Category: Anomalies /


There have been many reports of stigmata over the years but few have been closely studied. John and Anne Spencer were given a rare opportunity to do so, with the help of the late Mrs Heather Woods.

Over the past 770 years around 300 to 350 people have reported an extraordinary phenomenon. They have displayed, for all to see, wounds on their bodies - and particularly their hands and feet - that they believe represent the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ. Research shows that within religious circles there may have been many more stigmatics; many believe that their suffering is a private experience not to be made public. Certainly one recent case, Mrs Heather Woods of Lincoln, only made her marks public when she was 'told' in a message from the Lord that they could be.

Reports of Stigmata

The vast majority of the claimants have been female; one estimation indicates a figure as high as 85%. However, the first such claimant was St Francis of Assisi. In 1224, two years before his death, he received the marks on his body. They were described by witnesses as having the appearance of the nails themselves; the points and the nail heads showed through the skin on both sides of his hands. They were alleged to have existed after his death, with many pilgrims filing past his body witnessing 'not the prints of the nails, but the nails themselves formed out of his flesh and retaining the blackness of iron...'.

Other stigmatics have reported similar marks; for example, Giovanna Bonomi in 1670 and Domenica Lazzari in 1848. However, the appearance of the marks is not consistent. Some people have exhibited red patches that do not bleed, others have claimed deep holes that, in some cases, are alleged to go right through the limb. There have been reports of circles, ovals, oblongs, indeed many shapes. The marks can include a representation of a spear-mark in the side and others representing a crown of thorns on the forehead. In addition to the 'usual' marks, Georgette Faniel of Montreal recently reported a pain that she believes represents the injury caused to Jesus Christ by his carrying the cross on his shoulder as he walked to his crucifixion. Teresa Neumann is probably the most famous stigmatic who, in addition to other marks, has tears of blood.

Several reports have been made of marks found on the heart of the stigmatic during post-mortems. St Teresa of Avila's heart is preserved as a sacred relic and is held to display marks believed by some to represent the piercing of her heart by a spear. Caterina Savelli in 1691, and Charles of Sezze in 1671, also had ' heart-markings'.

The most famous stigmatic was Padre Pio. After eight years of pain he first displayed the stigmata at the age of 31, on 20 September 1918; his wounds opened up and wept a great deal of blood. For him, as for many stigmatics, his marks were painful. He wrote: 'I saw before me a mysterious person...his hands and feet and side were dripping with blood. The vision disappeared and I became aware that my hands, feet and side were dripping blood. Imagine the agony I experienced and continue to experience almost every day... I am dying of pain because of the wounds and resulting embarrassment...'. He had the marks of the stigmata for fifty years. There were those who believed they could put their fingers right through the wounds.

The lives of Padre Pio and St Francis of Assisi have many close parallels. From an early age Padre Pio - born Francesco Forgione - wanted to be a priest; of the order started by St Francis. The saint received his stigmata after a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Michael at Gargano in Italy; Padre Pio lived in a monastery in the small town of San Giovanni Rotondo, just a few miles from that shrine. Padre Pio's stigmata appeared just three days after he had celebrated the Feast of the Stigmata of St Francis.

Those displaying the stigmata often have associated paranormal experiences, in particular visions, receiving channeled messages, writings and drawings. Padre Pio was frequently reported in bi-location ie. seen in two places at the same time.

Generally speaking, those displaying the signs of the stigmata indicate that they believe them to represent a 'sign' from Jesus. Certainly there are few stigmatics who are not obviously religious, with a belief in Christ as a centrepiece of their conviction. There are no reliable claims of the stigmata in non-Christian religions. Heather Woods indicated that she believed they were given to her at a time when a suffering world needed a symbol of faith.

A more dispassionate analysis of the phenomenon indicates that internal beliefs and religious imagery may explain the markings. Prior to the claims of St Francis of Assisi religious art - including depictions of Jesus on the Cross - were highly stylized. They were graceful, artistic, beautiful and did not show blood, wounds or suffering. Religious art changed around the 13th century to a more 'realistic' image; the suffering was depicted in all its detail - and the claims of the stigmata followed. This followed a change from devotion to the life of Christ, to a concentration on his suffering for our sins. With that change came a higher awareness of the suffering of the crucifixion.

When the Turin Shroud - whatever its authenticity - showed that the nail wounds might have been made through the wrists rather than the palms of the hands, claims of stigmata in the wrists followed. In fact, studies of the stigmata indicate that the marks seem to follow the imagery of the suffering as believed by the claimant.

This verges on suggesting that claimants actually want to display these signs of suffering; in fact we can be sure that this occasionally happens. Two years before St Francis of Assisi reported his stigmata, one man allowed himself to be crucified and therefore bore the marks, and in recent times a court prosecuted two men for crucifying a third on Hampstead Heath, even though the 'victim' admitted he had requested the crucifixion.

The majority of claimants seem to be displaying a psychosomatic response to their religious fervour. That the body can will itself to produce such marks has evidence outside of the realm of stigmata claims and has even been put to the test. A Swedish girl known as Maria was badly beaten up when she was 23; after that time she would, every few weeks, produce bleeding from head, ear and eyelids. A doctor examining her concluded that she could produce bleeding at will, from no visible wounds, when she picked arguments with other patients and reached a certain emotional state. This ability, known as hysterical conversion, is a close cousin of a form of extreme hypochondria as exhibited by 'Elizabeth'. She could manifest the symptoms of any illness she heard about. On one occasion she went to see a slide show of the 'Passion', ie. the crucifixion of Jesus. She left feeling pains in her hands and feet. A Doctor Lechler, using hypnosis, suggested that she - like Jesus - had been pierced by nails in her hands and feet. Nail-like wounds appeared. Using suggestion, he also induced tears of blood and bleeding wounds on her forehead. Lechler was also able to use hypnosis to heal the wounds, and he could eventually re-manifest them without hypnosis.

Whether the stigmata is God-given are, of course, a matter for conviction rather than research. Research seems, however, to have identified a mechanism by which the body can, in certain extreme emotions, manifest strange markings, producing a truly extraordinary, and highly visible, mystery phenomenon.

The Stigmata of Heather Woods

The most extraordinary case of the stigmata is that of Heather Woods of Lincoln. She was featured in a television documentary at Easter 1994, and a book about her life, which we have written, was published at that time, entitled Spirit Within Her.

We worked with Heather for a long time. In this article we summarise some of that research, so that readers can understand just what goes on in the minds and bodies of people so affected. It is probably the first such in-depth analysis of one person's claim.

Our work with Heather consisted of twelve hours of video-taped interview; over 130,000 words of dictated memories and access to all of Heather's private diaries, and to the 60,000 or so words of writings that Heather believed were channelled guidance from God. Included in our many interviews with Heather was a period of three days when she lived with us both and allowed us - even encouraged us - to 'drive her hard' to get her story out. It is her belief that part of her mission for Jesus is to tell her story as widely as possible.

Formative Years

At the age of nine Heather came home to find her suitcases packed; she and her sisters were uprooted from their happy home. For the rest of her life until adulthood, Heather was moved from one institutional home to another. She endured sexual abuse, bone-aching physical violence and mind-numbing mental cruelty at the hands of a variety of 'benefactors'. She ran away over thirty times. An aching memory of her childhood was of sitting in the 'best' room of the care-house, dressed in her best clothes, waiting for a promised visit from her parents, knowing that they would not turn up - just like they had not turned up the week before.

In her early years the abuse was coupled with tragedies including her mother's breakdown, imprisonment and eventual suicide and her own attempted 'suicides', or at least cries for help. In later years she would endure the birth of a brain-damaged son, the death of a husband she loved dearly and permanent separation from her daughter.

By the age of 44, when we spoke to her, her body was racked by breakdown, it had endured cancers and other illnesses that had required many visits to hospitals,with most of her major organs operated on or removed. Her triumph over all this is spiritually uplifting, and peopled with wonderful souls: 'Pop' who took her in from 'care' at the age of eighteen, gave her her first real home and 'healed' her crippled mind; Ray, her husband, who helped heal her body. Heather's description of their joint combat with their own histories - Ray was also an abused child - is desperately moving. It was two years before they really made love, and then they clung together gently for hours - two human beings touching each other without violence, feeling pleasure in physical contact for the first time in their lives. And her priest, Father Eric, who was to share in her most extraordinary religious and spiritual moments, and who helped heal her spirit.

The Stigmata Arise

Heather's stigmata first appeared at a time when she was receiving channelled drawings and writings and experiencing visions. These came to her in trance-like states, and she believes they were 'given' to her by God. The messages read like sermons, the drawings and visions were of Jesus baptised and crucified. Heather felt herself on a cross inside the body of Jesus. She felt herself with him many times during 'biblical' times. When she was 'with' him at his baptism by John the Baptist, she described 'It was as if I was there. I could see the water dripping from him, sparkling in the sunlight.'

The appearance of the stigmata is almost always associated with visions such as these. St Francis received the marks after a vision of a six-winged seraph crucified like a man. Religious illustrations depicting this show a seraph before him with lines shining from its wounds onto St Francis.

Ethel Chapman, a recent stigmatic, recalled a vivid vision of being crucified. She felt the pain and saw people jeering at her. The next morning she had stigmata markings.

Heather's writings were channelled while she was in trance; she never remembered the writing, only the beginning as she reached for her pencil and the end when she 'came round'. But a few people were witness to the extraordinary speed of her writing; several pages filled in minutes. One witness said she watched Heather's hand moving at 'abnormal speed'. Like Heather, Ethel Chapman also produced writings, although she did not claim that they were 'channelled'. She described that when it started to come, 'it just flowed', which is very similar to Heather's claims.

Visions and expressions like this involve a feeling of reality and conviction that may well be the passion that produces the stigmata. Of course, not every such passion produces stigmata - it is very rare - but many people have similar feelings that are taken on faith rather than 'proof'.

Stigmata Compared with Other Reported Experiences

'Sarah', believing she might have cancer, was lying in bed and had more or less decided her days were numbered. She held an orange in her hand and had an extraordinary spiritual feeling. A feeling of tranquility came over her. Her perspective totally shifted; it no longer mattered what happened to her. She told us "I can face anything now because of the feeling from holding this simple object, grown from the earth. It just took a second or so to pass through my mind, but it was like a revelation, it summed up our place in the universe. It was a signal of life's strength and continuity. I felt nourished and strengthened by the whole experience. I have never felt anxious about life since then, except minor little things day to day, of course. But the totality of existence is now not a concern to me."

'Bertil' had revelations that he believed made him 'ecologically aware', as powerful a passion as any religious belief. 'I came to a bed of flowers. I knelt down and I got in touch with one of the roses: I was actually part of its system of juices running through the stem up to the rose buds, and it was such a magnificent feeling. I was really enlightened. Afterwards I started becoming more and more conscious of the inner living nature of plants and trees and so forth. Animals seem to be animated beings, of course, like human beings, but I came to realise that plants also are animated in a way. I started trying to get in touch with trees and plants and I succeeded. Now, whenever I like, I am able to be in touch with plants and listen to them.'

'Peter' woke up, got out of bed and pulled his curtains open. He felt that he was compelled to do it, that he knew something was there. Outside was a very round, very bright light with swirling colours in it. The centre was like a ball turning on an axis. Peter described the inner core as if turning independently; the light swamped out everything and totally filled Peter's field of vision. Since that time Peter's artistic talents have developed (there were none in evidence previously) in both painting and photography; he has sold examples of both for large sums of money and for publication. There is considerable emphasis on the swirling coloured patterns that were part of his experience. Peter was certain that the event was a 'turning point' in his life. His interest in all things paranormal started at that time. To some extent Peter said his experience was 'religious' and he recognized that his artworks were a deliberate expression of this, albeit a subconscious one. Many of his paintings and photographs are overlaid with crosses and standard religious shapes.

These experiences are different from stigmata, of course; but the passion of conviction easily bears comparison. The certainty of the reality and the change of perspective of 'Bertil' and 'Sarah' are similar to religious conversion. The resultant expressions bear comparison also; Peter's artistry, Ethel Chapman's poetry and Heather's channelled writings and drawings could all be coming from unlocked facets of their minds, for example.

Mechanisms of the Stigmata and Channelling

It is generally believed that there are four mechanisms that might account for the stigmata:

a) The first is based not on research but belief, and is of course supported by stigmatics. They believe the marks are God-given, a sign from God indicating the special nature of the claimant and their religious 'mission'. Heather believed they were given to her as a message for the world.

b) The second mechanism holds that the marks are physically produced in some way. One subject, Elizabeth of Herkenrode, possibly created and certainly maintained stigmata by banging her finger into her hand, re-living the passion and the pain of the crucifixion every twenty-four hours. In one sense this amounts to 'cheating' but from the stigmatics' point of view it is not; the stigmata are a part of a religious experience for their subjects and physical pain and suffering are a real part of the devotion. They are doing what they believe is right. However, such a mechanism removes the stigmata from the realm of the paranormal.

c) The third mechanism relates to people who exhibit multiple personality syndrome (MPS); those people who seem to have 'other' personalities within them. It is generally thought that these people's own personality is sub-divided in a way that prevents them 'contacting' their 'other selves'. When these people are in one personality they cannot recall what they did in the other personality. Usually the 'main' personality knows about the 'others', and vice-versa, but the 'other' personalities do not know of each other. If a 'sub-personality' is the one that is religiously driven then the marks may appear on the person and yet be a shock to the 'main' personality which is unaware of the passions causing such events.

There is supportive evidence of MPS in areas such as channelling messages. Heather, for example, received a variety of messages in various handwritings. One theory suggests that these are 'other' personalities within her 'communicating' with the main one.

Some of her channelling is thought-provoking however; for example Heather channelled a message from her priest, Father Eric, shortly after his death. The handwriting and the content were so like Eric's that his wife, Betty, was convinced that it was a message from Eric. It contained references Betty was sure Heather would not have known.

d) The fourth mechanism is that the marks appear naturally, as a psychosomatic response to religious fervour. This is the most favoured theory with modern researchers. It has been tested and it has parallels outside of the claims of the stigmata.

The condition is known as psychogenic purpura (spontaneous haemorrhaging with no obvious cause). It is rare, but there are several cases of people who produce on themselves the evidence of some previous trauma. In one case a woman who had been abused during childhood manifested the spontaneous appearance of her bruise marks during psychotherapy. British psychiatrist Robert Moody reported the case of an army officer whom he had treated for stress disorders and sleepwalking. During these times the officer produced the marks on his body of ropes where he had been tied up earlier. Moody photographed these wounds and saw them bleed.

In the field of UFO and 'close encounter' research, there is the well documented case of Barney Hill who believed that he was kidnapped by aliens and subjected to a medical examination. Reliving the experience years later under hypnosis, he manifested a ring of warts around his genitals, corresponding to where he believed devices had been attached during the 'abduction'. In fact many people who claim to have undergone 'alien abductions' display marks on their bodies, and bleeding, from wounds they believe were inflicted by medical examination by aliens. Many other people who have been in close proximity to UFOs manifest a variety of marks. Some may be attributable to the object, for example, chest wounds received by Stephen Michalak in Canada. But some seem more likely to be the psychosomatic response to UFOs, for example triangular markings received by Dr X in southern France, in 1968.

The phenomenon known as possession has produced examples of skin markings that match belief, and they are similar to stigmata. 'Robbie', an American possession case, produced lines of suffering and even words, in scratches on his skin. One witness said that the marks were emerging as if something was clawing from within his body.

Belief seems, therefore, to produce marks in a shape and form that match the experience or vision as perceived by the subject.

There is a difference with stigmata, however; the army officer had once been a captive, Barney Hill believed he had been abducted by aliens, 'Robbie' believed himself possessed, and so on. These people manifest marks according to their own personal experiences. The stigmata are unique in that the subject receives the marks of somebody else's suffering, i.e. Jesus's.

Heather and, it seems, Ethel Chapman may however have felt that they themselves were on the cross and the marks could arguably be those of their 'own' suffering. Perhaps other stigmatics felt the same. Heather said, 'I found myself on the cross with our Lord. I wasn't with him as if it were the two of us; I felt myself within him, looking out.'

The association with Jesus's crucifixion does seem central to the experience.

The Historical Mechanisms

The stigmata first appear in the 13th century; their appearance at that time is very clear. But why should that be? The answer lies in the change of religious imagery at that time. Until the 13th century worshippers were encouraged to focus on the beauty of the son of God and his ministry. Depictions of the crucifixion were stylized, tender and with no signs of bleeding wounds. Then the church encouraged worshippers to focus on Jesus's dying for our sins and suffering for all mankind. Artists' depictions began to show the suffering, the pain, the wounding, and the bleeding.

There is 'control' evidence that supports this theory. Some Byzantine and orthodox images of Jesus on the cross maintain the stylized form to the present day; and followers of these religious groups do not produce stigmatics.

It is also a historical fact that there are many more women than men who have manifested the stigmata although the ratio is levelling out in recent years.

The change of worship mentioned above came about less from the established church than because of pressure from lay groups. This is viewed as having been a reaction to the corruption of the church at the time. St Francis, for example, was not a priest; he was a lay person who set up his own monastic order. Many unofficial religious orders were set up, often made up of women who were denied the 'mainstream' and who rejected it in any case. They led the way to concentration on the passion of the suffering of Jesus; and they became the majority of stigmatics.

In more recent times even priests, now focused on the pain and suffering, have displayed the stigmata. The most famous of these is of course Padre Pio, who bled for fifty years. Religious imagery also plays an important part in the type of stigmata that manifests. Heather's stigmata closely matched her own beliefs about the crucifixion and images she was familiar with from illustrated bibles, artworks and so on. Similarly, Ethel Chapman got her marks in the form of a vision which closely related to the illustrated bible she had been reading the night before.

After the Turin Shroud suggested that crucifixion may have been through the wrists rather than the palms, there were the first reports of stigmata on the wrists.

No other religions exhibit the stigmata or even equivalents. This is probably because in no other religion is there the same idea of sin being redeemed through the suffering of God's representative; that is a uniquely Christian belief.

The Overlay of the Paranormal

The appearance of stigmata is usually associated with experiences generally labelled 'paranormal'. Heather believed she had ESP, could tell the history of people she met, had premonitions, saw ghosts and spirits, channelled images and writing, had out-of-body experiences and gave healing in the form of 'laying on of hands'. Other stigmatics, reported by other researchers, have made similar claims, or other claims such as poltergeist-like activity. There have been reports that a person at a point of religious ecstasy will levitate; such a claim was made of St Francis. A claim made for Padre Pio was that he underwent bi-location; he was witnessed in two places at the same time. There are many cases of non-religious claims of this.

Another paranormal association is that of a perfume smell, the odour of sanctity. A sweet smell of roses has been associated with many stigmatics, such as Padre Pio. His devotees believe they can detect his 'presence' by this smell even now, years after his death.

Heather Woods worked under the spiritual guidance of Father Eric Eades, who believed he channelled healing powers from Padre Pio. Father Eric's wife, Betty, confirmed to us that she smelt that scent recently, after both Eric's and Heather's death. Ted Harrison, who has investigated many cases of stigmata, told us that Ethel Chapman and Christina Gallagher in Ireland were associating their experiences with this smell.

The Stigmata and Healing

Heather believed that above all else her healing ministry was the most important aspect of her 'mission'. It was, she told us, carrying on the real work of Jesus Christ. The stigmata were, to her, more of a sign for others that they should see and believe in that healing ministry. Many other stigmatics have been healers, including Padre Pio, Jane Hunt in England, Berthe Mrazek in Belgium, Georgette Faniel in Montreal. This is fascinating because there is an association of healing energy that might lead us to greater understanding of stigmata.

Reports of the experimental work of healers and many observations of researchers, healers and their patients often mention the association of heat as part of the healing process. That is directly related to Heather's stigmata. Her Aunt May described: 'You could feel the heat coming from it. Even the one on her tummy, you could feel the heat there.' Aunt May demonstrated to us how she reacted when she put her hand over the marks; she jerked it backwards suddenly, screwing up her face. It was a gesture she might have made if she had put her hand into the flame of a candle. Heather's father, George, was at the interview and confirmed that impression. He described the heat from inches above the wounds as 'hot as a match flame. Hot. Hot.' He, too, made this same jerking, withdrawing gesture.

Aunt May told us that Heather's body always generated heat; "Many a time I used to give her a hug I'd throw my arms around her and the heat that would come from her body was unbelievable."

Is there a connection between heat, stigmata and healing? Perhaps the connections are there for future research and experimentation, leading to a greater understanding of these processes.

Photograph of the Holy Spirit

Heather believed she 'channelled the Holy Spirit'; that was the source of her healing energy. A photograph taken in her house church, when developed, showed a 'beam of light' containing a strange spiralling formation, curving down towards the floor; Heather maintained this was exactly what she always saw. She said it was the Holy Spirit captured on film.

We showed the photograph Heather gave us to Maurice Grosse, the head of the Spontaneous Phenomena Committee of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and a valued colleague who has done so much work in paranormal research. He showed us two similar photographs of the exact same 'beam of light' taken during a christening ceremony. In one photograph the light comes down into the font, in the other it comes down directly onto the baby's head. The family concerned replied to our enquiries, confirming that they had not seen any lighting effects when the ceremony was underway, and that it had been quite a surprise to them when they saw it. The SPR and ASSAP have received many such pictures recently. To date the several photographers and analysts who have examined the photographs at our behest, and those working for the research groups, have yet to come up with an explanation.

Medical History of the Stigmatics

There appears to be a pattern of suffering of one sort or another in the subjects. Many seem to have gone through a period of serious illness. All seem to have suffered in some way, for example, Therese Neumann, Dorothy Kerin and Heather Woods. Heather's life of suffering, her rape, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and other deprivations and traumas may all have created the conditions that lead to stigmata when overlaid with religious belief; it is a fairly consistent pattern in stigmatics.

What is perhaps important is that medical history seems to play a part in experiencing the 'wider' range of paranormal phenomena. Many of those who believe they have been abducted by aliens have a history of illness or suffering that bears comparison with Heather's. This is a good comparison because those who perceive UFO and 'close encounter' experiences are also closer to religious fervour than those reporting other forms of paranormal experience. Their beliefs are often those of passionate conviction rather than reasoned analysis. My own files contain the adverse medical histories and family separations, of 'Rohan'; trauma in the case of 'Jane'; and many other such cases. Budd Hopkins reported the medical problems of 'Kathie Davis', the subject of his book Intruders.

Some stigmatics might even be prone to Munchausen Syndrome. This illness relates to those who want to be ill, or more specifically, to those who want to get the care and attention that illness generates. Some go to the extent of seeking unnecessary operations in order to fulfil their needs. Such people are usually identified as having low self-esteem generally because of sexual or physical abuse, or oppression and rejection.

Given a classic background for it, there must be some suspicion of Munchausen Syndrome in Heather. There is, however, more evidence that she gained her self-worth through giving to others; she started a service for the housebound and disabled, she was a Samaritan, and undertook a great deal of charitable work.

The Highest Hierarchy

People seek personal development and attainment in different ways, and according to different circumstances. It is important to understand how those driven by religious fervour, including stigmatics, seek to achieve their best personal development.

Research has identified a 'hierarchy of needs' that all human beings seek to satisfy. When we have provided for basic needs such as food and a home we move on to ultimately trying to 'become the person we know we are capable of becoming'. Deeply religious people often find it easy to satisfy the lower needs because those needs are not strong in them. Monks, nuns and many priests, for example, live very austere lives from choice; food, a bed, a roof over their heads and a bible have been the only possessions of some such people, with no evidence of craving for more material possessions.

For many of these people 'oneness' with Jesus is perhaps 'the person they know they are capable of becoming'; and for a few that oneness might be displayed through the stigmata.

Faced with illness, rejection, abuse and so on, people generally respond in one of two ways. They can take control of their lives by 're-creating' themselves through assertiveness training, stress management, psychotherapy and the like, or they 'give up' and fall victim to their inner illnesses. Perhaps stigmatics have found a compromise; Jesus is perhaps a person who can be trusted with control over your life, and those who surrender control to him and become his instrument might be regarded as neither 'giving up' or 'taking control'.

In this context, the stigmata could be regarded as either a sign to Heather that God had recognised that desire, or an outward sign to the rest of the world that Heather felt that desire. The stigmata were, for Heather, a sign that she was 'becoming the person she knew she was capable of becoming'.

Author :John and Anne Spencer

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