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The Life Of Anne Catherine Emmerich

THE accident alluded to in the previous chapter had nearly cost Anne Catharine her life. One of the many laborious works which sorely overtasked her feeble strength was that of washing the linen; and one day, as she was helping a lay-sister to lift up a heavy basket attached to a pulley, the Sister carelessly let the rope slip, and the basket fell with its whole weight upon Anne Catharine’s left hip, throwing her violently to the ground. This accident so bruised and shook her whole frame, that, had not God miraculously preserved her life, she must inevitably have succumbed. Besides the actual pain of the hip, all those other sufferings which she endured for others grew inordinately at the same time, and her daily-increasing lameness and weakness became, by God’s will, the occasion of her bearing fresh humiliations and ill-usage for His sake.

It was now as much as she could do to assist the convent-sacristan, and ringing the bell became to her an extreme labour, often quite an impossibility, in which case she was accused of laziness and pride. In fact, not to ring the bell was a sore privation to her, since this duty was to her so suggestive of prayer that its fulfilment would bring her total forgetfulness, for the time being, of her terrible pains.

“I had,” she once observed, “ever the joyful feeling, when I rang a consecrated bell, that I was showering blessings all around, and calling upon all men, far and near, to praise and glorify God. I united my prayers and sighs to each sound of the bell, that it might chase all evil thoughts out of the hearts of those who heard it, and arouse them to the love of God. I longed to ring the bell beyond the time prescribed.” And we can hardly fail to see in this sweet devotion of the meek, humble little nun, amidst her many sufferings, an atonement for the wild wickedness of those infidel times, so soon to vent its rage by an almost incomprehensible persecution of the custom of ringing blessed bells.

Equally painful, and at times impossible, now became her other laborious avocations, such as working in the fields or garden, washing, mangling, and ironing the altar linen, and the priest’s vestments. God only knows with what superhuman exertions she strove to get up the church linen in spite of her nearly intolerable anguish; and how He rewarded her for this zeal in His service will be seen from the following circumstance.

As Anne Catharine was ironing an alb one day, in company with some other Sisters, the red-hot steel fell out of its sheath upon the alb. In terror lest this should be burnt, she seized the glowing steel in her bare hand, invoking God in one short prayer, and laid it upon the ground, into which it immediately burnt a large hole; but neither her flesh nor the alb were so much as scorched. And yet her hands were so delicate and so wasted from the incessant pain she suffered in them that she herself once was heard to say: “Whilst I was in the convent my hands were always very full of pain. I used to hold them up in the sunlight, and they were so thin the light shone right through them in rays.”

The preparing of the altar breads was now a heavy toil to her in consequence of the weight of the iron mould; and this work was to her so sacred that she ever did it amidst much prayer and with deepest reverence. Once, at the moment in which the new hosts should have been baked, she lay grievously ill in bed, sorely saddened at being forced to postpone this work. So she took heart, prayed fervently to God, dragged herself painfully from her bed and into the chapel, where she renewed her prayers before the Blessed Sacrament for strength to prepare the hosts. Soon she felt herself bathed in perspiration, but strong enough to get through her work, in which her angel helped her. No sooner was it ended than she was as ill as before, and it required her greatest effort to reach her cell again.

After the fall of the heavy basket the pains about her heart increased violently, and she frequently brought up of a sudden large quantities of blood whilst at her work, until the sisters were terrified lest she should bleed to death. When, however, the latter found that she recovered from deadly sickness sufficient strength in the space of a few minutes to go on with her work, they came to the conclusion that her illnesses were of no moment, and that whatever agony she might appear to be suffering, no harm would finally come of it.

After such a conclusion the melancholy plight of the invalid may easily be imagined. The nuns at last took scarcely any heed whether Anne Catharine were for days together in her cell unable to leave her bed, or amongst them. Thus they left her, often in the bitterest winter-weather, to shiver on her cold straw pallet, with hardly a covering to protect her chilled frame; or else, if it were summer-time, lying helpless in a burning fever, sighing in vain for a draught of fresh water, which no one thought of taking to her.

A compassionate soul in Dulmen, hearing one day of her misery, brought her condition before the notice of the Duke of Croatia, who thereupon gave orders for the institution of an infirmary in the convent, and for Anne Catharine’s removal thereto. The duke made enquiries as to the usual management of invalids, when the fact came out that the treatment poor Anne Catharine had received was simply inhuman. The doctor stated that he had once found her, after violent fever and perspiration, shivering on her bed; no change of linen had been given her, and the sheets and her own clothes, which had been drenched through and through with perspiration, frozen and as stiff as boards. There were no means of warming the wretched little cell, and in rainy weather the walls literally ran down with moisture. If at the command of her confessor she made a timid complaint about this her pitiable condition to the reverend mother, she was looked upon as a nuisance, so thoroughly were all turned against her, thinking her a burthen on account of her perpetual illnesses and inability to pay the costs of her medicines. Sometimes she was told that the convent was too poor to supply comforts to an invalid; at others, that she was always grumbling.

She endured untold miseries from one of the sisters who had the charge of attending upon her, the sister, either through neglect or caprice, employing the time allotted to her for nursing poor Anne Catharine in working for herself, or else in covering her with abuse for lying idly in bed and giving so much trouble. It will hardly be credited that this was the very nun whom Anne Catharine had nursed through an infectious illness, as before related, when, owing to her cross-grained ways, not one of the others would go near her. But so it was; and now that Anne Catharine was receiving evil for the good she had done, she no less thankfully welcomed the occasion of suffering for her Lord, and not only bore the unkindnesses of this sister with her usual unvarying sweetness and forgiveness, but treated her with yet greater affection than she had ever yet shown her.

When the poor girl had sufficiently recovered to be able to leave her bed and take her place in choir and at work, the only earthly nourishment for which she felt inclined was tea or weak coffee. After many sleepless nights, when she could scarcely stand, so weak and trembling was her frame, and when her head swam with giddiness, after she had drunk a little coffee and heard Mass her strength returned to her, and she was able to get through her usual duties. On this her companions jeered at her, declaring her illness to be all a make-believe, or a fancy and exaggeration.

There was a custom in the convent that the nuns should provide for their own breakfast. As, however, Anne Catharine possessed neither coffee nor money with which to buy any, she used to carry her little tin can down to the kitchen of a morning and collect the coffee-grounds, which the others had thrown away as refuse, and make a drink from these, which, without sugar or milk, formed her meal. Upon this her meagre fare’s coming to the knowledge of Clara Sontgen, she took pity on her, and shared her own breakfast with her old friend for a time. Not for long, however, since by her own avowal the others soon dissuaded her from showing poor Anne Catharine this little kindness.

Another means of help then presented itself. As Anne Catharine returned one morning from the choir, she found two pieces of money laid upon the window-sill. These the Superior allowed her to keep, and they sufficed to provide her with coffee for a long time. When this fund had exhausted itself, a benefactor made her a present of two pounds of coffee-berries, which supplied her with breakfast for a full year.

By the side of her actual, pressing destitution, and the ceaseless sufferings she received at the hands of her immediate companions, the contrast between her abjection within the walls of the convent and the esteem in which she was held by those without, is a striking feature in the history of her life. All classes of persons came to her, seeking help for their wants and for their sins. The more forlorn and the more critical their state, the more certain were they of receiving sympathy and loving aid from the feeble suffering little nun. The greatness of her own pains appeared to increase tenfold her tender pity for the infinitely smaller sufferings brought to her notice, whilst she, who was accustomed to the lack of all care, and knew not what it was to meet with the most trivial attention, found it impossible to place a limit to her zeal when the mitigation of the woes of others was in question.

She felt what would give them relief; she saw in a moment the nature and seat of the evil, knew what remedies to advise, and breathed peace and a blessing upon all that she touched with those wan, transparent hands, which were ever outstretched to pray or to heal. She was always to be found so cheerful and patient, with such pleasant, consoling words ever on her lips, and such a ready, sympathetic attention for the grumbles and complaints which the most irritable and discontented of invalids poured in her ear, that the latter were too apt to forget that she herself never, in the whole course of her life, knew what it was to be for one moment free from pain!

Amongst the pensioners of the convent was a poor half-witted girl, who had a bad ulcer in the neck, and who resisted all attempts of the doctor to dress it or to prescribe a remedy. The reverend mother, therefore, brought her to Anne Catharine. Immediately the girl became perfectly docile, allowed Anne Catharine to examine and bind up the wound, used regularly any ointment which she gave her, and, when the sore broke, brought it to Anne Catharine to be dressed, who applied her lips to the wound and heroically sucked the matter from it. From that day it rapidly healed, without further pain or trouble. A maid-servant, too, who had an abscess under her arm, slipped out of bed one night and came into Anne Catharine’s cell, begging her to dress it for her.

Another case brought to her notice was that of a young girl, who was of such an unbearable temper that no one could live with her in the convent. None but Anne Catharine knew how to manage her; with her she was always gentle, and would cling to her with a warmth of affection utterly incomprehensible to the others, until finally Anne Catharine’s prayers and persuasions completely altered her ways, and she became as amiable as she had formerly been the reverse.

We will listen to what she says herself of a similar case. “The doctor of the convent, who was rather rough and harsh in his manner, was attending a poor woman with a bad finger, which had caused the whole of her arm to swell and turn black; and because she had neglected it he was very angry, and threatened to amputate the finger. Hereupon the poor thing came, white with terror, to tell me of this, and to beg me to help her. So I prayed for her till the way to cure her came into my mind. I sent for the reverend mother, who gave me leave to doctor the poor woman in Fr. Lambert’s study. I took there some salves and myrrh and mother-wort, and mixed them in a little wine and water; to these I added some holy water, then I made a wet bandage of the decoction, and wrapped it round the bad arm. God must have shown me the remedy Himself, for on the following morning all the swelling had gone down; and although the finger was still painful, the throbbing ceased after I had bathed it in hot buck-ashes, and I discovered a great thorn to be the cause of the evil, which I extracted, and the woman got quite well.”

In speaking of the nature of her compassion towards the sick and dying, she says: “I can never pity those who die peacefully; nor a child who suffers patiently; for to suffer in patience is the state most to be envied whilst we remain in these sinful bodies. Our pity is rarely pure; for it is generally mingled with weakness or with our natural shrinking from suffering. The only pure compassion was that of our Lord for mankind, and no human compassion can be pure but by uniting itself with that compassion. Those whom I do pity are sinners—wretched beings led away by delusions, and gradually brought by them into despair. And, ah, alas! too often have I had far too much compassion for my unworthy self.”

The blessings which followed upon Anne Catharine’s prayers were not confined to human beings only, as the following circumstance will show. She states that at one time “there was an epidemic amongst the cattle in the town, and they were dying on all sides; so one poor woman came crying to me, and begged me to pray for her and for the others who were likely to be ruined if this went on. As I prayed, the stalls where all these cows stood came before me; I saw the healthy and the diseased animals; and at the same time I saw the cause of the evil and the effects of my prayers for its cure. Many of them were ill as a punishment and a warning from God for the pride and presumptuous security of their owners, who did not consider that God can both give and take away. So I prayed that He might bring them into a right way of thinking by some other means.

“Other cows I saw were ill on account of the envy and greed of their masters, and for their neglecting to give thanks to God for His gifts, and to ask His blessing upon their possessions. I beheld a sort of dark, uncanny shadow hovering around these cows, which taught me that God’s blessing is not merely a descent of His grace, but that it also drives off all the wicked designs of the Evil One. The cows which were spared on account of prayer I noticed to be separated from the others by something light and shining, and, as the cure was being effected, a dark vapour exuded from their bodies, and afterwards over the heads of those that were healed through prayer I noticed a gentle, tiny flame hovering in the air. Suddenly I perceived the plague to come to a stand-still; it did not touch, by so much as one breath, the cow belonging to the poor woman who came to me for prayers.”

Another time no less than twenty-six parishes came to seek her assistance, which were in great poverty owing to disease amongst their cattle. She began to pray, and, as usual, was soon rapt in contemplation. She related afterwards that she beheld Jesus Christ walking in Galilee, with six of His disciples, on a bright star-light summer’s night. As she drew near to adore Him, she found herself surrounded by innumerable flocks of cows, sheep, and goats. She tried to collect the cows together, but they always escaped either to one side or the other, and gave her endless trouble. The curious part of this, as it seemed to her, was that these animals belonged to Jesus and His disciples, and one of the latter told Anne Catharine to bring them in to a stable which He would show her. This stable resembled in every detail the inn where the Magi rested during their journey from the East. The next day she was bidden to remove the cattle again, and to drive them into her own country.

The journey did not seem longer than from Dulmen to Coesfeld, but she did not follow the usual road. She had the greatest trouble to keep the cows together and to get them along. She tried to drive them in couples, but lost a great number by the way. They were sometimes fierce also, and turned upon her, threatening to toss her with their great horns, and unless the saints and the prayers of living persons had aided her, she thought she could never have got through her task. She then conducted the cattle to places where they were expected, and where the parish priests came forward to receive them.

Her angel explained this vision to her subsequently, as follows. The animals signified the graces she had obtained by her prayers for the twenty-six parishes. Her finding them in the Promised Land was to signify that in that country there remain still many of the merits and graces of Jesus and of the Apostles, which are lost because no one seeks for them, and which she recovered, and conducted, so to say, towards those who desired her prayers.

The cows straying away meant certain parish priests who were negligent in prayer, or who prayed tepidly, and received no graces; whilst the zealous priests were typified by those who went straightforward to their goal, which goal was grace. She had to make up for the lukewarm prayers by the most fatiguing bodily exertions. Thus we see how the requests Anne Catharine made on behalf of others in her visions were merited by her own toils, which were needed in order to make satisfaction for the sins of those who would enjoy the fruits of her prayer. Although these toilsome journeys were mystical in one sense, yet in another sense they were actual, since they were effected in the superior state of ecstasy, and were an essential and positive action, with real and sensible results, and left the same impressions of fatigue and lassitude upon the body as if it had really undergone the exertions of an arduous journey.

In the same way Anne Catharine’s spiritual works were likewise effected under the form of all kinds of manual and agricultural labour—namely, in that which concerned fields, gardens, and the care of flocks. The condition of penury and severe distress in which were many districts, dioceses, and even entire countries, was shown to her in pictures which corresponded to the divers kinds of labour she mystically performed.

During the whole of one month she suffered unspeakable torments, caused by mortal illnesses, which succeeded each other without intermission. Finally, one night she had a series of visions, the one connected with the other, concerning her illnesses and the works she would have to undertake.

“I saw all this,” she said, “in a great field, where there yet remained one untilled corner, surrounded by a thick quickset hedge, covered with roses. I saw myself also represented in different positions. I was sometimes in a chapel, sometimes upon a cross, sometimes upon a rock, in a bog or amongst thorn-bushes, and nearly smothered amidst flowers and thorns; sometimes transpierced by arrows and lances. Once a fiery dance was performed upon my body by creatures that seemed all wings and feathers: a symbol of fever. Terrible-looking shapes, like globes of different colours, which unrolled themselves and burst into flame upon me, emitted a burning vapour, typifying convulsions. After this I kept crossing dangerous precipices, upon bridges covered with roses and flowers of all sorts, suffering great pains of body at the same time in the stead of certain sick persons who had asked for my prayers.

“I endured tortures of every kind, and saw the sick instantly healed. I saw poor people, who know no one and who can write to no one, and yet require the intercession of other Christians more frequently than those who have friends and who can write letters; and sufferers from gout were constantly before my eyes.”

We find another instance of the personal suffering involved by Anne Catharine’s loving helpfulness to others. This happened rather later in her life, and shows how dear her acts of charity cost her.

“Last night,” she relates, “I was in such agony that I thought I must die; and as no one came near me to give me any assistance, I offered my sufferings to God for all who were sick and neglected and for all who were dying without help, consolation, or the sacraments. I was wide awake, and suddenly beheld innumerable heart-rending scenes around me. Some from this neighbourhood, others from far away; in fact, all over the face of the earth I beheld visions of miserable, sunken, forlorn creatures dying of disease or want, without priest or sacraments, in prison, huts, caves, in the dungeons of ships, in deserts, in the garrets and the cellars of great towns, I felt an ardent yearning to help them, and implored God to show me how to do so. He replied: ‘Thou canst not help them for nothing; it will need great labour.’ I resigned myself into His hands, and soon found myself in a terrible condition. Ropes were bound tightly round my arms, legs, and neck, and were then drawn so tightly that I felt as though every member and limb of my body were being dragged asunder. The cord round my throat almost strangled me, my tongue stiffened, and the bones of my chest were convulsed almost to dislocation. Whilst I lay thus agonizing I beheld many of the unfortunates receiving succour.”

These sufferings lasted many days, and even increased in intensity. Anne Catharine was literally crucified as she lay. Her confessor visiting her soon after, found her with her neck and tongue terribly swollen, and her condition rendered doubly painful by the frequent vomitings to which she was subject.

These perpetual illnesses made it out of the question for Anne Catharine to undertake any one fixed post in the convent, and therefore she was ordered to assist first one and then another of the lay-sisters. Thus she found the exact fulfilment of the wish she had expressed on her entry into the community—namely, that they would consider her as the least amongst them. It never once happened to her to be placed in authority over any other being, but rather, as Clara Sontgen testified, “she was the servant of all, without once seeming so much as vexed or annoyed at it; her whole aim was to give satisfaction, and do what was required of her. She was not only gentle and amiable to us, but was kindness itself to the servants and workpeople who came about the convent, often rendering them little services and good words of advice at the same time.”

Even the reverend mother, whose treatment of Anne Catharine was far from being what it should have been, was forced to allow that “she was extremely conscientious and punctual with her work; and after I had given her the charge of the garden, her care and industry for the good of the convent was deserving of the highest praise. Towards all the workpeople she showed extreme kindness, but at the same time thought it her duty to keep a watch over their faults. To their poverty and want she was always very compassionate. I have often known her make clothes for poor children out of the old church furniture that has been thrown aside.”

Thus, whenever a direct question was asked about Anne Catharine, we find the invariable answer of sisters and Superior to be in her favour; they could speak no ill of her, since all her works were good—and yet how hardly they treated her! Such an anomaly would be scarcely credible were it not that owing to her soul’s being cast in so widely different a mould from their own, they could not understand her, and, alas! for poor human nature, there is but a step, as daily experience proves, between the non-comprehension of the superiority of another and an unreasoning jealousy, which one breath may fan into hate!

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