Stigmata: stigma’s origin in religious ecstasy

Mother of goo

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

The word “stigma” comes from a Latin word meaning that a person is marked or branded. The word is the singular of stigmata, a term used to reference holy scars that are symbolic of Christ’s wounds from crucifixion.

Today, the act of stigmatizing a person or a group of people means to simultaneously judge and shame them. A common target for stigma is sexuality (outside of the constraints of Christian dogma) and all that this encompasses. It is ironic then that stigmata are associated with an erotic, sensual connection to the divine.

This sensuality can be seen in Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Teresa’s heart is pierced by the angel’s gold spear, and she is overcome by ecstasy in the sublime combination of pain and pleasure of God’s all encompassing love.

“The pain was so great that it made me moan.”

The religious origins of the word stigmata reveal a fascinating depth. Many of the rules laid out in the Old Testament were broken by Jesus Christ in the New Testament, who is both the religion’s main prophet and its Son of God.

A story in the book of Luke describes a woman named Mary kneeling and washing Jesus’ feet with her hair and essence of nard, an exorbitantly expensive oil. The men around him were shocked that he would let an “impure” woman touch him, let alone in such an intimate way. But Jesus defends her, denying any impurity, saying that she is able to love deeply and that this is more important than any judgments the men have decided to place upon her.

This story suggests that to love deeply and to have the capacity for immense compassion, it is required that we recognize our common humanity, instead of putting ourselves on a pedestal and branding others with projected shame.

How strange that stigmatization, a violent act born out of judgment, fear and hate, has its origins in a word that is supposed to be representative of embodied, sensual love. May those who fall into stigmatizing others, especially if due to church dogma, remember the origin of this word and the message of compassion and love spoken loudly by Jesus himself.

I come to you as I am

With the sweetest perfume I know

To kneel before you and tend to the part that connects you to this earth

I do not need to know anything about you

To know that I love you.

Madeline Rae, a University of Winnipeg alum, is a sex educator and writer living in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People. She holds a BFA in performative sculpture, a BA in psychology and is studying for her master’s inclinical social work at Dalhousie University.

Published in Volume 77, Number 02 of The Uniter (September 15, 2022)

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