Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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February 2, 2003
Presentation of Our Lord

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

«In whatever form, suffering seems to be, and is, almost inseparable from man's earthly existence... Human suffering evokes compassion; it also evokes respect, and in its own way it intimidates. For in suffering is contained the greatness of a specific mystery... Down through the centuries and generations it has been seen that in suffering there is concealed a particular power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ, a special grace. To this grace many saints, such as Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Ignatius of Loyola and others, owe their profound conversion. A result of such a conversion is not only that the individual discovers the salvific meaning of suffering but above all that he becomes a completely new person» (Apostolic Letter Salvifici doloris, SD, John Paul II, February 11, 1984 nos. 3, 4, 26). The life of Blessed Anna Schäffer singularly illustrates this observation by the Holy Father.

Anna Schäffer was born in Mindelstetten, a village in Lower Bavaria in the diocese of Regensburg, in southern Germany, on February 18, 1882, into a large family, the father of which worked as a joiner. The Schäffers were good Christians. Faithful to their morning, midday, and evening prayers, they went to church every Sunday and feast day, but also during the week when possible. Anna was a quiet, gentle, and shy child, a gifted student and skillful at manual work. In 1896, her father died at the age of forty, leaving the family in terrible poverty. Anna, who wished to become a nun, and in a missionary congregation if possible, had to work so as to build up her dowry (a financial contribution one had to make at that time in order to enter a convent.) When she was fourteen, she started working as a «gofer,» first in Regensburg at a pharmacy, then in Landshut in the office of a councilor to the magistrates' court. There, one night in June 1898, she received a message from Heaven for the first time—a Saint appeared to her (she did not know his name) and told her, «Before you turn twenty, you will begin to suffer a great deal. Say the Rosary.» She would later speak of dangers to her virginal purity that she was able to overcome during these years, thanks to the Holy Rosary.

The evening of February 4, 1901, the young woman, working at the forester house in Stammham, was doing the laundry with a female companion, Wally Kreuzer. The stove pipe that went above the boiler became detached from the wall. To repair it, Anna climbed on a low wall jutting out. Suddenly, she lost her balance and fell up to her knees in the boiling laundry water. Panic-stricken, Wally, instead of helping her companion, went running for help. A coachman ran up and pulled the injured girl from the boiler. She was taken in a cart to the nearest hospital, seven kilometers away. At eleven o'clock that night, she was finally seen to by a doctor who operated on her for two hours. The weeks that followed were terrible—it was necessary to constantly cut away pieces of gangrenous flesh.

More than thirty operations

Three months later, the medical insurance Anna was under stopped paying coverage. Mrs. Schäffer could not take on responsibility for hospitalization, and so had to bring her poor child back home. Upon Doctor Wäldin's entreaties, an institution for invalids took care of the sick girl. Anna would be hospitalized at the clinic at the University of Erlangen (close to Nuremberg) from August 1901 till May 1902. Yet the treatments did not have any effect. Upon her return home, Anna was competently cared for by Dr. Wäldin. This doctor tried in vain to perform skin grafts through over thirty operations. Since he was unable to bring the sick girl relief, he finally resigned himself to wrapping her legs in sterile bandages. For the remaining twenty years of Anna's life, care would be limited to the weekly changing of these dressings.

Anna Schäffer's plan to enter religious life was unfeasible from that point on. The young woman did not resign herself to her fate without difficulty—she complained of her suffering and clinged to the hope of being cured. Nevertheless, her soul matured in the difficult school of the Cross. The parish priest in Mindelstetten, Father Rieger, who would be her spiritual father, was to testify that he had never heard a word of complaint fall from her lips. In her constant suffering, Anna was strengthened and consoled by the living God and especially by the Holy Eucharist.

«[P]eople react to suffering in different ways,» wrote Pope John Paul II. «But in general it can be said that almost always the individual enters suffering with a typically human protest and with the question 'why?' He asks the meaning of his suffering and seeks an answer to this question on the human level. Certainly he often puts this question to God, and to Christ. Furthermore, he cannot help noticing that the One to whom he puts the question is Himself suffering and wishes to answer him from the Cross, from the heart of His own suffering. Nevertheless, it often takes time, even a long time, for this answer to begin to be interiorly perceived... Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else He says: 'Follow me! Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through My suffering! Through my Cross.' Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him» (SD, no. 26).

From 1910 to 1925, Anna Schäffer wrote her thoughts in twelve notebooks. One hundred eighty-three of her letters or notes are also intact. Her language is quite simple, yet the originality and personal character of her writings strike the reader, who discovers in them a soul firmly established in faith in Jesus Christ dead and resurrected, and in the living Communion with all God's elect. This unfailing confidence in God, this certainty in His infinite love manifesting itself to her through her sufferings, shone on those who approached her to entrust to her their intentions or to ask her for encouragement or advice. These visitors, at first just a handful, slowly grew in number. Those who were the most prejudiced against Anna did not fail to be impressed by her patience and her kindness.

Anna's «revenge»

Her brother Michael, a poor soul who took to drink, was not the last when he drank to mock «the Saint.» Anna took her «revenge» by making a point of converting him with gentleness. Nevertheless, Michael's behavior forced Mrs. Schäffer to rent a little apartment in the village to move into with her daughter. Anna wrote to this admirable mother who assisted her daughter until her death and whom she would outlive four years, «Oh my dear mother, what a grace it is to have you constantly by my side! Our dear Lord sends His children help in the hour of need, when we ask it of Him in confidence, and it is often when a trial or affliction most overwhelms us that He is closest to us with His help and His blessing.»

Accessible by an extremely steep staircase, the only decorations in the sick woman's room were a crucifix, an «Ecce Homo,» and pictures of saints. Anna hardly left her room and her bed (which she also called her bed-cross.) On rare occasions, she was brought to church in an armchair. As soon as Pope Saint Pius X permitted daily communion, Father Rieger brought her the Eucharist every day, from which she drew her strength.

Anna did not care much for being famous. Her days passed in prayer, manual labor and writing. «I have three keys to heaven,» she said. «The biggest is made out of pig iron and is heavy—it is my suffering. The second is the sewing needle, and the third is the penholder. With these different keys, I strive each day to open the door to Heaven. Each of them must be decorated with three little crosses, which are prayer, sacrifice, and selflessness.» Often, the children in the village came to visit Anna. They were attracted to her. The sick woman spoke to them about the Savior, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints. She explained to them how people go to Heaven. The whole town of Mindelstetten was by and large sympathetic towards her. People loved her and pitied her, and sought to please her. On feast days, a delegation from the village came to visit her; sometimes the whole village band offered her a serenade while passing under her window.

It was charity towards her neighbor who was also suffering that brought Anna out of her usual silence. As soon as she saw a person experiencing difficulty, she found a thousand cheery and friendly words to comfort him or her, and seemed herself to be the happiest of creatures. She treasured all the prayer intentions that were entrusted to her, and presented them tirelessly to God. All of Anna's writings give evidence of a profound submission to Divine Providence and a joyous acceptance of crosses. Quite often, her letters bear a little pen and ink illumination in two or three colors, representing the Cross, a chalice surrounded with thorns, or some other scene from the Passion. «Dear Fanny,» she wrote to a friend on December 14, 1918, «we must consider our sufferings to be our dearest friends who wish to accompany us constantly, day and night, to remind us to look on high, to the Holy Cross of Christ.»

Job is not guilty

In every age, men and women have searched for the meaning of suffering. «In the Book of Job the question has found its most vivid expression,» Pope John Paul II remarks. «The story of this just man, who without any fault of his own is tried by innumerable sufferings, is well known... In this horrible situation three old acquaintances come to his house, and each one in his own way tries to convince him that since he has been struck down by such varied and terrible sufferings, he must have done something seriously wrong... Job however challenges the truth of the principle that identifies suffering with punishment for sin... In the end, God Himself reproves Job's friends for their accusations and recognizes that Job is not guilty. His suffering is the suffering of someone who is innocent and it must be accepted as a mystery, which the individual is unable to penetrate completely by his own intelligence... While it is true that suffering has a meaning as punishment, when it is connected with a fault, it is not true that all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of a punishment...

«But in order to perceive the true answer to the 'why' of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love... For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life (Jn. 3:16). Man 'perishes' when he loses 'eternal life'... The only-begotten Son was given to humanity primarily to protect man against this definitive evil and against definitive suffering...

«Christ suffers voluntarily and suffers innocently... Human suffering has reached its culmination in the Passion of Christ. And at the same time it has entered into a completely new dimension and a new order: it has been linked to love, ... to that love which creates good, drawing it out by means of suffering, just as the supreme good of the Redemption of the world was drawn from the Cross of Christ...In [the Cross of Christ] we must also pose anew the question about the meaning of suffering, and read in it, to its very depths, the answer to this question» (SD, nos. 10, 11, 13, 14, 18).

How quickly the time goes by!

Anna had been a member of the Third Order of St. Francis for a long time. Beginning on October 4, 1910, the feast of St. Francis, she bore the stigmata of the Passion for a time, but she begged God to make these mystical wounds inapparent, which was granted her. It does not seem that she read Holy Scripture a great deal, but as a daughter of the Catholic Church, she laid claim to its doctrine and liturgy, which she went over in the course of the year with the help of her childhood memories. «To pray for the holy Church and her pastors is the most important thing for me,» she affirmed. She understood her life as an invalid as a participation in the Cross of Christ. «In the hours of suffering and in the many sleepless nights, I have the wonderful opportunity to place myself in spirit before the tabernacle and to offer expiation and reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Oh, how quickly the time goes by for me then! Sacred Heart of Jesus, hidden in the Blessed Sacrament, I thank You for my cross and my sufferings, in union with the thanksgivings of Mary, the Mother of Sorrows.»

«The Redeemer suffered in place of man and for man... Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished... In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ... Whoever suffers in union with Christ completes what is lacking in Christ's afflictions (Col. 1:24)... The sufferings of Christ created the good of the world's Redemption. This good in itself is inexhaustible and infinite. No man can add anything to it. But at the same time, in the mystery of the Church as His Body, Christ has in a sense opened His own redemptive suffering to all human suffering... This Redemption lives and develops as the Body of Christ, the Church, and in this dimension every human suffering, by reason of the loving union with Christ, completes the suffering of Christ. It completes that suffering just as the Church completes the redemptive work of Christ» (SD, nos. 19, 24).

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the Saints spoke frequently to Anna in her dreams at night, and these messages from Heaven were for her a refreshment and a foretaste of Paradise. But these consolations never gave her a superhuman impassiveness. Until the very end, she accepted with gratitude the limited relief that medicine brought her. Over the course of the twenty-five years of her «martyrdom,» she improved in the interior acceptance of her trials. She gradually discovered the secret of interior peace, which she thus expressed in her quite simple language: «Oh! What happiness and what love are hidden in the cross and suffering!... I do not spend fifteen minutes without suffering, and for some time I have not known what it is to be without pain... I often suffer so much that I can hardly say a word—when this happens, I think that my Father of the Heavens must particularly love me.» As in the words of Saint Paul: I am overflowing with joy all the more because of all our affliction (2 Cor. 7:4), she suffered with a mysterious, subtle joy.

A source of joy

«A source of joy is found in the overcoming of the sense of the uselessness of suffering... This feeling not only consumes the person interiorly, but seems to make him a burden to others. The person feels condemned to receive help and assistance from others, and at the same time seems useless to himself. The discovery of the salvific meaning of suffering in union with Christ transforms this depressing feeling... In the spiritual dimension of the work of Redemption the person who is suffering is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters. Therefore he is carrying out an irreplaceable service... Those who share in the sufferings of Christ preserve in their own sufferings a very special particle of the infinite treasure of the world's Redemption, and can share this treasure with others» (SD, no. 27).

Three and a half years before her death, Anna had to stop her sewing work, which provided her relaxation and an opportunity to be useful. In addition, it became absolutely impossible to carry her to the neighboring parish church to attend Mass, and this renunciation was very painful for her. She wrote, «My life is fading away little by little in suffering... Eternity is ever approaching. Soon, I will live from God, Who is Life itself. Heaven has no price, and I rejoice every minute in the Lord's call to the infinitely beautiful homeland» (March 16, 1922). On October 5, 1925, after having received Holy Communion and made the sign of the cross, murmuring, «Lord Jesus, I love You,» Anna Schäffer died peacefully, at the age of 43. Her body lies in the cemetery in Mindelstetten, awaiting the «resurrection of the flesh,» (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 988-1019). «Christ has overcome the world definitively by His Resurrection. Yet, because of the relationship between the Resurrection and His Passion and Death, He has at the same time overcome the world by His suffering. Yes, suffering has been singularly present in that victory over the world which was manifested in the Resurrection. Christ retains in His risen body the marks of the wounds of the Cross in His hands, feet and side. Through the Resurrection, He manifests the victorious power of suffering» (SD, no. 25).

As the Good Samaritan did

The power of suffering is also left to men and women so as to bring about the «civilization of love»: «The first and second parts of Christ's words about the Final Judgment (Mt. 25:34-45) unambiguously show how essential it is, for the eternal life of every individual, to 'stop,' as the Good Samaritan did, at the suffering of one's neighbor, to have 'compassion' for that suffering, and to give some help. In the messianic program of Christ, which is at the same time the program of the Kingdom of God, suffering is present in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards neighbor, in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a 'civilization of love.' In this love the salvific meaning of suffering is completely accomplished and reaches its definitive dimension» (SD, no. 30).

The Pope thus concludes his apostolic exhortation: «And we ask all you who suffer to support us. We ask precisely you who are weak to become a source of strength for the Church and humanity. In the terrible battle between the forces of good and evil, revealed to our eyes by our modern world, may your suffering in union with the Cross of Christ be victorious!» (SD, no. 31). Blessed Anna Schäffer was victorious thanks to Jesus' Cross. Even before the official judgment of the Church, a number of people in Bavaria, then throughout Europe, came to her grave to beseech her help. In 1998, 551 graces obtained through her intercession were registered with the parish in Mindelstetten. Since 1929, more than 15,000 graces attributed to her prayer have been reported.

During her beatification on March 8, 1999, the Pope said, «If we look to Blessed Anna Schäffer, we read in her life a living commentary on what Saint Paul wrote to the Romans: Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Rom. 5:5). She most certainly was not spared the struggle to abandon herself to the will of God. But she was given to grow in the correct understanding that weakness and suffering are the pages on which God writes His Gospel... Her sickbed became the cradle of an apostolate that extended to the whole world.»

Be it in her letters or in her handiwork, Blessed Anna Schäffer wished to represent the Heart of Jesus, symbol of Divine Love. We recommend to her all those who are suffering, that she might help them to unite themselves to the Heart of Christ as they await a glorious eternity.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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