What would you do for your faith?

Posted on November 30, 2011


I am, by and large, a lapsed Catholic. But because I’m an interested and engaged reader – and perhaps because of my semi-religious past – I was intrigued to read this blogpost at the Smithsonian website about the trend throughout the ages of stigmata.

I’d heard before of stigmata, but only in the metaphorical sense. Things are a stigma against a person’s character, for example. I hadn’t even considered the etymology of the word, or the fact that its real meaning comes from a religious sense. As Wikipedia explains,

Stigmata (singular stigma) are bodily marks, sores, or sensations of pain in locations corresponding to the crucifixionwounds of Jesus, such as the hands and feet. In some cases, rope marks on the wrists have accompanied the wounds on the hands.

The term originates from the line at the end of Saint Paul‘s Letter to the Galatians where he says, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” Stigmata is the plural of the Greek word στίγμα stigma, meaning a mark or brand such as might have been used for identification of an animal or slave. An individual bearing stigmata is referred to as a stigmatic or a stigmatist.

That, by itself, is interesting enough. I’m always happy to learn new things, and I learnt where a term that I use occasionally when I dip into my repository of words in my mind comes from. From now on, whenever I talk about stigmata, I’ll undoubtedly think of the notion that a huge number of Catholics in the past have perhaps intentionally damaged their health to show their piety.

It’s something that people are aware of: there are the comedy lashings that are seen in Monty Python’s Life of Brian which never fail to draw a laugh. But it always seemed quite removed, both historically and geographically. That was until reading the Smithsonian article. Weirdly, there’s been a gender redress in the number of people who claim (or have self-inflicted, depending on your belief) to have suffered wounds which are parallel to those of Christ on the cross.

Until the twentieth century, reports of stigmata were confined to Catholic Europe, but the most recent count of contemporary cases, made about a decade ago, included about 25 cases scattered around the world, including one in Korea and one in Japan. This in itself is a remarkable development, but there has also been a dramatic change in the ratio of male to female stigmatics. Overall, the vast majority have always been women: 353, compared to just 54 men, a ratio of almost seven to one. But according to Harrison’s analysis, that ratio has changed dramatically in the last half-century. Among the 44 cases reported since 1946, it is 2.4:1, and among living stigmatics it is a mere 1.5:1.

That’s a very strange trend. As, weirdly, is the fact that the location of the wounds and sores has changed as medical science has got better. Medical experts today reckon that the standard depiction of nails through the palms would not have kept a body attached to a cross: more likely were puncture wounds above the wrist in the forearm to keep people sturdy.

Sure enough, as people began to realise this through scientific knowledge, the wounds of stigmatists began to migrate up the arm and away from the hand. God moves in mysterious ways.

The rational (well, rational in the sense of how best to explain what is happening, not to justify it) explanation is that this is simply people self inflicting wounds to demonstrate their faith. A surprising number of people have seemingly done so: more than 400 since St. Francis of Assisi in 1224 first reported Christ-like injuries.

I find it strange how western culture often pokes fun at the devotion of eastern religions, yet does something like this. There’s something to be said about people in glass houses not throwing stones.

But then there’s the evidence which disputes that it’s all fakery and falsehoods.

In at least some of these cases, investigators such as Harrison have argued, substantial evidence indicates the original wounds can recur spontaneously and apparently psychosomatically, generally on significant dates. During the 1990s, for example, an Italian woman named Domenica Lo Bianco exhibited the stigmata on Good Friday. Her fame spread, and Harrison notes that an Italian psychotherapist, Dr Marco Margnelli, has reported videoing Lo Bianco in a laboratory as she relived one incident of stigmata in a “trance state.” According to Margnelli, marks appeared spontaneously on his subject’s arm as she was taped and outright fraud could be ruled out as an explanation.

How do you explain that? Anyway, regardless of what people think about the legitimacy of stigmatism, the blogpost is an interesting read and people should take a look.

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