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How a Saint Responds to Tragedy: St. Emma of Gurk

All of us must traverse this valley of tears which is this earthly life. And that includes the saints. To be a saint, we are called to be holy in whatever situation to which God has called us. He is our Heavenly Father who knows what is best for us. And, He will never give us more than we can bear.

We will all experience suffering, but what marks the lives of the saints is how they dealt with suffering. For the saints, although it might not have been easy at all, they used suffering to allow the Lord to draw them into a deeper relationship with Him. They trusted in God more, not less. And through that devotion to the Lord, they were able to continue on, not merely by gritting their teeth and bearing it, but actually making the best of the suffering and allowing it to change them to be more like Christ. Through suffering they were transformed, and they grew in their love for God and their neighbors.

A Noble Woman

St. Emma (or Hemma) of Gurk was born around the year 980 into the noble family named Peilenstein in modern day Pilštanj, Slovenia. She was born the Countess of Zeltschach and was related to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II. Emma became an orphan at an early age. She was then sent to live at the imperial court in Bamberg, Germany. There, she was raised by empress St. Cunigunde, and Emma was trained to be a lady-in-waiting.

A Happy Marriage and Motherhood

Around the year 1010, a marriage was arranged for Emma, and she was married to Bl. William of Sann who was Count of Friesach and of the Sanngau. William, had also been raised in a noble family which, like the imperial court, emphasized living as a Christian and displaying proper courtly manners. Emma and William were a good match, and they had a happy marriage as they strove to live out their faith as husband and wife. They had two boys named Hartwig and William.
The count and countess were in charge of vast lands which were located in the Gurk and Sann valleys which are in modern day Austria. Emma proved to be very capable in helping the count to manage these lands with her prudent judgment and good advice. Emma also insisted, with the agreement of William, to insure that help was given to the poor and that those for whom they were responsible had opportunities to receive religious and moral education. Under her direction, additional churches were built to provide more places of worship and to provide instruction in the faith.

Tragedy Strikes Three Times

In the year 1036, tragedy struck Emma when her husband died. There are conflicting historical accounts as to the reason. One account has that he died returning from a pilgrimage. The more commonly held account is that he was murdered by Duke Adalbero in an act of revenge over some political dispute. Of course, the stories could be one and the same in that the count was murdered by the duke while returning from a pilgrimage. The result was that after twenty years of marriage, Emma was a widow.
Her two boys had grown up and taken over much of the responsibility for the family's estates. In raising William and Hartwig, Emma had passed on her devotion and faith and taught them to be chivalrous young men. As part of their responsibilities, they managed the family's silver mines. It was there that both of them were also murdered soon after their father's death. Apparently, some of the workers rose up against them and killed them over a workers' dispute.

Emma Responds

Suddenly, Emma found herself a childless widow. Another person might have become bitter and angry toward God and men because they had taken away her happy marriage and the joys of her motherhood. Another response might have been to get revenge or seek justice for the injustice which had been done to her. Or another person might have become so sorrowful that, she would be unable to continue on with her life because the grief was too overwhelming.
Instead, Emma placed her trust in God and allowed God to grow her heart through her sorrow. Although Emma did retreat from court life, she did so in order to first grieve the loss of her husband and sons, then to devote herself more to prayer in order to discern what God would have her do next.
Through her discernment, Emma, began to see God's path for her. Instead of becoming immobilized or remaining secluded, she increased her charity toward others. With the wealth that she inherited, she continued to build churches. All told, she would build ten churches and a Benedictine convent and monastery. And, Emma would also continue to provide for the poor.
After the convent was complete, she retired there to spend her fortune by continuing her charitable work and, perhaps, as it is not clear from the historical record, she might have become a Benedictine nun. She died in 1045.

Devotion to St. Emma

During her lifetime, she was considered a saint, and immediately after her death, devotion to her grew. Emma has particularly been sought as an intercessor by pregnant women in order to ask for her prayers that all will go well with the birth of their children. Eventually, in 1174, her remains were transferred to the cathedral of Gurk and she was named the patron saint of the Diocese of Gurk.

Then, as early as 1607, a pilgrimage to St. Emma's tomb began to be made. The route would begin in Slovenia and go over a mountain pass to conclude at the Gurk Cathedral on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. This pilgrimage took place for hundreds of years until the wars of the twentieth century interrupted the annual event. However, in recent years the pilgrimage has seen a revival and every year larger groups of pilgrims are coming to St. Emma's tomb to ask for her prayers.

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