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Stigmata

By Richard Gunther

 

Many years ago, when television was still black and white, there was a program about someone who had developed wounds in his hands. I was a boy then, so the memory is vague, but I still recall seeing the man, dressed in religious clothes, showing the wounds in his hands. These wounds, we were told, were a sign from God that this man had drawn so close to God he was actually manifesting the same wounds in his hands that Christ had when He was on the cross. I remember finding the program very interesting but far from convincing. I must admit, since then, nothing has changed.

Just recently a friend asked me about "stigmata" and I had to admit I knew nothing more than what I had learned from that brief film, some twenty five years ago, so I did a little digging and came up with the following.

The Catholic Encyclopedia was my first port of call, since it seems to be a predominantly Catholic phenomenon. The encyclopedia informed us that: "Mystical Stigmata" is caused by supernatural power and that "history tells us that many ecstatics bear on hands, feet, side, or brow the marks of the Passion of Christ with corresponding and intense sufferings. These are called visible stigmata. Others only have the sufferings, without any outward marks, and these phenomena are called invisible stigmata."

SOME FACTS

The existence of visible stigmata is so well established historically that, as a general thing, they are no longer disputed by unbelievers. They have been filmed, measured and tested so many times we know they are not faked.

The Catholic Encyclopedia says that "St. Catherine of Siena at first had visible stigmata but through humility she asked that they might be made invisible, and her prayer was heard. This was also the case with St. Catherine de' Ricci, a Florentine Dominican of the sixteenth century, and with several other stigmatics. The sufferings may be considered the essential part of visible stigmata; the substance of this grace consists of pity for Christ, participation in His sufferings, sorrows, and for the same end - the expiation of the sins unceasingly committed in the world."

So, according to the Catholic viewpoint, a woman with stigmata is making "expiation" for her own sins? This hardly lines up with the Bible, which tells us that only Jesus can make expiation for our sins. (To "expiate" means to "pay the price")

The Encyclopedia also informs us that: "it seems historically certain that ecstatics alone bear the stigmata; moreover, they have visions which correspond to their role of co-sufferers, beholding from time to time the blood-stained scenes of the Passion."

An "ecstatic" is someone who is filled with ecstasy, or enraptured, or consumed with emotion.

With many stigmatics there are claims of visions and apparitions, such as in the case of St. Catherine de' Ricci, whose ecstasies of the Passion began when she was twenty (1542), and the church records state that for twelve years they recurred with minute regularity. One ecstasy lasted exactly twenty-eight hours, from Thursday noon till Friday afternoon at four o'clock, the only interruption being for the saint to receive Holy Communion. Catherine conversed aloud, as if enacting a drama. This drama was divided into about seventeen scenes. On coming out of the ecstasy the saint's limbs were covered with wounds produced by whips, cords etc.

According to one authority the number of stigmatics is as follows:

1.                 None are known prior to the thirteenth century. The first mentioned is St. Francis of Assisi, in whom the stigmata were of a character never seen subsequently; in the wounds of feet and hands were excrescences of flesh representing nails, those on one side having round back heads, those on the other having rather long points, which bent back and grasped the skin. The saint's humility could not prevent a great many of his brethren beholding with their own eyes the existence of these wonderful wounds during his lifetime as well as after his death. The fact is attested by a number of contemporary historians, and the feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis is kept on 17 September.

2.                 Dr. Imbert counts 321 stigmatics in whom there is every reason to believe in a Divine action. He believes that others would be found by consulting the libraries of Germany, Spain, and Italy. In this list there are 41 men.

3. There are 62 saints or blessed of both sexes of whom the best known (numbering twenty-six) were:

                     St. Francis of Assisi (1186-1226);

                     St. Lutgarde (1182-1246), a Cistercian;

                     St. Margaret of Cortona (1247-97);

                     St. Gertrude (1256-1302), a Benedictine;

                     St. Clare of Montefalco (1268-1308), an Augustinian;

                     Bl. Angela of Foligno (d. 1309), Franciscan tertiary;

                     St. Catherine of Siena (1347-80), Dominican tertiary;

                     St. Lidwine (1380-1433);

                     St. Frances of Rome (1384-1440);

                     St. Colette (1380-1447), Franciscan;

                     St. Rita of Cassia (1386-1456), Augustinian;

                     Bl. Osanna of Mantua (1499-1505), Dominican tertiary;

                     St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), Franciscan tertiary;

                     Bl. Baptista Varani (1458-1524), Poor Clare;

                     Bl. Lucy of Narni (1476-1547), Dominican tertiary;

                     Bl. Catherine of Racconigi (1486-1547), Dominican;

                     St. John of God (1495-1550), founder of the Order of Charity;

                     St. Catherine de' Ricci (1522-89), Dominican;

                     St. Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi (1566-1607), Carmelite;

                     Bl. Marie de l'Incarnation (1566-1618), Carmelite;

                     Bl. Mary Anne of Jesus (1557-1620), Franciscan tertiary;

                     Bl. Carlo of Sezze (d. 1670), Franciscan;

                     Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-90), Visitandine (who had only the crown of thorns);

                     St. Veronica Giuliani (1600-1727), Capuchiness;

                     St. Mary Frances of the Five Wounds (1715-91), Franciscan tertiary.

                      

4. There were 20 stigmatics in the nineteenth century. The most famous were:

                     Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), Augustinian;

                     Elizabeth Canori Mora (1774-1825), Trinitarian tertiary;

                     Anna Maria Tagi (1769-1837);

                     Maria Dominica Lazzari (1815-48);

                     Marie de Moerl (1812-68) and Louise Lateau (1850-83), Franciscan tertiaries.

 

Of these, Marie de Moerl spent her life at Kaltern, Tyrol (1812-68). At the age of twenty she became an ecstatic, and ecstasy was her habitual condition for the remaining thirty-five years of her life. She emerged from it only at the command, sometimes only mental, of the Franciscan who was her director, and to attend to the affairs of her house, which sheltered a large family. Her ordinary attitude was kneeling on her bed with hands crossed on her breast, and an expression of countenance which deeply impressed spectators. At twenty-two she received the stigmata. On Thursday evening and Friday these stigmata shed very clear blood, drop by drop, becoming dry on the other days. Thousands of persons saw Marie de Moerl, among them Grres (who describes his visit in his "Mystik", II, xx), Wiseman, and Lord Shrewsbury, who wrote a defence of the ecstatic in his letters published by "The Morning Herald" and "The Tablet". Louise Lateau spent her life in the village of Bois d'Haine, Belgium (1850-83). The graces she received were disputed even by some Catholics, who as a general thing relied on incomplete or erroneous information, as has been established by Canon At sixteen she devoted herself to nursing the cholera victims of her parish, who were abandoned by most of the inhabitants. Within a month she nursed ten, buried them, and in more than one instance bore them to the cemetery. At eighteen she became an ecstatic and stigmatic, which did not prevent her supporting her family by working as a seamstress. Numerous physicians witnessed her painful Friday ecstasies and established the fact that for twelve years she took no nourishment save weekly communion. For drink she was satisfied with three or four glasses of water a week. She never slept, but passed her nights in contemplation and prayer, kneeling at the foot of her bed.

SOME EXPLANATIONS

Some physiologists, both Catholics and others, have maintained that the wounds might be produced by the action of the imagination coupled with strong emotions - i.e. pscyho-somatic. This view rules out the supernatural.

Another view is that the patients produce the wounds either fraudulently or during attacks of somnambulism, (while they are asleep) unconsciously. But physicians have always taken measures to avoid these sources of error, proceeding with great strictness, particularly in modern times. Sometimes the patient has been watched night and day, sometimes the limbs have been enveloped in sealed bandages. In one case a Mr. Pierre Janet placed on one foot of a stigmatic a copper shoe with a window in it through which the development of the wound might be watched, while it was impossible for anyone to touch it.

A brief summary of what we have found out so far:

Stigmata are bodily marks, sores, or sensations of pain in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ. An individual bearing stigmata is referred to as a stigmatic.

The causes of stigmata are the subject of considerable debate. Some contend that they are miraculous, while others argue they are hoaxes or can be explained medically.

Stigmata are primarily associated with the Roman Catholic faith. Many reported stigmatics are members of Catholic religious orders. The majority of reported stigmatics are female.

According to the Internet Wikipedia:

Reported cases of stigmata take various forms. Many show some or all of the five Holy Wounds that were, according to the Bible, inflicted on Jesus during his crucifixion: wounds in the hands and feet, from nails, and in the side, from a lance. Some stigmatics display wounds to the forehead similar to those caused by the crown of thorns. Other reported forms include tears of blood or sweating blood, wounds to the back as from scourging, or wounds to the shoulder as from bearing the cross.

Some stigmatics claim to feel the pain of wounds with no external marks; these are referred to as invisible stigmata. In other cases, stigmata are accompanied by extreme pain. Some stigmatics' wounds do not appear to clot and stay fresh and uninfected. The blood from the wounds is said, in some cases, to have a pleasant, perfumed odor.

Cases of stigmata have been reported at different ages for different stigmatics. Some have manifested stigmata continually after the first appearance; others have shown periodic stigmata that re-occur at certain times of the day or on certain, sometimes holy, days through out the year.

There is plenty of room for skepticism because some stigmatics have been frauds.

One such case was Magdalena de la Cruz (1487-1560), who was known to have faked her wounds, and who later admitted the fraud.

In other cases, the cause is mental illness. Some people who fake stigmata suffer from Munchausen syndrome which is characterised by an intense desire for attention. People with Munchausen hurt themselves or fake an illness hoping to end up in a hospital where they can enjoy attention and care.

Some people also fake stigmata knowing that some who had stigmata were declared holy by the Pope. In this way they try to gain recognition.

One really strong point of skepticism has to do with the place of the wounds. It is reasonably certain that Jesus was crucified with nails through his WRISTS, because he could not support the weight if his body by his hands, yet most stigmatics have wounds in the palms of their hands. This suggests that if it is God causing the wounds, He keeps missing the target. In response to this some say that Jesus had his hands nailed through the palms but his weight was held up by his feet, which were nailed each side of the post. Usually traditional art shows Jesus with arms outstretched on a cross, but the reality was that HE was crucified on a single post. The cross shape was introduced much later as has (unfortunately) become the symbol for Christianity.

A documentary called "Quest for Truth: The Crucifixion" on the National Geographic Channel have shown that a person can be supended by the wrists, as the ankles are nailed to the side of the cross producing little strain on the wrists. However, the study also says the palms are a likely place for the nails to be driven, as it would cause the maximum amount of pain and trauma, and the victim would be tied to cross to support the weight.

Interestingly, no case of stigmata is known to have occurred before the thirteenth century, when the crucified Jesus became a standard icon of Christianity in the west. It seems that the stigmatics began to appear only after it was agreed that identifying with Jesus on the cross was a suitably holy thing to do.

It is amazing what the human mind can do. In the world of medicine there are many cases where placebos have had the same positive effect as the real medicines.For example, one experiment in which heart disease patients were administered a placebo pill, but told that it was a new 'super-medicine', and their conditions noticeably improved. It is thought by some that the deep trance-like state which deeply religious people claim to go into mimics this type of hypnosis, and the extremely strong and vivid impressions of the wounds and suffering are somehow transmitted from the mind to the body. This also fits with the fact that stigmata was first observed at around the time when graphic detail of the crucifixion started to appear in Christian art, making the wounds and suffering easier to comprehend and imagine in the minds of observers of the art.

 

The Supernatural Explanation

There is absolutely nothing in the Bible that would indicate that:

1.                 A sinner can bear any of his or her own sin. It must be all done by Jesus or it is not salvation.

2.                 It seems odd that predominantly Roman Catholic people are favoured with stigmata above all other denominations

3.                 Stigmata are not an isolated phenomena. They are part of a much wider selection of apparitions, voices, visions, miracles and other strange and unexplained events. This makes them even more suspect, and the suspicion is that they are lying wonders, given to various people in order to lead people away from , rather than to the true God.

4.                 The fact that the stigmata appear differently on its victims is strong evidence that the wounds are not genuinely miraculous.

5.                 Self-inflicted wounds are common among people with certain kinds of brain disorders.

One very skeptical source writes: "The likelihood that the wounds are psychosomatic (psychogenic purpuras), manifested by tortured souls, seems less likely than hoaxing in most cases. There are two main reasons for believing the stigmata are usually self-inflicted, rather than psychosomatic or miraculous. One, no stigmatic ever manifests these wounds from start to finish in the presence of others. Only when they are unwatched do they start to bleed."

The question we need to ask is: "Is it Biblical?"

Answer: The Bible nowhere instructs anyone to get a stigmata, it also never suggests that that God will give stigmatas, in fact it never even mentions the concept of a stigmata. The fact is Jesus suffered the wounds so we would not have to. We do not need to suffer His wounds because He has done the whole work of salvation for us. All that is left to us is to receive His gift of life - not share in His crucifixion.

Some interesting anomalies and inconsistencies:

The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, edited by Richard P. McBrien, states, "On very rare occasions the Catholic Church has accepted an occurrence of the stigmata as authentic, but has never defined their origin or nature, thus allowing physical, psychological and preternatural explanations for these phenomena."

Ian Wilson, in Stigmata (Harper & Row, San Francisco), declares, "They [stigmata] are one of the most baffling and intriguing of medical and scientific mysteries."

Obviously, there are few sure answers we can give or find regarding the stigmata. We are not even certain how the stigmata wounds of the Passion looked on Christs body. We can only speculate. But we do know that the stigmata do not appear the same in all who are believed to have had them.

One stigmatic, for instance, had only the wounds that would have been made by the crown of thorns. Two possessed only the wound in the side. Some had the lance wound in the left side (Padre Pio), another in the right side (St. Francis of Assisi). One had the hand wounds in the wrists, others in the palms of the hands.

Is it significant that more women than men have had the stigmata? What can we conclude from the fact that most stigmatics came from the Dominican and Franciscan Orders? And what does it say that some saints were stigmatics but not all stigmatics were saints?

One study, by a Mr.Wilson notes some stigmatics seem to have identified with earlier stigmatics - ultimately with Jesus. Finally, Wilson notes, "A really riveting feature is the extraordinary precision of the mechanisms conformity to the visualization that triggered it. Stigmata have been precisely positioned to conform with the wounds of a stigmatics favourite crucifix. Or a wound may have taken on the exact shape, such as a cross."

SOME BIBLE VERSES FOR CONSIDERATION:

"You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD." Leviticus 19:28 It could be said that stigmata are cuttings in the flesh, for the dead Jesus, which seems to contradict Gods command.

One verse sometimes referred to by people who want to defend stigmata, is found in Galatians 6:17 Paul wrote: "From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus."

The word "mark" comes from the Greek word "stigma" which means a tattooed mark, or mark burned in by a brand. Now we already know that it was against Gods Law to mark ones own body with cuttings, so we can be sure Paul would not inflict them on himself, so what did he mean?

It was common in Pauls day for slaves and sometimes soldiers to be branded, and followers of the cult of Mithra were also branded. In later times the followers of Hinduism marked themselves with the trident of Vishnu. The mark or brand signified ownership. It was a scar of service. The initiate usually bore it proudly. But in the context in which Paul is writing, he is making a defense to the Judaizers, who practised circumcision, and he refers to his own physical sufferings which he has had to endure for the sake of the Lord Jesus. These, he says, are his stigma, or branding. The scars and scratches and bruises in his body are proof of His ownership.

The Amplified Bible says: "From now on let no person trouble me (by making it necessary to vidicate my apostolic authority and the divine truth of my Gospel), for I bear on my body the (brand) marks of the Lord Jesus (the wounds, scars, and other outward evidence of persecutions - these testify to His ownership of me)!"

PERSONALLY, I am sure that stigmata exist as real wounds in some peoples bodies. I also believe many other visions, apparitions, signs and wonders have been seen and experienced by many people down through the ages and that stigmata are just one of hundreds of other similar marvels. But it is not the authenticity of stigmata that should be our main interest, it is what these wonders are pointing to. The devil is able to perform signs and wonders too, for example the wizards of Egypt were able to turn water into blood, as well as Moses, but the wizards were pointing away from God, and were fighting against Moses.

We know from the Bible that Jesus came and gave His life as a once for all for ever sacrifice. Nothing can be added to or taken from that one great sacrifice. It would seem that stigmata are a direct challenge to the once-for-all death of Jesus because they seem to be extending it, and repeating it at least in some measure. It would seem therefore that, despite their absolutre sincerity, those who manifest stigmata are not being worked on by the power of God. I think they are manifesting lying wonders, and that their force is either demonic or psychosomatic, or a combination of both. I think we would do far better if we put our trust in the finished work of Jesus, than seek after people who seem to be in a state of crucifixion all over again. No-one could bear the sins of the world except Jesus. I think it is futility itself to even imagine bearing those sins in our own body, and also a great insult to God to think that we could help Him with the redemption of the world.

 

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