• johned@aibi.ph

The Stigmata

Acknowledgement: This article relies heavily on the book "Stigmata - A Medieval Phenomenon In A Modern Age" by Ted Harrison New York, St Martin's Press 1994.

(Galatians 6:17 NKJV) From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.

The stigmata are the wounds of Christ's crucifixion appearing on the body of a believer. The first well attested case is that of St. Francis of Assisi though Paul may have had the stigmata centuries earlier. They are often associated with an intense devotion to the cross and Christ crucified and a community undergoing spiritual revival in some measure. The stigmata vary in depth, appearance and intensity. The nail wounds appear in the hands and feet, a gash may open in the right side and bleed profusely as if they had been speared. Some exude small drops of blood from their forehead associated with the crown of thorns. Others also show marks on their back as if they had been whipped. Shoulders may be deformed as if they were carrying a heavy cross. The stigmata tend to give the most pain on Good Friday and Easter and on Fridays.

Stigmatics (people who receive these marks) are relatively uncommon. From St Francis until the 20thcentury some 330 people have been identified as stigmatized of whom 30 have been canonized as saints. There are some 20 stigmatics alive today. They come from all walks of life and often are fairly obscure believers. Needless to say the stigmata puzzle believers and non-believers alike and is frequently investigated by curious physicians and the person's denomination.

Why study this or write an article on the stigmata? Because for me it challenges my whole world-view about how God acts. It is so "outside the box" that it makes me think and that is not a bad thing. It takes my approach to life and sets it on its head and in some ways lets God be God. I find it disturbing, confusing and slightly repellent. I also find it totally fascinating. I have been greatly exercised over the area of healing and how God's Spirit and the human body interact because so many of my friends have died of cancer despite my prayers. I am a struggling Christian wanting to know more about the mysterious realm of the supernatural and how God can intervene in strange and marvelous ways in our lives. The stigmata address all these questions in one bite sized package. They are perplexing in a good kind of way.

The Main Explanations

The main explanations of the stigmata are:

  1. Fraud

  2. Hysteria

  3. Hypnosis

  4. Psychosomatic

  5. Satanic deception/magic/occultic origins

  6. God at work.

  7. Self-inflicted while dissociated from reality.

I would add an eighth - the power of the religious human spirit. However this is not discussed in the material I have read on the stigmata.

Because of the emotions they invoke from awe to incredulity modern stigmatics have often come under intense scrutiny. One was patently a fraud and was proved not only to be deceptive but also was pretending to be a woman. Others have proved to be genuine and the stigmata have appeared while under medical supervision. This is not to say that they were from God but they were definitely not self-inflicted or fraudulent. Most modern stigmatics live lives of simple sanctity. A few have become the center of personality cults and holiness. The most famous of the modern stigmatics is Padre Pio and you can find out about him as www.padrepio.com Here are some pictures of him and his stigmata. They bled every day for 50 years and disappeared completely a few days before his death. He is credited with many astounding answers to prayer.

Padre Pio regarded his stigmata as deeply embarrassing and prayed fervently that they would go away. A letter of his to a friend about them reflects this and is available on the website above. Most modern stigmatics when interviewed have been very reluctant recipients of the wounds. While they have longed for deep identification with the cross and the sufferings of Christ they have not wanted the fuss (and often the suspicion, rejection and hostility) that the stigmata brought into their lives.

Testing The Stigmata

(1 John 4:1-4 NKJV) Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. {2} By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, {3} and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. {4} You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world

(Matthew 7:15-20 NKJV) "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. {16} "You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? {17} "Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. {18} "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. {19} "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. {20} "Therefore by their fruits you will know them.

The stigmata certainly declare that Jesus Christ came in the flesh! They are an extremely vivid testimony to His death and to His resurrection power and ability to communicate with us today. He has not passed away but still visits the lives of His people in both ordinary and extraordinary ways. Most stigmatics also "bear good fruit". That has certainly been the case with Padre Pio and St Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena as well as Paul if we count him among them. There will of course be frauds and imitations, the Devil is not idle, and time and caution are wise tests of this unusual phenomenon and those who have received it.

Does The Mechanism Matter?

Providing the stigmata are not fraudulent or self-inflicted does the mechanism matter? Can all spontaneously arising stigmata be seen as works of God? Does it really matter if they came during a self-induced trance state or from an angel of God? Are some stigmata put there by Satan disguised as "an angel of light"? If the stigmata are accompanied by a godly life and doctrine that is not schismatic or patently wrong then we can feel on fairly safe ground. The stigmatic should be tested over time. People under satanic deception get more and more clamant and bizarre with the passing of time while those who have received their spirituality from God grow sweeter and mor gracious.

The stigmata of St Francis were received from a bright seraph and this seems to be the pattern for quite a number of stigmatics. Some receive the wounds spontaneously in the middle of ordinary activities. A young black girl in America called Cloretta Robinson received them while in her classroom at school amidst her classmates. She was devout Baptist with a deep faith and a strong interest in the cross. Her stigmata lasted for 2 years before disappearing and were particularly active around Easter.

"The Literalness of the Stigmata"

The stigmata are symbols of identification with Christ not historical or medical statements about what happened to Him on the cross. People with a literalistic approach to things are puzzled by some stigmatics who have the wound in their palms while modern stigmatics tend to have them in their wrists etc. The stigmata are not historical statements. They are not meant to convey that Christ was crucified in such and so a manner. Neither are they earthly copies of Christ's wounds. Christ's wounds were mortal and grievous these are certainly painful and often agonizing but that is all.

The wounds of stigmatics vary from abrasions and blisters to deep gashes that bleed copiously. They are symbols of devotion. When valid they are the result of a life focused on the cross of Christ. The wounds tend to appear where the stigmatic thinks they should be e.g. from pictures in their Bible. Since evidence came to light from the Turin shroud of crucifixion being through the wrist then modern stigmatics have adopted this. Stigmata have tended to arise since artists began to realistically depict the wounds of Christ and give the mind of the faithful a clear picture of His agonies. As Jesus says "the eye is the lamp of the body" and it appears here that intense visual imagery is having a profound physical effect when combined with a deep devotion.

(Matthew 6:22-23 NKJV) "The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. {23} "But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

What Can We Learn From All This?

If we take the skeptical position that perhaps just a few cases of stigmata are genuine - perhaps those of St Francis, Catherine of Siena and Padre Pio ... what does this say to us today? Firstly it says that the way God relates to His children can be very different from what we would expect. It says that God is an extravagant lover who desire for close communion with us can go to unusual lengths and take many forms. It says something about us identifying with the sufferings of Christ. Paul talked of "filling up in my body the sufferings of Christ", "having the fellowship of His sufferings" and "being conformed to His death". This language makes sense if we see Paul as possibly being a stigmatic. Certainly stigmatics understand this communion with the sufferings of Christ. This emphasis on identification with redemptive suffering is a worthwhile rebuke to the comfort conscious "faith" that is so prevalent today.

The small number of stigmatics also says that God has a different calling for the vast majority of Christians. The bizarre is not normative. Isaiah's 3 years with his buttocks exposed was definitely God's calling but it is not normative for every Christian. Not every Christian has to go out and build an ark, fight a ten foot tall giant like Goliath or walk on water. Yet when God calls us out of our ordinariness to do or be something special we must comply. Like Mary we must say "I am the handmaiden of the Lord, be it done to me as You say." We dare not reply "But I'm just a normal person you can't ask THAT of me..". God is God and he can ask anything of you. The stigmatics have said "Yes" to most unusual treatment by God. Perhaps that is the lesson at the heart of it all.

This article may be freely reproduced for non-profit ministry purposes but may not be sold in any way. For permission to use articles in your ministry, e-mail the editor, John Edmiston at johned@aibi.ph.