In the Sound of Music the nuns sang ‘How do you solve a problem like Maria?’ It’s more likely the more pressing problem in the Alps around that time was: ‘How do you solve a problem like Therese?’
Therese Neumann is a problem for skeptics, because she has never been satisfactorily debunked; yet here is a modern-day stigmatic who insisted she ate or drank nothing but the Eucharist for forty years.
Was it a miracle or Mass hysteria?
This extraordinary woman was born the in village of Konnersreuth, Bavaria in 1898 to a poor farming family, the eldest of ten children. From her youth, her nickname was “Resl.’
A sturdy girl, she claimed that she could do the work of any man – and had the same appetite. Her ambition was to become a missionary in Africa.
But her life changed in 1918 when she was partially paralyzed after falling off a stool helping to put out a fire in her uncle’s barn. She continued to try to work though, and this resulted in other falls, one causing a head injury that resulted in blindness. She became bedridden.
But four years later, on the day a saint called Therese of Lisieux was beatified in Rome, her eyesight was restored. Two years later, when this same saint was canonized, she was cured of her paralysis as well.
Later that same year she was diagnosed with appendicitis. She convulsed while being prepared for surgery and afterwards asked to be taken to the church instead of the operating room. She prayed to Saint Therese for her intervention for a third time and afterwards said she was cured.
This alone is cause for head scratching. But Therese Neumann’s life was to become even stranger.
On Good Friday in 1926 she claimed to have had visions of the entire Passion of Christ. She then started bleeding from her side, her hands, her feet – even her eyes. A priest was summoned to administer the Last Rites. But Theresa Neumann did not die. In fact, these same symptoms reappeared for the rest of her life, every Easter.
During these trances this illiterate peasant spoke Aramaic. She later developed nine more wounds, corresponding to the wounds from the scourging and the Crown of Thorns. Because of the bleeding she wore a head-cloth almost constantly, and this can be be seen in the many photographs of her.
Not one of the wounds ever healed, and it is said they were still imprinted on her body at the time of her death.
For the next forty years she ate or drank nothing except the Eucharist.
No one believed her. In 1927, the Bishop of Regensburg, Antonius von Henle, asked for a medical certification of the phenomenon. Therese was observed around the clock under medical instruction for two weeks by a medical doctor and four Franciscan nurses. The attending physician, Dr. Seidl, testified under oath in a Munich court on April 15, 1929, that there could be no question of Therese having taken any nourishment during the period of observation.
He said she had consumed nothing except for one consecrated sacred host per day and astonishingly, suffered no loss of weight, or dehydration.
But this was not Jennifer Jones in Song of Bernadette. In fact, the silent movie actress Lilian Gish painted a horrifying picture when visited her in 1928, in preparation for a movie role about her life.
She was confronted with a short, pale, freckled woman with bad teeth sitting up in bed with a bloodstained nightdress, dried blood congealed under her eyelids, bandages wrapped around her head and hands, describing Christ’s passion to the Archbishop of Portugal.
She said that if she hadn’t been warned by a priest what to expect, she would have fainted.
The Nazi party, of course, did not like Therese Neumann. They wanted to send her to a mental home to be ‘cured.’ Her father wouldn’t allow it. Her family home and her parish church were targeted for attacks but she survived the war unscathed, despite her vocal opposition to Hitler.
She eventually died on 18 September 1962, from cardiac arrest. The Resi was largely ignored during her life by the church; the Vatican is about ritual not mysticism. But a petition asking for her beatification signed by 40,000 people eventually forced the Bishop of Regensburg to open proceedings for her beatification in 2005. Don’t expect news anytime soon.
It’s a fascinating subject; I’ve touched on it before regarding the life of the Italian saint, Padre Pio (See my post here.) It also inspired my latest novel, due out in London next month.
What do we make of all this? Was Therese Neumann a fraud – if she was, no one has yet come forward with an adequate explanation of how she produced so many wounds throughout her entire life; she was never caught in forty years eating or drinking. Was she the most ingenious and stoic hoaxer who ever lived?
If not, then how did the stigmata come about – and how did she survive her inedia for so long? Was it supernatural intervention – or did this illiterate peasant woman manifest such remarkable events through the power of her own mind?
It’s a mystery that’s never been rationally explained.
So – what do you think?
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