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THE STIGMATA: PATHOLOGY OR MIRACLE? By C.J SIMPSON

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The medical approach towards religious phenomena is often to categorise them as “illnesses.” This may be seen in the diagnosis of St Paul as having epilepsy and of Joan of Arc as having schizophrenia. Is there, however, a pathological process in religious stigmatisation? Stigmata are the wounds of Christ appearing on the body; they may include bleeding marks or holes on the hands, feet, and side and marks on the forehead and shoulder-the sites of the crown of thorns and cross respectively.

Imbert-Gourbeyre found that of the 321 people with stigmatathat he discovered since the time of St Francis, 41 were men and280 were women and these during their reproductive years. Theywere mainly from Italy, followed by France, Spain, Germany,Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland, Holland, Hungary, and Peru inthat order.’ Few people with stigmata have been beatified orcanonised, and the Catholic Church teaches that there is nointrinsic connection between sanctity and stigmatisation. Thesites of the stigmata are interesting, as the work of Barbet oncadavers’ and evidence from the Shroud of Turinsuggest thatChrist had nails through his wrists whereas people with stigmatahave palm wounds. The site of the lance wound is omitted in theBible but changes, according to the current belief, from right orleft hypochondrium to over the heart in those with stigmata.Thewounds tend to change with the years; some bleed permanentlyand some just on Fridays. They normally appear when the personis in what is called “ecstasy.”

St Francis of Assisi (1182 to 1226) is thought to have been the first person to receive stigmata unless St Paul implied that he had them when he wrote “I bear the marks of the Lord Jesus in my body”. St Francis developed the stigmata during an ecstatic vision in 1224, when they were seen by a friend, Brother Leo, whose own handwritten note (the authenticity of which is uncontested) vouches for their reality. They were also seen by many after his death and were described two years after his death in his first biography: “The marks on the hands were round on the inner side, but on the outer side they were elongated: and some small pieces of flesh took on the appearance of the ends of the nails, bent and driven back and rising above the rest of the flesh.”

Among famous nineteenth century examples was a Belgian girl called Louise Lateau (1850 to 1883), who bled every Friday except for two from 1868 to 1883. She was observed by various eminent Belgian doctors. A German peasant girl called Therese Neumann (1898 to 1962) was bedridden from several head injuries when she developed the stigmata in 1926. Blood started to come from her side during an ecstatic vision, and a few weeks later she developed the hand and feet wounds. From then on they bled regularly on Fridays until her death. Her doctor diagnosed her initially as having “hysteria traumatica” for insurance purposes, though after the stigmata appeared he changed his mind.

Padre Pio (1887 to 1968) was also of peasant stock. His biographies describe him as always having been spirituallyoriented and of a frail constitution. He had what seems to have been tuberculosis as a young man, and he fasted, in the opinion of his fellow Franciscans, excessively. He developed the stigmata in 1918 and they bled continually afterwards, but faded at the end of his life.

DESIRE TO SUFFER

All these examples occurred in deeply religious people, who actually desired to suffer with Christ. They did not seem to seek publicity or material reward-indeed, they often avoided it. Whitlock and Hynes, however, reported on a Polish lady in Australia, who had a devotion to Veronica’s Veil and apparently wept blood while in ecstasies. She did not, it seems, avoid publicity and finally died in 1963 of a barbiturate overdose. Similarly, but even more bizarre, is the case of the 10 and half year old girl from a black Baptist family reported on by Early and Lifschutz who in 1972 was reported to have had spontaneous bleeding from her left palm initially and later from the right palm, both feet, and thorax. Unfortunately, no doctor was able to observe the beginining of these episodes so self induced trauma cannot be ruled out, although Early and Lifschutz believe the likelihood of this to be almost nil.

The question of aetiology remains controversial. Self induced wounds-that is, dermatitis artefacta- are a common theory. Therese Neumann was observed constantly on several occasions, but this satisfied only the observers, not the critics. In 1875 Dr Warlomont used an ingenious method to observe Louise Lateau. He put a glass cylinder over her whole arm and made X special seals, which he claimed could not be foiled. He assembled this on a Thursday, and on the Friday, with the seals unbroken, there was a wound on the hand and blood in the glass bulb. The evidence suggests that at least some people’s stigmata are not self induced. Could physical changes be taking place through psychological mechanisms? Moody reported various episodes of physical changes occurring under abreaction. For instance, a man who abreacted about an episode when he had been tied up developed weals and petechial haemorrhages on his forearms where the rope had been. Pattie and Paul reviewed reports of the induction of blisters under hypnosis and concluded that, though most experiments lacked good controls, blisters could be induced in some subjects. Needles described a Jewish man with a serious anxiety about castration who developed spontaneous bleeding from his right hand on three occasions when under threat from men.

There is no reason to suppose that all stigmata have the same aetiology. Despite reports of self induced stigmata it seems unlikely that this is always the case. Dermatographia, which causes an exaggerated triple response, and vicarious menstruation seem unlikely causes. St Francis had malaria, and purpura from this cause has been suggested as the  mechanism in his case. Herpes simplex infection seems to be under emotional control, and it has been suggested that the stigmatic lesions are indeed herpetic.

HYSTERICAL CONVERSION SYMPTOMS

The autoerythrocyte sensitisation syndrome is a rare disease almost exclusively of women who become sensitised to their own red blood cells. They often have a history of psychiatric disease. Ratnoff and Agle reviewed 27 such patients, all of whom gave a similar clinical picture of painful areas becoming red and forming a bruise. Agle et al looked at six patients with this disease to see if there was any evidence of the haematomas being symptoms of hysterical conversion and concluded that there was in each case. The interest in the autoerythrocyte sensitisation syndrome with regard to the stigmata is that they are both rare, occur in women during the reproductive years, occur in people with slightly odd personalities with a history of physical illness, and have severe pain associated with the site.

Stigmatisation is often described as being “hysterical.” This would depend on what is understood by this word. It is most commonly used in this context to mean hysterical conversion and not hysterical personality disorder. No unanimity exists on the definition of hysterical conversion, but the question here is whether it can be used to describe a physical change due to psychological desire; Freud suggested that it should be motor or sensory disturbances, and the International Classification of Diseases requires a “psychogenic disturbance of function.” Lord suggested that the unconscious fantasy of those with stigmata leading to the conversion symptom is that of a woman desiring to be saintly and non-sexual (Christ like). Ultimately, however, we are just substituting one poorly understood diagnosis (stigmata) with another (hysterical conversion).

The validity of the miracle theory depends primarily on your personal beliefs. But even if you consider it to be possible you then have to consider why God has done this in the past to some rather odd people, why He has imposed ecstasy as an indispensable condition, and why He gives it to people at the varying sites in the abdomen and chest and why in the palms and not the wrists. Furthermore, why should God give the stigmata preferentially to women?

Many attempts have been made to diagnose the stigmata as symptoms of illness without much success. The evidence does suggest, however, that psychological mechanisms play some part in their formation. Theologians seem equally baffled. Whatever your beliefs, the study of the stigmata does typify the fascinating relation between physical, psychological, and spiritual phenomena.

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