By Arnold I. Davidson
Critical Inquiry, Vol. 35 (2009)
Introduction: No brief discussion of stigmata can hope to take account of the many, and sometimes conflicting, dimensions of this historically datable, and relatively recent, religious phenomenon. A more appropriate title might have been “Miracle, Mysticism, Malady: The Iconography and Philosophy of Stigmata.” A thorough discussion of stigmata ought to consider them in the contexts of the history of the miraculous, the history of mysticism, and the history of psychiatric explanations of stigmata. In this essay, however, I will concentrate almost exclusively on interpretations of the stigmata as miraculous, for reasons that I hope will soon become clear. Furthermore, I will restrict my discussion to the stigmatization of St. Francis, a limitation whose motive will become evident as I develop my argument. I would like to begin with a few brief observations on points of view that I will not consider here.
From the perspective of the history of mysticism, Francis’s stigmata represent the beginning of a new form of mysticism, in which mystical experience is no longer merely spiritual but is accompanied by phenomena and transformations that are physical. Stigmata, levitation, bilocation, fasting, and transverberation are physical events that became associated with mystical experience. These phenomena contrast with older forms of mysticism not expressed in the body. For example, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in Sermon 74 on The Song of Songs, alludes to this older form when he writes:
So when the Bridegroom, the Word, came to me, he never made known his coming by any signs, not by sight, not by sound, not by touch. . . . In the renewal and remaking of the spirit of my mind, that is of my inmost being, I have perceived the excellence of his glorious beauty.
As many historians have maintained, the introduction of this new form of mysticism must be linked to a changed attitude and a new devotion towards the humanity of Christ, his Incarnation, his Passion and, more generally, the corporeal existence that characterizes him as human. However, we must avoid interpreting this new kind of mystical experience as simply the consequence of a new theoretical elaboration regarding Christ’s humanity because it reflects a different way of living and experiencing the humanity of Christ; it is an experience that has theoretical foundations, but cannot be reduced to them. As Pierre Hadot has argued, it is necessary to distinguish between the rational theological discourse on the transcendent and the spiritual experience of the transcendent. Mystical ecstasy must not be confused with theological argumentation and discourse; the methods and procedures of philosophy and theology were traditionally in the service of a new way of life that required a transformation of one’s very being.