StigmataReligion is believed by many to be a necessary evil; in the ancient times of barbarism, it provided a structure and framework to human existence. Nothing and no-one can exist outside the framework of religion. Even atheists define themselves in accordance to their lack of belief in God. Whether or not the Almighty actually exists, His framework is all encompassing and largely unavoidable. Fear of what lies in the afterlife often compels mankind to adhere to mystic rituals and engage in a somewhat fanatical behavior.

Religion is always shrouded in mystery. There is a certain group of individuals who hold their beloved savior, Jesus Christ, so close to their hearts that they develop sores and often bleed from certain locations in their body that correspond to the five Holy Wounds that Christ received during his crucifixion (wounds in the hands and feet, and in the side).

Some individuals bear no wounds but experience the pain, whilst others have wounds in which the blood does not clot. The wounds of some bleed perfumed blood, and then here are those who bleed only during certain times of the year. These individuals are known as stigmatics, and the phenomenon is referred to as ‘Stigmata’. Such occurrences are common amongst those belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. The subject of Stigmata is under constant scrutiny – some view it to be a miraculous proof of the existence of a supernatural power, whilst others believe it to be a hoax. However, there is almost always a scientific explanation behind the claims of most modern day stigmatics.

The first ever stigmatization was experienced by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1224, following which, over 300 cases have been reported till the end of the 19th century. One of the most famous and well-documented cases of stigmata is that of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. An Italian Roman Catholic Priest (born in 1887), and due to his stigmatization, he is now venerated by the Vatican as a saint. Padre Pio engaged in long periods of fasting and abstinence. In 1918, he underwent a period of religious ecstasy, and ‘received’ a vision of Christ and subsequently developed permanent, visible bleeding wounds that stayed intact throughout the remainder of his life. Those closest to him claimed that along with stigmata, he had received several other ‘gifts’ from God, such as the power of bilocation, healing, levitation, the ability to read hearts, the gift of tongues and fragrant blood in his wounds. It is known that he was examined by various physicians. Yet strangely, the results of these examinations were never shared with the larger public. This may be due to the fact that after the culmination of the First World War, Padre Pio was a symbol of hope to the defeated and disillusioned Italian public, and the church authorities probably understood the importance of hope during such times of despair.

In recent times, the numbers of cases have increased dramatically; over 500 cases have now been recorded. Today, growing numbers of ordinary people – rather than mystics or members of religious orders have begun to report stigmata. However, the Vatican now approaches stigmata with a great deal of skepticism. Many stigmatic wounds have been proven to be self-inflicted. Most stigmatics suffer from Munchausen’s syndrome which is characterized by an intense desire for attention. Other stigmatics inflict wounds in order to earn a living, duping innocent believers who travel far and wide and pay hefty sums just to visit the ‘blessed’ individuals and receive what they believe to be ‘the healing touch’. Scientists have proven the blood to be of chemical origin, and the wounds to be inflicted not by nails, but by knives and glass. Irrespective of the validity of these accounts of stigmata, the church aggrandizes them to serve as proof of the validity of the Christian doctrine. The Vatican chooses to remain tight-lipped with regard to stigmata. However, their hesitancy sensationalizes the tales of stigmatics and gives the issue sufficient publicity.

Not all cases of stigmata can be scientifically explained. There are genuine cases of mystical wounds appearing miraculously and bleeding without clotting. These cases arise not out of a union with Christ, but out of a deep love and reverence for Christ’s sacrifice. They symbolize a religious faith so strong and so profoundly incarnate that it causes the individual embodiment of the contemplated pain of the Messiah Christ. Theologians argue that stigmata is not the result of being ‘chosen’ by God. In fact, it is the outcome of ‘choosing’ to empathize with God to such a degree that one’s body begins to emulate the consequences of the torture that Christ underwent.

According to sociologists, accounts of stigmata (whether valid or not) are crucial for the survival of the religious framework. In current times of scientific progress, the public is able to rationally question the oddities in religion. Ostensibly, such a questioning spirit would lead to enlightenment, but anthropological studies show that the complete absence of religion would lead to a dark period in the history of man – a dystopia era that would be characterized by a complete lack of hope, and an absence of faith in any power outside mankind (and with the passage of time, all faith in mankind too would invariably be lost – for who would love a man without basic moral goodness – and what moral goodness would exist without the fear of a supernatural judge or of karmic retribution). Without any belief in a God, why would any fear of damnation exist? And without any fear of damnation, which man wouldn’t be unabashedly self-serving? Therefore, in a strange and oppressive way, belief in religion and fear of God does indeed keep society in check (even if to the slightest degree). It may be argued that religion is growing increasingly oppressive and that it is the cause of a large degree of the issues that plague modern society (and such arguments are perfectly justified). However, it cannot be denied that religion arose due to a need to civilize society. Today, a belief in the supernatural is required for the very reason. Stigmata serves a dual purpose, it invokes our imagination, and it attempts to reaffirm our belief in the mystical, non-scientific realm of the supernatural, so as to restore the faith of the public in a God who does indeed exist.

Rayman Gill