Some things are so personal, and inexplicable, that they’re difficult to put into words. Not only that, but they often involve other people and I try not to comment on those who actually know me in person. Still, having just watched Apocalypse Now for the first time, I feel I must. One of the people I admire most was a high school teacher. Although I never really said as much to him directly, he is one of the most formative people in my life. He served, and was shot up in Vietnam as a youth. His outlook on life, one that I’ve tried to emulate especially when my petty foibles overwhelm me, is an inspiration. I’m sure that he doesn’t know it, but every time I think of Vietnam he’s always in my mind.
Never a fan of war movies—I’m baffled that anyone can think of war as anything other than pure barbarism—I generally can’t watch them. Apocalypse Now, however, was widely discussed when I was in high school. It was released in 1979, just four years after the war had ended. It illustrates well the fog of war, and the Doors have been seeping in my head ever since the movie faded to black. When my wife and I began renting movies—VHS, of course—we made a list of must-see titles. First, partially for alphabetic reasons, was Apocalypse Now. That it took us almost two decades to get to it says something about the nature of life. And also my fear of war movies. Still, I knew I needed to see it. I figure that unless someone is even more behind the times than me, nearly forty years is safe from spoiler alerts.
The idea, based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is that Colonel Kurtz has gone insane and Captain Willard has been called in to assassinate him. As he makes his way upriver Willard finds out that Kurtz is treated like a god. He has a cult following and does appear to have lost touch with reality. In the climatic scene, Willard hacks Kurtz to death as a cow is being hacked to death outside as a sacrifice. Ending with Conrad’s original words, “the horror, the horror,” an ambiguity lingers over what a people will do once their god has been killed. In fact, language of people being gods occurs early in the film as well, bookending this concept. The truth, of course, is that there are no gods here at all. I can’t guess what Conrad would’ve thought of this adaptation of his story. I know that when I saw it my thoughts returned to one man whose impact on my life continues in ways unexpected and deeply hidden.
Liberation from the confines of academia allows for the occasional indulgence in taboo subjects. I can’t remember when I first heard of stigmata. I didn’t grow up Catholic, and, like many Protestants, distrusted much of what came from Rome. Still, I was interested in the supernatural. When I learned that people in this modern day and age sometimes developed unexplained wounds corresponding to crucifixion, I was intrigued. Ted Harrison’s book, Stigmata: A Medieval Mystery in a Modern Age, is the first I’ve actually read on the subject. It has some fascinating observations to share. It was some time after seminary that I learned that Francis of Assisi (aka St. Francis) was the first stigmatic. I had admired Francis for turning down wealth to assist the poor and commune with nature—what’s not to like?—but I didn’t realize that he had initiated this rare, but real phenomenon.
Harrison considers the question of why it was only in the 13th century that the stigmata began to occur. They have occurred ever since, in very small numbers, primarily in Italy and primarily among women. But why then? He points out that the church, shortly before this time, began to emphasize the physical suffering of Jesus on the cross. We’re probably all familiar with some of the gruesome images that emerged from the church and its artists at that time. As such images proliferated, people were given a visual focus that directed their devotions. Every great once in a while, this led to stigmata. Why women? As Harrison points out, men with intense spiritual needs could become priests. Women could not. The church would not forbid personal devotion, and if such devotion led to stigmata, well, a person arguably had a direct line to the divine. That was something normally preserved for priests through the Eucharist.
Stigmata have to be understood in the context of mysticism. The more recent cases studied by Harrison include some non-Catholics and some other unexpected candidates for what is, after all, a very intense spiritual experience. What emerges is a thoughtful, one might dare say contemplative, approach to the issue. Some stigmata have been self-inflicted. Some have not. Medical personnel have witnessed and examined these improbable wounds and have not explained them away. Once, during a faculty meeting at the New College of Edinburgh University (I was post-graduate student representative) one faculty member groused after one of my advisors had presented a challenging idea: “you’ve dropped us in a mythological world. I want to get us out.” There it is in a nutshell. Some people can live in a world where stigmata occur. Others have to explain it away. The difference is all in the matter of perspective.
Posted in Books, Consciousness, Feminism, Mysticism, Posts, Sects
Tagged Edinburgh University, Francis of Assisi, mysticism, Roman Catholicism, St. Francis, Stigmata, Stigmata: A Medieval Mystery in a Modern Age, Ted Harrison, women's spirituality