For over seven hundred and fifty years there have been individual Christians who have exhibited on their bodies the physical marks of Christ's suffering.
They have had wounds in their hands as if nails have been hammered through; their feet similarly have scarred and bled; some have had marks on the forehead corresponding to those which might have been made by a crown of thorns; others have had a wound in the side as if they have been speared; or stripes across the back as if from scourging. They have carried the stigmata, the marks of Christ's suffering. It is very difficult to calculate the precise number of stigmatics living at any given time. There will be some whose experiences have not become public knowledge and there will be others, who, having once been thrust into the public domain, have retreated into privacy and who have since died.
It is generally accepted that St Francis of Assisi was the first person to receive these strange wounds. His stigmatisation occurred in September 1224 on the Feast of Exultation of the Holy Cross.
This somewhat minor festival was, in the thirteenth century, celebrated with considerable fervour. St Francis was at the time totally absorbed in a longing to suffer for and with Christ.
Theories about stigmata
Various theories can be put forward to explain stigmata's emergence at this time.
The first relates to the way in which theological trends, or fashions, come and go.
After the Catholic and the Orthodox churches had diverged around a thousand years ago, the Catholic wing began to reemphasise the doctrine of the incarnation. There was a shift in theological emphasis towards the contemplation of the Christ in human form. A new church feast was introduced into the church calendar, Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, and great emphasis was laid on devotion to and contemplation of the physical sufferings of Jesus during his trial and execution.
Secondly there was an upsurge in realism in religious art and depictions of the crucifixion, which had previously been stylised and devoid of emotion, became vivid, gorey and bloody.
Thirdly the lay people of the church, and women in particular, felt excluded from the mysteries of the Mass when the bread and wine, they believed, was turned into the body and blood of Christ.
The church, which the laity increasingly saw as corrupt, only gave priests the authority to celebrate the last supper. Stigmatics enabled many people to marvel at the wounds of Christ in such a way that gave them direct access to the body of Christ in a way which the church could not condemn outright.
The personality profile of stigmatics is similar in many cases to that of people who have claimed to have received marks on their body from aliens when abducted onto UFOs. Given the tendencies towards various forms of self abuse of people with these personality profiles it would be easy to assume that all stigmatics (or indeed abductees) have received the marks by wounding themselves.
However it would be wrong to make the assumption that all stigmatics are frauds.
The causes of stigmatisation are far more complex. If a person commits some act of self abuse it is a by-product of a medical or psychiatric condition and not a case of wilful deceit.
Secondly, it would appear that many people who do harm themselves do not consciously recall doing so.
Thirdly there is substantial evidence to suggest that marks on a person's body, once healed, can reappear psychosomatically or spontaneously.