about this cruel injustice. Hereupon ensued a searching investigation as to who could have betrayed this secret to the strangers.

No one in the house would confess to having done it, and so the blame fell upon Anne Catharine, as all knew that she had a particular affection for the French nuns on account of the persecution they had suffered for their calling’s sake, and the great poverty they were enduring. To no avail did she with perfect truth declare that she had never troubled herself about the board or sum paid by either the nuns or the Superior’s brother, and that, as she was a new-comer, she could know nothing of the customs of the house. The accusation of treachery remained upon her shoulders, and she was forced to bear in silence the sharp reprimands of the reverend mother and of all the chapter, and to submit meekly to the enforced punishment. Added to this, the complaints of all the nuns burst forth afresh, because they had taken in a poor, portionless peasant girl, who now rewarded their kindness with base ingratitude.

Thus Anne Catharine had not merely the pain of these unmerited and suspicious rebukes to bear, but to her present sorrow was added that of feeling that although perfectly guiltless herself, she had been the involuntary cause of an act of injustice. She had no one to whom she could confide her grief and claim a word of sympathy, and therefore was compelled to shut herself up, as it were, with the whole weight of her distress. She succeeded in conquering human nature so far as to feel nothing but the warmest charity towards all her sisters, forgiving them from the bottom of her heart, even thanking God for this unmerited injury in the light of a just discipline; but her health broke down under it, and a severe illness was the consequence, from which she was many weeks in recovering.

About Christmas time in the year 1802 she began to suffer from violent pains at her heart, which soon rendered work impossible to her. In vain she gathered together all the remains of strength she possessed, in order to ward off the impending illness, so that she might not be an additional burthen to the community; the pain steadily increased. It felt to her as though she were being ceaselessly pierced with arrows, and finally she was completely prostrated and forced to keep her bed. Her condition was now indeed pitiable, left to the mercy of a hostile crew of women, who grudged the slight services they rendered her, and to none of whom she could open her heart and confide the true cause of her sufferings. They could not understand that she was tortured by pains at the heart. They called in the convent doctor, who treated her for cramps. This was the first time in her life she had been under medical treatment, as at home she had always cured herself by simple decoctions of the herbs whose healing qualities she knew well, and by the peace and quiet around her. Now, however, peace was no longer hers; the rules of the house ordered her to make her illness known, and to accept the services of the doctor. As an obedient novice, she dared not refuse to take any of his remedies, although she was interiorly convinced that her disease was mental, and that her anguish could be assuaged by spiritual means alone. Thus she meekly submitted herself to be treated as an ordinary invalid, and was happy amidst her pains in the fact that here was an opportunity of practising obedience.

The actual cause of this illness she hardly dared, in her deep humility, to confess to herself, much less to any of the nuns; the truth being that when she received the holy habit of St. Augustine it had seemed to be placed around her shoulders by the great patron himself, who adopted her as his daughter, showed her her place in his family and in his own glowing heart, and kindled in her heart a fire similar to that which consumed his own, so that from thenceforth she saw and experienced the whole spiritual signification of the holy habit clearly and distinctly as other people see its outward texture and form, and likewise beheld the nature of the spiritual communion in which she and the other sisters were knit together by means of this habit, like so many separate rivulets, as it were, from one source, which branched off to unite themselves again in one wider channel which flowed on in silent depth through their midst. This centre channel she saw to be her own heart; for to her was the terrible mission given to feel sensibly in her own heart all the pains, injuries, and outrages which the faults and sins of the community inflicted upon the heart of her heavenly Bridegroom. Her heart was now therefore unceasingly beset by grief and pain of every shape and kind. Everything that was done in the convent against rule and vow; every word and every deed; every omission and every procrastination, pierced her afresh to the very quick, until she hardly knew how to support her existence under the overwhelming load of her grief.

In order to bring her to a yet more perfect state of submissive resignation in the fiery crucible by which God was now trying her, He permitted the devil to tempt her with whisperings of evil.

The evil one came to her sometimes in the guise of an angel of light, persuading her to return to the world, since she must see by this time that impossibilities were demanded of her. He then pictured to her the future sufferings which were in store on the part of her sisters in religion; but Anne Catharine recognized the tempter, and put him to flight with the sign of the cross before he had time to finish all his insidious suggestions.

At other times he sought to excite her heart to feelings of murmuring and anger against her superiors, or to inspire her with fear and terror of them, in order by this means to induce her to quit the convent. One night he gave her especial trouble. It appeared to her as though the Reverend Mother and the novice-mistress suddenly came up to her bedside, and addressed bitter reproaches to her, declaring that she was utterly unworthy of the religious calling, and must be speedily expelled from the convent. Anne Catharine listened in silence to all these invectives, and merely answered how conscious she was of her own unworthiness, and begged for their forgiveness and mercy, upon which the two angry women left her cell, still uttering reproaches against her. She lay weeping and praying until morning, when she implored that her confessor might be sent for. She then narrated the events of the night to him, and asked his advice as to what she could do to soften the ire which the Reverend Mother felt against her. When, however, this priest came to make enquiries, it turned out that neither the Superior nor any of the other nuns had been near Anne Catharine’s cell during the night, and he declared the whole circumstance to be a temptation of the devil, whilst Anne Catharine thanked God, who had given her the strength, by her humility, in feeling herself really unworthy of the honour of being in a convent, to conquer so virulent an attack of the evil one.

When, after several weeks, Anne Catharine was once more out of the doctor’s hands, the most casual observer could easily perceive that her recovery was far from being sound or complete. She seemed so weak and feeble that a universal murmur arose against the encumbrance such a delicate useless member would be to the convent, if she were to be permitted to take final vows; it was, therefore, proposed to send her away now, lest if they kept her longer, they should be eventually unable to get rid of her. Although these unworthy proposals were whispered at the extreme opposite end of the house, Anne Catharine heard them as distinctly as if they had been spoken to her face in her own cell; even the very designs and plans which the others nurtured against her, unspoken in their own hearts, were known to her, and burnt and wounded her keen susceptibility, like so many sparks of fire. The gift of being able to read the hearts of others, which Anne Catharine had possessed from her childhood, and which whilst living amongst her own simple, upright, and mostly friendly-minded peasantry, had brought her few unpleasant moments, now became a source of never-ending torture, since she knew everything her sisters thought of her, or felt about her. The wicked passions of their hearts were laid bare before her eyes, she had ever to atone for them by prayer and penance, as though they were foreign enemies, to be fought against and conquered by the arms of unvarying love, patience, and gentleness.

Did a sigh, a word of complaint, or a sign of impatience escape her involuntarily, as would sometimes happen after some new act of petty tyranny or injustice, she would instantly, with tears in her eyes, and with the accents of true contrition for a fault, beg pardon of the sisters, till all were touched and favourably inclined towards her afresh. Then she would run into the church, and kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, pray for strength to get through her work, and hasten back to redouble her exertions, keeping down the pain at her heart with the words, “I will persevere, I will endure to the end, even were I on the rack.”

One Friday in February she was kneeling in the convent chapel upon one of these occasions, praying in solitude before the Blessed Sacrament, when she suddenly beheld a cross in front of her, about two spans high, on which our Saviour hung, streaming with blood. “I was terrified,” she says, “by the apparition, and turned hot and cold by turns; for I saw the whole Church gather round me, and I saw that bleeding figure on the cross, not with the eyes of my mind, but actually present to my physical sight. At the same moment I felt that by this spectacle God was preparing me for some great trouble or suffering. I was frightened, and drew back, but the woeful aspect of my Saviour conquered all disinclination to suffer, and I felt ready for the bitterest pangs that could befal me, if my Lord would give me patience to endure them.”

She was not deceived in her presentiment, for the gift of Tears was now bestowed upon her, that she might weep in the most acutely painful manner, over all the injuries committed against her Divine Bridegroom, floods of tears, which were to be the source of perpetual humiliations to her. She could never henceforth restrain these tears, which burst forth with irrepressible vehemence whenever an object presented itself to either her exterior or interior senses, which gave rise to the supernatural sorrow of atonement. They surprised her in church, at Holy Communion, at meals, over her work, and during her intercourse course with the community, by whom she was plainly given to understand how exceedingly distasteful she had thereby become to her sisters. They overcame her principally at Mass, in choir, and when receiving Holy Communion, but at first they escaped public notice. As however, the sobs grew more vehement, Anne Catharine was called up and questioned, and forbidden to give way to this weeping, for it was deemed a sign of discontent and self-will. She promised, on her knees, to amend herself, and to repress her tears; but on the very next day, after Mass, the nuns, to their increased irritation, and with ever-increasing suspicion, discovered that the bench against which Anne Catharine had knelt, was perfectly wet through with tears, from which they drew fresh proof that the young novice’s head was filled with ideas of self-importance, and that her self-love was perpetually wounded by fancied ill-treatment on their part. However, as reproofs and punishment alike were received by Anne Catharine with unvarying meekness and humility, without her uttering a word in her own defence, her superior was obliged to acknowledge that this heavy weeping must be even more troublesome to the poor novice herself than to her companions, and that it perhaps proceeded from a nervous weakness, or physical peculiarity, and not from temper or discontent. Anne Catharine herself, however, was so far from finding anything peculiar in her tears, that she grew uneasy and anxious about them, and wondered whether some secret aversion, or perhaps a deeply-concealed hatred against her sisters, might not be festering in her heart, which was the actual origin of this weeping.

She did not venture to decide this question for herself, but laid the matter before her confessor, that he might pass judgment upon it. He very soon pacified her by declaring that it was pitying sympathy, and not hatred, whence they sprang. Anne Catharine now cherished a hope that with time the violence of this compassion would be mitigated, and the fountain of tears gradually dried; but the result was far otherwise; it grew rather than diminished in intensity, and in her dismay she sought advice from every confessor with whom she was thrown into spiritual intercourse at this time of her life. They one and all agreed in pronouncing these tears the result of her amazing compassion. Overberg himself testifies on the subject: “Anne Catharine had such a love for her sisters, that she would gladly have shed her life’s blood for them. Although she knew that many of them were the reverse of friendly towards her, she did everything that lay in her power to give them pleasure. Her greatest joy was whenever one of them asked some service of her, for then she hoped they were growing better satisfied with her. God permitted that she should be misunderstood by the Superior and by the community, and that all she did should be put down as hypocrisy, cajolery, or pride, and with such accusations she was reproached. At first she tried to exculpate herself; finding this of no avail, she said nothing more than “I will try and correct myself.” Whenever she saw her sisters in religion, she wept in spite of herself, and especially when in chapel. She was often scolded for this weeping, as they often took it for obstinacy or discontent; and she was the more blamed when it occurred during holy Mass. The sufferings which were thus caused her by her sisters were rendered the more acute by her power of seeing in spirit all the secret feelings of their hearts, and of hearing their unkind whisperings together about herself. She knew beforehand the plans they concocted together, and how they meant to humiliate her, and cure her of her lazy, whimsical ways. Sometimes she told them that she knew what they were thinking and saying, and then was taken to task as to how she knew it? and as she would not tell them, they concluded that one amongst themselves must have been telling tales; but were in nowise altered in their conduct to her.

Her old friend, Clara Sontgen, also testifies to the wonderful love and forgivingness Anne Catharine ever showed to her very unamiable sisters: “her greatest delight,” she told Overberg, “was to render an act of kindness to one of the community. They might ask of her what they would, and she gave it with pleasure, though often in urgent want of the article herself; and by preference she tried to please them the most who were the most unkindly disposed towards her.” Once when questioned about a great service of love she had rendered to one of her sisters during an illness, she replied, “The sister had wounds on her feet, and the servants disliked attending upon her because she was so captious, so I thought it would be a work of mercy, and I took upon myself to wash the cloths with which she bound up her sores, and cleansed them from the blood and matter. She had the itch also, and as the others all feared to catch it, I made her bed for her, and, if ever I felt afraid of taking the infection, I encouraged myself by thinking that as I was doing an act of charity, God would preserve me from bad consequences; the thought often came across my mind, too, that as the sister was so odd and whimsical, very likely she would be vexed with me for my services when she got well again, and would not cease to call me, as she often had before, a little hypocrite; but then I thought, well, I shall have all the more merit in God’s eyes if it be so; and so I went on washing out her bandages, making her bed, and doing for her as well as I knew how.”

Anne Catharine had received from God so deep a sense of the meaning and hidden workings of the religious vows, that her brave soul thirsted for the ancient practices of obedience, and suffered especially from the fact that, in consequence of the relaxed habits of the convent, next to no attention was given by her superiors to proving and trying her by severe commands, and by the imposition of works difficult of accomplishment. Thus, inspired by these longings, she often went up to the Reverend Mother, imploring her to lay upon her some command, by way of testing her obedience, and to give her the opportunity of being faithful to her vow. Such prayers were vain however, and were merely regarded by her Superior as scruples or eccentricities, and all the answer Anne Catharine could get from the good-natured but weak mother abbess, was, “You are wise enough, and know what to do quite as well as I can tell you;” and so she remained as before, completely left to her own guidance. The want of such practices of obedience troubled the zealous novice to tears, for it seemed to her that the blessings attached to so holy an order were diminished thereby, and it grieved her that she could not serve her Divine Bridegroom perfectly, through her spiritual superiors, who should have been his representatives.

Although, however, exterior opportunities might be wanting to her for the practice of the virtue of obedience, she strove earnestly to make up for this by an increase of interior submission, and by bringing all the thoughts and feelings of her mind, and the very workings of her soul, into conformity with the spirit and letter of the rule: in order the better to effect this, she used every means in her power to gain a perfect and fundamental knowledge of the same. Her reverence forbade her to study it, except upon her knees, and it frequently happened to her, whilst so occupied, that her candle was blown out, and the book knocked over by some invisible power. She knew well enough, from long experience, whence such interruptions came, and so she quietly re-lit the candle, and recommenced with even greater zest than before. Moreover, these very violences which she suffered at the hands of the devil were a joy to her, inasmuch as they were in some sort a compensation to her zeal for the dearth of the usual practices of humiliation. Whenever he pursued her with blows and ill usage, on account of her attention to the rule, that attention was redoubled, and if, as would often happen, he succeeded in raising a storm against her amongst the community, even those who were the most bitter against her were forced to testify how deep and sincere was her desire for the occasion of practising a humble and blind obedience. The following is an instance of this: a rich merchantfamily from Amsterdam had placed their daughter at school in the convent. When, after some residence there, she was about to return to her parents, she made a present of a Dutch shilling to each of the nuns; but to Anne Catharine, to whom she was very much attached, she gave two, which coins the latter immediately handed over to the Reverend Mother. A few days after this, a great murmuring arose throughout the convent, and Anne Catharine was summoned before the chapter, where the Reverend Mother informed her that she was accused by the community of having received five crowns from the merchant’s daughter, out of which she had only given two shillings to the superior, and had made over the rest to Cantor Sontgen, who had, as it happened, paid Clara a visit just at that time. Put on her honour to confess her guilt, Anne Catharine related the true state of the case, and maintained her assertions steadily, although all the nuns combined to accuse her, and pressed her to acknowledge that she had committed the offence. For her obstinacy, as they termed it, she was sentenced to ask pardon of each sister upon her knees. Anne Catharine accepted this punishment with perfect submission, beseeching God the while that He would cause all the nuns to forgive her from the bottom of their hearts, for all that she had done to displease them. A few months later the merchant’s daughter came to the convent, when Anne Catharine besought the Reverend Mother to enquire into the truth of the matter from her, but all the answer she received was an injunction to let the old forgotten story rest undisturbed.

From this circumstance we perceive how quickly dislike and suspicion of the innocent girl arose in the hearts of these weak, silly women. The storm was allayed, however, as quickly as it had arisen, and before it had reached its culmination; for the impression which the ways and conduct of this strange novice made upon the minds of these inexperienced, common-place nuns, was always of a very mixed nature.

The unutterable meekness and patient sweetness which Anne Catharine displayed when performing her public penance, the deep and touching sincerity with which she made her request for forgiveness, could not fail to melt the hardest of hearts; then, on the other hand, there was much in her of a mysterious nature, quite enough to arouse the suspicions of shallow unthinking minds like those of these poor foolish women. The riches of her interior life, the multiplicity of her wonderful gifts, and the quiet self-possession of her whole being, were too strikingly singular to be hidden, and made her too unlike other people for Anne Catharine to succeed in passing for an ordinary person.

However simple and retiring her outward demeanour might be, a certain majesty and odour of sanctity enveloped her, which was more or less felt by all who were brought into contact with her. Sometimes they did not choose to confess to this, and then preferred to designate Anne Catharine as an eccentric, tiresome, and somewhat uncomfortable sort of a person.

She was often dragged to the presence of the Blessed Sacrament by an involuntary power which she could not have resisted if she would. She then knelt or else lay suddenly as though lifeless upon the steps of the altar, or in the choir, without knowing how she got into the church; rapt in unceasing contemplation, and suffering at the same time a bodily anguish which was out of her power to conceal entirely. Consequently she was an enigma to those about her—a something incomprehensible, and, to use a homely expression, an uncanny apparition amongst them.

The novice-mistress, when missing her from her accustomed place, would go in search of her; and, were the bitter cold of the German winter ever so excessive, invariably found her lying prostrate upon her face on the altar steps, where she had lain for hours until her limbs were frozen and stiff, and where she would have remained all night had she not been aroused to passing and earthly events.

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