Most people have at least heard of stigmata even if they are not entirely sure what it is since the word is casually tossed around on occasion and was even turned into a thriller movie during the late 1990s. However, the question of what it actually is other than bleeding in seemingly random places along the body with no obviously visible reason like a cut or stabbing by a knife. Let us take a look into the mystery that is the stigmata and see if we can find a place for it in our modern world.
What Is It?
Strictly speaking, stigmata are marks on someone's body that correspond to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus as stated in Christianity's bible—with particular emphasis on marks that occur on the person's hands or feet. Stigmata is actually the plural form of a Greek word “stigma” which literally translates as a brand or mark that was used in the identification of a domesticated animal or slave. The word stigmata as applied to marks or wounds associated with those of Jesus actually comes from Paul's letter to the Galatians at the end line of the writing where he stays that he bears “on (his) body the marks of Jesus.” The reported cases of stigmata show some, a few, or all five of the “holy wounds” that were inflicted on Jesus according to writing of his crucifixion in the bible, which include a wound in the side of a torso from a lance and ones in the hands and feet from nails. Occasionally, the wounds associated with Jesus's torture before the actual crucifixion such as the crown of thorns or back lacerations have been associated with stigmata as well. In some claims of the odd happening, the stigmatics declare extreme pain accompany the wounds. Sometimes though people claim to experience the pain of stigmata like wounds without any visible wounds on the outside of the body. These cases are referred to as invisible stigmata. However, a portion of people who have stigmata have wounds that appear to not clot while staying uninfected and fresh. A handful of cases even declare that the blood from the wounds has a pleasant or perfume type odor which is generally referred to as the Odor of Sanctity. The causes of this strange occurrence tends to vary from case to case when investigated by doctors, scientists, or religious officials. However, stigmata is mainly associated with the Roman Catholic faith and most of the reported stigmatics generally are participants of Catholic religious orders.
Scientific Research Into Stigmata
Most of the modern research into the causes of stigmata claim that it is probably hysterical in nature, particularly because the majority of claimants tend to be extremely emotional at the time of occurrence. It might also be linked to dissociative identity disorders in the context of a deep religious belief—especially when looking at the link between self starvation dietary restrictions, self mutilation, and dissociative mental states. People who suffer from anorexia nervosa can often display self mutilation which is part of a ritualistic action from a obsessive compulsive disorder that greatly resembles stigmata. Psychological studies of stigmatics also show a general link of stigmata cases and post traumatic stress disorders that are severe enough to result in unconscious self mutilation, particularly if the person has an abnormal level of suggestibility from previous life experiences or outside sources. Sometimes the wounds are clearly made by outer means such as people who wish to suffer along the lines of Christ as a form of deep religious piety or even accidental markings that were mistakenly thought to be stigmata by a random witness.
Non-Christian Stigmata Incidents
Even though stigmata is most commonly associated with Christianity and Roman Catholicism in particular, bodily stigmata have actually been reported in several religious traditions. Among the Waraw tribe who live in the Orinoco Basin of Venezuela, people who meditate with tutelary spirits may mystically bring about open wounds in the palms of one's hands. Forms of stigmata are frequently portrayed in Buddhist art as a common aspect of some journeys in Buddhism.
Famous Cases of Stigmata
The first specifically recorded incident of Christian stigmata was Saint Francis of Assisi. Two years before his death in 1224, he set off on a journey to Mount La Verna in order to fast for forty days. As Francis prayed one morning near the celebration time of the Exaltation of the Cross, an angel reportedly came to his side. Francis was able to see that the angel was crucified as he came closer. Upon seeing the form of the crucified angel, Francis was humbled by the vision while his heart filled with great elation for being specially chosen for an angelic visit and both saddened as well as put through great pain at the horror of seeing a mutilated angel. Once the angel left Francis's presence, he reportedly had wounds in his feet, hands, and side as though he had been pierced by the same lance that had been driven into Christ's side. An image of nails appeared in his hands and feet right away, and his side wound frequently seeped out blood. The first biographer of Saint Francis of Assisi, Thomas of Celano, reported the entire incident in his 1230 publication entitled The Life of Saint Francis. However, modern doctors have looked back on the symptoms of Saint Francis to report he most likely had quartan malaria with the complication of purpura—a purple hemorrhage of blood into the skin which could have easily been punctured in the wilderness to appear as an open wound similar to those of Christ.
Another famous case of stigmata occurred during the 20th century and therefore was studied by several physicians of that era. For over fifty years, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina reported his personal case of stigmata. The wounds were reportedly unexplainable and never became infected. It is noted that his wounds did heal at one time but then suddenly reappeared. Even though blood tests, examinations, and even x-rays were performed on Padre Pio's hands, no conclusive diagnosis was ever made.