My interest in stigmata is psychological rather than theological. My investigations with stigmatics and their extraordinary beliefs helped me understand how the body responds to religious and cultural perceptions.
Stigmatics are people who develop physical wounds that resemble those of Christ, with no detectible physical cause. But what are the conditions necessary for the mind to wound the body in this way––or to heal it?
Not recognised by the Vatican
Saint Francis of Assisi received the stigmata (the wounds of Christ) in 1224 AD, after fasting for 40 days on La Verna. Although it was the first recorded account of this mysterious phenomenon, some scholars suggest that Saint Paul’s words—“I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus” (Galatians 6:17)—may qualify him as the first stigmatic, if his statement is taken literally. Two years before the Saint Francis incident, a monk in Oxford claimed to be the redeemer of mankind and proclaimed that his five crucifixion wounds were the work of God. After being arrested for blasphemy, however, he confessed they were self-inflicted. Some speculate torture was engaged to persuade him to confess. Since the time of Saint Francis, almost 400 cases of stigmata have been recorded. The Vatican’s position continues to be that the question of whether stigmata are the result of divine intervention or are self-initiated is up to each individual’s belief. Since the time of the apostles, the Vatican has not recognised divine intervention.
Beliefs affect the immune system
My interest in stigmata is psychological rather than theological. There is substantial evidence in scientific literature that indicates our thoughts and beliefs affect our immune system and ultimately our health. Observing acts of compassion can increase antibodies that fight upper respiratory infections. Placebos (expectations of healing) can have the same pain-relieving effects as narcotics.‘Nocebo’ (expectation of harm) injections can constrict or dilate the bronchial airways, depending on the expectation presented to the participant—despite the injections being nothing more than saline water.Confession decreases blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones such as cortisol, while increasing immune function.
So if we exclude divine intervention and self-infliction, what can be said about these crucifixion-like wounds in light of evidence that they resist infection and that the affected do not develop anaemia despite daily loss of blood? Padre Pio, who was canonised in 2002, not for his stigmata but for his devotional deeds, is said to have bled a cup of blood a day for nearly 50 years without deleterious effects.
Before discussing the psychology of stigmata, let me bring up another perplexing characteristic that merits consideration. Medieval artists depicted Christ on the cross with wounds on the palm of his hands. Forensic scientists suggest the Romans knew that if the palms were nailed, they would not be able to sustain the weight of the body, so they nailed the wrists instead. The Shroud of Turin and other evidence confirm the forensic findings.
There is no more compelling evidence that our biology conforms to our beliefs than the fact that, before the scientific evidence about the anatomy of crucifixion was available, stigmatics had their wounds on their palms, while in contemporary cases, the wounds appear on the wrists. Also of interest is that attempts to produce the wounds under hypnosis have failed.
Medieval Christian model of suffering
Given what I’ve shared so far, then, what is the mind-body process of stigmata? I suggest that in order to begin to understand the motivational components of stigmata we need to examine the medieval Christian model of suffering. In those days, suffering was considered the way to identify with Christ.The tormented lives of the Catholic mystics of that era provide ample evidence to support this penance model. So if suffering means identifying with Christ, to replicate his wounds would certainly be the ultimate achievement. The personal accounts of some stigmatics praying for their wounds support the belief that suffering was a desired state.
Beliefs gain power when shared within a culture
The apparent power of the mind-body process to manifest suffering in the flesh could have significant implications. Consider this: if belief can injure tissue by identifying with the suffering of Christ, identifying with the love of Christ could have powerful healing effects for Catholic cultures.And I emphasise Catholics because 99 percent of stigmatics are Catholic; beliefs gain power when shared within a culture. If stigmatics can potentially bypass the harmful physical consequences of their wounds by creating a unique immune system condition, we can only imagine what we could achieve if we learned the mind-body code of love.
The consequences of prayer, faith and love can be measured
Science has advanced to a level where the consequences of prayer, faith and love can be measured and harnessed to accomplish healing rather than promote suffering. Research is presently under way to study changes in the molecular structure of water that has been blessed, the effects of compassionate imagery on the growth rate of malignant cells, and the role of faith in spontaneous healing.
Every condition has its opposite, and beliefs that can wound are no exception. Although cases of stigmata are extremely rare, they share similar characteristics with the nocebo effect reported frequently in medical literature. You are told you have an illness, which, based on the average mortality for that illness, means you have six months to live – but rather than hearing the word ‘average’ you hear how long you are expected to live. In fact, you are usually given the dire news without the ‘specialist’ mentioning that this ‘sentencing’ is based on an average rather than an absolute. I consider this approach both insensitive and unscientific.
The power of belief triggers healing
Let’s looks at the dynamics of this type of medical ‘sentencing’. A nocebo effect is triggered by a medical professional presenting clinical evidence that, on the average, patients with your diagnosis die within the prognosticated time. You have an authority pontificating with evidence. How can you argue with that? Let’s do it by confronting the science of averages with the science of individual differences. In this example, although the average life expectancy is six months, the left side of a chart of the normal distribution for this illness may be five weeks and the right side may be eight years. The strongest nocebo effect lies around the left end and the strongest placebo effect around the right end. However, unfortunately, conventional researchers consider both extremes of the normal distribution ‘nuisance variables’ to be discarded. This scientific myopia robs patients of the most powerful mind-body factor responsible for spontaneous remission, unexpected recovery, and survival of mistaken diagnosis: the power of belief that can trigger a healing response.
The perception of pain is strongly influenced by cultural contexts
We all have a healing response, but most of us need permission from a cultural authority or deity to activate our power to overcome the averages. Stigmatics present a category that has not been studied in academic biology: wounding based on divine belief. In other words, placebo heals and nocebo harms – but stigmata wounds are revered and accepted as a divine gift. How can this rare condition enhance our understanding of how the mind-body communication works? Although stigmatics experience their pain as if their hands/wrists and feet were pierced with crucifixion nails, they rarely take pain medication or lose consciousness. There is substantial scientific evidence showing that the perception of pain is strongly influenced by cultural contexts. For example, if you fracture your leg falling down stairs that are badly maintained by your negligent landlord, you will feel significantly more pain than if you were to fracture it by diving off a cliff to save a drowning child.
Beliefs can wound, heal, and interpret pain based on cultural contexts. Our environment, genetics, and cultural authorities are coauthors of our health and illness – but are we able to change those beliefs that no longer serve us well? We can certainly change any belief if we are willing to look beyond the pale.
Science unable to explain spontaneous healing
Conventional science is unable to explain spontaneous healing: the immediate transformation from illness to health. Health professionals call it spontaneous remission, religions call it miracle, and shamans call it magic. Independent of the label given, spontaneous healing occurs much more frequently than is reported in scientific literature. This is because it takes place at the edge of the curve or normal distribution; so it is discarded as a nuisance variable – a topic not worthy of publication.
National Geographic investigation
Yet spontaneous healing is not uncommon among Catholics who come into contact with stigmatics. Sharing the psycho-spiritual culture of Catholicism permits the possibility of healing because, in that culture, stigmata are considered divine.However, to best explain the dynamics of spontaneous healing, I will share an investigation I conducted for National Geographic. The stigmatic was a woman in Mexico City who exhibited a deep wound on her forehead in the shape of a cross. In the past, she had also produced wounds on her wrists and feet, but these had healed at the time I saw her. This particular investigation was significant because it was the first time in the history of stigmatics that anyone had conducted immunological studies. By considering the wound from this perspective, we were able to see how her biology was responding to her stigmata. Because of the depth of her wound, her intense pain, her level of stress related to her fear of being filmed, the continuous bleeding, and the lack of infection, we were expecting something very different from what we found.
First, the depth of the wound indicated it was highly unlikely that it had been self- inflicted: an intentional deep cut in the form of a cross would tear tissue irregularly at the junction of the vertical and horizontal lines, and we did not find this. Other laboratory tests confirmed that the wound had torn deep tissue. We expected to see high levels of antibodies and inflammation resulting from an effort to protect and repair the wound, a high level of cortisol indicating stress, and increased levels of red blood cells compensating for the frequent bleeding. To our immense surprise, when we ran tests to gauge these factors, all her lab results were within normal limits. There was no anaemia, no infection, and no healing of the open wound—without any help from her immune system!
Although these results were astonishing, the most remarkable finding was that two spontaneous healings took place around this stigmatic woman. A boy with leukaemia and a man with prostate cancer had both gone into remission. When I interviewed the physician who had examined the stigmatic as well as the two spontaneously healed patients, her response was telling: “In medical school, we are not trained to understand these conditions. I simply call it a miracle.”
We believe we have to suffer
Based on extensive research into other cultures and religions, I propose that feeling a need to suffer is not a condition limited to Catholics. Although it may take different forms, most cultures and their religions share a universal condition I call the atonement archetype. One must suffer either before reaching desired goals or because of past conduct. It seems to me that Western cultures subscribe to the premise of suffering for future gains; whereas Eastern cultures suffer from past karmic deeds. Of course, there are those who are so guilt-ridden that they subscribe to both modes of suffering, but the relevance here in examining our own suffering is that many of us carry our own version of stigmata: a stain unrelated to the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion. This need to suffer has a powerful detrimental effect on our wellness and contributes to our illnesses. Clearly, in the process of living we are confronted with challenges and misfortunes that cause some of our suffering, and are beyond our control. By contrast, what I am addressing here is the cultural beliefs that welcomeour external conditions of suffering and create our own internal hell – not because life itself can be painful – but because we deserve to suffer as a way to atone for our misdeeds. Given these powerful tribal beliefs, are we doomed to suffer? No, but we must go beyond the pale if we want alternatives to the atonement archetype. What we learn within the pale can best be unlearned outside of it. The tribal pale concept of shared beliefs can be challenged to achieve freedom from learned suffering. Yes, most suffering is learned!
We are not born with a need to atone by suffering for our misdeeds. We coauthor this need with our cultural and spiritual leaders within the tribal pale, but I want to be clear that I am not suggesting we should dismiss our wrongdoing without consequences. Instead, we can take responsibility for our misdeeds by taking corrective action rather than atoning for them by suffering. In fact, punishment does little to change behaviour—it only suppresses the behaviour until the punishment is lifted.
For a closer look at learned suffering and its power to heal and wound, let’s return to the stigmatic woman I investigated. She travelled throughout Mexico to share her stigmata experience, and during her journey, a few people around her also had spontaneous healings. It was even reported that merely seeing her and her wound during a television interview, was sufficient to trigger spontaneous healings in some believers.
I taught the stigmatised woman a way to reduce the excruciating pain she experienced by 80 percent, using a method of identifying with love rather than suffering—and the sign of the cross on her forehead healed within a few weeks.But here is the amazing consequence: when I interviewed her again a year later, she told me the wound on her forehead had returned. She explained to me that when she shared her story without the wound, the spontaneous healings stopped. She had concluded that, without the wound, she could have no healing effect on others. She further reasoned that, since the level of pain she experienced remained at only 20 percent of its former strength, she could live with it if it would continue to trigger spontaneous healings.
The cross on her forehead returned and did not heal again. This was a lesson of learned suffering within the pale: she had to suffer or healing could not occur. I will admit that my first reaction upon hearing this was to suspect she had inflicted the wound herself in order to help others, but when I spoke to her doctor again, she reported witnessing the wound’s reappearance on her patient’s forehead. Small red dots began to appear in a vertical line, followed by a horizontal one, and the two lines slowly intersected to depict a perfect cross. Then, gradually, the wound deepened and formed a thick scab that bled irregularly.
What can we conclude from this extraordinary sequence of events? Independent of whether the gash was self-inflicted, let’s look at the beliefs that led to the results:
The woman believed the wound was necessary for spontaneous healings to take place; a need to demonstrate suffering was fundamental. Additionally, she believed that her suffering was a gift, given to her in order to heal others. This signalled her biology to both suspend healing and prevent infection of the wound.
The spontaneously healed
The belief that the wound was an act of divine intervention triggered their spontaneous healing. Through it, they found permission to activate their own healing response.
Under these circumstances, shared beliefs within the pale had a beneficial effect. What is significant here is that coauthored beliefs can wound and heal the body in ways that conventional biology cannot explain. This is not because a logical explanation is impossible, but because reductionist biology does not explain what it cannot measure within its model of physical cause and effect.Still, we don’t have to go to the other extreme and be satisfied with esoteric explanations. My objective here is to argue the power of cultural beliefs in the healing and wounding processes, and leave the spiritual interpretation of these phenomena to theologians. We can learn from extraordinary experiences and apply their beneficial effects to more commonplace conditions – but, to do this, we must be willing to accept that our mind-body can achieve much more than what our scientific instruments can record and measure.
The above article was adapted, with permission of the author, from Chapter 7 of his book, ‘The Mind-Body Code: How the Mind Wounds and Heals the Body’.
Dr. Mario Martinez is a US clinical neuropsychologist who specialises in how cultural beliefs affect health and longevity. He is the author of the bestselling book The MindBody Code: How to Change the Beliefs that Limit Your Health, Longevity, and Success that teaches his theory and practice of biocognitive science to the general public.
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