Feature Articles Stigmata
In the movie Stigmata, a strange mixture of stigmata, exorcism, the intrigues of the Vatican and the suppression of secret documents are all mingled into one, to come up with an explosive story.
by Philip Coppens
Stigmata, as the movie makes clear, are normally only found on the most devout Christians. Nevertheless, the presence of stigmata on the body is a rather recent phenomenon; its presence is reported in less than half of Christianity’s life.
No stigmatics are known prior to the 13th century. The first mentioned is St. Francis of Assisi, in whom the stigmata were of a character never seen subsequently; in the wounds of feet and hands were excrescences of flesh representing nails, those on one side having round back heads, those on the other having rather long points, which bent back and grasped the skin. Afterwards, stigmatics have had the “normal” signs of the Passion: bleeding hands and feets, faces, etc. Some 300-odd stigmatics have been identified. One of the best known stigmatics of the 20th century was Padre Pio da Pietrelcina Born in 1887, he was tutored privately until the age of 15 when he joined the Capuchin Friars where he took the Franciscan dress and the name Brother Pio. After a childhood typified by ill health, on September 20, 1918, the five wounds resembling Christ’s crucifixion appeared on Padre Pio’s body.
On a letter he wrote describing how the wounds first appeared, he talked of a drowsiness that overcame him after celebrating Mass one morning. The drowsiness was accompanied with a great peace and indescribable stillness. At that time he saw a person whose hands, feet and side were dripping with blood. As he woke from the vision he realized his own hands, feet and side were bleeding accompanied with much pain. Padre Pio bore these wounds for the next 50 years, until several days before he died on September 23, 1968.
On top of the suffering due to his health and stigmata, Padre Pio is said to have suffered from the mental and physical attacks of Satan. One day in July of 1964 the monks found Padre Pio on the floor of his room so badly beaten up he could not say Mass for several days after that. He also had a severe cut on his forehead that required stitches. In another letter he wrote that Satan beat him continually, filled his mind with diabolical suggestions, thoughts of despair, and distrust in God. Apparently, when his dead body was examined by doctors they found it to be without a drop of blood left in it. The other strange thing they found was that his wounds had completely healed without even leaving a scar. The existence of stigmata is so well established that they are no longer disputed by unbelievers. Physicians do not succeed in curing these wounds with remedies. On the other hand, unlike natural wounds, those of stigmatics do not give forth a fetid odour. It is powerful evidence that the wounds are not self-inflicted, as in this case, the wound would be a normal. Sometimes these wounds even give forth perfumes, for example those of Juana of the Cross, a Franciscan prioress of Toledo, and Lucy of Narni.
Sceptics find stigmata difficult to deal with. Do they have a supernatural cause, or is it evidence of mind over body? Either of these is unpopular with sceptics, who prefer the hard nature of reality, whereby the power of mind or a “Global Mind” – God – is a slave unit of matter. Whereas some stigmatics may have faked their stigmata, the overall number is too large and too well researched to maintain that all have faked the wounds.
Some stigmatics have “visible” stigmata: the wounds of the Passions; others have the sensation of pain that accompanies these stigmata; in the movie, Frankie Paige, the main character, has both. Furthermore, she has almost all wounds of the passion, not just some (e.g. bleeding hands).
St. Catherine of Siena at first had visible stigmata, but through humility she asked that they might be made invisible, and her prayer was heard. The sufferings may be considered the essential part of stigmata; it identifies the victim not merely with the body of Jesus during the Passion, but also with the physical pain he had to endure.
It is felt that the experience is there to aid the stigmatic in its own, or Mankind’s expiation of sin. If the sufferings were absent, the wounds would be but an empty symbol, theatrical representation, conducing to pride. If the stigmata really come from God, it would be unworthy of His wisdom to participate in such futility, and to do so by a miracle. It seems historically certain that ecstatics alone bear the stigmata; moreover, they have visions which correspond to their role of co-sufferers, beholding from time to time the blood-stained scenes of the Passion. With many stigmatics these apparitions were periodical. St. Catherine de’ Ricci’s ecstasies of the Passion began when she was twenty (1542), and the Bull of her canonization states that for twelve years they recurred with minute regularity. The ecstasy lasted exactly 28 hours, from Thursday noon till Friday afternoon at 4 PM, the only interruption being for her to receive Holy Communion. Catherine conversed aloud, as if enacting a drama. This drama was divided into about seventeen scenes. On coming out of the ecstasy the saint’s limbs were covered with wounds produced by whips, cords, etc. Are stigmata the result of the imagination, or do they have a supernatural cause? No one has ever claimed that imagination could produce wounds in a normal subject. But the problem is more difficult when we note that most stigmatics also have visions. Though this could be likened to a state of hypnosis, the suggestive state of hypnosis is not powerful enough to create these effects. Is a supernatural phenomenon responsible for the stigmata? Perhaps, but perhaps in a less than straightforward way.
It is another movie, The Matrix, which posits that Neo will die in the matrix – a fictional reality – if he believes that it is real. If he understands totally that nothing can harm him, he will be invincible – and he will be a master of his destiny in there. Though simple as this message may be, in fact, the Matrix appears so real that it is easy to “believe” it is real and live by its rules – even though the Mind knows it is not.
Can we draw a parallel to the visions of the stigmatics, which to them are so real that they get completely absorbed in the vision they have, so much so that their mind identifies with Jesus, and their body identifies with the wounds? In this scenario, what is intriguing would be to see how these visions come about – and whether they themselves have a supernatural cause. In the movie, the stigmatic is not a devout Christian. If anything, she is a reluctant victim. Furthermore, she is not a genuine stigmatic; the stigmata are a side result of her possession by the soul of a priest, whose possession has been induced in her by a magical charm. Here, we are not in the realm of Christian stigmatics, but of pagan charms. Furthermore, it is clear that the “possessing spirit” induces the signs of the stigmata in Frankie Paige, so that she will be noted by the Vatican, which the possessing soul tries to use to bring out a message the Vatican has been trying to suppress in his life. In the end, it is a somewhat concocted manner of going about things for the deceased priest (the possessing spirit), for it is clear he could have accomplished this in his own life as well.
Small wonder therefore that the Church – though for reasons of its own – decides to perform an exorcism on the victim. In this case, we have no spinning heads; the possessing spirit would be quite willing to leave the victim’s body, provided that its wishes are granted. The central message of the movie shifts from an atheist stigmatic to the suppression of a lost gospel. This story is largely taken from Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh’s The Dead Sea Scroll Deception, in which a powerful commission of translators, aided by the Vatican, is accused of stalling translation works of gospels that once translated, may show minor or major errors in the four gospels that are part of the Bible and that form the backbone of the Christian belief.
Patricia Arquette’s character (Frankie Paige) must write and speak Aramaic, an ancient language spoken at the time of Christ that has largely been forgotten. Some scholars believe that this was the actual tongue spoken by Jesus, according to a specialist hired to instruct the actress in speaking Aramaic. William Schniedewind, Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies and Northwest Semitic Languages at UCLA, was hired to recreate what Aramaic would sound like if spoken in the tongue of someone using the language two thousand years ago. The film concludes with a reference to the Gospel of Thomas, which is part of the Nag Hammadi library, discovered in Egypt in 1945. The library is a collection of documents, believed to have originated by the Gnostics, a group of Christians that had a different view on the role of Jesus. In the 4th century, their viewpoint was manu militari attacked, which resulted in the documents being hidden. The library is important as it provided a new insight into the Gnostics beliefs; before, the Gnostics were only known through the writings of those who denounced them.
The gospel is intriguing, as it opens with “These are the secret words, which the living Jesus spoke, and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.” Straight from the first sentence, we find that according to this gospel, Jesus provided a secret teaching which was different – or more detailed – than his public teachings. Christians explain this away, as according to them, there was no inner core or secrecy regarding Jesus’s message. This, in the end, is what the movie is really about. It is not about stigmata, but about two group of people trying to retrieve the message of original Christianity. In this battle, the stigmatic is only but a toy being played by both sides – whereby the “good guys” do not see the harm they are doing – via the stigmata – to an ordinary person and the “bad guys” get so upset with the possessed girl that unlawful incarceration and even murder is considered – and almost executed.