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Robert F. Mullen

Philosophy and Religion Program, California Institute of Integral Studies, San

Francisco, CA., USA.

Email: robertmullenca@yahoo.com

Abstract: This paper explores the comparative dynamics of self-mutilation among young, contemporary, female self-cutters, and the holy stigmatics of the Middle Ages. It addresses the types of personalities that engage in self-mutilation and how some manipulate their self-inflicted pain into a method for healing and empowerment. The similarities between teenage cutters and female stigmatics are striking in their mutual psychoanalytical need for self-alteration as a means of escaping their own disassociative identities; and offers evidence of how their mutual bricolage of pain, imagining, languaging, and subsequent self-mutilation often provide a transformation from bodies under siege to a resemblance of health and transformation.

Key words: agency, anorexic, depersonalization, imagining, sacred, self-cutting, self-mutilation, stigmata, symbolism, wounding Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, 9, 25 (Spring 2010): 91-110 ISSN: 1583-0039 © SACRI Robert F. Mullen Holy Stigmata, Anorexia and Self-Mutilation “Tears have come from my veins veins to make any difference.”1 It is the purpose of this paper to explore the comparative dynamics of self-mutilation among young, contemporary, female self-cutters, and holy stigmatics of the Middle Ages. What types of personality engage in selfmutilation? How is this self-inflicted pain a method for healing? How is it integrated into empowerment? What are the benefits of being subjected to pain? And how does one understand and come to terms with the identity of the agent?

The disparities between the holy stigmatic and the self-cutter are far less evident than the similarities. According to the 2007 Oxford English Dictionary, stigmata (among other interpretations) is defined as: “Marks resembling the wounds on the crucified body of Christ, said to have been supernaturally impressed on the bodies of certain saints and other devout persons.” Use of the adjectival “holy” merely serves to separate our discussion of stigmata from the punitive branding meant to serve as a warning to others of the presence of a person of ignominy—a pilferer, heretic or adulterer—such as described in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Both self-cutting (self-mutilation) and holy stigmata often exhibit either depersonalization or disassociation or both, or other common psycho/physiological elements that, according to certain sources, can be compensated through “empowerment and affirmation” achieved by wounding,2 especially the self-cutter who is pathologized by modern psychological interpretation. This paper only addresses female stigmatics and self-cutters because this practice is more prevalent in young women and their close association to the intense emotional quest for transcendence—the modification of one self to another, “the diversion of pain to another … worldly to otherworldly”3—through self-cutting as well as stigmatic intercession. What seems the cause of transcendence to one observer is pathological to another, much having to do with faith, historical context, and culture. Transcendence, herein described, merely denotes a change or transposition of interiority—an alteration in the practitioner’s behavior. The agent of the wounding in holy stigmata is and always has been suspect. Holy agency does not meet the criteria for scientific accuracy established by Durkheim’s4 hypotheses, and Hume’s logical positivism contradicts the earlier admonitions of Kant who warned of the ability of the mind to believe in those things “of no one of which can form any notion whatsoever.”5 The stigmata appeared either 1) via deific intervention, 2) as a result of the physical agency of the stigmatic, either consciously or unconsciously or, 3) stemming from a “neurological and systematic” etiology that corresponded to the “learnings and beliefs” of the sufferings of Christ and the location of his wounds that identified an extreme psychological Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, 8, 25 (Spring 2010) Robert F. Mullen Holy Stigmata, Anorexia and Self-Mutilation identification with Jesus, somehow leading to “psychosomatic bodily changes.”6 The theological explanation is simply that the individual’s identification with the suffering Christ is so great “that his wounds appeared on her physical body.”7 “The striking visibility of Christ’s bloody wounds that emerged in art and sculpture beginning in the 13th century was a powerful visual reality that encouraged “the experiences, actions, and accounts of devout female Catholics having a psychological predisposition to dietary constriction and attendant dissociation and selfmutilation.”8 It is important to note that the Catholic Church remains ambiguous about the validity of the various stigmatics and does not, then or now, consider possession of the stigmata an “incontestable” miracle that puts the recipient on the fast track to sainthood.9 The agent that effected the stigmata cannot be predetermined or underestimated “for the observer and the believer cannot possibly evaluate the believer’s religious commitment”10 “with the same requisite understanding or intensity.”11 Rather than arguing deific agency versus self-disfigurement, this paper addresses only the comparative similarities that are within the purview of physical, sociological and psychological realms. Emic analysis is obviously difficult to impossible; personal perspectives become lame suppositions when dealing with the special interiority of a young woman prone to cutting, and an evaluation of the integral possession of a medieval stigmatist is both ludicrous and unsound. The writer “is bound, first, to elucidate the meaning and structure of the religious phenomenon as a phenomenon understood philosophically,” and when that impossibility exists, it is the writer’s task not to speculate.12

The Practitioners

The Christian Church environment between the 13th century and the Age of Enlightenment was a primary European arbiter of spiritual authority, and everyman was judged to be on a vertical axis between one of two divergent points: the sacred or the profane. Stigmatics were either “saints” enveloped by the loving arms of Jesus, or “witches” besought and beaten by demons or, as in the case of St. Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, an amalgam of both. Maria not only had the stigmata but, according to her biographer Vincentio Puccini (1619), the rapt attention of evil spirits who would bite her like so many vipers, and throw her down the stairs, beating her “with incredible rage.”13 Or the strange case of stigmatic, Blessed Colomba di Rieti, who was tempted by the chronic vision of a lustful naked youth in her bedroom. Columba lost a tooth when the devil yanked it from her mouth after throwing her to the floor and nearly suffocating her.14 These are well-publicized events in the lives of martyrs and mystics—many female saints were exemplaries of the endurance required to counter temptation. What did transpire, as a result of these asserted events with young women of the centuries prior to the Reformation was Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, 8, 25 (Spring 2010) Robert F. Mullen Holy Stigmata, Anorexia and Self-Mutilation an intolerant Church just as dogmatically satisfied declaring sanctity, as torching witches at the stake. It was the Church’s patriarchs who made the determination as to good or evil; the stigmatic was at the mercy of their whims, their politics, and the culture of the day. And there is an understandability regarding the confusion between the sacred and the profane because they both sleep in the same bed. There is no differentiation of common-sense, and one is as easily a cultural anomaly as the other and, therefore, the differentiation is made by those who are anointed, self- or otherwise, to make such moral judgments, such as the Church’s 1326 Inquisition investigation of witchcraft and development of a theory of its diabolic origin or the more devious good walkers of the 16th century benandanti, somnambulistic travelers who claimed to unconsciously fight off witches, and who were eventually declared heretics.

“But when I cut myself I can see who I am. I see a face and I see legs and it comes. It’s like a beautiful me, what I can see and what I do… It’s like all the cuts are little pieces, and, if you take away my cuts and put them together then it would be as one—it would be a whole new mirror. I look at that self.” Gillian Straker15describes one of her modern, teenage self-cutting patients as experiencing a transcendence from the ugly and fragmented into what one might describe as an aperspectival wholeness. Pain transforms the cutter’s self-fulfilling perspective of her image of inadequate body-self as she becomes her own agent of change. “Pain, despair, and competence”16 are all part of the factitious culture, and pain must remain an enigmatic and relational subject. One feels pain in different ways for different reasons and the degree or depth of suffering is uncategorical and incomparable. How does one establish one’s individual threshold of physical or emotional pain against another’s? For some, the merest indignity can cause unbearable misery, while for others, i.e., stoics and martyrs, spiritual or otherwise, who are able to place their immediate frame of reference out-of-body, the pain is questionably negligible. For many, including self-cutters, physical wounding can be relatively painless, especially with the release of opiate-like betaendorphins,17 but emotional pain is prerequisite to that yearning to create a threshold of hurting, whether imagined, transferred, or endured. For the self-cutter, as well as the saints discussed within, a competence is required to control the release. Through this competence of knowing their extremes, the individual can be urged into wholeness through the tearing. Wounding to heal is a legitimate remedy.

The belief in the subject of agency, while always of controversial debate, has changed dramatically since the 13th century when St. Lugarte (1182-1426), born a year after Francis of Assisi, was chronicled as the first Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, 8, 25 (Spring 2010) Robert F. Mullen Holy Stigmata, Anorexia and Self-Mutilation female stigmatic. Of those afflicted with bodily wounding referent to Christ, approximately 88% have been women.18 The prevailing Christian acceptance was that the stigmatic blood “not only purged the woman of her sin but also saved her fellow Christians” by compensating for sins through substituted atonement, alleviating the length of the souls’ purgatorial stay.19 Reported cases of the stigmata were “overwhelmingly concentrated” in Western Europe, especially Italy, the center of the Church’s influence,20 although latter cases are now found in new areas where Catholicism holds dominance. Of self-mutilators (SM), the largest numbers seem to be “young women in their teens and twenties.”21 There are penitentiary institutionalized males who engage in self-injurious behavior (SIB), but it appears to be out of rage or fear or assertion of masculinity, unlike the majority of female cutters who confront selfinvalidation. Specialists Armando R. Favazza and Dr. Jose A. YaryuraTobias et al22 define “self-mutilation” as the volitional act of harming one’s body or destroying one’s tissue without intention to cause death. In the Middle Ages, the author of the nuns’ book of Unterlinden, diaries the cloister as they return to their convent after some auspicious church service, and begin to “hack at themselves cruelly, hostilely lacerating their bodies until the blood flows, with all kinds of whips, so that the sound reverberates all over the monastery and rises to the ears of the Lord of hosts sweeter than all melody.”23 The idea of “mortification of the flesh” (literally putting the flesh to death) has been a soteriological aspect of Christianity since the crucifixion—the letters of St Paul an initial source for its tradition: “…if by the spirit you put to death the habits originating in the body, you will have life” (Romans 8, 13). Colossians III, 5 is even clearer. “That is why you must kill everything in you that is earthly: ‘sexual vice, impurity, uncontrolled passion, evil desires and especially greed…’” Mortification of the body for spiritual gain, it must be noted, extends well beyond Christianity. Even in contemporary times, rituals that involve either selfflagellation and intentional bloodletting or beatings by others is common in Muslim ceremonies; Hindus and Buddhists pierce the face and body during certain rites, and often burn the top of the head; and in Africa and Australia, indigenous people sometimes use genital mutilation on boys and girls that is intentionally painful, including circumcision, subincision, clitoridectomy, or infibulation. In other indigenous cultures, (a) painful rites are used to mark sexual maturity, marriage, procreation, or other major rites of passage, (b) the incorporation of voluntary pain, suffering, and self-denial are part of spiritual traditions offering immediate and future access to the divine, and, (c) in rites of healing. To a ritual participant, the primary objective is to achieve analgesia or absence of pain, not simply to control or even conquer pain, but to feel its absence as a transcendent spiritual experience.

–  –  –

The Scientific Version The following section highlights scientific explanation, which goal it is to find “rational” justification for the stigmata, an attempt to indicate that the agency of a spiritual force may or may not be necessary for the appearance of wounding, depending upon one’s belief and the interpretation of “spiritual.” It is an essential argument that can’t be resolved because the analogous wounds described below are often psychogenic, and thus easily to be sensorially believed.

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