A pile of hope

by Tine Van Osselaer

The tomb of Anna Katharina Emmerick

I do not need to read the messages to know that what I am looking at is a pile of hope, despair, loss, but above all … trust. The small pieces of paper on the tomb of Anna Katharina Emmerick are the material testimony of faith in the intercessory power of the blessed stigmatic. The practice is gripping in its simplicity. Whoever feels overpowered can regain a little control over the situation by calling upon the beloved stigmatic and ask for her support. Writing down one’s sorrows and hopes and leaving the paper on Emmerick’s sober gravestone in Dülmen alleviates the burden, if just a little. Writing can be an act of faith.[1]

Such writing always gets to me. I have encountered it before whilst studying the ways in which the faithful invested their trust in (living) saints. The practice is well-documented for the German stigmatic Therese Neumann. Whilst she was still alive, the faithful left small notes behind the crucifix of the local church in Konnersreuth. Therese Neumann answered the messages by praying for the conversion or the healing that the letter-writer hoped for.[2] Hope also speaks from the hundreds of letters Neumann and other stigmatics received via the ‘normal’ post services or intermediaries, asking them for their prayers, their help in saving loved ones. Hope was the foundation of the miracle stories included in the Konnersreuth periodicals and other publications; and hope was the material of which ex-votos were made.[3]

The messages, in whatever form they reached the stigmatics, testify of the bonds between people. The faithful wrote as parents, partners, friends and by doing so expressed their love for those close to them, those they wished to help, those who did not (or no longer) have the strength to write themselves. Writing was and is a way to care for the people you love.

I really like textual sources, as most historians do. Still, even though the notes on Emmerick’s grave are indeed texts, what fascinates me here is not so much what the faithful write, but the fact that they are writing. For them, leaving the letters on the grave is not the start of a correspondence, … but it is the start of a communication, a call for help.

In the case of Emmerick, leaving behind a note on the tomb actually seems to be a recent invention, probably linked to the translation of Emmerick’s body inside the church. When her remains were still in the graveyard, the faithful prayed beside the grave, but rather than leaving a message behind, they took something with them from the grave (like sand or leaves), so they would have something to hold on to at home.[4] Practices such as these have been well-studied from the perspective of the miracle story, the development of a pilgrimage site or the faithful’s relationship with divine beings, but not really from an emotional point of view. Yet I think the small pieces of paper – and not just the text they contain – are in themselves small emotional objects, brimming with feeling. Writing, folding and leaving them on the grave fills them with meaning.

I admit, I had almost forgotten about Emmerick’s grave. Yet somehow, the current epidemic and the concomitant increase of lightening candles in honor of a saint (preferably St. Rita and St. Rochus, at least here in Belgium[5]) reminded me of that pile of paper in Dülmen, and of the faith, hope and love people invest in these small notes.


[1] On emotions as a kind of practice, see Monique Scheer’s seminal article ‘Are emotions a kind of practice (and is that what makes them have a history)? A Bourdieuian approach to understanding emotion’, History and Theory 51 (2012) 193-220.

[2] “Most of the visitors, especially the women, also visit the parish church, venture behind the high altar and behind a crucifix that is hanging on the wall there placed open and sealed letters, and notes on which everything imaginable is written.” Staatsarchiv Amberg, 4169 Bezirksamt Tirschenreuth, Schreiben der Gendarmeriestation Konnersreuth an das Bezirksamt Tirschenreuth, 57: 16/9/1927, cited in Van Osselaer, Graus, Rossi and Smeyers, The promotion and devotion of stigmatics in Europe. Between saints and celebrities, 2020, p.67, footnote 78.

[3] For such devotional letter writing, see Robert Orsi’s wonderful study of the letters concerning the cult of Saint Jude (Orsi, Robert A. Thank You, St. Jude Women’s Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[4] Van Osselaer, Graus, Rossi and Smeyers, 2020, p.150.

[5] https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/nl/2020/10/26/hoop-in-bange-dagen-verkoop-van-noveenkaarsen-boomt-in-begijnho/

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