September 8 is the birthday of a remarkable German woman beatified by the Catholic Church for all the miracles, spiritual gifts, and religious occurrences that surrounded her life. Let’s explore the legends concerning Blessed Ann Catherine Emmerich.
The first legend concerns the visions she is said to have had a few hours after being born. She was baptized and later recalled that during her baptism:
“All that is holy, all that is blessed, all that pertains to the Church, was as perfectly intelligible to me then as now, and I saw marvelous things of the Church’s essence. I felt the presence of God in the Blessed Sacrament. I saw the relics shining with light, and I recognized the saints who hovered above them. I saw my ancestors back to the first one that had received Baptism; and in a series of symbolic pictures I beheld the dangers that threatened me through life…”1
That’s quite a memory, and quite a memorable experience. It seems Miss Emmerich was born Catholic (1774). She grew up in the hamlet of Flamske in Westphalia, a Catholic territory in northern Germany. Back in the 1700's territories in Germany were either Catholic or Protestant, and never the twain should meet.
Ann Catherine's parents were Bernard Emmerich and Anne Hillers. The Emmerichs were a peasant family who labored in the fields for their living. They lived in
“a miserable thatched cottage which…contained in reality but one room. Partitions divided this chamber into several sections; one of these was used by the occupants for a sleeping place; another served as a stable for the live stock of the humble farm.”2
The Emmerich residence was more barn than house. The floor was bare ground, in which stakes were pounded to tie cows to. Smoke from a failed chimney covered the insides with soot.
Who would have thought that, given these humble beginnings, Ann, the fifth of nine children (six boys, three girls), would be beatified by the Catholic Church, and that centuries later her book (The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ,“3) would influence Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of The Christ?
Here is another legend concerning Blessed Emmerich. It is said that when young Ann was working at farm labors, Jesus appeared to her as a heavenly Child. Ann called him ‘Jungsken (little boy)’. “While I kept the cattle the Jungsken often came to see me,” Sister Emmerich later recalled.4 The two seemed to have gotten on well, and conversed easily with each other.
Another legend concerns Ann experiencing the visible presence of her guardian angel more or less continually since girlhood on. At first she naively thought everyone did. When she learned to talk she sat on her father’s lap and regaled him with stories of characters from the Old Testament that she saw in visions:
“The good man would exclaim, with tears in his eyes, ‘Child, where did you get all that?’ And the little one would answer earnestly: ‘Father, it is all true. That is the way I saw it!’ Whereupon the astonished father would become silent and forbear to question further.”5
When she was twelve Ann Catherine received First Communion. Afterwards she had a vision of assisting at Mass in the Catacombs with St. Cecelia. Her spiritual director, Dean Overberg, recalled:
“From the day of her First Communion her efforts to mortify and renounce self became even more persevering than before. She was convinced of the truth that without mortification it is impossible to give one’s self entirely to God. Her love had taught her this. “She refused herself many little pleasures she might have innocently enjoyed. She disciplined her body with nettles, she wore penitential cinctures, she slept on a wooden cross, or on a kind of frame formed of two long beams with two shorter transverse pieces.”6
This sort of thing sounds incredible to modern ears. It is incredible, especially when you consider the penitent was twelve years old. Very extraordinary, no?
There has always been some controversy about how much renunciation is useful and proper in the pursuit of God. and the spiritual life. The Buddha almost killed himself with austerities. When he recovered he renounced renunciation as a spiritual method, teaching instead what later was called “the third way”, an alternative to austerities and the riot of the senses.
The Catholic Church has a long history of saints who practiced all sorts of penances, sometimes to the point of death. Perhaps the best way to understand this is not to argue which path is best, but to realize that the degree of renunciation is a sign of a person’s determination to advance along the spiritual path.
Renunciation, mortification of the senses, and suffering in expiation for the sins of others are central themes of Ann Catherine Emmerich’s spirituality. This was summed up by another legend concerning Blessed Emmerich: that she bore an invisible crown of thorns that bled so much she had to wear a cap to stem the flow of blood. Here is her account of things:
“I felt a strong but pleasant heat in my head, and I saw my Divine Spouse...come towards me from the altar. In his left hand he held a crown of flowers, in his right hand a crown of thorns, and he bade me choose which I would have. I chose the crown of thorns; he placed it on my head, and I pressed it down with both hands. Then he disappeared, and I returned to myself, feeling, however, violent pain around my head.”7
The following day Emmerich’s forehead and temples were swollen and inflamed, and she began bleeding so frequently from her head that she wore a cap to absorb the blood. Legend has it that Emmerich had been granted that rare form of suffering reserved for some saints, an invisible crown of thorns.
Emmerich’s friend, Clara, was accepted into the Augustinian Order as their organist. She refused the position until the abbess also allowed Ann Catherine admittance. This was reluctantly granted, and in 1802 Emmerich finally entered a religious order.
It was a disaster. Ann Catherine was receiving continual visions, her head was bleeding, she would swoon after receiving Communion and often had to be carried out of the chapel. Her fellow sisters complained she was not carrying her fair share of the work, and they were right. Emmerich was aware of the complaints:
“My companions can hardly be blamed for their treatment of me. They could not understand me, they regarded me with mistrust and suspicion…in spite of these trials, I have never since been so rich interiorly, never so perfectly happy as then, for I was at peace with God and man. When at work in the garden, the birds perched on my head and shoulders and we praised God together.”8
In 1811 Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother, Jerome, became the new ruler of Westphalia and closed down the Augustinian Order.
The last nun to leave the Augustinian convent was Sister Emmerich. She was so ill she could not get out of bed. The sisters assumed she was going to die, and left her laying there with the birds and mice – and another invalid, a French priest known as Abbe Lambert. He saved Emmerich’s life.
Abbe Lambert seemed to understand that Emmerich’s illnesses had a religious origin. He tended to her and found her new lodgings, in a bedroom of a widow’s home. Here another legend arose.
It is said that during Lent of 1812 Blessed Emmerich went into ecstasy and became rigid. As the story goes, those aiding her discovered a bloody cross on her breast. Sister Emmerich confessed she had received this the preceding August, on the feast of St. Augustine. Later that year she reportedly received another bloody cross on her breast, and “at Christmas the Child Jesus deigned to impress on her a third sign in the form of a Latin cross above the second one.”9
There is more. The story goes that just after Christmas, 1812, Abbe Lambert found Sister Emmerich in bed, in ecstasy, with blood pouring from her palms. She begged him to tell no one. One month later Abbe Lambert found similar wounds on the souls of Sister Emmerich’s feet. Another priest who visited her, Dean Limberg,10 wrote in his journal: “Her hands and feet bleed every Friday and the double cross upon her breast on Wednesdays. Since the existence of these wounds has come to my knowledge, she has eaten nothing.“11
Ann Catherine explained things this way.
“I was meditating on the Passion of Our Lord and was praying God to increase my sufferings. For this intention I recited five Pater and Ave in honor of His five wounds. All at once I felt a holy beatitude, and an insatiable thirst for the pains of Jesus seized hold of me. Suddenly I saw a supernatural splendor issuing from a crucified body.
“My heart was moved with a deep sorrow, and at the same time with inexpressible happiness. I felt ardently the desire of participating in the Passion of my Saviour. I beheld red and brilliant rays which terminated in arrows coming from the hands, the feet, and the side of the figure. These rays were directed towards my hands, feet and side. I remained a long time without consciousness…”12
Although Ann Catherine and the priests were content to keep her stigmata a private matter, the whole town of Dulmen soon knew, thanks to Sister Emmerich’s friend Clara Soentgen, who discovered Ann Catherine’s secret and broadcasted it. Scoffers by the score mocked the alleged stigmata. There were several investigations of Blessed Emmerich by doctors. In each case the doctor was an atheist trying to disprove any sort of miraculous event happening at the widow's home.
Legend has it that all three doctors eventually admitted the stigmata on Emmerich's palms and feet were real wounds in her flesh, and they could not explain their existence with rational science. Another circumstance that baffled doctors was Ann Catherine losing blood so frequently, but not needing a transfusion. Another legend has it that she hardly ever ate food but subsisted solely on Communion for her food.
In her condition Blessed Emmerich could not write a paragraph, much less a book. Moreover, she had visitors at all hours of the day asking for advice, or gawking at the bleeding, bed ridden Augustinian nun. She needed someone to help publish her visions, as she saw it, for the greater glory of God. Then the most unlikely person came from the most unlikely place…
Clement Brentano was a temperamental man of letters, a playwright scornful of the Catholicism he grew up with. Being German, he had heard wild tales about Sister Emmerich, and dismissed them out of hand. Brentano's brother visited Emmerich, and urged Clement to as well. But Clement's heart was cold. Than an eminent professor invited Brentano to stay with him at the estate of a mutual acquaintance. But when Brentano arrived he was told the professor was still in Dulmen. Brentano went to Dulmen looking for him, and on September 17, 1818, ended up getting introduced to Sister Emmerich instead.
By the time the professor returned to Dulmen the mercurial Clement Brentano vowed he would stay at the bedside of Ann Catherine Emmerich for the rest of her life - which turned out to be six years.
That he did so is remarkable, given his initial reservations toward Ann Catherine, his marked preference for Berlin - he never got used to the small town of Dulmen, nor they to him - and his abandoning of his literary career, which had won him fame and honor, with the promise of more . What happened?
“God is good to me!“ Brentano wrote. “Sister Emmerich does wonderful things for me. I have become her disciple!”13 His passions at a peak, Brentano resolved to write a poetical biography of Ann Catherine. She, however, saw the Pilgrim as not ready to begin what she believed to be his true mission: to transcribe the visions given her by heaven.
The two began working on each other: Brentano regaling the invalid with his plans, and offering persistent advice on how she should curtail her visitors and take on some competent help; and she praying for him, exhorting him sweetly to prayer and penance, and turning aside his schemes with a gentle deftness. They fought, or rather Brentano fought: against Emmerich, against the priests assisting her, against the town folk of simple Dulmen; against the stream of visitors. He became so overbearing Emmerich sent him away for a time.
But like a bad penny, Brentano rolled back to Dulmen to transcribe years of Emmerich's continual visionsinto a four volume Life of Christ, then The Dolorous Passion, and The Life of Mary.
Emmerich/Brentano's books were instant classics. They were very popular in Europe in the nineteenth century, inside and outside the Catholic Church. Emmerich's visions were read by popes. Blessed Pope Pius IX and many other Churchmen have commented favorably on Blessed Emmerich's visions.
Her influence even extended to our day, where Mel Gibson used numerous visions of Sister Emmerich in his movie The Passion of the Christ. For instance, the scene where Peter, after denying Christ thrice, encounters the Blessed Virgin and confesses what he did;14 Jesus’ subterranean imprisonment;15 the wife of Pilate giving the Blessed Virgin white linen towels, which she used to wipe up the blood by the scourging pillar;16 Simon of Cyrene becoming disgusted with the Roman’s treatment of Jesus and threatening to stop carrying the Cross;17 the guards having to violently wrench Jesus' left arm to make his hand fit to the nail hole in the Cross;18 Mary and the holy women kneeling to adore Jesus as he and the Cross were lifted;19 and the Blessed Virgin entreating Christ to let her die with him.20All of these scenes are directly from visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich.
Yet Sister Emmerich attached importance to her visions only to the extent that she believed herself willed by God to reveal them; “I have never given the same appreciation to my visions as that I have given to the dogmas of the Church,” she said.21 She dreaded publicity almost as much as praise. Her last years were spent almost entirely in bed.
Even so restricted, legends concerning her abounded. It was said Sister Emmerich was a veritable encyclopedia regarding ancient history and civilizations, and was able to give detailed descriptions of Egypt, the Holy Land, the Deluge, and ancient Rome. All this information reportedly came from visions she had. Many of her descriptions have been proven accurate to an astonishing degree; other descriptions have been found to contain minor errors concerning distances between certain locations, and the exact nature of topography (for instance, whether a hill was sloping east or west to a traveler heading south).
A German Carmelite, Father Simon Zoepf, stated:
“During the four years of my residence in Palestine, I utilized every opportunity to compare the topographical indications of the Venerable Emmerich with the objective reality of the places themselves. For this purpose I journeyed through the Holy Land from Hebron in the South of Judea as far as Saphet in upper Galilee. I have sought out many times the places described by the good nun, and my prolonged residence at Nazareth has been principally employed in making these researches. The result of these observations during four years is the immovable conviction that the ecstatic contemplative, Anne Catherine Emmerich, has everywhere seen the reality of things as they are.”22
Another legend is that Blessed Emmerich could discern objects that had been blessed by a riest, and could tell whether a ringing church bell had been blessed or not by its peal. Her specialty, if it can be called that, was the discernment of relics. Her gifts in this regard soon had people flocking to her bedside with relics. She said authentic relics shone with a special light, and often had a certain fragrance. Upon being shown an authentic relic, she not only verified its authenticity, she was shown what saint the relic belonged to, and was given a vision of the saints life.23
Another legend concerned Emmerich being given a scrap of fabric, and seeing in vision that it was from a dress the Virgin Mary wore at the marriage feast of Cana. Then another vision came, of Mary wearing the same dress while retracing her Son’s Way of the Cross. Sister Emmerich recalled:
“She was, at this time, advanced in years, though there was visible in her no other sign of age than an ardent desire for her transfiguration. She was remarkably grave. I never saw her laugh, and the older she grew, the fairer and more transparent became her countenance. She was thin, but I saw no wrinkle, no trace of decay about her; she was like a spirit.”24
Death and Beatification
By February 1824 Ann Catherine Emmerich also appeared like a spirit. She hovered between life and death. Brentano’s journal entries tell the story: “she may die at any instant”; “Her condition is heartrending”; Sister Emmerich is more dead than alive”; and so on. On the morning of February 9th her confessor gave her Holy Communion. That afternoon the death struggle commenced. “It will soon be over,” she said. “I am on the cross.”
Around the supper hour Clement Brentano entered the sick room. Sister Emmerich was kissing a crucifix, and the Pilgrim saw that she always kissed only the feet of the crucifix. “Oh Lord, help,” she said, “Help, O Lord Jesus.” Her confessor put a blessed candle in her hand and rang a small Loretto bell - a local custom when a nun was dying.
Her head sank to one side. The Pilgrim looked at her high forehead, her prominent temples, her abundant dark brown hair coarse from the tight headdress she usually wore. He touched her right hand. It was cold. Ann Catherine Emmerich was dead.
When a cause for sainthood is introduced in the Church, often the subject's grave will be exhumed. This was the case in Emmerich's canonization. It is said that her body was found incorrupt; that is, not decayed or skeletonized. Hundreds of miracles due to her intercession were reported over the years, including amputations avoided, instant and total healing of severe illnesses, conversions of relatives, reform of alcoholics, and astounding cases of financial assistance).
The miracle approved by Rome concerned a nineteenth century German nun named Martina, who suffered from tuberculosis. Her doctor had given up on her. She invoked Sister Emmerich and was completely cured.25 The miracle was officially recognized by the Holy See on July 7, 2003.26
On October 3, 2004, Pope John Paul II beatified Sister Ann Catherine Emmerich. The Pope said Emmerich:
“experienced in her own flesh ‘the bitter passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Her material poverty is contrasted by her rich interior life. In addition to her patience in bearing her physical weaknesses, the strength of character of the new blessed and her firmness in faith impress us. Her example opened the hearts of rich and poor men, educated and humble people, to complete loving passion toward Jesus Christ.”
* * *
It is always wise to use caution in reading visionary material, and this applies to Sister Emmerich as well. Whatever their accuracy or veracity, a clear majority of Emmerich's readers have found her published visions to help them spiritually. Her critics have a different point of view. Perhaps Clement Brentano said it best: “what there is good in them (Emmerich's visions) is as delicate as the dust that paints the butterfly’s wings.”
1 Rev. Carl E. Schmoger, C.SS.R., The Life of Anne Catherine Emmerich, Volume I, reprinted by TAN Books And Publishers, Inc., Rockford, p. 12.
2 Rev. Thomas Wegener, O.S.A., Sister Anne Katherine Emmerich, of the Order of St. Augustine, The Marvellous Interior and Exterior Life of this Servant of God, translated from the French Edition by Rev. Francis X. McGowan, O.S.A., Benziger Brothers, 1898, p. 25.
3 Reprinted by TAN Books And Publishers, Rockford, Illinois, 1983. Technically, Sister Emmerich did not write this book, or any of the others attributed to her. Rather, she orally dictated her visions to Clement Brentano, who rewrote them from Emmerich’s Westphalian dialect into proper German. Brentano also edited most of Sister Emmerich’s writing.
4 Ibid., p. 36.
5 Ibid., p. 26.
6 Schmoger, Vol. I, op. cit., pp. 58-59.
7 Anne Catherine Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, republished by TAN Books And Publishers, 1983, pp. 8-9 (from a foreword by Clement Brentano).
8 Schmoger, Vol. I, op. cit., pp. 138-139.
9 Wegener, op. cit., p. 87. Sister Emmerich had three crosses on her breast: a single one, and then a double cross. The first of the double crosses was shaped like a ‘Y’, which was the shape of the cross at a church in Coesfeld she often attended in her youth.
10Father Limberg was originally from Dulmen, but had only returned there because he, like Ann Catherine Emmerich, had been forced from his home. The Dominican convent he was living at had been secularized.
11Schmoger, Vol. I, op. cit., p. 205
12Wegener, op. cit. pp. 87-88. Sister Emmerich also said that a girl found her in this state, and that “this young girl told her parents that I had hurt my hands so as to make them bleed. (p. 88)”
13 Schmoger, Vol. 1, op. cit., p. 406.
14 Emmerich/Brentano, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, op. cit., p. 174.
15 Ibid., pp. 176-179.
16 Ibid., pp. 224-225.
17 Ibid., p. 261.
18 Ibid., p. 271.
19 Ibid., p. 274.
20 Ibid., p. 283
21 Wegener, op. cit., p. 155.
22 As quoted in Herbert Thurston, S.J., Surprising Mystics, Burns & Oates, 1955, pp. 90-91.
23 See Schmoger, Vol. II, op. cit., Chapter 7, for almost 200 pages of Sister Emmerich’s descriptions of relics and the lives of the saints they represented.
24 Ibid., p. 563.
25 Samuel Sinner, Anne Catherine Emmerich’s Beatification Case Moves Forward, The Wanderer, April 12, 2001.
26 German Mystic Anna Katharina Emmerich to Be Raised to the Altar, Zenit News, July 29, 2003, Code: ZEO3072907.