Stigmata

Maggie Hope

 

Keywords: Mysticism, Crucifixion, Wounds of Christ, The Passion, Christianity, Miracle, Divine Gift, Supernatural, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

 

I. Abstract

The phenomenon of stigmata is the miraculous appearance of wounds, like those of the crucified Jesus Christ, without any natural explanation. Those who have and continue to receive the stigmata have been examined by many different doctors, psychiatrists, and Roman Catholic Church officials.  These individuals have not been able to find an explanation for the origin of the wounds other than the Catholic Church’s explanation that they are a gift from God. Those who receive the stigmata are typically devout Christians who have devoted their lives to Christ. The stigmata are manifested in many different ways depending on the individual receiving them; there is no “correct” way to receive the stigmata. Despite much study of stigmata, many questions and skeptics remain.

 

II. Scope and Purpose of the System:

Michael Freze defines Stigmata as “the imprint of our Lord’s wounds upon the bodies of His most chosen souls, who become transformed into living crucifixes by sharing in His Passion for the redemption of the world.”[1] True stigmata are inexplicable by the laws of nature and are seen as a miracle from God. The stigmata correspond to the wounds of Jesus Christ in the Christian tradition when he was crucified on the cross for the sins of the world. Those who receive his wounds today are viewed as models for the rest of the Christian community. The Church views stigmatists as “extraordinary souls, holy and pure, who by imitating Christ so intensely have been invited to become one with him. They are his beloved.”[2] Stigmata prove God’s presence within the world and remind all Christians that God continues to perform miracles even now. They are not reserved for any special age group or denomination, which can be seen in the profiles of the most recent stigmatists.

For instance, two years before he died, St. Francis of Assisi received wounds which did not bleed, but rather were impressions of nails.[3] However, St. Catherine of Siena received her first pains of Christ at 26, followed by the wounds of Christ at 28. For eight years she did not eat or drink anything except the Sacrament, and when she died at the age of 33, her body did not compose normally. Years later, one could still see the marks of stigmata on her.[4] George H., another stigmatist, received the marks at a time in his life when he was not very devout, but he was studying St. Francis of Assisi at the time.[5] These all show different manifestations of stigmata, although the first examples are more common than the last.

                             

III. Authority Structure:

A. Sources and Criteria of Valid Knowledge

                  Much of the background for stigmata comes from the Bible. The story of Christ’s crucifixion, which is the basis for belief about miraculous stigmata, comes from the Bible. The full stigmata of Jesus Christ include the agony of sweating blood at Gethsemane (Luke 22:39-45) the scourging, crowning of thorns, beating, shoulder wounds from carrying the cross, and the Five wounds of the crucifixion, including the nails in his wrists and feet and his side pierced with a spear (John 19:1-36). This sentence is a bit confusing – maybe b/c I am not familiar with this info! Many other passages in the Bible discuss the attribute of suffering as an important redemptive factor in Christianity.[6] The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus as saying “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38), and “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). In addition, in 2 Corinthians 4:7-12, Paul writes,

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.

Although this passage can be interpreted many different ways and does not directly point to the phenomena of stigmata, many believers cite it as proof of the existence of stigmata.

Job 18 also describes how God tests those He loves in order to prove their faith in Him, as he does with the Stigmatists through their extreme pain and temptations from the devil. One of the additional supernatural gifts of the stigmatics is that of imperishability, which Paul mentions in his first letter to the Corinthians, “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable” (I Corinthians 15:42).

Separate from Biblical Authority, there are also legends about stigmata, including one which states that there are always twelve stigmatics living, representing the twelve disciples. When one of these stigmatists dies, the divine gift is passed on to another. This is not necessarily true, because there have been times when the Church has declared more than twelve stigmatists to be alive at one time. This shows how legends sometimes overshadow truth, especially when dealing with a phenomenon people do not understand.

 

B. Methods of Inquiry

Stigmata are difficult to explain because no natural explanations have been found for this phenomenon. Everyone who knows about it interprets and believes in it according to their individual views about God. It is a phenomenon which is hard to believe unless it is seen with one’s own eyes. Michael Freze defines it as a “supernatural state that is experiential in nature and not based upon reason or intellect.”[7] Because belief in it requires faith in Jesus Christ, stigmata typically offers more proof for true believers than for those questioning their faith.[8] Because stigmata are so extreme, they require more faith than merely believing in the existence of God.

            In the medieval ages, the focus was not on the origin on the wounds but on the fact that they appeared at all. In the present, self-inflicted wounds are viewed as fraudulent and great emphasis is placed on determining the basis of the wounds.[9] It is typically easy for medics to determine when the wounds are self-inflicted because these wounds typically “show signs of reddening, inflammation, infection or signs of healing over a prolonged period.”[10] True stigmatics, on the other hand, sometimes bleed with no lesions or indentations, and no reason can be found for their bleeding. These wounds are definitely not self-inflicted.[11] In addition, some blisters and reddening of the skin can be caused by a biological or mental imbalance,[12] or by unconscious, emotional stress, such as blushing and eczema.[13] Psychiatrists have also found that minds under hypnosis can make marks show up on their bodies,[14] and it has often been found that people sometimes interpret what they see according to what they want to see.[15] Those who claim to experience stigmata may actually be in a drug-induced state or a dream, and what they see may be an optical illusion.[16] In addition, those with false stigmata do not have additional supernatural gifts which accompany their stigmata.  These individuals are more likely to want to “show off” their wounds to others, and they are not usually in much pain from the wounds.[17] However, even if stigmata can be defined in terms of known natural laws, that does not mean they do not have a divine origin. To Christians, God created the natural laws, and therefore stigmata.[18]

                       

C. Institutions and Professional Structure

Each possible case of stigmata must be fully investigated to determine that the wounds are not false. However, it is now generally accepted that “the wounds have appeared in many people without any deliberate conscious physical intervention.”[19] The Roman Catholic Church is very cautious in crediting a case as stigmata, but it does accept stigmata in general[20]. The Church does not want to lose its credibility by hastily crediting a false stigmatic. The Church necessitates medical and psychiatric evaluations for all stigmata candidates.[21] In 1977, the Natural of Catholic Bishops reported that,

While some private manifestations can occur, claims of these are to be approached with caution. Alleged heavenly messages or miraculous events must be investigated and approved by the local bishop before being given any credence.[22]

When investigating stigmatic cases, every source of knowledge possible is used in examination. For example, Therese Neumann was examined by medical doctors, theologians, psychiatrists, and authorities from Rome.[23] In addition, she was photographed and videotaped during her Passion ecstasies.[24] Psychiatric evaluations of stigmatists have found that they are “well-balanced mentally and emotionally and sound in character.”[25] However, the Church can only fully investigate stigmatic cases after death,[26] because it is at this time that authorities can do a full examination of the body with no hindrances.[27] However, even when the wounds are genuine they may not be supernatural. It is possible that modern science may not have an explanation yet.[28]

 

IV. History

            The earliest reference to a human being other than Jesus Christ receiving the stigmata comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians 2:19-20,[29] “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me,” and Galatians 6:17 “From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.” However, there is no way of knowing if Paul’s words are simply meant symbolically because the first documented example of stigmata did not come until 1224 with Saint Francis of Assisi in Italy.

            Researchers have found that there is more interest in miracles during hard times,[30] for they are seen as signs of reassurance. During the times when doubt was overwhelming, miracles such as the stigmata were strong proof of God’s existence,[31] as C.S. Lewis described;

How likely is it that you or I will be present when a peace-treaty is signed, when a great scientific discovery is made, when a dictator commits suicide? That we should see a miracle is even less likely. Nor, if we understand, shall we be anxious to do so. ‘Nothing almost sees miracles but misery.’ Miracles and martyrdoms tend to bunch about the same areas of history – areas we have naturally no wish to frequent.[32]

In addition to this economic hardship, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there was also a religious revival present in Europe[33] with a new focus on the sufferings of Christ.[34]The art of the time became much more graphic and detailed in its displays of the

Crucifixion. It moved away from symbolism towards a much more realistic display of the pain Jesus felt while on the cross.[35]

At this time, many people were also frustrated with the corruptions of the Catholic Church because at the time the only access to God for Catholics was through mass or a priest. Since women could not be priests, their only direct access to Christ was to share in His wounds and suffer with Him.[36] As a result of this, many women inflicted themselves with the wounds in order to become closer to Christ as well.[37] Women learned to use personal devotion in the same manner that men used the priesthood.[38] Therefore, the majority of the first cases of stigmata were found in women, with a ratio of seven to one women to men,[39] especially those who were members of religious orders. St. Francis of Assisi, the first documented stigmatist, fits this description because he was not a priest, even though he was male.[40]

In the first centuries that stigmata was present, there were no known cases outside of Europe, and it only became present in America with the Roman Catholic immigrants. One major reason for this was that “while the Eastern Church emphasized the transfiguration and the fact that God was the light of the world, the Western Church emphasized the crucifixion, bleeding hearts, gibbets, and the dark night of the soul.”[41] At the present time, cases of stigmata continue to be more prevalent in Europe, and most cases occur at times and places where they can be absorbed in the culture,[42] and often in communities overwhelmed with piety. Many of those with the stigmata continue to be Roman Catholics, however among the stigmatists alive today, there is one Baptist, one Anglican, and one member of a small Celtic Church.[43] The stigmata have been documented in people of all different ages and races, although few have received it after forty years of age.[44] Most die at the age of 33, which is the age at which the Bible says that Christ died.

 

V. Representative Examples of Argumentation

            Doctors continue to do tests on those who claim to have the stigmata. Although they still see patients whose wounds tend to have no natural explanation, they have termed Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) as “the modern stigmata.”[45] Patients with CTS often feel the same pain as those with a nail through the thick median nerve of the

wrist.  Some of these symptoms include “incapacitating pain, numbness, and weakness in the hands, arms, shoulders, and neck.”[46] However, CTS is not a common explanation for those who claim to have the stigmata because they do not have the visual signs most stigmatics receive, including nail wounds, bleeding, and the wounds from a crown of thorns.

            In terms of validating stigmata as truly from divine origin, Freze comments that stigmatists are “examples of holiness, faithfulness, and the Gospel principles that we must try to live by…a realization of God’s enduring love among his faithful ones.”[47] Freze has done extensive research and believes that stigmatists are truly “God’s chosen souls.”[48] His explanations about stigmata attempt to leave no doubt that stigmata are a true miracle from God, stating that “in the Christian soul which knows Christ and loves Him, suffering is a fuel for love; it serves marvelously to increase it.”[49] It is hard to doubt the existence of stigmata with all the many modern day technological “proofs,” but because stigmata are such extraordinary phenomena, they are also hard to believe without witnessing firsthand.

 

IV. Suggested Position in Comparative Scales

  1. tradition(1) ---- experience(10): 7

Although the basis of stigmata comes from tradition, most of the truth about it

comes from actual experience. The reality of stigmata comes from the testimony of individual experience, as it is only manifested through experience. This experience is validated through authority, but the main emphasis is on individual experience.

  1. centralized authority(1) ---- decentralized authority(10): 8

Once again, stigmata emphasize more of the decentralized authority, because of the importance of individual inquiry. Stigmata come from the individual and therefore depend on the individual.

  1.  emphasis on the individual realm (1) ---- visible realities (10): 3

In stigmata, there is an emphasis on heavenly realities as well as earthly ones. The stigmata come from divine origin, but the stigmatist also has supernatural abilities. He is able to perform miracles such as healing the sick and raising people from the dead. While the human is able to do this, his powers come from God, so the credit is all given to God and the emphasis is on this heavenly realm.

  1. spiritual/moral goal (1) ---- pragmatic objectives (10): 5

The purpose of stigmata is twofold. It serves to remind people of God’s presence on the earth as well as His continued ability to perform miracles. In addition, it has pragmatic objectives in that those with the stigmata often have powers to help other people through means such as predictions and healings.

  1. primarily divine power (1) ---- individual power (10): 2

The focus in stigmata is on the divine power. The stigmatist receives the wounds as a gift from God and all of his or her other supernatural powers come directly from God. The purpose of stigmata is to glorify God. However, there is some focus on the individual because many people tend to look to the individuals with the stigmata, and many of them become saints, thereby emphasizing the individual.

 

 

Annotated Bibliography

Primary Sources:

 

Freze, Michael. They Bore the Wounds of Christ: The Mystery of the Sacred Stigmata. Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1989.

            This entire book was focused on stigmata, although it did include many other types of miracles and supernatural gifts. In addition, this book gave a lot of detail, including a separate section describing individual cases of stigmata. The author also included pictures in the book, which were very interesting and helpful for me to form a better picture in my mind of what stigmata actually looks like. Although the author does detailed research for this book, he is a devout Christian who believes strongly in stigmata and allows that belief to come through in his work, sometimes creating an unfair bias.

 

Harrison, Ted. Stigmata: A Medieval Mystery in a Modern Age. Penguin USA, 1996.

            This book’s content was entirely devoted to stigmata. It included detailed information about stigmata as well as many individual cases. It described possible alternatives to the mystical phenomenon yet usually returned to divine origin as the most likely possibility.

 

 

Secondary Sources:

 

Christian, William. Moving Crucifixes in Modern Spain. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992

            This book’s focus was more on other miracles, such as moving crucifixes, rather than stigmata, and therefore did not have a large section of information about stigmata. In researching other modern miracles, I think that this book would be very helpful.

 

Grayston, Kenneth. Dying, We Live. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

            This is another book whose focus is not on stigmata. However, it does give good background for stigmata with Paul’s words in the Bible about his reception of the stigmata.

 

Vertosick, Frank T. Why We Hurt: The Natural History of Pain. New York: Harcourt Paperbacks, 2000.

            This book offered an alternative view of stigmata which did not include divine origin. It was not very helpful because it only had one short section about stigmata, and

within that section only a small portion was devoted to stigmata as receiving the wounds of Christ. It did give a detailed description of CTS and how its symptoms are very similar

to those of stigmata.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Freze, Michael. They Bore the Wounds of Christ: The Mystery of the Sacred Stigmata. Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1989, 11.

[2] Freze, p 12.

[3] Harrison, Ted. Stigmata: A Medieval Mystery in a Modern Age. Penguin USA, 1996, 27.

[4] Harrison, p 31.

[5] Harrison, p 75.

[6] Freze, p 208.

[7] Freze, p 90.

[8] Christian, William. Moving Crucifixes in Modern Spain. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, 91.

[9]  Harrison, p 28.

[10] Harrison, p 105.

[11] Harrison, p 88.

[12] Freze, p 217.

[13] Harrison, p 11-12.

[14] Harrison, p 12.

[15] Harrison, p 134.

[16] Harrison, p 134.

[17] Freze, p 217.

[18] Harrison, p 152.

[19] Harrison, p 11.

[20] Harrison, p 4.

[21] Freze, p 13.

[22] Freze, p 13.

[23] Freze, p 171.

[24] Freze, p 170.

[25] Freze, p 218.

[26] Harrison, p 100.

[27] Harrison, p 100.

[28] Harrison, p 131.

[29] Grayston, Kenneth. Dying, We Live. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, 85.

[30] Harrison, p 135.

[31] Christian, p 85.

[32] Harrison, p 143-144.

[33] Harrison, p 118.

[34] Harrison, p 24.

[35] Harrison, p 116.

[36] Harrison, p 116.

[37] Harrison, p 122.

[38] Harrison, p 125.

[39] Harrison, p 30.

[40] Harrison, p 125.

[41] Harrison, p 127.

[42] Harrison, p 9.

[43] Harrison, p viii.

[44] Freze, p 199.

[45] Vertosick, Frank T. Why We Hurt: The Natural History of Pain. New York: Harcourt Paperbacks, 2000, 155.

[46] Vertosick, p 157.

[47] Freze, p 12.

[48] Freze, p 189.

[49] Freze, p 125.