PART 5 - The Unitive Way of the Perfect
Ch 56: Stigmatization and
In recent years a study has again been made of the following problem: Can suggestion and autosuggestion produce the stigmata, that is, the marks of our Lord's passion, which a number of saints during ecstasy have received on their feet, hands, side, and forehead, with intense sufferings extraordinarily reminiscent of those of Christ crucified for us? These wounds appear without having been caused by any exterior wound, and periodically fresh blood flows from them. The first known stigmatic is St. Francis of Assisi. Since his day the cases have multiplied, but it seems certain that stigmatization occurs only in ecstatics and is preceded and accompanied by very acute physical and moral sufferings, which configure the soul to Jesus crucified. Can so exceptional a phenomenon be explained by suggestion in certain highly emotional subjects, as some unbelievers claim?
This question is examined at length by several physicians, psychologists, and theologians in the well documented number of the Etudes carmelitaines for October, 1936.(1)
Dr. Lhermitte, associate professor in the Medical School in Paris, offers a negative reply to this problem in an interesting report. He says:
We know specifically that Pierre Janet tried unsuccessfully for long years to produce stigmata by hypnotic suggestion.
The opinion opposed to that of Professor Lhermitte is defended in the same number of the Etudes by Dr. van Gehuchten of the University of Louvain (3) and Dr. Wunderle of the University of Würzburg.(4) Both of them think that, under the influence of suggestion, local vasomotor manifestations may be produced which go so far as the formation of blisters and hemorrhages. Dr. Wunderle cites a case of this kind, produced by suggestion in a Protestant woman in Dr. Lechler's sanatarium in Germany.
The second of these opinions has, we believe, in its favor only confused and weak data, as Professor Lhermitte says.
In favor of the traditional doctrine, we are happy to point out here what Father Louis Sempe, S.J., wrote recently in an excellent article on this subject after the Congress of Avon-Fontainebleau.(5) We quote this article all the more willingly because it expresses very exactly what we ourselves would have wished to say had we taken part in the congress. We shall italicize what seems to us most important in it.
Father Sempe believed, though without reason, that we conceded conditionally (if the facts are exact) Dr. Wunderle's opinion. This impression was created by the manner in which Father Lavaud, O.P., of the University of Fribourg, in this same number of the Etudes,(6) expressed at one and the same time his own thought and our opinion, forgetting to mention a traditional argument, which has always seemed to us very important and on which we shall insist at the end of this chapter.
Father Sempe justly remarks:
It has also been occasionally observed that when the stigmatic is lying on his back, the blood flows from the wounds in his feet as it flowed from Christ's wounds, and therefore in the direction contrary to gravity.
The abundance of the hemorrhages is also unexplained. The stigmata are generally on the surface, far from the large blood vessels, and yet they bleed copiously.(10)
These physical particularities of stigmatic wounds differentiate them notably, in fact, from other wounds, as Dr. Lhermitte pointed out. And the description which is generally given of the stigmata of the saints presents these physical particularities and likewise the moral circumstances of this exceptional fact, notably the lively compassion for the sufferings of our Savior.
Special attention should be paid to the fact that the stigmata, properly so called, are found only in persons who practice the most heroic virtues, and who have in particular great love of the cross.
Stigmatics enter into the depths of the mystery of the redemption, into the secret of the moral and physical sufferings of Christ, or of His immolation for the salvation of sinners. Here is something that has no relation to the patients of clinics for nervous diseases. It is precisely to recall His dolorous passion to our indifferent minds and hearts that our Savior chooses victims whom He thus visibly or invisibly configures occasionally to His crucifixion.
To neglect this loftier aspect in stigmatization, in order to be able to explain this fact naturally, is to consider in it only the material cause while closing one's eyes to the formal cause and to the final cause, consequently to the true efficient cause. It is as if one defined a statue solely by the wood or marble of which it is made, prescinding from its form, its true end, and the artist who had this end in view. To explain the superior by the inferior, naturalism should, like materialism, reduce the superior to its material cause, that is to say, disfigure it to the point of making it unrecognizable. The natural ecchymoses of which we are speaking resemble true stigmata as glass beads resemble diamonds.
Moreover, just as to judge well of a human act, of its meaning, and its import, one must be attentive to its circumstances, each of which theologians study in particular and enumerate in the wellknown expression: Quis, quid, ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando,(11) so to judge rightly of the meaning and import of an exceptional fact like stigmatization, one should most attentively note its physical and moral circumstances. Special attention should be paid to those related to the stigmatic's end (cur), manifested either before, by a prayer or a promise, or afterward, by the effects, by a great love of the cross; those relating to the object (quid), for example, the corporeal wounds produce keen physical suffering accompanied by a delicious spiritual wound, which, as St. Teresa (12) and St. John of the Cross (13) say, can come only from God; those relating to the person (quis), which consist in the fact that he is humble, obedient, animated by a great charity; those relative to the means (quibis auxiliis), by the exclusion of all clever trickery and occultism; lastly, those relative to the time and the place (ubi et quando).
If all these circumstances are favorable, one may have moral certitude of the supernatural origin of the stigmata. It is evident that it is not a question of a pathological fact, but that there is in the case the intervention of a free and intelligent cause which acts on the stigmatics to configure them to Jesus crucified.
Finally, God alone can produce what is most lofty in stigmatization: the spiritual wound of the heart, which St. Teresa speaks of in the sixth mansion.(14) This wound, which has as its effect an ardent desire for God and a great love of the cross, attains the most intimate depth of the spiritual will; therefore it can come only from God. It is at one and the same time most painful and delightful, and, as St. Teresa says, the soul would wish never to recover from it.l(15)
A study has recently been made again as to whether great supernatural compassion for the sufferings of our Savior, intensified by ecstasy, may have as a natural result the corporeal stigmata.
St. Francis de Sales replies in the negative to this question in his Treatise on the Love of God, where he says: "Love has wonderful power to sharpen the imagination, so that it may penetrate even to the exterior. . . . But the love which was within [St. Francis of AssisiJ simply could not produce openings in the flesh on the exterior. That is why the burning seraphim, coming to its help, darted at the saint rays of such penetrating light that it actually pierced the flesh with the exterior wounds of the Crucified which love had imprinted interiorly on the soul"(16)
The reply given by St. Francis de Sales is confirmed by the following traditional argument quoted by Benedict XIV,(17) Many men and women saints of widely different temperaments have had a very intense supernatural compassion for the sufferings of our Savior, and have not had the stigmata, which appear for the first time in the thirteenth century in St. Francis of Assisi. No one has ever affirmed that the Blessed Virgin, St. Mary Magdalen, or St. John the Evangelist had these divine corporeal wounds, and yet who more greatly compassionated the sufferings of Jesus crucified? Likewise, since the thirteenth century, many men and women saints, of widely divergent temperaments, with or without ecstasy, have had this lively supernatural compassion without having the stigmata. Among them are even great mystics, like St. John of the Cross, who have had a lofty degree of infused contemplation, accompanied by ecstasy and even the spiritual wound of the heart.
Does this not prove that the stigmata are not the natural consequence of lively supernatural compassion, and that ardent love does not suffice to produce them? Such is the conclusion of Bartholomew of Pisa and, after him, of Theophilus Raynaud, of Benedict XIV(18) as opposed to Francesco Petrarch and Pomponazzi. This traditional argument is undoubtedly quite general, but in our opinion it preserves all its value. In recent discussions, it was not sufficiently examined and nothing was adduced that could weaken it.
In the number of the Etudes carmelitaines already mentioned, Dom Aloysius Mager, O.S.B., dean of the Faculty of Theology of Salzburg, and Dr. Wunderle, of Würzburg, strongly incline to consider stigmatization as the ideoplastic contrecoup on the organism of the infused contemplation of Jesus crucified. In their opinion it would, thanks to the power of the imagination, be a natural result of a great supernatural compassion. As the apprehension of blushing makes one blush, the imagination united to a lively supernatural emotion could produce corporeal stigmata. This is a return to the ideoplastic theory which St. Francis de Sales rejected. What is it worth?
Father Sempe, in the article we quoted, offers a just criticism of this explanation:
Theologians have often asked how it is that the majority of stigmatics received the divine wounds without suggestion or autosuggestion, without expecting them, and without wishing them?
Blessed Raymond of Capua relates in his Life of St. Catherine of Siena,(20) that on August 18, 1370, the saint received the stigmata in an altogether unexpected manner following a prayer and a divine promise of the salvation of several persons; stigmatization was produced to confirm this promise. The absolutely unforeseen pain was as sharp as if her hand had been pierced with an iron nail driven by a hammer. At the petition of the saint, the stigmata remained invisible during her life. Later in the presence of several witnesses worthy of credence, the supernatural renewal of the fact took place with such effect that the saint swooned suddenly before their eyes, as if she had been mortally wounded. The fact and its supernatural origin are, moreover, attested by the saint, and her testimony is confirmed by the humility of her entire life, which led her to ask and obtain immediately the invisibility of this exceptional favor. In this case we see how all the physical and moral circumstances of the fact confirm its origin.
Thus we return to the explanation offered by St. Francis de Sales, which seems the wisest. It is our crucified Lord Himself who, by means of luminous rays, imprints the wounds on the bodies of stigmatics, whom He wishes to configure to His passion that He may remind us of it. Evidently the traditional argument of Bartholomew of Pisa, preserved by Benedict XIV, retains all its value. To sum it up again: Many men and women saints, of widely different temperaments, have been absorbed with ardent love in the infused contemplation of the sufferings of Christ and, nevertheless, they have not had the stigmata. Among them must be numbered the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. John the Evangelist, St. Mary Magdalen, and many others prior to St. Francis of Assisi, the first stigmatic, and many others subsequent to him. This is a sign that ardent love, united to infused contemplation, does not suffice to produce the stigmata. Christ Jesus grants them to whom He will, when He will, and as He will. Stigmatization is an essentially extraordinary grace that is not in the normal way of sanctity.
By levitation is understood the phenomenon of the elevation of the human body above the ground without any apparent cause and in such a way that it remains in the air without any natural support. This phenomenon is also called ascensional ecstasy, ecstatic flight, or ecstatic walking when the body seems to run rapidly without touching the ground.
The Bollandists relate numerous cases of levitation. They cite particularly those attested in the lives of St. Joseph of Cupertino (September 18), St. Philip Neri (May 26), St. Peter of Alcantara (OctoBer 19), St. Francis Xavier (December 3), St. Stephen of Hungary (September 2), St. Paul of the Cross (April 28), and others. It is related that St. Joseph of Cupertino, seeing some workmen having trouble in trying to put up a very heavy mission cross, took his aerial flight, seized the cross, and without effort placed it in the hole destined for it.
In contradistinction to levitation, they cite cases of extraordinary weight of the bodies of certain saints: for example, when an attempt was made to violate and drag St. Lucy of Syracuse to a place of debauchery, her body remained fixed to the earth like the pillar of a church.
Suggestion or autosuggestion of hysterical persons has never been able to provoke levitation. After an examination extending over several years, Professor Janet of Paris was able to establish that the body of the person was never raised, even a millimeter, even sufficiently to slip a cigarette paper between his feet and the ground.(21)
Rationalists have tried to explain naturally the levitation proved in the case of several saints by the deep breathing of air into the lungs; but, in the face of the manifest insufficiency of this reason, they have had to have recourse to an unknown psychic power an explanation that is merely so many words.
Benedict XIV states the traditional and reasonable explanation.(22) He requires first of all that the fact be well proved in order to avoid all trickery. Then he shows: (I) that because of the law of gravity, well-proved levitation cannot be naturally explained; (2) that it does not, however, exceed the powers of angels and the devil, who can lift bodies up; (3) that consequently the physical, moral, and religious circumstances of the fact must be carefully examined to see whether there is not diabolical intervention; and that, when the circumstances are favorable, one can and must see in it a divine or angelic intervention, which grants to the bodies of the saints an anticipation of the gift of agility which is proper to glorified bodies.
Ecstatics occasionally present luminous phenomena; the body is enveloped in light, and in particular the forehead. Benedict XIV examines this fact as he does that of levitation.(23) He points out that one must make sure whether the phenomenon can be explained naturally: at what time of the day or of the night it is produced; whether the light is more brilliant than any other; whether the phenomenon is prolonged for a notable length of time and renewed several times. Particular attention must also be paid to the moral and religious circumstances: whether the phenomenon is produced during a sermon, a prayer, an ecstasy; whether effects of grace, lasting conversions, and so on, result from it; whether the person from whom this light comes is virtuous and holy. If all these attentively examined conditions exist, as it were an anticipation of the brightness of glorified bodies may be seen in this exceptional fact.(24)
During the lifetime of the saints or after their death, their bodies occasionally give off perfumes. The faithful have always seen in this fact a sign of the good odor of the virtues they practiced. This fact has often been proved; in particular the stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi gave off a sweet odor. When St. Teresa died, the water with which her body was washed became perfumed. When, long after his death, the tomb of St. Dominic was opened, his perfectly, preserved body exhaled a celestial odor.
To make sure of the supernatural character of the fact, it should be ascertained whether the sweet odor endures, whether anything near the body can explain it naturally, whether effects of grace result from this exceptional phenomenon.(25)
Lastly, there are saints, especially among the stigmatics, who have lived for months and even years without taking any other food than the Blessed Eucharist. Notable examples of this fact are St. Catherine of Siena, St. Lidwina, Blessed Catherine Racconigi, Blessed Angela of Foligno, and St. Nicholas of Flue.
On this subject Benedict XIV (26) says that the fact must be attentively examined over a considerable length of time by constant surveillance, and by recourse to numerous witnesses expert in detecting trickery. An examination must be made, to determine whether abstinence is total and extends to liquid food as well as to solid nourishment, whether it is lasting, and whether the person continues to devote himself to his occupations. Under such conditions the fact cannot be explained naturally.
The same thing must be said of very prolonged lack of sleep, such as has been proved, for example, in the lives of St. Peter of Alcantara, St. Dominic, and St. Catherine de Ricci.
In these divers exceptional phenomena, after extensive examination of the fact itself, of its physical, moral, and religious circumstances, one sees that the body, far from weighing down the soul, as happens only too often, becomes the instrument of the soul whose spiritual beauty, infused light, and ardent love it allows to shine through. These outward signs are given us from time to time to show us, even in a sensible manner, that perfect Christian life is the prelude of eternal life.
These exceptional phenomena, when superficially examined, are like a stained-glass window in a church seen from without; from the exterior, their meaning and import cannot be grasped. But, when examined more attentively in the twofold light of right reason and faith, they resemble a stained-glass window seen from within under its true light; then all their beauty can be appreciated. We see this particularly when we permeate our souls with the liturgy for the feasts of the stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi and of St. Catherine of Siena. The prayers of the Mass and the Office for these two feasts are of a rare splendor, like those for the Mass of the transverberation of St. Teresa.
To enkindle love for Jesus crucified in the hearts of the faithful,
Paul V extended the feast of the stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi
(September 17) to the universal Church. The prayer for the Mass is
as follows: "Lord Jesus, who at a time when charity was growing cold
in the world, to enkindle our hearts with the fire of Thy love,
didst renew the sacred stigmata of Thy passion in the flesh of the
Blessed Francis, grant us, in Thy goodness, that by his merits and
prayers, we may continually bear the cross and bring forth worthy
fruits of penance. Thou who livest," and so on. In this prayer we
see the great realism of the Church, which to the highest elevation
of thought unites the effective practice of all the virtues.(27)
1. This number of the Etudes contains the reports which were read
and discussed during the conferences held on April 17-19, 1936, in
the monastery of the Carmelites of Avon-Fontainebleau.
2. Etudes carmelitaines (October, 1936), p. 71.
3. Ibid., p. 90.
4. Ibid., p. 158.
5. "A propos d'un congres sur la stigmatisation," Messager du Sacre-Coeur (May, 1937), pp. 18-96.
6. Etudes carmelitaines, p. 191.
7. On the contrary, the smallest natural lesion on another part of the body brings suppuration, even in stigmatics. It should also be observed that the stigmata sometimes last for thirty and forty years.
8. Or again on Friday.
9. DArt. cit., pp. 291 ff.
10. See the case of St. Gemma Galgani and that of St. Veronica Guiliani, studied in the Etudes carmelitaines (October, 1936), pp. 196-204. See also Estrate, Vie de Soeur Marie de Jesus-Crucifie (2nd ed., Paris, 1916), pp. 3642. For a more detailed account see La Vie merveilleuse de Soeur Marie de Jesus-Crucifie (3 vols., Carmel of Pau), p. 6. The former mistress of novices who assisted her during the sufferings of the stigmatization gives the following striking testimony: "Her hands were bathed in blood. I examined them carefully to see where it was coming from, but there was no trace of wounds or of a scratch. I then took a compress to bathe her forehead and, while doing so, I said interiorly: 'I beg Thee, O Lord, make me see where this blood is coming from, so that I can render testimony of this child.' And at the very instant there formed under my hands, a little above the right eyebrow, a hole which seemed to be made by a large thorn. From this hole gushed forth waves of blood. I continued to soak up the blood with a compress, but I noticed that the edges of this hole did not yield like those of an ordinary wound, and then it suddenly closed, or rather disappeared, leaving the skin smooth, without the slightest sign of a lesion. . . . Only the omnipotence of God could in a few moments wound and heal without leaving the slightest trace." On the preceding page, we read that "her feet also bled. The ampulla disappeared and a hole formed which pierced through to the other side of the foot.' It then healed suddenly.
11. Cf. St. Thomas, Ia IIae, q. 7, a.3.
12. The Interior Castle, sixth mansion, chap. 11
13. The Living Flame, st. 2, V. 2.
14. The Interior Castle, sixth mansion, chap. 11.
15. Ibid. On the wound of love, see also St. John of the Cross, The Living Flame, st. 2, v. I, and Father Gabriel of St. Magdalen, C.D., "L'Ecole theresienne et les blessures d'amour mystique," Etudes carmelitaines, October, 1936, p. 208.
16. Bk. VI, chap. 15.
17. De servorum Dei beatificatione, Bk. IV, part I, chap. 33, nos. 13, 19.
18. Loc. cit.
19. Art. cit., p. 294. Moreover, these rays appeared in either an imaginary or a corporeal vision, and they manifest the divine action which produces these corporeal wounds. On the comparison of these facts with morbid phenomena and diabolical manifestations, see infra chaps. 57, 58.
20. Part II, chap. 6.
21. Everybody knows the promises made by Pierre Janet's patient, Madeleine, that she would be lifted into the air like the Blessed Virgin on the feast of the Assumption; she never rose at all. Dr. P. Janet discusses this case at length in his work: De l'angoisse d l'extase (Paris, 1926), "Sentiment de levitation," I, 98, 146 f.
Levitation has never been proved at the Salpetriere.
22. De beatificatione, Bk. III, chap. 49.
23. 0p. cit., Bk. IV, part I, chap. 26, nos. 8-30.
24. On this subject, see Ribet, La Mystique, Part II, chap. 19.
25. Cf. Benedict XIV, op. cit., Bk. IV, part I, chap. 3I, nos. 19-28.
26. Op. cit., Bk. IV, part I, chap. 27.
27. On stigmatization, see the article "Stigmates de saint Francois," Dictionnaire apologetique de la foi catholique, and the principal lives of St. Francis of Assisi and of St. Catherine of Siena; cf. also the Bollandists. See also O. Leroy, La Levitation (Paris, 1932); "La splendeur corporelle des saints," La Vie spirituelle, supplement, October, December, 1935, January, 1936; "La multiplication miraculeuse des biens," ibid., August, 1937, April, 1938.