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Stigmata Explanations

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St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio) with Stigmata

The facts having been set forth, it remains to state the explanations that have been offered. Some physiologists, both Catholics and Free-thinkers, have maintained that the wounds might be produced in a purely natural manner by the sole action of the imagination coupled with lively emotions. The person being keenly impressed by the sufferings of the Saviour and penetrated by a great love, this preoccupation acts on her or him physically, reproducing the wounds of Christ. This would in no wise diminish his or her merit in accepting the trial, but the immediate cause of the phenomena would not be supernatural.

We shall not attempt to solve this question. Physiological science does not appear to be far enough advanced to admit a definite solution, and the writer of this article adopts the intermediate position, which seems to him unassailable, that of showing that the arguments in favour of natural explanations are illusory. They are sometimes arbitrary hypotheses, being equivalent to mere assertions, sometimes arguments based exaggerated or misinterpreted facts. But if the progress of medical sciences and psycho-physiology should present serious objections, it must be remembered that neither religion or mysticism is dependent on the solution of these questions, and that in processes of canonization stigmata do not count as incontestable miracles.

No one has ever claimed that imagination could produce wounds in a normal subject; it is true that this faculty can act slightly on the body, as Benedict XIV said, it may accelerate or retard the nerve-currents, but there is no instance of its action on the tissues (De canoniz., III, xxxiii, n. 31). But with regard to persons in an abnormal condition, such as ecstasy or hypnosis, the question is more difficult; and, despite numerous attempts, hypnotism has not produced very clear results. At most, and in exceedingly rare cases, it has induced exudations or a sweat more or less coloured, but this is a very imperfect imitation. Moreover, no explanation has been offered of three circumstances presented by the stigmata of the saints:

Physicians do not succeed in curing these wounds with remedies. On the other hand, unlike natural wounds of a certain duration, those of stigmatics do not give forth a fetid odour. To this there is known but one exception: St. Rita of Cassia had received on her brow a supernatural wound produced by a thorn detached from the crown of the crucifix. Though this emitted an unbearable odour, there was never any suppuration or morbid alteration of the tissues. Sometimes these wounds give forth perfumes, for example those of Juana of the Cross, Franciscan prioress of Toledo, and Bl. Lucy of Narni. To sum up, there is only one means of proving scientifically that the imagination, that is auto-suggestion, may produce stigmata: instead of hypothesis, analogous facts in the natural order must be produced, namely wounds produced apart from a religious idea. This had not been done.

St. Catherine of Siena with Stigmata

It has often been proved by the microscope that the red liquid which oozes forth is not blood; its colour is due to a particular substance, and it does not proceed from a wound, but is due, like sweat, to a dilatation of the pores of the skin. But it may be objected that we unduly minimize the power of the imagination, since, joined to an emotion, it can produce sweat; and as the mere idea of having an acid bon-bon in the mouth produces abundant saliva, so, too, the nerves acted upon by the imagination might produce the emission of a liquid and this liquid might be blood. The answer is that in the instances mentioned there are glands (sudoriparous and salivary) which in the normal state emit a special liquid, and it is easy to understand that the imagination may bring about this secretion; but the nerves adjacent to the skin do not terminate in a gland emitting blood, and without such an organ they are powerless to produce the effects in question. What has been said of the stigmatic wounds applies also to the sufferings. There is not a single experimental proof that imagination could produce them, especially in violent forms.

Another explanation of these phenomena is that the patients produce the wounds either fraudulently or during attacks of somnambulism, unconsciously. But physicians have always taken measures to avoid these sources of error, proceeding with great strictness, particularly in modern times. Sometimes the patient has been watched night and day, sometimes the limbs have been enveloped in sealed bandages. Mr. Pierre Janet placed on one foot of a stigmatic a copper shoe with a window in it through which the development of the wound might be watched, while it was impossible for anyone to touch it (op. cit. supra).

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