Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/September 1888/Stigmatization

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THE stigmata—what are they? Wounds resembling those received by the Lord Jesus Christ at his crucifixion. When fully developed they consist of one in the palm of each hand, one on the dorsum of each foot, each indicating the place where a nail was driven in the act of nailing Christ to the cross, and one on the side, showing the effect of the Roman soldier's spear-thrust. Sometimes, in addition to these, there are signs upon the forehead, corresponding to the lacerations caused by the thorns. Stigmatization is the technical ecclesiastical term for the formation of such resemblances.

Görres acknowledges that in all Christian antiquity no known examples of stigmatization occurred. They are peculiar to the later eras of Christian history. Roman Catholicism has usually enumerated about eighty instances, but in 1873 Dr. Imbert Gourbeyre, professor in the School of Medicine of Clermont-Ferrand, in Belgium, and a writer attached to that religious system, enlarged the series so that it now comprehends one hundred and fifty-three cases, of which eight are living and known to him. Of all these instances that of Francis Bernadone, canonized as St. Francis d'Assisi, in Italy, is the first and most commanding. Born in 1186 and dying October 4, 1226, he is said to have received the stigmata in 1224. In the solitude of Monte Alverno, a part of the Apennines bestowed on him by Count Orlando, of Cortona, and a favorite place of retirement, he thrice opened the Scriptures where they detail the passion of the Lord. This was interpreted to mean that in some way he was to be brought into mysterious conformity with the death of the Redeemer. While praying, he experienced a most passionate desire to be crucified with Christ, and saw, or imagined he saw, a seraph with six wings; two were arched over the head, two veiled the body, and two were stretched for flight. Amid these wings appeared the likeness of the Crucified. Joy filled the soul of Francis, but grief also pierced his heart like a sword. The vision vanished, but left him in an indescribable condition of delight and awe. His body, like wax exhibiting the impression of the seal, now showed the stigmata. Each hand and foot was pierced in the middle by a nail. The heads of the nails, round and black like nails of iron, were on the palms of the hands and fore part of the feet. The points of the nails, which appeared on the other side, were bent backward on the wounds they had made. Though somewhat movable, they could not be drawn out. St. Clare tried, but failed, to do it after his death. From a deep-red wound of three fingers' breadth in his left side, as if he had been pierced by a lance, the sacred blood then and frequently afterward flowed upon his tunic. These wounds never gangrened nor suppurated, nor did he try to heal them. Hands and feet could be used as aforetime, but walking became so difficult that on subsequent journeys he usually rode on horseback. Countless miracles were ascribed to these wounds. Fifty Franciscan brethren declared that they had seen them at one and the same time. Pope Alexander IV publicly affirmed that he too had seen them with his own eyes.

Christine de Stumbele, born near Cologne in 1242, and a hysterical, epileptic, and erotic woman, not only bore the five wounds on Good-Friday, but also the crown of thorns on Tuesday of Passion Week, and the bloody sweat on Holy Thursday. The details of her experiences, as given by Dr. William A. Hammond in his work on "Nervous Derangement," are what the English would call decidedly "nasty." Besides, she avowed possession and torment by a devil, which is not at all unlikely, in view of her filthy and degraded habits. Yet she is now honored as a saint by the majority of the Roman Catholic Church in that section of Europe.

Veronica Giuliani, a capuchin nun who died at Città di Castello in 1727, in an ecstasy prayed that she might be crucified with her Saviour, and saw five brilliant flaming rays issue from his wounds. Four represented the nails, and the fifth the lance. Heart, hands, and feet were simultaneously pierced, water and blood flowed from the side, great pain was suffered, and she also "felt herself transformed into our Lord. Her stigmata were accepted as genuine gifts of God by the Inquisition, Pope Pius VII beatified her, and Gregory XVI canonized her on the 26th of May, 1839.

Anna Catharine Emmerich, a nun of Dülmen, after long previous illness, experienced full stigmatization in 1811, was repeatedly examined by the authorities, endured great pain, and always emitted blood on Fridays. The same thing is affirmed of Maria von Mörl, at Kaltern, in southern Tyrol, who after illness received the stigmata in 1833. More than forty thousand visitors went to see them. Maria Domenica Lazzari, of Capriani, is said to have borne the marks of Christ's passion on her forehead, hands, feet, and side from 1834 until 1850, and to have felt from them the most terrible physical pain.

Palma d'Oria, an Italian woman of sixty-six, visited by Dr. Imbert Gourbeyre in 1871, is or was confessedly another diabolically tormented, angelically visited Individual, and was also an expert prestidigitateuse whose performances were too blasphemous and shocking to be used for purposes of scientific information. Her stigmata left no scars to indicate the places whence the blood had flowed. She insisted that she had not eaten anything for seven years, but had been obliged to drink a great deal because of the fierce internal heat which consumed her. This was so intense that the water swallowed was ejected at boiling temperature.

The latest and most celebrated instance of stigmatization is Louise Lateau, born in the deepest poverty at Bois d'Haine, Belgium, January 30, 1850. Chlorotic, unhealthy, and hysterical from childhood, subject to visions of saints and the Holy Virgin, and wont when in ecstasy to utter very edifying things of poverty, charity, and the priesthood, her stigmatizations have occurred after passing through her paroxysms. On Fridays she bled from the left side of her chest, blood escaped from the dorsal surfaces of both feet, and from the dorsal and palmar surfaces of both hands. Finally, other points of exit appeared in the forehead and between the shoulders. In her seizures she was insensible to all external impressions, and acted the passion of Jesus and the crucifixion. She also declared that she did not sleep, had not eaten or drunk for four years, and that the ordinary excretory processes of the body had been wholly suppressed.

America, of course, can not be excluded from the list of the lands of wonders. Fortunately, it presents but one example of the stigmatized. This is said to be Vitaline Gagnon, in the diocese of Quebec, a young woman whose early piety was demonstrated by the repetition of Ave Marias among the tombs, and who loved the souls in purgatory so much that they often made themselves visible to ask for the benefit of her prayers. On making her profession as a member of the Sœurs Grises at Ottawa she received the stigmata. Since then she had bled every Friday, suffered terribly, taken no nourishment, exhaled perfumes from her wounds, offered all her sufferings for souls in purgatory, is stout of body, and shows signs of perfect health.

Are the stigmata miraculous, or may they be accounted for on pathological principles? Two answers are given to this question. The first is purely theological, or rather ecclesiastical; the second is purely scientific. Mediæval ecclesiasticism affirms them to be miraculous; science maintains that they are natural. Roman Catholicism holds them to be miraculous, but does not make it an article of faith that all its adherents must believe. The Franciscan friars, and also the majority of Roman Catholics, fervently believed and stoutly insisted that the stigmatization of Francis Bernardone was miraculous. Dean Milman says that this almost became the creed of Christendom. "The declaration of Pope Alexander, the ardent protector of the mendicant friars, imposed it almost as an article of the belief." Nicholas IV, who was himself a Franciscan, asserted the stigmata of St. Francis; a papal bull in 1255 vindicated the claims of the miracle; and Pope Benedict XI set apart the 17th of September of each year as the feast of the Holy Stigmata. The Dominicans, irreconcilable rivals of the Franciscans, represented the whole affair as an imposture invented to raise the credit of their competitors for papal and popular favor. The Bishop of Olmutz denounced the alleged miracle as irrational. The Dominican, Jacob de Voragine, did not deny the fact of the stigmata, but assigned five causes for them. All resolve themselves into the first, which is imagination. Petrarch, Cornelius Agrippa, etc., attributed the stigmatization of Bernardone to his glowing fancy, or to an excited imagination acting on a body enfeebled by sickness and religious mortifications.

As for Palma d'Oria, after reading Dr. Hammond's relation of her absurd impostures, it is difficult not to conclude with him that she was syphilitic, strongly hysterical, the subject of purpura hæmorrhagica, and "a most unmitigated humbug and liar."

Neander adopts the theory of Voragine, and thinks that the story of the stigmata of Francis of Assisi sprang "from the self-deception of a fanatical bent of the imagination, and from fancied exaggeration," His language is that of the true philosophic scientist. The phenomena, whatever they were, in the case of St. Francis should be studied in the light of his character. As a youth he was vain, gay, and prodigal; of ethical education so neglected and perverse that after his reformation he did not scruple to steal from his father in order that he might repair the dilapidated church of St. Damian. Regarded alike by his neighbors and by Innocent III as a madman, and undoubtedly half-crazy and fanatical, lie pretended to the gifts of prophecy and miracles. Beggar and nurse of lepers, pious and beneficent, he was still so deficient in moral sense as to set filial duty and parental authority at defiance, and to lure three imaginative sisters of rank and fortune into a life similar to his own. Ascetic, unnatural, and a devotee, he approached so near to utter insanity that the Mohammedan Sultan of Egypt, whom he essayed to convert to his Christianity, was fully warranted in tenderly dismissing him as a lunatic. Blameless, gentle, loving, and fondly pantheistic in sentiment, his energies were wholly consecrated to the support of the endangered papacy, and the establishment of its claims against all dissenters. Such a miracle as that he affirmed would, in a grossly superstitious age, be a patent aid to him in his work. Great good and no small evil were blended in one and the same man; good that voiced itself in many memorable sayings, and induced him to conceal what he himself seems to have doubted—the marks on his hands by covering them with his habit, and on his feet by wearing shoes and stockings. There is no known limit to human credulity, and particularly in an age so illiterate and unscientific. The ecclesiastics had an adequate motive in their claim to complete dominance over the human race for bolstering up his pretensions, and for elevating the abnormal experiences of a kindly monomaniac to the rank of a miracle. Not less powerful is the motive that Belgian ecclesiastics have for upholding the claims of Louise Lateau, whose personal reward is in notoriety, rich presents, and the lavish praises of wily or superstitious advisers.

Modern medical science asserts the naturalness of the stigmata. In harmony with Neander's suggestion, it looks upon the story of St. Francis, of Lateau, and of others, as one "with regard to which it still needs and deserves inquiry to what extent, in certain eccentric states of the system, a markedly overexcited fancy might react on the bodily organism." The closest attention has been paid to Louise Lateau. M. Warlomont, commissioned by the Royal Academy of Medicine of Belgium to examine her, accompanied by several friends, made a careful examination of her person. The subject went through her regular programme. At six o'clock on Friday morning blood was freely flowing from all the stigmata. Then, as also at other times, there was no apparent external excitation of the hæmorrhage. The blood effused was of normal character, excepting the excessive amount of white corpuscles. So far, all seemed to be genuine. She did, however, when closely questioned, confess to short periods of forgetfulness at night. A cupboard in her room contained bread and fruit, and her chamber communicated directly with the yard at the back of the house. M. Warlomont concluded that the ecstasies and stigmatizations were real, and that she ate, drank, slept, etc., like other mortals. Closely watched and deprived of food as the poor little fasting Welsh girl, Sarah Jacob, was, she would as certainly die. Even Dr. Tanner could not indefinitely resist so great a drain on vital force. Outraged nature would put further maltreatment beyond power of infliction.

Dr. D. H. Tuke, in his "Influence of the Mind upon the Body," adduces numerous instances of the fact that intense sympathetic attention to the physical injuries or pains of another produces similar phenomena and experiences in the sympathizer. Medical men show the connection between skin-diseases and nervous derangement. Urticaria, or hives, in children is the effect of emotional disturbance. In the disease known as purpura hæmorrhagica, Dr. Hammond states that "the blood is deficient in red corpuscles, while there is an increase in the white globules. . . . The affection is further characterized by a tendency of the blood to transude through the coats of the vessels." Boerhaave relates the case of a young girl who had ampullæ, or dilatations resembling little jugs, on various parts of her body, from which the blood flowed copiously, and which then, like those of Palma d'Oria, closed up without leaving any trace. Similar examples, more or less striking, are well known to dermatologists. From these deposits of blood in weakened, hysterical subjects, hæmorrhages follow closely on the occurrence of strong emotion. Thus Francis of Assisi, Louise Lateau, and others, thoroughly excited by passionate devotion and desire to exhibit the stigmata—where such exhibition has been the dominant idea, and the momentary expectation of its outbreak has been entertained—have unconsciously so directed the currents of nervous energy that the very phenomena desiderated have become visible. There may not have been anything but a remote correspondence between these phenomena and the wounds of the Redeemer, but extravagant fancy would at once ignore the discrepancy. Superstition always believes what it wants to believe, and the common experience of humanity is that each individual can usually behold what he desires to see. Deceivableness is one of the qualities of the human race. Dr. Hammond quotes as the counterpart of the so-called miraculous instances of the stigmata from Dr. Magnus Huss, of Stockholm, Sweden, as cited by M. Bourneville, the case of Maria K——, a servant-girl, aged twenty-three, from whose skin the blood oozed in various places after emotional disturbance. "When the exuding surface was examined with a lens, no trace of excoriation of the skin was discovered. . . . The most careful inspection failed to show any sign of a cicatrix." She naturally became the object of great curiosity, and, finding that she could cause the phenomena to take place at will, frequently produced the hæmorrhage desired by seeking the excitement of a quarrel with some other patient. Without such assistance, she could also, by the mere effort of will, produce the mental condition from which the bleeding resulted. There is an "absolute identity in all essential respects of the cases of Maria K——  and Louise Lateau," and, it may be added, of Francis Bernardone and all other stigmatists. Many other instances like that of Maria K——  are mentioned by dermatologists.

The stigmata are worthless except as proving the influence of the mind over the body, and in this influence the power of thought, affection, and will upon its nutrition, force, and availability for service, or the contrary. They prove nothing in favor of Christianity as divine, nor of the superiority of one form of Christianity over another, or over any system of religion and ethics. They unquestionably prove nothing in favor of the moral excellence of the subjects, and certainly not that the stigmata of Francis were, as the popes declared, "the special and wonderful favor vouchsafed to him in Christ." He was not, even in later years, an ideally good man; Lateau is not of the loftiest character; Palma and the Stumbele woman were vile, and the Swedish girl utterly unscrupulous. The stigmata are useful, if useful at all, simply because they furnish material for scientific investigation, and because they warn against the dangerous material and moral conditions under which such abnormal phenomena become possible. The "Liber Conformitatum" and many other volumes exemplify the tendencies of ignorant superstition. Francis was exalted above Christ. His worship in prayer and in picture vied with that of the Redeemer. Indignant reaction from the degrading absurdity was attended by the bitterest satire and the rudest burlesque, and wrought fearful damage alike to reason, religion, and good morals.

Truth is only for those who supremely desire it. Belief, if not faith, is largely a matter of inheritance, of education, of circumstance, of preference, of will. In the debate which followed the presentation of M. Warlomont's report to the Royal Academy of Medicine of Belgium on the subject of Louise Lateau, the opinions of the speakers were in agreement with their predilections. "M. Lefebvre held to his view of miracle in the case, and M. Crocq declared that it did not pass beyond the category of pathological occurrences." Finally, the Academy decided to have nothing more to do with the matter.

Concerning the relative value of classical and modern language studies, Prof. Seeley thinks that much depends on how far the classical method is pursued, whether it be first rate or not. For persons intended for an early apprenticeship to active life and business, a good knowledge of English and of modern languages may be made a much more effective instrument of culture than the very bad knowledge of Latin and Greek which is all that they usually acquire.