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The Life Of Anne Catherine Emmerich

OF all the deprivations which Anne Catharine had to bear, none was more grievous to her than the want of a firm, reliable spiritual guidance. She had no confessor with whom she could take intimate counsel over her interior state and experiences: she was forced to bear her heavy burden alone, for there was not one soul near her who could lighten it for her by a wise, intelligent direction. She says herself: “I often cried aloud to God, and besought Him to send me a priest to whom I could lay bare my whole self; for I was often in dire anxiety lest all I saw and felt should be a delusion of the devil. I was so tormented by doubt that I rejected everything which I saw, felt, and suffered, and that which ordinarily was my strength and consolation from the fear of being deceived.

“The good Abbé Lambert tried his best to pacify me, but as I felt it impossible to make him thoroughly acquainted with all that happened to me, on account of his slight knowledge of German, my distress and my doubts returned more forcibly than ever. The operations which take place in my soul, and by my means, would have been incomprehensible to myself, a poor ignorant peasant girl, had I not been accustomed to these experiences from my earliest childhood, and had I ever lived in any other atmosphere, so to speak. But in the last four years of my convent life, I remained in an unbroken series of visions and such like things, of which state it was utterly impossible to give an account to people who had never been brought in contact with things of the sort, and who even disbelieved in their existence.

“One day, in my desolation, I cried for help to God in the church, kneeling there quite alone, and I heard these words—words which stirred my inmost soul—spoken aloud and quite distinctly: ‘Am I, then, not sufficient for Thee?’ When these ecstacies came over me, try as I would, I could not conceal them entirely from the others, and one day I was in the choir, although not joining in the office, and I suddenly became rigid and motionless, and fell to the ground; the nuns raised me up, and as they were carrying me to my cell, I saw a nun in a white and brown habit in the roof of the church, standing, where no mortal could have stood, and I knew that it was St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi, who had the stigmata. I saw her another time walking along the grating of the choir, and a third time on the top of the altar, from which she seemed to push away the priest’s hand whilst he was saying Mass. These dangerous places showed me that I must take great heed how I walked in my own state, lest I should fall, as I had to go alone.

“At first the sisters used to scold me when they found me lying on my face with outstretched arms in the church, as they knew nothing of what was passing within me; and as this happened without my knowing anything about it, I chose out hidden corners for my prayer, where the others could not easily see me. But to no avail! for without being conscious how, I was transported, sometimes here, sometimes there, always flat on my face, or else kneeling with outstretched arms. Thus, at least, the convent chaplain used to find me.

“I had a great longing to see St. Teresa, because I had heard she had had always so much to suffer with her confessors. And often I did see her writing at a table, or in her bed, looking very weak and ill; and I always fancied I perceived a great resemblance between her and St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi.

“When occupied over my duties as sacristan, I was often lifted up suddenly into the roof of the church and placed upon high places—the framework of windows, tops of pillars, and other places to which, by human means, it would have been impossible to reach. I scrambled about there quite easily, feeling myself invisibly supported the while, cleaning and polishing and dusting, without having the least fear; for from childhood I had been used to the assistance of my good angel. Sometimes when I came to myself again, I found myself sitting on the chest where I kept the altar things; sometimes hidden in a corner behind the altar, where no one could see me, were they ever so close to it. I cannot imagine how I got down thence without tearing my habit, for there was scarcely room to pass.”

Anne Catharine’s ecstasies generally overtook her, according to Overberg, when she was alone, for she continually prayed to God that she might not have these fainting fits, as she called them, in the presence of others. At times, however, they would overtake her in the refectory or garden, when she fell prostrate and so remained, perfectly stiff and motionless.

Someone once asked how she distinguished these kind of faints from those produced by weaknesses, and she replied: “In fainting-fits from weakness I feel very ill, and suffer so much pain in my body that it seems as if I must be going to die. In the others, I do not feel conscious of my body at all, and am, oh! so happy, and then again quite sad! I feel a great joy at those times in God’s great mercifulness towards sinners, in that He goes so far to seek them out and win them back again, lovingly receiving and welcoming them! and then I am sorrowful on account of the sins by which God’s majesty is so fearfully outraged.

“It often seems to me, too, as if heaven were opened before me and I saw God; whilst I myself am walking along a little narrow plank, on both sides of which is a deep, dark, bottomless abyss. Once all was dark—above, below, and around me, and I was in great distress, when a bright youth came towards me, took me by the hand, and led me on across the narrow part. At the time I was in such dryness and anxiety, God often repeated to me the comforting words: ‘My grace is sufficient for thee’—whispering them sweetly, so sweetly, into my ear!”

It happened frequently that Anne Catharine received the command from her angel, when in these ecstasies, to reprove the other nuns for their neglect of the rule. With unfaltering obedience she stood before them, and weeping heavily, discoursed to them of those portions of the rule—such as silence, obedience, poverty, prayer, and domestic discipline—which were the most frequently neglected or infringed. Often she threw herself at the feet of some sister in whose heart she detected the workings of hatred or dislike arising, imploring her pardon and love, by which means she assisted her in crushing out the evil disposition, and recognizing its injustice before it had had time to rise to the surface. Such humble prayers had frequently the effect of inspiring the nuns with the irresistible impulse to seek Anne Catharine and lay bare the innermost thoughts of their souls to her, with all the secret malice and ill-will they had nurtured against herself, and to ask her advice as to their faults and omissions. Soon, however, they vacillated, fell back again from their good inspirations, and giving way anew to their old insidious temptations to ill-humour and suspicion whenever they found Anne Catharine’s advice too troublesome to follow when she counselled the practice of imperative mortification and self-denial.

“I was often present in spirit with the sisters,” she says, “when my body was confined to my bed or occupied in some work elsewhere, and saw and heard what they said and did, just as I often found myself in the church before the Blessed Sacrament, although I knew I had never left my cell.”

From the day Anne Catharine entered the convent her sufferings never appeared to her worthy of a moment’s comparison with the deep happiness of living under the same roof with the Blessed Sacrament, and of passing a considerable portion of the day in Its presence. In whatever part of the convent she might be, whether in her cell or busied over some manual labour, her body involuntarily turned itself in the direction of the tabernacle in the convent chapel, whilst the recollection of our Lord’s Presence never left her for an instant. Neither distance nor the thickness of the walls could veil It from her eyes; for the strength of her desires kept her incessantly in a state of supernatural vision, and had not obedience imposed a bridle on the impetuosity of her soul, she would have ever lain corporally on the altar steps whilst working in spirit amongst the sisters or in her cell.

In all the things imposed upon her by the observance of the Rule, she knew how to find a reference to the Blessed Sacrament, and therefore she fulfilled the meanest and most trivial offices with the same fidelity and conscientiousness as greater duties. But the duties which were above all dear and sacred in her estimation were those of sacristan. She thought herself only too favoured could she attend to them amidst the greatest bodily anguish, for she knew that then she was serving the King of Kings, and that the very angels envied her her task.

Her whole self was absorbed in the Blessed Sacrament; literally with body and soul she turned towards her Lord therein, as flowers turn to the sun, with every thought and feeling, with every aspiration and desire of her heart, offering to Him every breath she drew with its sweet-smelling perfume of love and suffering.

Great as her love were her sorrows about the Blessed Sacrament, for there was not a sin on the face of the earth since its creation which cried louder to heaven for vengeance than those committed in the age in which she lived by the persecution of all who made open profession of their religious belief in the Real Presence of the Most Holy. At the very time when a flame of love was burning in Anne Catharine’s heart, mighty enough to have kindled the hearts of hundreds and thousands, not merely were an innumerable number of God’s Houses suffering desecration and destruction, but there were also daily rumours on all sides, gradually drawing nearer and nearer, of fearful heresies and scepticisms, which threatened to extinguish the light of faith in the living Presence of God in the Holy Eucharist.

At this time the Jansenistic heresy was raging in its full power, and directed all its hate against the adorable Sacrifice and the sacred worship with which the latter has ever been surrounded since Its institution by our Lord Jesus Christ, seeking to drive It away by force from the Church. In the same manner the Jansenists were endeavouring to root out devotion to His Blessed Mother from the hearts of the faithful.

The whole series and consequences of these horrible monstrosities came before Anne Catharine’s mind, filling her soul with unutterable woe, as often as she knelt before the altar, and it seemed to her as though she had to bear, corporally, in the stead of her Spouse, the pains which were being prepared for His Sacred Heart in abuses against the Blessed Sacrament. Often in the dead of night did she glide from her cell to the closed chapel door, and lie there weeping at the threshold, consumed in grief and longings, until at break of day, and half frozen, she could gain admittance within; for only in the vicinity of her Saviour could she find consolation and alleviation for the anguish she endured in atonement for the outrages that were committed against Him.

These sufferings corresponded in measure and diversity with the sins themselves. From the lukewarmness and indifference of ordinary Christians in their preparations and thanksgivings for the reception of Holy Communion, down to the direst sacrileges of the enemies of the Church, she had to atone for all, and would soon have succumbed under the weight of this fearful task had not God quickly erased the appalling impression of these horrors from her soul, and filled it instead with His own consolation. In proportion to the depth and vividness of the wondrous insight which these sufferings gave her into the majesty and glory of the Blessed Sacrament, and to the ardour with which her longings towards It were kindled, did her devotion, her holy awe, and her interior self-abasement increase. Thus it happened that often when she was to receive Holy Communion, a struggle arose within her, between her ardent loving desire and the holy fear of a creature oppressed by the sense of her own unworthiness and guilt—a struggle which could only be decided by obedience. The fear never left her that she herself, on account of her imperfections, might have been to blame for some of the many non-observances of the rule, and other marks of disrespect committed by her sister nuns; and therefore, in the depth of her humility, she would not venture to receive Holy Communion as often as her director desired or as she herself absolutely needed.

Overberg’s account of this timidity of hers is as follows: “Her confessor wished Anne Catharine to communicate oftener than her sisters were in the habit of doing. She obeyed for a time, and then ceased, against the wishes of her confessor, from motives of human respect, namely, because the others deemed her frequent communions hypocrisy, and made unpleasant observations about them. Moreover, she thought herself too wicked to communicate so often. Soon, however, she became so utterly miserable, that she doubted if she should save herself, and could not restrain her lamentations and fears. Finally, she recognised her mistake in not having followed the advice of her confessor, and now began to communicate more frequently. She had still to bear the penalty of this disobedience for two years, inasmuch as during that period all consolations were denied her, and nothing but aridity left.

“After these two years the consolations returned, and she experienced so burning a desire for the Sacred Particles that she could not wait for the ordinary hour of communicating. Therefore her confessor ordered her to make her communions before the other nuns were up, that she might excite the less notice. To do this she was obliged to go and knock at the Abbé Lambert’s door, who was always so kind as to give her Holy Communion at those early hours. She often came earlier even than the appointed time, not being able to withstand the violence of her desire for the Holy Eucharist. Once she arrived soon after midnight, for she felt as if she must die of longing. It seemed to her as though her whole inside was in a flame, and as if she were being so powerfully dragged towards the church that her limbs were almost torn from her body. The abbé was very much annoyed with her for knocking him up so early, but when he saw the state she was in he came out at once and gave her the Holy Communion.”

Overberg proceeds to give an account of her methods of prayer, which we will quote: “The manner in which she heard Mass was worshipful devotion itself. As soon as the priest began the prayers, she united herself in spirit with Jesus on the Mount of Olives, and contemplated. She then prayed to God that He would send down His grace to enable all men to hear Mass devoutly, and all priests to offer the Most Holy Sacrifice in the manner most pleasing to Himself, and to Jesus that He would look upon all there present with the same eye of mercy with which He gazed on Peter.

“At the Gloria she praised God with all the angels and saints in heaven and on earth, and gave thanks to our Saviour that He deigned to renew His sacrifice daily, and prayed to Him to illuminate all men with His light, and to send comfort and succour to the souls in Purgatory.

“At the Gospel she asked God that she and all others might have the grace to follow faithfully in the teaching of the Gospel.

“At the Offertory she offered the bread and wine to God, in union with the priest, and prayed that they might be changed into the flesh and blood of Christ, and also occupied herself in thinking how soon her Saviour would now come.

“At the Sanctus she prayed that the whole world might join with her in praising God.

“At the words of Consecration she presented our Saviour to His Heavenly Father, offering Him for the whole world, particularly for the conversion of sinners, for the consolation of those poor sinners who lay on their death-beds, and for her sisters in religion. She then represented the altar to herself as encircled by angels, who dared not look upon our Saviour, and thought upon her own boldness in gazing upon the Host, upon which her eyes were henceforth and to the end of Mass rivetted.

“She frequently saw the Blessed Sacrament surrounded by a great brilliancy, and sometimes beheld a cross of a brownish hue—never white—in the Host. Had it been white, like the Host itself, she could not have seen it. The cross did not look to her larger than the Host, but the Host itself appeared a greater size than usual.

“From the Elevation to the Agnus Dei she prayed for the souls in Purgatory, showing Christ upon the cross to God the Father, and praying that His merits might obtain that which she was not able to obtain herself.

“At the Communion she reflected on the burial of Jesus and prayed that He would bury the old man and create new hearts within us.”

If she heard the organ played, or singing during Mass, or indeed at any other time, she thought to herself, “Ah! how beautiful it is when all is in harmony together! Lifeless things agree with one another so sweetly, why cannot the hearts of men do the same? How lovely that would be!” And then she could not keep from weeping.

At the midnight Mass on Christmas-eve she invariably beheld the Holy Child Jesus suspended above the chalice. Sometimes she saw the Babe in the Host, but very small.

Whilst she was sacristan she had a seat in the choir, whence she could not see the altar; she had given up her rightful place to another of the nuns, who was always greatly distracted at Mass if she could not see the altar. As Anne Catharine stood here one morning with the bell-rope in her hand, ready to ring for the Elevation, she beheld the Child Jesus raised on high in the chalice. “Oh! how beautiful He looked.” She thought herself in heaven already, and was about to spring over the railing to get to Him, when she recollected herself, and remained where she was, but entirely forgot to ring the bell. This ringing of the bell she often did forget, till Mass was nearly over, and this forgetfulness occasioned her many a scolding.

It was a great happiness to her to communicate on Thursdays, in honour of the Blessed Sacrament. She always regarded that day with an especial veneration, and kept it as a little private feast in her own way, taking greater pains with her dress, to do her Lord all the honour she could.

Sometimes she beheld a cross in the Host, streaming with blood, and now and then the Divine Infant also appeared, of a bright rosy colour, like a ray of light in the Sacred Particles. At the moment of communicating she often beheld her Lord, in the form of the Divine Bridegroom, come towards her, and vanish as she received the Blessed Sacrament into her mouth, whilst she was sensibly conscious of His sweet presence.

Of her other modes of prayer Overberg relates as follows: “She used very few vocal prayers besides those appointed in the Rule; her usual prayer was in the form of familiar converse with God, like a child talking to its father, when she told Him her wants, and made her requests in simple love and confidence.” This speaking to God was unintermittent day and night, and even during meals, except when she was in contemplation; and in the latter case she was often quite insensible to what was passing at table. If she herself was made the topic of conversation, she never perceived it, unless the voices grew very loud indeed. The Abbé Lambert once asked her after a meal how she could bear to listen to such idle stuff as had been talked the whole time, when she replied that she had not heard one syllable that had passed.

For a considerable length of time she used to dispute with God, asking Him why He did not convert all great sinners, instead of punishing the unconverted eternally in another world. She then would say to God that she could not understand how He could do what was so contrary to His nature, for He was so good and merciful, and it cost Him nothing to convert sinners, since He held them all in His hand. She laid before Him all that He and His beloved Son had done for sinners; how our Lord had suffered agony on a cross, and died a cruel death. She prayed Him to remember His own Word in Holy Scripture, and what He there said of His own goodness and mercy, and what promises He made therein, venturing to ask Him how, if He did not keep His own Word, He could expect mankind to be faithful to theirs? The Abbé Lambert, to whom she related these arguments, replied, “Gently, gently, you go too far!” and henceforth she understood that it must be so; that if God converted all sinners, or put an end to eternal punishment, mankind would cease to fear God, to worship Him, and would even go so far as to forget Him.

She had ever a special confidence in the Blessed Virgin, and had recourse to her in particular when she had committed a fault, praying in this wise: “Oh! Mother of my Saviour, thou art doubly my Mother. Thy Son gave Thee to me for a Mother when He was made flesh, and again when He said to St. John, ‘Behold thy Mother!’ and now I am wedded to Thy Son. I have been disobedient to Thy Son, my spouse, and am ashamed to be seen of Him. Have thou pity on me! a mother’s heart is ever kind. Pray for forgiveness for me! Thy request can never be refused!”

Once, not long before the suppression of the convent, when she had sought consolation amongst creatures in vain, she ran weeping across the courtyard of the convent into the chapel, and threw herself upon the steps before the Blessed Sacrament, imploring for mercy and grace. She was brought nearly to despair, for it appeared to her as though she alone were guilty of the sad state of things in the community. In this anguish she prayed thus: “I am, O God, the prodigal son. I have wasted my heritage which Thou hadst given me. I am not worthy to be called Thy child. Have pity on me! Receive me back again! I beseech Thee, through the intercession of my sweetest Mother, who is Thy Mother also!” Then she heard this answer from God, “Be at rest; My grace is sufficient for thee; thou shalt no longer seek for thy consolations amongst men.” Often when she was making some very fervent request to God, and promising Him great things, He asked her in reply, how she could promise such great things when little things were beyond her strength!

When she was praying on behalf of others she laid their distresses simply before God, mentally imploring Him to help them, with the utmost confidence that He would grant her request, and then perhaps added one “Our Father,” or short vocal prayer in conclusion. She said once in speaking of her own prayer, “I can never use the prayers in the missal which have been translated into German. They strike me as so cold and dull, and I never can bind myself to any language in praying; but ever since I can remember anything, the Latin was always the one which I understood best, and which spoke to my heart. I always looked forward beforehand to days when we used the Latin psalms and responses in the convent. Then the festival seemed to grow into life before me, and I saw everything which we were singing. This was especially the case with the Litany of Loreto; as the words flowed on, I saw all the allegories they described in oh! such beautiful pictures, which increased my devotion wonderfully; though at first I was frightened, for it seemed as though I spoke the pictures.”

The uninterrupted celebration of the holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the Church was always visibly present to Anne Catharine’s mind. One day, whilst the bell was ringing for Mass, she was found praying in profound recollection in her room, with the look upon her face which always betokened that her spirit was far from the actual world around her, and on being asked afterwards what she saw at the time, she replied, “At that moment I was contemplating the scenes of Good Friday. I saw our Lord offering Himself as victim upon the cross. I saw His Mother and the beloved disciple standing at the foot of the cross, and yet it all seemed to be taking place upon the altar where the priest was celebrating Mass. I see this scene of Mount Calvary upon our altars at all hours of both day and night; I see the whole parish before me, and I know whether they are praying well or badly; I see, too, how the priest is discharging his sacred function.

“First of all, the church here comes before my eyes, and then gradually the churches and congregations of neighbouring places, just as the light of the sun penetrating through the thick glades of a forest reveals first one object, and then another and another, till all is made visible and distinct under his beams. I see the holy Mass offered up all over the world, at all hours of the day; I can even see countries where it is still celebrated in the same manner as at the time of the Apostles. Above the altar I perceive a heavenly liturgy, in which angels supply any omissions on the part of the priest. I offer my heart as a sacrifice at the same time, in reparation for the indevotion of those present, and I pray our Lord to have mercy on them. I behold many priests celebrating in a deplorable manner. Those who, stiff and starched, apply themselves especially to presenting a good outward appearance, are generally the worst, for frequently this preoccupation causes them to neglect interior devotion. They are always saying to themselves: ‘What effect shall I make upon the people?’ and they forget to think about God.

“During the day I see this sacred ceremony as if at a distance. Jesus loves us so much that He continues His work of redemption continually in the holy sacrifice of the altar, and the holy Mass is historical redemption, covered with a veil, and thus transformed into a sacrament. Every operation of God is eternal, but in their relationships with our temporal life, which is successive, these operations are in the form of promise before entering into this succession, and when once they have passed into the accomplishment of time, they appear under the form of mystery, and thus they remain. I have seen this from my earliest youth, and at that time I fancied every one else saw as I did.”

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