A few months ago I read Joan Carroll Cruz's The Incorruptibles. It inspired me to research other "allied phenomena", such as stigmata, marvelous images, and weeping or bleeding icons. While reading about stigmata, more than once I found the objection that if they were really divine phenomena, they shouldn't manifest so disparately. This objection is rooted in the fact that many of even the most inexplicable cases of stigmata appear on different parts of the body, take on different shapes and sizes, bleed differently, etc. These discrepancies suggest to some a scam, as if the fakers were merely trying ignorantly to replicate previous stigmata, but getting it wrong in this or that detail. A related explanation given is that stigmatists are trying to mimic religious art and themes they've encountered throughout their lives. Since different people experience different art, different stigmatists manifest difference stigmata. It's variegated auto-suggestion, the critics say.
This objection is certainly valid in many of the cases. However, the more bizarre and truly inexplicable cases insist on more than auto-suggestion. Such a "sensible" objection depends on a shallow examination of the evidence in cases of spontaneous, prolonged, unwilled stigmata. In other words, the shrewdest miracle investigators, particularly those commissioned by, say, the Vatican, dismiss innumerable "stigmata" as hoaxes, whether from obvious self-mutilation or from the less obvious but possible power of auto-suggestion.
The key is not to approach such claims, let alone any part of life, with a facile Humean disdain for exceptional occurrences, but rather to measure carefully and soberly the evidence for this or that particular incident. Hume weighed evidence for miracles; honesty insists we measure the evidence. Weighing evidence for miracles instantly disfavors them, since they are by definition less common than other phenomena; measuring miracles, however, is a much more challenging task, such as Alexis Carroll, among many other professional physicians, have learned on a journey to Lourdes (see also Jaki's Two Lourdes Miracles). The great irony of Humean skeptics is that while they bar all such "divine anomalies" out of consideration on the a priori grounds of the statistical and commonsensical preponderance of a normal explanation, yet they argue the emergence of human life in an already incalculably unlikely universe is hardly shocking. The common non-believing (Humean) approach to cosmology is dismissive of the universe's amazing "fine tuning" and its highly "unnatural" anthropocentricity. "Such an occurrence was just bound to happen," the skeptic says, with a shrug. Yet, this same skeptic will say miracles are simply impossible given the overwhelmingly non-miraculous nature of experience.
But I digress. The point I'd like to make is not about the historicity and inexplicability of this or that miracle -- though such a venture is not overly difficult and not at all fruitless. Rather, I simply want to propose a "way of looking" (Schauensart) at the discrepancies among the more reliable cases of stigmata.
A few weeks after having read about this phenomenon, I was riding the bus to Jing Yi University. Suddenly, we hit a bump, and I noticed all the passengers' heads, including my own, bobbed downward in the same moment. It was if we all hiccupped or nodded at once. I wouldn't have given any more thought to it, except that I had happened to notice minute difference in the particular ways we all had bobbed our heads. When the bump came, one young lady had her head turned left, while I was looking straight ahead. Accordingly, my head went in planar descent, whereas hers curved downward a little diagonally. I noticed a student's younger, suppler neck bent farther down than the old lady's near her. And so on, for as many people as my view from the rear of the bus could register.
What had happened? We had all experienced the same phenomenon, or impulse, "from outside", but we each had manifested its effects differently according to where we sat, how we were composed, where were looking and so forth. It struck me like lightning that this is precisely the logic behind stigmatic discrepancies! Far from "branding" stigmatists like holy cattle, God the Spirit works from within a unique person to produce stigmata. As that person freely and deeply unites him or herself to Christ the wounded Savior, the Spirit synergizes this "co-suffering' into ultimately tangible effects. The wounds Padre Pio felt in his soul, as he followed his Crucified Lord, ultimately found their way to his flesh. This "phenomenological symmetry" between the soul and the flesh is exactly the aim of theosis (sanctification, union witht the divine, restoration of the self), insofar as theosis means reconciling the holy desires of the soul and will with the movements and impulses of the flesh. True stigmatists cannot simply "dredge up" these wounds; the wounds are, after all, not even their own: they are Christ's, belonging to Him who dwells within them. So, while genuine stigmata are, like all fruit of godliness, never possible without the Spirit's antecedent movements of grace, yet it is equally true they are never simply imposed by God on unwilling creatures. Precisely by uniting myself to Christ in religious zeal and obedience, I in a sense invite God to wound me, mark me, label me, as His own with the marks of Christ.
Crucially, of course, God marks ME, as a unique individual. The "marking" He achieve sin me is interwoven with my whole nature, my whole background, my whole cultural awareness, etc. So, in the mystery of the confluence of the divine will with the human, as the wounds of Christ well up from a fertile heart to be seen on the flesh by human eyes, they well up according to the vessel God chooses: namely, me. (No, I'm not a stigmatist! I simply dislike using "one" and "oneself".) Hence, it as little wonder that various stigmatists are stigmatized variously as various Christians express the same Gospel variously (in phraseology, piety, attitude, culture, "style", etc.). This or that cultural resonance will effect how the Spirit's stigmatization is "filtered" through my consciousness into tangibility. This or that dermatological or muscular constitution will affect how the marks of Christ "filter through" my flesh into the public eye.
Far from disproving the singular divine origin of stigmata, their variability, in conjunction with a sober investigation of their veracity, actually points to the very God those stigmatists worship: the God of persons, of freedom, of concreteness, of particular incarnation. And in pointing to this God, this God who went so far as to be crucified for us, stigmatists are stigmatized in yet one more way: they are stigmatized as fools and scoundrels by worldlings. Why? Because they bear in their redeemed flesh the same wounds which fallen man refuses to embrace. Better to bleed to death by your own merits than be bled upon and refilled with life by Another's.