Stories of isolation before the Coronavirus: following the example of stigmatics

By Leonardo Rossi

Exceptional, surreal, unusual. These words are among some of the most frequently used expressions of the bewilderment that we are all experiencing due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Only a few months ago, we considered it a worrying but distant danger, since then we have realised that we were wrong. From China to Italy, from the States to all corners of the globe, no one is immune and safe. We have discovered ourselves to be weaker, more helpless, more powerless than we assumed to be. Our habits have been subverted. Most of the offices are closed, children are home from school, transportation is extremely limited. The daily frenzy and our interpersonal relationships have suddenly changed.

Time runs differently when you are isolated and cut off from your social framework. The appointments on the agenda thin out, the superfluous disappears into the background, and only the essential things remain visible. You have more time for yourself and for thinking. In the first days of isolation, the most frequent questions I wondered about were about the exceptional nature of the moment we are passing through: how much will this influence affect our habits in the long term? Will 2020 be remembered solely for Coronavirus, or also as a turning point? When and how will we return to our ‘ordinary’ life? Every idea that flashed through my mind was characterised by the adjective ‘exceptional’: nobody has clear answers because nobody has ever experienced anything like this. As the days and weeks went by, however, what previously seemed so unusual quickly started to become ‘normal’. Life goes on, with small and big changes. Now it is no longer odd to work at home, wear a mask when we go out, queue to enter the supermarket. Smiling with the eyes has replaced the handshakes, phone calls evoke the hugs of loved ones, online meetings substitute family lunches. New habits have become a routine, and the old questions that I was unable to answer have given way to another type of reflection: Are we actually witnessing a unique event in history? Did not other generations also spend months isolated from the community? For what reasons? How did they deal with that particular moment?

Cigoli, St Francis

Ludovico Cigoli, St Francis in meditation in an isolated place (Wikimedia Commons)

In my case, the small/big change was to finish the review of my PhD not in my office in Antwerp, but in Gaeta, a municipality at the south of Rome, historically famous as ‘the port of the popes’. Here, I spent weeks of self-isolation, away from my office and family, with an internet connection that did not work brilliantly. Sifting through the pages of my manuscript and reflecting on the past, I realised that this situation is exceptional only for those who, like me, had never experienced anything like this. Looking back can somehow make us feel less alone and exceptional. Before COVID, many people experienced various forms of isolation, social exclusion, withdrawal from the world. History is full of interruptions or subversions of what was considered ‘normal’.

Experiencing a form of seclusion has influenced my point of view. My attention is drawn to situations that are similar to the current one. During the nineteenth and in the first half of the twentieth century, the period that I analyse in my research, there have been several pandemics that have collectively forced thousands, or even millions, of people to live in isolation. At that time, waves of cholera, smallpox, and typhus raged frequently. Moreover, revolts, civil wars, international conflicts, famines and natural cataclysms spread among countries. Periods of seclusion affected the protagonists of history and those who study it: the historians. Fernand Braudel published in 1949 « La Méditerranée et le Monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II », but he worked on it during his captivity in Germany (1940-45). Some spiritual leaders and heads of state were also forced to live in isolation. Imprisonment was the common denominator of the pontificate of numerous popes in the nineteenth century. Pius VI fled to Siena in 1798 when he tried to escape the invasion of the Papal States by the French troops. Pius VII spent years of exile away from Rome, as a prisoner of Napoleon in Fontainebleau. Pius IX spent more than nine months here in Gaeta to escape the revolutions of the Roman Republic and the so-called “Spring of the Peoples” (1848-49).

In the sources I studied, exile and forced imprisonment did not only concern popes but also other people. In addition to reasons of force majeure that indiscriminately involved all of the population, a particular category of individuals experienced long moments of isolation in their lives, that is the stigmatics. The wounds of passion that were impressed and visible on their bodies often turned stigmatics into religious celebrities in their community and, sometimes, even on the global level. Their public fame attracted the attention of the people, but also made them suspicions in the eyes of sceptics and ecclesiastical authorities. Bishops and the Vatican curia (especially the Holy Office) opened investigations and not rarely condemned those who were popularly considered alteri Christi to a life of seclusion. Other stigmatics were not in search of fame and success but wished to spend their lives in solitude and meditation. The visible stigmata would have attracted unwanted attention and, for this reason, they decided to withdraw themselves from the public scene and isolate themselves in monastic cells or domestic environment, carefully keeping their graces a secret.

Therefore, it was not a disease that kept stigmatics away from society, but rather a personal choice or an obligation imposed from above. Some examples can help us to understand their experience better. Solitary and contemplative life has always been part of the Christian tradition. Already in the third century, anchorites and hermits left the community to live in the desert or in isolated places in northern Africa. In the West, the monks did the same by building their abbeys and monasteries in inaccessible areas far from inhabited centres. The desire for a  withdrawn life motivated several stigmatics to aspire to live as religious women. Gemma Galgani (1878-1903), Teresa Palminota (1896-1934), and Maria Concetta Pantusa (1936, 1894-1957) tried to enter the convent and become nuns. All three had a deep mystical life and were endowed with special charisms, such as stigmata, ecstasies and visions. They tried to hide their graces from the world and preferred seclusion to the limelights. Even the renowned Tyrolean stigmatics, Maria Von Mörl (1812-1868) and Maria Domenica Lazzeri (1815-1848), had problems with accepting and enduring their unwanted popularity. Despite their wishes, both had become famous religious figures. Hundreds of articles that were dedicated to them appeared in the main newspapers of the time, and thousands of faithful and curious visited them in their houses. Von Mörl refused in most cases to speak and interact with the spectators. Lazzeri confessed to her spiritual father that she desired not to be disturbed by pilgrims, especially by sceptics and unbelievers who made fun of her. The Roman stigmatics, wives and mothers, Elisabetta Canori Mora (1774-1824) and Anna Maria Taigi (1869-1837) did not aspire to enter a cloister, but lived a ‘mixed life’, that is a combination between secular and religious spirituality. During the day they took care of their daily chores, and when their families went to sleep in the evening, they spent their nights in meditation and prayer.

St Catherine

St Catherine of Siena portrayed in prayer in her room (Ruusbroec Library)

The search for peace and isolation could, therefore, be both physical (locking oneself in a monastic cell) and spiritual (hiding graces from the world). This solution was not always an option. Elena Aiello (1895-1961), for example, entered the convent at fifteen years old hoping to spend her life there but, due to an accident, she had to leave. For some stigmatics, seclusion was not a free choice, but rather the punishment issued by a religious authority, such as the diocesan bishops or the cardinals of the Holy Office. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Sardinian abbess Maria Rosa Serra (1766-post 1806), confessed after years of notoriety to the bishop that she had lied about her divine charisms. The Monsignor removed Serra from her position as abbess and condemned her to perpetual isolation in a monastic cell. The same fate fell upon Maria Agnese Firrao (late nineteenth century-1855) and Ester Moriconi (1875-1937). In their case, the Holy Office condemned the stigmatics as false saints. Firrao was transferred to another city where she died 30 years later (the penalties could be very severe and last long) and Moriconi was interned in a psychiatric clinic in Milan, far from her religious community and the faithful. The ecclesiastical authorities regarded isolation as the best solution to block these women’s reputation for holiness among the people. In the files of the processes instigated against them, we read how the clergymen only isolated the ‘offenders’ when they were able to. They did not want to transform stigmatics into popular ‘martyrs’ of the faith, unjustly condemned to a life of isolation. They tried to prove their fraud and to destroy the credibility and authority these women held in their community.

Numerous stigmatists experienced social exclusion for different reasons. Some for a few months or years (as Palma Matarrelli and Padre Pio), others for a lifetime (as Firrao and Moriconi). Some of them had led a very active and busy life, received visitors and pilgrims, and had gained significant public influence. After the conviction or voluntary isolation, everything changed. Elisabetta Canori Mora, for example, belonged to the upper Roman bourgeoisie and led a worldly life before she embraced the mystical path. When she chose to dedicate herself to the Lord, she abandoned all privileges. Her new routine no longer included gala dinners, theatre and elegant clothes, but occasional meals, continuous penances and a humble basement where she could pray isolated from the world. We can read about the daily routines in her spiritual diary. Elisabetta used to cook fish for her daughters on Friday, since, in line with Catholic tradition, this is the day of the week in which the Passion of Christ is remembered, and meat is prohibited. Furthermore, in moments of spiritual despair, she ate a small piece of dark chocolate in order to alleviate her suffering. Other stigmatics also adapted themselves to their changed lives. Maria Agnese Firrao, in her prison-cell in Perugia, received letters from her faithful, replied to them, and even continued to direct the Roman monastery she had led before her condemnation thanks to her network of alliances. Imprisoned in an asylum, Palma Matarrelli received visits from her supporters. For many stigmatics, meditation and introspection were ways to abandon society and its problems to get in touch with the Lord. However, even in isolation, they created new routines and means to deal with the new situation productively. Nevertheless unique and exceptional our situation may seem, before us many people have experimented with forms of isolation and seclusion, and their example can teach us how to turn limitations into opportunities.

Transformations

by Kristof Smeyers

The beast and the frog

In 1916, as the First World War came to a standstill in the trenches of the western front, a great beast went hunting in the forests of New Hampshire, USA. The beast, an odd and disturbing creature by all accounts, stalked a frog. In The myth of disenchantment (pp. 159-160), Jason A. Josephson-Storm describes the beast’s modus operandi. It did not kill instantaneously. At sunrise, the beast baptised the ensnared frog and named it ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. This was only the start of the animal’s prolonged suffering. At dusk, the frog was put on trial. With appropriate pomp, the beast exclaimed: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, how thou art taken in my snare. All my life long thou hast plagued me and affronted me… Now, at last, I have thee; the Slave-God is in the power of the Lord of Freedom. Thine hour is come; as I blot thee out from this earth, so surely shall the eclipse pass; and the Light, Life, Love and Liberty be once more the Law of Earth. Give thou place to me, O, Jesus; thine aeon is passed; the Age of Horus is arisen by the Magick of the Master the Beast that is Man.’

After the mock trial, the frog ‘Jesus’ was condemned to death, and subsequently crucified. The British occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1948), nicknamed the Great Beast and infamous as ‘the wickedest man on earth’, cooked the frog’s legs, ate them, and burned the rest of the body. Jesus was consumed, no more: Crowley had taken and twisted the doctrine of transubstantiation to its extreme. This series of acts was done in accordance with Book LXX (‘The Cross of a Frog’) of the Thelema, Crowley’s own written philosophy. One of many similar rituals, the consumption of the frog transformed Crowley, turning himself into a god one incongruous step at a time. In 1921, he considered the transformation complete, and crowned himself ‘Ipssissimus’: beyond the gods.

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Aleister Crowley as photographed by Arnold Genthe. The Equinox 3.1 (Detroit: Universal Publishing Company, 1919), facing page 197. (c) Wikimedia Commons

Transubstantiation

Christ’s suffering body occupied a particularly strong cultural imaginary in the early twentieth century. Early twentieth-century stigmatics provided ammunition for those polemicists and worriers who aimed to protest a perceived disenchantment. (Or so S. Luzzatto claimed in his 2010 book on Padre Pio: miracles and politics in a secular age; the stigmatic and their community remain disconcertingly and overwhelmingly silent in approaches that go to some length to show how a stigmatic’s suffering was the embodiment of religious negotiations of ‘modernity’.) The parable of the beast and the frog shows how Christ’s body could transgress Christianity and hold symbolic sway in magical, occult, and other practices and beliefs. Crowley absorbed Christian symbolism to make it part of his own theology. The notion of ‘transformation’, of a practical use of Christ’s body, is central to any understanding of this multiplicity of meanings. For Crowley, the body of Christ signified a physical conduit between the material and the divine: to consume it, as he meant to consume all other gods, meant to transcend the bounds of the earthly realm and to reach his full potential. Though radical both in its aetiology and in its exertion, the underlying idea that interaction with the crucified body meant personal transformation or growth connects Crowley’s time under the New Hampshire canopy to the Passion experienced by many of the people that we study. Whether or not the Tyrolean mystic Angelica Darocca used a knife to reproduce the wounds of Christ on her body, for example, is in this respect not particularly relevant. By bearing the stigmata, she transformed herself; she was transformed.

Acknowledging that stigmata could be a form of religious, emotional self-expression is not the same as forcing the phenomenon into a corset of pathology. Our research has examined to some length now how we cannot approach the stigmata as a merely metaphorically and symbolically significant manifestation. The stigmatic was not only a tool in the battles between miracle-loving Catholics and materialists. Mortal skin was not just the canvas for holy signs; the Word was not simply made flesh. But the signs transformed the flesh—and the senses. Moreover, they held power, over believers and sceptics alike. That power was itself subject to the cultural contexts in which it appeared. A religious proclivity to suffering is not universal. In Biography of a Mexican crucifix (2010) Jennifer Scheper Hughes gives the example of the Cristo Aparecido in sixteenth-century Totolapan in Mexico. In 1543 the Augustinian missionary Antonio de Roa saw a crucifix made from the wood of the native maguey plant. The Christ figure is bloody and pale, ‘his ribcage poking through almost diaphanous skin’ as Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada describes it (‘Catholic devotion in the Americas’, Religion Compass, 13 (2019), pp. 1-10: 4). The appearance of the crucifix changed the indigenous community; it also meant a dramatic change in Antonio de Roa’s life. As crucial part of his conversion mission, he turned his own body into a ‘living image of pain’. Christian evangelisation centred around bodily suffering as a gateway into personal transformation. De Roa’s bleeding body, viewed in tandem with the Cristo, became a site of religious, christocentric instruction.

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Procession of the Cristo Aparecido in the streets of Totolapan, 15-19 March 2018. Image courtesy of http://museosanestebantetelpa.blogspot.mx/

Life, death, afterlife

The crucified body of Christ had many meanings: idiosyncratic, conflicting, overlapping; to be consumed, forgotten, venerated, or emulated. Stigmata were not the exclusive terrain of Catholics who equated the wounds with penitence and redemptive suffering. Jennifer Scheper Hughes has shown how the people of sixteenth-century Mexico did not welcome Christ’s pain and passion as an embodiment of their own suffering under colonial rule, but saw the crucifix rather as an object deserving of their care and love. For Crowley, though steeped in Christian themes, the body of Christ meant something else entirely. That transubstantiation, resurrection and stigmata were notions open to interpretation becomes apparent in occult writings. Occultists were naturally drawn to the power that emanated from Christ’s life, attributing it with qualities that befitted their own conceptions of the known, unknown, and unknowable universe. Helena Blavatsky tackled the subject of stigmata in Isis Unveiled (1877): supernatural markings on the skin were, in her view, a manifestation of the power of the imagination over one’s own body. To reach that conclusion, Blavatsky cherrypicked from a wide range of material, from Pythagoras to contemporary debates in the English medical journal The Lancet.

In turn, the phenomenon itself clearly held power over the imagination of others. The transformations of Christ evoked comparisons across a broad cultural imaginary. Stigmata were, perhaps naturally, often discussed in relation to matters of life, death, and rebirth. These matters could, depending on the perspective, corrupt rather than enshrine religious practices, and turn them into different things entirely. Stories of stigmata and other phenomena existed in a state of constant flux, oscillating between truth and fiction, between myth, interpretation and hearsay. Those different iterations nonetheless co-existed. Crowley’s hunt in the woods was by some Catholics considered as a mockeryof some of the beliefs they held holiest, but they did not pick apart the connotation between occultism and ‘proper’ religion. Rather, the widespread and multiform focus on Christ’s body and suffering allows us to draw seemingly separate strands together. As cultural historians of stigmata we would be wrong to limit our scope to the field of (Catholic) religion at the expense of other contemporaneous worldviews concerning the doctrine of transubstantiation, or themes of penitence and resurrection.

Similarly unnerving comparisons were made in previous centuries, by local communities as well as later scholars. David Keyworth has pointed at the notable similarities (as well as differences) between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century narratives of Central-European vampirism on the one hand and Catholic themes on the other: ‘The supposed existence of vampires also mirrored Christian belief in a future bodily resurrection at the Last Judgement’ (‘The aetiology of vampires and revenants: theological debate and popular belief’, Journal of Religious History, 34:2 (2010), pp. 158-173: 172). Here, vampires and Catholic miracles tied to Christ existed as each other’s mirror image—even if vampires famously have no reflection. Vampires as creatures having escaped the mortal confines of the coffin for an immortal life sustained by feeding on the blood of the living was, in Keyworth’s words, ‘in effect the antithesis to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation’ (p. 172).

Without incorporating these stories we would lose a significant part of this cultural imaginary in which religious phenomena, reanimated corpses, ghosts and vampires co-existed. Ongoing beliefs in stigmata, vampires, and the power that emanates from divinely touched bodies were often linked. Stigmata may at one point have been the sole terrain of the Catholic theologian (and this, too, is up for debate), but by the time Crowley crucified a frog between the maples and birches of New Hampshire Christ’s body and wounds had long been transformed into a powerful nexus of culturally entangled meanings.

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In 2017 a student art piece at Penn State’s Abington campus caused furore: Christus Ranae, a seven-foot sculpture of a crucified frog.