|Mel Gibson's Passion: The
Nun, the Priest, and the Poet
by Ingrid Shafer
There appears to be a widespread assumption that Mel Gibson’s Passion tells the “truth” about the crucifixion. I find it fascinating that many components of this “truth” were generated in the combined imaginations of one woman and two men who lived two centuries ago and had suffered profound psychic injuries and rejections. Now, in the form of this film, their imaginative visions, augmented by Gibson’s, have yet another opportunity to affect new generations of people wherever the film is shown.
One of the main extra-scriptural sources for Mel Gibson’s film is The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ by the Romantic poet and writer of fairy tales, Clemens Maria Brentano. The book was inspired by the visions and meditations of Anna Katharina Emmerick (1774-1824) and first published anonymously in 1833. I am basing my discussion of Emmerick’s life and the her connection with Brentano and Abbé Lambert primarily on an online study by the German historian Peter Groth, Die stigmatisierte Nonne, Anna Katharina Emmerick 1774-1824. Eine Krankengeschichte im Zeitalter der Romantik - zwischen preußischer Staatsraison und "katholischer Erneuerung" (The Stigmatic Nun, Anna Katharina Emmerick 1774-1824. A Patient’s Story in the Romantic Era – Between Prussian State Rationality and “Catholic Renewal.”) .
In December 1811, by order of Napoleon, Agnetenberg, a small Augustinian convent in Dülmen, a town in the Münster diocese of central Germany was dissolved, and the nuns were ordered to leave the premises and find another way to support themselves. The convent had served a double function, as a school for girls and an "insane asylum." Among those 11 women was Anna Katharina Emmerick (Anne Catherine Emmerich), a chronically ill visionary. She was 37 years old, had been in the community for nine years, and was in such poor health that she was allowed to remain at the convent for several months after the official closing. During her years at Agnetenberg Emmerick often felt that the other nuns resented her zeal and earnest desire to live a holy life. Early in 1812, she, her sister Gertrud, and Abbé Lambert, the convent confessor, moved into an apartment above a pub and a bowling alley. The building belonged to Mrs. Roters, the local parish priest's widowed sister. The following year the threesome moved to another apartment in widow Menning's house. Lambert was a Franciscan priest who had been expelled from his native France in 1792 during the "de-Christianizing" purges of the French Revolution and lived the life of an itinerant mendicant until he was appointed vicar of Agnetenberg in 1802.
Abbé Lambert and Emmerick's reputedly mentally "slow" sister Gertrud took over care of Emmerick who by then was bedridden. Gertrud served as nurse and housekeeper; the priest was in charge of Emmerick's contacts with the outside world. Emmerick began to display the wounds of Christ and was believed to take no nourishment except for the Eucharist. As reports of Emmerick's piety and ecstatic visions spread, the tiny invalid attracted increasing numbers of pilgrims to her bedside, much as the young people of Medjugorje do today. In 1817 an official Episcopal commission that included medical experts examined her case and was unable to find evidence of fraud. According to the final report, she received many visitors, and imprints of her stigmata were widely distributed. In 1819 a second commission, this time established by civil authorities, had her moved to another house to be kept under constant surveillance for three weeks with no visitors except for her confessor. While she lost weight during that time, deception could again not be established.
In 1818 the Romantic poet Clemens Maria Brentano came to visit. Several years earlier, Brentano had joined a conservative patriotic Christian renewal group that rejected both liberal French Enlightenment ideas and Prussian attempts to impose secular political reforms. Members of the group tended to be unconcerned with class distinctions and denominational boundaries and were especially attracted to instances of mystic experiences they considered at the very foundation of spiritual life. After two unhappy marriages (the first ending with his wife's death and the second in divorce), Brentano had fallen passionately in love with a member at the fringes of the renewal movement, Louise Hensel, the pious daughter of a protestant pastor. However, at the insistence of her mother, Louise refused his proposal of marriage, and Brentano became profoundly depressed. Subsequently, he not only returned to his Catholic roots, but to a popular folk Catholicism that was otherworldly, miracle-seeking, and emotionally charged. He hoped to continue a relationship with Louise on a purely spiritual basis. One of Louise's acquaintances introduced him to Emmerick.
Brentano was affected so deeply by Emmerick that he spent most of the next five years, until Emmerick's death in 1824, in Dülmen, visiting her twice daily and taking detailed notes—some sixteen thousand pages—of her words and his observations as she experienced and described her ongoing visions. He also translated her regional dialect into standard, literary German. Nine years later he anonymously published Das bittere Leiden unseres Herrn Jesu Christi nach den Betrachtungen der gottsel. Anna Katharina Emmerick, Augustinerin des Klosters Agnetenberg bei Dülmen, nebst dem Lebensumriß dieser Begnadigten (The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the Meditations of the blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, Augustinian nun of the Convent Agnetenberg near Dülmen, along with a brief biography of the grace-filled one).
(This is a first draft. I expect to revise, and expand it.)
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Webpage Editor: Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
Posted 29 February 2004
Last revised 17 March 2004
Copyright © 2004 Ingrid H. Shafer