Stigmata (from Greek: stizo, “to prick”) refers to the five wounds that were said to be inflicted on Jesus' body during his crucifixion, and to similar wounds resembling Jesus' puncture marks that have mysteriously appeared on others. Stigmata are traditionally located at the specific spots where Jesus' flesh is said to have been pierced during his crucifiction: namely his wrists (two wounds from nails), his shins (one wound from a nail), his head (bleeding from a crown of thorns), and his heart (one wound inflicted by a Roman soldier’s spear). A person who spontaneously bears one or more of these wounds is called a “stigmatic.” Stigmatics are most commonly found in Christianity, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, although there have been documented cases elsewhere.
The causes of stigmata are largely mysterious, but some observers suggest that stigmata are found in deeply pious individuals who overwhelmingly empathize with the suffering of Jesus. Reactions to the phenomena are varied, ranging from doubt and skepticism to praise and reverence. Many people, especially in Latin America, see the marks of stigmata as signs of saintliness and faith. The other important matter related to stigmata (and similar physical manifestations related to religious faith) concern questions regarding boundaries between the spiritual and the physical. Often scientists endeavor to understand this relationship through rigorous controlled experiments on such things as prayer, healing, and other spiritual and religious activity.
Originally, in the Greco-Roman world, stigmata could refer to any form of puncturing of the flesh including “marks” such as tattoos. In ancient times such branding of the flesh was common: tattoos were burned on humans and animals to indicate ownership and to deter theft. They were also used to denote slaves or soldiers of particular rulers, or to designate acclaim or disgrace. Criminals and deserters from armies were often branded with tattoos as signs of dishonor. However, sometimes stigmata indicated a positive message for the bearer such as membership in a specific religious cult or a certain level of achievement within an organization.
One of the earliest examples of this was the sect of Carpocrates who “employed outward [physical] marks, branding their disciples inside the lobe of the right ear.” The Hebrew Bible notes that slaves voluntarily had one ear pierced to indicate a desire to remain in the service of their owners (Exod. 21:5-6, cf. Deut. 15:16-17). Therefore, the locations of stigmata varied ranging from the forehead to the thigh, ear, breast, and hand, and were originally intrinsically related to ownership.
Although there are numerous Old Testament references to signs and marks that can be taken as stigmata, the Book of Ezekiel denotes a special stigmata that is considered to be relevant to Christians. The prophet Ezekiel warns of how to be saved from the oncoming destruction by stating, “Pass through the city [Jerusalem] and mark an X on the foreheads of those who moan and groan over all the abominations that are practiced within it. To the others I heard him say: Pass through the city after him and strike! . . . But do not touch any marked with an X” (Ezek. 9:2-6). This stigma, of the ancient Hebrew letter taw, is cross-like and, as a symbol of salvation from final judgment, is seen as foreshadowing Jesus' crucifixion (cf. Rev. 7:3-4).
The Book of Revelation (chap. 13) refers to the power of the Second Beast, who deceives the inhabitants of the earth:
...[i]t forced all the people, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to be given a stamped image on their foreheads, so that no one could buy or sell except one who had the stamped image of the beast’s name or the number that stood for his name. Wisdom is needed here; one who understands can calculate the number of the beast, for it is a number that stands for a person. His number is six hundred and sixty-six. (Rev. 13:16-18)
Another controversial example of a mark in the Bible is found in the “mark of Cain,” which was said to be a mark of protection for Cain, who murdered his brother, Abel. Cain implored God to intercede for him as he served the punishment of banishment for his crime. Cain said, “‘Since you have now banished me from the soil, and I must avoid your presence and become a restless wanderer on the earth, anyone may kill me at sight.’ ‘Not so!’ the Lord said to him. ‘If anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged sevenfold.’ So the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest anyone should kill him at sight” (Gen. 4:13-15). This is the first indication in scripture of a mark placed on someone by God. It indicates a special relationship between God and the man, Cain. Even though Cain was a murderer, he was God’s possession.
One last precedent to stigmata is the mark of baptism. Those baptized are marked with the sign of the cross in oil on their foreheads. Many Christians throughout the ages have also marked their bodies with either a cross or the name of Jesus in some form.
The only specific reference to the term “stigmata” in scripture is found in the Epistle to the Galatians where Paul says, “From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body" (6:17). This statement is related to Paul's discussion of circumcision. His point is that there is no need for new converts to Christianity to undergo a ritual circumcision. It appears that some new Jewish Christians were insisting on this procedure to avoid persecution by the (Jewish) authorities. But for Paul, it is not so much adherence to the old Law of Moses that defines who is a Christian (any more than a slave being marked by his or her owner defines slavery), but identification with the suffering of Jesus. Paul had seen quite a number of scourgings and crucifixions in his time and knew the identifying marks left on the victims’ bodies. It is doubtful that Paul had the exact same scars as Jesus (thus the claim that he might be the first stigmatic is tenuous), but he certainly was wounded and scarred in many ways for his Christian faith.
Of course, any person (Christ, Christian, or otherwise) undergoing a crucifixion would exhibit the marks of crucifixion: pierced feet/ankles and pierced wrists/hands. But Christ exhibited a fifth mark when he was pierced in his side by a Roman spear. Normally, crucifixion victims were simply left on the cross until they died of asphyxiation, or their legs were broken to hasten death, they were not speared. Additionally, since Christ had a crown of thorns pushed into his head, these left a number of deep punctures one his head and scalp. Much of his body was also marked by the Roman scourge, which was a whip-like instrument of torture which had pieces of lead, bone, or stones attached to some of the various strands from which it was made.
The phenomenon of the stigmata (expressly related to the wounds of Christ) has been documented in more than five hundred cases. The Catholic Church has investigated and officially recognized more than three hundred stigmatics (both men and women) and 62 of these have either become saints of the church or have received the title, “blessed.”
Originally, stigmatics were most commonly associated with the Roman Catholic Church and were Europeans. However, the exploration and population of the Americas have led to a growing number of stigmatics in the Western hemisphere and, in the post-Reformation period, and today there is a growing trend of non-Catholic stigmatics.
Aside from Paul’s introduction of the stigmata as the wounds of Christ, there were no reported incidents of this phenomenon until the year 1222. One possible explanation for the lengthy interval between Paul’s writings and this first stigmatic could be that those who had the wounds earlier were afraid to come forward because they might be condemned in some way for them, perhaps even being accused of witchcraft. The first known stigmatic was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, who was an especially pious priest that labored to reform the church and often was opposed by the king.
The most famous stigmatic is usually thought to be Saint Francis of Assisi (c. 1182-1226 C.E.). Francis led an austere life of poverty and humility, declining ordination to the priesthood and forming the Friars Minor to promote penitence and faith while refusing to acquire property. In 1224, two years prior to his death, he was involved in restructuring the order which had grown to the extent that it was approximating the structure of established religious monastery. While attempting to address this situation, it is said that he was in deep prayer when he received all five of the wounds of Christ on his body. These were apparently accompanied by severe and debilitating pain. Although Francis received all of his wounds at once, many stigmatics exhibit only one would at first and then progressively add another at successive appearances until they bear all five wounds. There may also be a perfume-like odor that accompanies the events.
Another early stigmatic was Saint Catherine of Siena (1347–1380 C.E.). She did not display the visible wounds of stigmata during her actual lifetime but it is said that she suffered greatly from the pains (a legend says she prayed for her marks to become invisible and this prayer was answered when they disappeared). She is known as one of the great female mystics and is said to be a “bride of Christ.” She authored a number of works on piety and faith and died in 1380. She is also an example of a stigmatic who partook only of the Eucharistic bread for long periods of time, while declining all other forms of nourishment.
Another very famous stigmatic was Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, commonly known as Padre Pio. It is said that his visible stigmata occurred during a vision he received on September 20, 1918 (he had suffered from invisible stigmata for exactly three years prior to this event). After celebrating Mass he was overcome with drowsiness and had a vision of a person who bore the five bleeding wounds of Christ. Once the vision disappeared, he found that his own body was bleeding in the same locations. Thereafter, he bled from both of his hands for fifty years on a daily basis. It is noteworthy that Padre Pio’s wounds, although bleeding daily, remained most active from the evening before Fridays and through to Saturdays. Medical examinations confirmed the loss of about one cup of blood per day from his side alone.
It is also said that Padre Pio had received supernatural gifts that often defy reason such as “perfume, of conversion, of bilocation, of discernment of spirits, and of penetrating the future.” There are numerous documented cases of Padre Pio curing the sick as well as converting many individuals to the Catholic faith who formerly opposed it.
Another modern stigmatic was Teresa Neumann, a German who died in 1962 at the age of 64 having been a stigmatic for 36 years. At the age of 25, she was miraculously healed of blindness and paralysis that she suffered from an accident at age 20. She was especially devoted to St. Therese of Lisieux and her recovery is credited with the numerous prayers devoted to the saint. She is one of the stigmatics who ate only on the Eucharistic wafer that she received daily. Her stigmata appeared in 1926. She initially received the five wounds of Christ and later marks of the crown of thorns, then a shoulder wound (from the carrying of the cross), and finally marks of a scourging on her body.
Though all of these stigmatics were from Europe, there has been a recent trend of stigmatics arising in North and South America.
The Canadian stigmatic, Georgette Faniel of Montreal, reported stigmata on her wrists and feet in 1950, which expanded to a crown of thorns in 1953. Her stigmata were accompanied by a painful wound in her heart and identification with Christ’s pain from carrying the cross. Although she did not exhibit puncture wounds (the sites were extremely swollen with noticeable discoloration), her pain was most noticeable “on Fridays and at the point of consecration during Mass.”
A famous American stigmatic was a ten-year-old black girl whose family were members of a Baptist church. In 1972 she exhibited daily bleeding (up to six times per day) from her left palm, although she did not experience any pain. During the following two week period, bleeding from the other wounds became evident even though there were no physical marks on her skin. This phenomenon occurred near Easter and on Good Friday she experienced bleeding from all of the traditional stigmata sites, and then the bleeding ceased. This child had reported hearing voices calling her to pray for the healing of certain individuals. She was also noted for a keen awareness of the suffering of Christ.
It is also reported that Father Jim Bruse of Lake Ridge, near Washington, D.C. received stigmata on December 26, 1991. This event occurred when local statues of the Virgin Mary were observed to shed tears after they were touched by Bruse.
Recent times have seen the arising of a number of South American stigmatics. In 1983, in Argentina, Gladys Quiroga de Motta began having visions of the Virgin Mary on a regular basis. The signs of stigmata began to appear on her wrists around the Fridays of Advent and on Holy Fridays. It is said that “[h]er left foot becomes ‘fixed’ on top of her right foot and once, during an examination, defied the doctors’ attempts to separate them with their bare hands."
A famous Argentinian stigmatic is Emiliano Aden, who, at age 19, received his first wound. It was initially manifested as a sharp pain on his forehead, but later developed in a cross-shaped wound that emitted blood. Later, his wrists began to ooze blood, without visible signs of wounds.
A famous Cuban stigmatic is Irma Izquierdo, who also at the age of 19 received wounds. She was very religious at a young age and was the recipient of visions of winged beings. These prefigured a dramatic vision of Christ’s Passion at Easter during which she seemed to find herself experiencing actual crucifixion and the piercing of her own side. Just before Holy Week (1956), the five wounds appeared on her body with a bloody sweat appearing on Easter morning. These signs were accompanied by her hair changing texture and an orange tint to her complexion. Later, the letters ‘INRI’ formed on her thighs. She developed an ecstatic language and shouted unknown words of praise. Additionally, after prevailing upon neighbors to construct a cross for her, Izquierdo carried it 560 miles across the island to the Hermitage Caridad del Cobre.
It must be noted that there has been a great deal of skepticism regarding the cause of stigmata on individuals. While they may well be miraculous or supernatural manifestations of divine origin, some call for a scientific or medical explanation. Needless to say, some stigmatics have been closely examined and monitored by doctors and scientists. However, there is no doubt of the actual existence of these various wounds on stigmatics’ bodies. There has also been evidence that some individuals have deliberately inflicted wounds themselves for various reasons. Nevertheless, there are simply too many documented cases of stigmata that are not self-inflicted to discount a supernatural origin.
One of the fundamental concepts associated with individuals who became stigmatics is their keen concentration on Jesus Christ in their lives. Many stigmatics are ecstatics who have cultivated the ability to focus on God to such a degree that they become immersed in the sufferings of Christ, and receive visions and revelations associated with divine mystics. In some cases these individuals have led lives of extreme poverty. As such they seem able to reach a state of oneness with the sufferings of the crucified Jesus and are able to achieve a deep sense of the significance of the Passion of Christ not attained by most people. Just as Jesus is said to have meditated to such a degree in his Passion that he erupted into a bloody sweat, so too do some of the stigmatics allegedly break into bloody sweats when they are focused on this event.
Common to all stigmatics is painful suffering. Stigmatics typically display bleeding wounds of the crucified Christ, some have invisible wounds while others have wounds and bleeding from the head and scalp as typified by the crown of thorns pressed into Christ’s head or from whip-like marks on various other parts of their bodies. The stigmata are often associated with bleeding from the wound areas. The blood flow cannot be stopped as would be the case with an injury or self-inflicted wound, but once the emanation ceases, the wounds themselves heal until the next episode. Analysis of blood flowing from such wounds often reveals a blood-type different from that of the individual stigmatic.
Many of the stigmatics exhibited their marks and bleeding on Fridays—the day of the week that Jesus was crucified. Some are especially susceptible during the Easter season. Others have blood oozing at frequent intervals, while some exhibit the puncture wounds without any blood. Lengthy periods of contemplation, prayer, and ecstatic visions usually accompany the stigmata of many of these individuals. There are cases where some discontinue eating or drinking and survive only on the communion wafer for years at a time, often receiving the host only once a week.
The suffering of stigmatics is often seen as a form of penance for the expiation of sins. In the case of individuals who have lived exemplary lives, their sufferings, including the suffering caused by the wounds of the stigmata, are often deemed to have meritorious value for a divine purpose with the stigmata possibly a confirmation of their relationship with Christ’s suffering for humankind.
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