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.

Why pain?

By Merlijn Gabel

You may have already seen my name pop up on the website or somewhere else and you are aware that I have recently started on a new stigmatics project. If not, pain, suffering and stigmatics are the themes I will dive into for the next four years, with the focus on Austria. Last Christmas, the importance of the research became instantly clear. Enthusiastically, I was speaking with a family member about pain. She is a nurse and I asked how she would know if her patients are in-pain. It is important to know that she works mostly with children. She replied that children almost always point to their belly to express pain. It does not matter whether they are dying of cancer or are worried about an important school test, it is the belly where they feel this unpleasantness we call pain. She also stated this makes it difficult for medical personnel to read the severity of the pain children are experiencing. In some cases, doctors may be seriously in doubt whether the children are in-pain or not.

Of course, pain does not always have to be the result of a lesion, think about the so-called phantom pain people can experience in their lost limbs. The relation between lesion and pain becomes even more uncertain when there are people who have a serious injury but claim to not experience pain. Think about cyclists in the Tour de France, who can continue cycling with a broken hip, elbow, knee, ribs, or all the above at the same time. As pain is not always a sign of lesion, doctors do not always trust children being in-pain when they point at their bellies every time they experience something unpleasant.

Gedicht.jpg

Foto by ©Leonie Kohn

Not only modern-day doctors are aware of the ambiguous relation between pain and lesion. They were just as aware of it in the past, just as the doctors who examined Juliana Weiskircher. She was an Austrian stigmatic from Schleinbach, a small village close to Vienna. She was born in 1824 and her youth was marked by all sorts of pain. She was one of ten siblings, of whom six would not see their tenth birthday, which was, how sadly so, not uncommon in the nineteenth century. Her father died when she was only thirteen years old, which had a big impact on the young girl. If this was not enough, she was often sick. Very often. She was probably suffering of tuberculosis among other diseases. She coughed blood and sometimes lost control over her body when it cramped. We can only imagine the tragic and pain she must have experienced. Sadly, the medical treatment was not developed enough to cure the diseases. One of the few things doctors could do to relieve pain was bloodletting, but this did not heal her. She had to accept that she had to live with a body-in-pain. Beside the worldly bodily suffering, she also experienced a divine suffering, which became tangible in 1847 in the form of stigmata. She could feel how Christ had been nailed on the cross. The nails left wounds on her hands. This divine suffering was not meaningless and went hand-in-hand with visions. She felt Christ’s pain in body and soul and in an unconscious ecstatic state she would cry out: “My God,” “My Lord,” “This Pain,” “Thy will be done.” Other times she seemed to be in absolute bliss and her face was still and peaceful. When she was not in an ecstatic state, the sources state, she was a happy and cheerful person.

The stigmata did not only leave a trace on the body, the miraculous phenomenon also had an impact on the small village of Schleinbach. Word travelled fast at the time, as newspapers covered the event, and a growing number of people wanted to see the stigmatic for themselves. The word did not only spread to the curious, local authorities also became aware of the miraculous events happening in the town. For them the claimed miracle was a potential social turmoil that needed to be clamped down.

The reasons why the authorities were so anxious about Juliana are a bit unclear. I assume they were afraid of every popular movement that could undermine their jurisdiction. In 1848, European states were threatened by revolutionary forces. The continent had barely recovered from the previous major revolution and the following Napoleonic wars. In this light, it makes sense that the local Austrian authorities suppressed all possible popular movements that had the potential to undermine them. They preferred the unexplainable miracles in Schleinbach to disappear, rather sooner than later.

How to make a miracle disappear? The answer is quite simple. By simply showing that the miraculous is ordinary. This was the mission of the doctors who had to examine the stigmatic. First, they examined her at home, but they were under the conviction that the Catholic home-environment was one of the main triggers for the extraordinary events. A true examination could only be done in the hospital in Vienna, far away from all the misleading Catholic influences. In Vienna the doctors would show to the world that Juliana had faked the stigmata and therefore the miracle was no more than an ordinary scam.

Juliana and her family were not easily convinced to go to the hospital. The poor health of the girl made her vulnerable for the trip and the intentions of the doctors seemed unjust. Only after the bishop had put in a word and the doctors had promised they would cure the girl, they were persuaded to send Juliana to Vienna.

In Vienna, she was treated for almost half a year during which she was constantly watched by nurses and was isolated from any spiritual care-taking. The treatment had its effect. Her health clearly improved and the bleeding had stopped. This was for the doctors the sign that she had been faking the stigmata and they declared her cured, shortly after it seemed unlikely that the stigmata would return. Their mission was accomplished as the miracle was no longer miraculous.

Although the doctors had declared Juliana cured, she still had cramps and bodily ecstasy, which still caused a lot of pain. The doctors, however, stated that she was just exaggerating. Women at that time were ought to suffer in silence. Behavior that did not fit this model was perceived as fake or an exaggeration and could thus be ignored.

In our contemporary eyes it seems totally absurd that a woman who is clearly in-pain can be diagnosed as cured. We are often under the conviction that we are no longer formed by such degrading cultural models of how to express pain. If someone claims to be in-pain, it is acknowledged. Even psychological pain, such as depressions, are more accepted than ever before. So, why is the story about Juliana interesting for us?

I want you to think about the children from the introduction, who point at their belly when they are in-pain. Doctors still lack tools to know how severe someone’s pain is. They often ask the patient to scale their pain from 1 to 10, but we can all think about reasons why this system is untrustworthy and can sometimes still end up in doctors ignoring the children’s pain. Just as they did with Juliana’s. These small children do not yet understand the codes to express their pain correctly. Or how do we deal with people from other cultural backgrounds, who express or feel their pain differently than we do. Recently, I spoke with a doctor who has a lot of patients with a Moroccan background. When these people are experiencing stress, they feel pain in their belly. It took her a while to figure out these people were having stress although the symptoms might implicate something else.

Therefore, the story of Juliana is still important as it is relevant. If we want to be respectful to all people-in-pain and treat them the best way possible, we can no longer take our own cultural standard of how to express pain as the only standard. Otherwise, we end up with more people like Juliana, who come out of a hospital and lose faith in all medical treatment. After Juliana returned home her health decreased once again and the stigmata returned as well. But now, as the doctors had ‘proven’ her stigmata were fake, they did not pay any attention to her anymore. Her tragic life ended in 1862 when she died at the young age of 42.