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The Life Of Anne Catherine Emmerich

ON the 3rd December, 1811, the convent of Agnetenberg was suppressed, and the church closed.

Although Anne Catharine had long foreseen this unspeakably painful event, and had incessantly offered herself to bear any pains God would deign to accept for the aversion of so great a calamity; still she could not realize, when the blow came, that she must leave those beloved precincts for ever. It seemed to her easier for the soul to part from the body than for her to tear herself away from a spot where she had given herself, by the holiest of vows, to the Divine Bridegroom, in order to serve Him amid sufferings, hidden from the eyes of the world.

“I grew so ill,” she related later, “that the other nuns were sure that I was going to die, so they left me undisturbed, whilst they busied themselves with their own preparations, and soon forgot my existence altogether. Then Our Blessed Lady came to comfort me and said: ‘Thou wilt not die. There will be a great deal of stir and talk made about thee yet, but be not alarmed! whatever may happen, thou wilt always receive help.’ After this, in all my troubles, I heard the words, ‘Be not alarmed! thy task is not yet over,’ ever sounding in my ears.”

Whilst the other sisters were leaving the convent one after another, Anne Catharine remained behind till the following spring, for she was so weak and ill that she was unable to leave her cell during those months.

This damp, dark, cold little stone chamber, separated from the rest of the convent by a granary and winding stone staircase, was, nevertheless, a sort of earthly paradise to Anne Catharine, for here the petty spite and unworthy persecutions of her sisters in religion had never entered; cold and miserable as the place was, it was still her own; here she had ever been left undisturbed to herself, her sufferings, and her visions; whilst her sole visitants were those dear companions of her childhood, innocent doves and sparrows, who cooed and chirped about her window sill, gladdening her heart with the sweet music of their songs, as had been their wont in olden days, amidst the woods and meadows round her cottage home. The mice, too, had grown so accustomed to see the quiet little figure stretched upon the bed, that they would jump confidentially to her side to receive her gentle caresses.

And thus alone, amidst the humblest of God’s creatures, she would have lain, forgotten by the whole world,—that ungrateful world which had received such countless benefits at her hand—had not good Abbé Lambert and an old maid-servant, formerly attached to the convent, taken pity upon her, and out of their own need procured her the bare necessaries of life. The abbé, who was himself in feeble health, homeless, and without a soul upon earth to whom he could look for sympathy or help in his poverty-stricken old age, stood faithfully by Anne Catharine’s side at this critical juncture of her life. When he found, after a while, that it was impossible for her to remain longer in the deserted convent, he arranged that she should occupy a room in the house of a widow at Dulmen, with whom he was himself lodging.

Hither he and the old servant-maid, half led, half carried the poor sick girl along the streets of the little town. When she found herself outside the shelter of the convent walls, in a public thoroughfare, “I was so overwhelmed with fear and shyness,” she said afterwards, “that I felt as though every stone in the road would swallow me up!”

In exchange for the quiet of her cell, she found an uncomfortable little room on the ground floor of the cottage, in which every footfall from the street outside could be heard, and where the sole protection she had from the public gaze was an ill-fitting strip of blind, which barely stretched across a window which was almost on a level with the ground. She had hardly passed a day in this wretched little room (which was her home for rather more than a year) before she was taken dangerously ill, and appeared to be wasting away like a plant which withers and fades when it has been suddenly transplanted from a mountain dell to a dusty road-side in the valley beneath.

She soon became too weak to walk, even with assistance, or to leave her bed, and the sole nourishment she could take was a little wine and water, or occasionally the juice squeezed from a cherry or a plum; anything else she immediately vomited; but after receiving the last Sacraments her condition improved slightly, and in the autumn of 1813 she was able to be removed into another lodging, which opened out upon a garden. Her ecstasies and spiritual intercourse with the invisible world became, if possible, more manifold and wonderful than before. About this time it pleased our Lord to answer her constant prayer that He would imprint His sacred cross deeply upon her heart, by marking her virginal body with the stigmata of His crucifixion.

One day, whilst praying fervently that He would never permit the memory of His infinite love for mankind to be effaced from her heart, she beheld a beautiful youth coming towards her, who presented her with a little cross, which she eagerly seized and pressed to her bosom. A short time after this an aching pain began to make itself felt in the spot where the cross had touched her breast, which increased in burning intensity until the outline of a red cross appeared, as though traced in blood, under the skin. This cross measured about three inches in length, and seemed as if it were burnt into the bone. Blood exuded from it at certain intervals, especially on all Good Fridays, whilst on every Friday throughout the year the colour became of a deeper red.

Her stigmatization took place at the close of the year 1812. On the 29th December, about three o’clock in the afternoon, she was extended upon the bed in her little room in an ecstasy, with her arms outstretched in the form of a cross, contemplating the sufferings of her Lord in His Passion. Suddenly her fervour redoubled, and she murmured five “Our Fathers” in honour of the Five Wounds, and her countenance grew very red, and as though inflamed with love.

She then beheld a light descending towards her, and distinguished the form of the crucified Saviour, with His wounds all shining like luminous suns. Her heart was transported with joy at the sight of these holy Wounds, and her thirst to suffer with her Lord grew almost unbearable in its intensity. As she looked and longed, three rays of a bright red light seemed to come from the hands, feet, and side of the apparition, which terminated in the form of arrows, and pierced her hands, feet, and right side. At the moment she was touched drops of blood issued from the places of the wounds, and she sank down unconscious.

When she recovered her senses she felt that after receiving the stigmata a change had been operated in her body; the course of her blood seemed to have totally altered its direction, and now flowed with all its force to the places of the five wounds.

We are indebted to a singular incident for the knowledge of the above occurrence. A few days later Anne Catharine had a circumstantial vision touching all the operations which had of late been effected in herself, which appeared to her as the history of another nun suffering much in a similar way as herself; and she related these details in a tone of heartfelt compassion which was touching in the extreme.

“I must never complain again,” she said, “since I have seen the sufferings of that poor little nun there; look, her heart is enclosed in a crown of thorns, and she bears the anguish so quietly and with a smile on her face! It is a shame of me to pity myself when she has a far heavier burthen than I have to bear!”

From this period graces and celestial favours were heaped upon Anne Catharine in richer and yet richer profusion, whilst her bodily sufferings reached such a height that every succeeding month brought with it a fresh tide of anguish, until the mere spectacle of her poor body preached Jesus Christ Crucified by a daily incessant torture, borne with a calm, smiling patience which should have melted the hearts of all beholders.

This, however, was far from being the case. Anne Catharine’s condition soon became known. Strive as she might to hide herself from the eyes of all, she was now deprived of the shelter and seclusion of convent life, and in a state of utter helplessness. Her strange condition became very soon the subject of gossip and common talk, which rapidly grew into puzzled conjecture and angry suspicion. Thus, in addition to her other woes, she lost the right to her privacy and became an object which every curious stranger considered himself at liberty to inspect and examine at his leisure. Upon this coming to the knowledge of the ecclesiastical authorities in Dulmen, a medical examination of her state was appointed to be held.

This was the beginning of a long martyrdom, which inflicted tortures on every fibre of her nervous system, wounding her sensitive delicacy to the quick, and was of incalculable detriment to her soul, as well as to her body, inasmuch as for long sorrow-laden years together, it completely deprived her of that repose and quiet recollection which were to her as the very breath of life itself. Her patient confidence in God remained unshaken throughout this as throughout all the former stormy periods of her past existence, and when the clouds around her seemed at their darkest, and she felt as though she must sink under her load of woe, she clung firmly to the promise made her by One Who never fails to help those who confide in Him: “Whatever may be in store for thee, I will be with thee to the end.”

The first examination took place on March 22nd, 1813, when a document was drawn up, establishing the miraculous existence of the stigmata, together with Anne Catharine’s perfect innocence and guilelessness. This over, Anne Catharine turned to the Dean Rensing, who had been the institutor of this investigation, saying: “This is not all. I see many gentlemen coming from Munster to examine me; one tall man in particular, who looks like an archbishop:” which words came only too true, for on March 28th the former vicar-general of Munster, afterwards a celebrated archbishop of Cologne, accompanied by Dean Overberg and by several physicians, came in order to put Anne Catharine through a searching examination.

This examination had for its result a succession of experiments, such as washing the stigmata with different chemicals, binding the wounds tightly for hours together, and the like. All these caused the poor sufferer almost intolerable agony, so much so that she declared her fear to Overberg lest she should lose the command of her senses, and forget the duty of obedience she owed to the ecclesiastical commission, Indeed, nothing served to calm her fears and pacify her, until he promised to offer up the holy sacrifice of the Mass for her intention on the following morning, that God might give her the necessary strength. From this time the pains in the wounds increased in intensity, and were accompanied by frequent fainting fits, until on the 2nd of April her voice became hardly audible, as she turned imploringly to the Dean, saying: “I see more and more men who want to look at my marks: I am so frightened; can you not hinder them from coming?”

Her prophetic words were fulfilled in two days’ time, when a French police commissary arrived from Munster, in order to question Anne Catharine and her attendants and to make an official investigation of the case. He began by putting several questions to Anne Catharine, as to whether she interfered with political matters, or prophesied concerning them, and then desired the wound of the right hand to be shown him. So deep was the impression which the suffering nun made upon this functionary, that fourteen years later he could not mention her name without emotion. The doctor now seeing that the linen bandages irritated and inflamed the wounds, ordered them to be covered with plasters. This measure however, far from giving relief, increased the fever and the pain a thousandfold, but the plasters had no power to stop the blood from flowing.

From this time forth visits of all kinds, ecclesiastical, medical, and official, friendly and hostile, were forced upon the poor girl; every medical man for miles round considered her suffering body public property for surmise and experiment. In vain she implored those around her to protect her from the agony of exposure to public gaze, which, to a religious person, was far worse than even the acute bodily suffering which it caused her; in vain she protested; in vain she answered question after question, and submitted to treatment after treatment. Her woes were not to end here; heavier trials were in store. God required yet greater, yet more perfect obedience from His servant. He chose that she should at this period, by a combination of circumstances, be, so to speak, forsaken by her spiritual advisers, overwhelmed in desolation of spirit, pursued in her troubled sleep by hateful objects, and in her waking moments by temptations of the evil one. She prayed, and it seemed as though her prayers were not heard, till in her anguish she would press to her aching brow a relic of the true Cross, which Overberg had left with her when he went away, and this gave her strength to pursue her weary way of the cross.

After Holy Communion a ray of light would sometimes break across her soul, in the shape of one of those consoling visions which now so seldom cheered her path. On one occasion two angels came towards her, bearing a beautiful garland of flowers between them; the flowers were white roses, and when she tried to gather them, a long pointed hidden thorn wounded her finger, and she heard the words: “If thou wilt have the roses, thou must also endure the thorns.” Another time she appeared to be carried into a lovely garden, where she beheld roses of an enormous size blooming, of every hue. They were surrounded by such long and spiked thorns that she could not gather one, and in complaining of this, her angel made answer, “He who will not suffer, can merit no joy.”

Joy without suffering was sometimes set before her, but always as purchased by death:, “I saw myself,” she relates, “lying in my grave, but oh! how happy I felt; at the same time something seemed to say to me, ‘thou hast much more yet to suffer before thou comest here.’ Then Mary with the Child came towards me, and she placed the Babe in my arms, and oh! how joyful I felt! When I gave Him back to her, I implored Mary to give me three things that might make me pleasing in her sight, and in her Son’s eyes, namely, love, humility, and patience. Oh! how I longed to go then to heaven with my Saviour, but my time is not yet come, my sorrows and sufferings must increase yet a hundredfold; I must be yet more tried, yet more purified. God’s will be done! May He but give me the grace to resign myself patiently and submissively to His will until the end!

Once when she had just received Holy Communion she heard these words: “Will’st thou rather die now or suffer still more?” and she replied: “I will choose to suffer Lord, if it be pleasing to Thee!” How manifold her sufferings were we have seen, and how they were increased by those around her, who should at least have striven to mitigate her burden, will appear from the following report made at this time by Dr. Wesener. “I found Anne Catharine this evening very restless and almost crazed with pain. Her sister had washed her wounds, and the sores with which lying in bed had covered her back; the agony this occasioned had almost caused her to lose her senses. Writhing on her bed, she was saying in tones of anguish to her sister: ‘Why did you do this? I am ready to suffer all things, but could not you have been more gentle with me?’ ”

This sister, as will be seen later, was a constant source of pain and annoyance to Anne Catharine, who, from the goodness of her heart, concealed the rough usage she received at her hands, rather than make others aware of what she endured. In Munster brandy is considered by the lower classes an infallible panacea, and throughout all her sufferings this sister insisted on rubbing Anne Catharine’s quivering flesh therewith, until she lost consciousness time after time; treating her as almost all at this time treated the poor sufferer, like a senseless thing, not as a living, feeling human creature; and how niggard was the attendance which she received from those who were supposed to tend her, may be gathered from the fact that upon hot summer days, when she lay unconscious in her ecstacies, swarms of flies were allowed to settle upon her wounds, stinging the tender flesh, until blood flowed copiously from them.

On the 8th April, 1813, Overberg received orders to re-examine Anne Catharine upon the subject of her stigmas, and to draw up a report according to the daily observations of Dechant Rensing and Drs. Krauthausen and Wesener, who had watched her condition from the time of the first examination.

The following is an abridgment of Overberg’s examination, and the depository information he received from Rensing and Wesener.

Overberg.—“Have you ever (as might happen without ill intent) scratched your hands with a nail or any other sharp instrument in order to sympathize with Jesus Christ in His sufferings?”

Anne Catharine.—“No, never.”

O.—“Have you ever poured aquafortis or lapis infernalis upon these spots?”

A. C.—“I do not know what those things are. I never knew of the existence of the wounds until some one else (Abbé Lambert) remarked upon them to me, saying, ‘Don’t imagine that you are a St. Catharine of Siena, or anything of that sort.’ ”

Upon Overberg’s observing that it seemed extraordinary that when a person had received a wound she should be unaware of its existence; “so it does,” she replied, “but then the pain had been there for nearly four years before the wounds came, and I felt no difference. When I received the exterior marks a little girl only was waiting upon me, who did not think to wash away the drops of blood. And so it happened that the abbé noticed the wounds in my hands before I did. I had, however, felt the pain round my head for four years before I went into the convent. It feels as though my head was bound round with thorns, indeed as though all my hairs were thorns, until I cannot lay my head down upon the pillow without great pain. The pain of the other wounds is not like ordinary pain, it seems to go straight to my heart. The slightest pressure or touch upon the cross upon my breast gives me greater interior than exterior pain. It seems then as though the whole bosom were on fire. In the wound, however, in my side, I felt as though suddenly penetrated by a fierce fire.”

O.—“When did the wounds on the body appear?”

A. C.—“The wound on the side came on the Feast of St. Augustin, the lower cross on the breast about six weeks later, the upper cross on the breast on the Feast of St. Catharine of Siena, and the wounds on the hands and feet last Christmas.”

O.—“Had you any special visions or illuminations at the time of the wounds appearing?”

A. C.—“No, I was in very great suffering then.”

O.—“Do you not know what the cross on the breast signifies?”

A. C.—“No; but I often imagine that the first one was to warn me that I had much to suffer for Christ’s sake, and that the second meant renewed sorrows in store for me.”

O.—“Can you not remember when you received the wounds in the hands and feet?”

A. C.—“Four years before the suppression of the convent I went to Coesfeld to see my parents, and whilst there I went into the church to pray for a few moments before the great cross behind the altar. I was in great grief at the state of things in our convent, and prayed that I and my sisters might see our faults, so that all might be at peace. I also prayed that Jesus would let me share in all His sufferings. From this time the burning pains began. I thought I might have got a perpetual fever, and at the same time the thought would strike me that this might be the answer to my prayer, though I always rejected the idea, because I thought myself unworthy of such a favour. My feet often hurt me so that I could not walk. My hands, too, became so painful that I could not do many of my customary works, such as digging; the middle finger was stiff too, and seemed as if it were dead.

After I had had these pains for some time I prayed earnestly that all in the convent might be in charity together, and that my sufferings might cease. Then I heard these words in answer: “Thy sufferings will never cease. May the grace of God suffice thee. None of thy sisters in religion will die until they have seen their errors.”

When questioned by Overberg about the cross, she replied: “From my childhood I have often prayed to God that He would engrave His Cross upon my heart, that I might never forget His sufferings; but I never thought of any outward sign.”

From the time that Anne Catharine had perceived her wounds she had ever carefully strived to hide them from the eyes of all beholders, and therefore generally covered them over with the bed-clothes, or, when the burning pain became intolerable, with a white cloth. “One day,” related Dr. Wesener, in the report he gave to Overberg, “I brought my sister to see Anne Catharine. She was lying in a state of unconsciousness, or ecstasy. Fr. Limberg (her confessor) wished to remove the cloth which covered her hands, and she moved restlessly, when he asked: ‘What is the matter?’ Without opening her eyes, she whispered, “Some one is asking of me what I must not do.” I desired, however, that my sister’s faith should be aroused by the wonderful apparitions; and so Fr. Limberg gave his blessing to Anne Catharine, when she, slowly, without awaking from her ecstasy, began to make the sign of the Cross with her trembling hand, but with great evident anxiety lest the cloth should be displaced.”

Overberg’s report concludes with Anne Catharine’s method of prayer when receiving Holy Communion at this period: “Her final preparation consists,” he says, “in turning to her Saviour and praying Him to give her His own heart, in order that she may give Him a worthy reception; telling Him that only with His own heart can she love Him and praise Him as He deserves. Then she makes Him an offering of her Heart, begging Him to take care of it and do with it what He wills. She offers Him her soul and her body, her eyes, her ears, all her members, praying Him to make use of them in His own service, and to do with them all that her weakness cannot accomplish of itself.

“She then makes a compact with God that He will take every breath, every movement, every suffering as an act of praise of His Majesty and of thanksgiving for His goodness. After this she turns to the Saints, and implores them all to give or lend her some of their beauty and virtues wherewith to clothe herself the more fittingly for the reception of the most Holy Sacrament. Before all others, she has recourse to the Mother of God, praying her out of her abundance to bestow on her some special ornament of grace, and to present the Divine Infant to her adoration, as she presented Him to the three kings out of the far East, saying, ‘Thou art overflowing with riches and I am so poor! Therefore have pity on me! I only ask a little drop out of the sea of thine abundance!’ After receiving Holy Communion she falls into a prolonged ecstasy.”

After Overberg’s enquiry the authorities appointed a watch to be held over Anne Catharine for ten days by twenty townsmen of Dulmen. Their orders were never to leave her day or night for a single instant; even during confession her watchers were never to leave the room; they were to confine themselves to looking on. Further than this their office was not to extend.

This proceeding closed the Church’s inquisition, and resulted in naught save a yet more full and complete manifestation of Anne Catharine’s truth, purity, and innocence, and of the marvellous paths by which it was God’s good pleasure to conduct this chosen soul.

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