This year marks the 110th year of Mariam Thresia’s (1876- 1926) reception of the Stigmata, the five wounds of Jesus in a visible form on January 27, 1909 making her the first stigmatic in Kerala. One may wonder how a person lived almost a hundred years back can become a replica for our troubled world today.
Mariam Thresia’s life time arches across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The twentieth century was in many ways a turning point in the course of history. The world was shattered by world wars that engulfed them. Communism had achieved power and was spreading throughout the world. A social and moral revolution transpired and important societal institutions like religion, marriage and the family were questioned. In India British dominance was at its height and a yearning for freedom and independence were in the air all over. The repercussions of the First World War shook the society that Mariam Thresia lived in too. It contributed growing poverty among the people. The landlords exploited the poor laborers keeping them in virtual slavery. The traditional caste system contributed to woes and suffering of people, and moral and spiritual decadence of individuals and families began to be on the rise. From the point of governance and development too Puthenchira was completely neglected for political reasons.
Mariam Thresia lived in the midst of these realities and found a way to elevate them and established a meaning for the suffering. As people began to grow cold towards Crucified Saviour who saved humankind through suffering, God renewed the visible bleeding wounds of Christ’s Passion in the hands, feet and side of this simple woman of Puthenchira, Kerala. Her call was to be crucified with Christ for all for their salvation by helping them focus on God who loves them amid the adversities and ugliness of their lives.
Why does God grant Stigmata? Through the stigmata God expresses his pleasure in the holiness of life related to the conscious acceptance of the cross taken up spiritually. It is then an experience of suffering coloured with joy for the grace received. The stigmatic receives the mission of being a prophet to remind humankind of the realities that are truly important. They help us to see the extremes to which Christ went to redeem us.
Born on 26 April, 1876, in the village of Puthenchira, Thrissur, Kerala Mariam Thresia would become distinguished as the first stigmatic and a great mystic of our country. Her special qualities began to manifest from the age of three and a half. She had celestial visions and diabolical oppressions from childhood onwards. She was able to see and speak with Jesus in his different phases like child Jesus, Suffering Jesus, Crucified Jesus, and Holy Family, Mary, Joseph, Angels, saints and St. Therese of Avila – her patron saint. She had incalculable suffering in terms of poor health, diabolical oppressions, criticisms, misunderstandings, public humiliations etc. Despite these conditions she was strong in spirit and offered these suffering as a means of identification with her Crucified Lord for the salvation of souls.
Cross is the superabundance of God’s love (VC 24). From the childhood she desired intensely to love God who died on the cross to redeem humankind. Cross and the Crucified became the burning of her heart. She meditated on the passion, observed abstinence and fasting, disciplined herself in different ways and did penance (cf. Autobiography, section A) in order to please the suffering savior. The more she meditated and sought ways to be one with the Crucified the more he started revealing himself to her (cf. Autobiography, section D).
Looking to her life it becomes clear that for four reasons she couldn’t be away from the suffering savior. Firstly, she felt that He is suffering because his love is rejected by the people, very few are there to love him. Hence she gave word to Him that she would never offend him by any of her sins which she could boldly say later that consciously she has never sinned against him and she decided to take up anything for love of him (Letter, 38; History, section 5, p. 28; section 9, p. 49). Secondly, she felt that the Lord is suffering because of the sins of the world. For that she decided to do penance for the sins of the world and her whole life was atonement for the sins of the world (History, section 9, p. 53). Thirdly, she felt that he is suffering because souls are being perished and for that she relentlessly sought all the ways possible to save souls dying, dead, or sinners and all her activities were oriented towards it (History, section 20, p. 115). Fourthly, she felt that he is still suffering and she wanted to lessen his pain hence the Lord asked her to ease her pain by carrying his cross and she gladly accepted them (Autobiography, section D; History, section 28, p. 164; section 37, p. 213).
To the people of Puthenchira and the surrounding places and the many who came in search of her Mariam Thresia was a victim soul. Her spiritual and physical condition went beyond what could be considered natural. Her devotion to prayer, fasting and penance, service to the sick, abandoned and the lonely in their homes amidst harsh criticisms, pastoral care and enduring suffering to save souls were exceptional. She had a miraculous gift of ‘reading the souls’ which enabled her to see even the sins that are not confessed when people made their confession in the church. Therefore she would spend hours on knees with outstretched hands in prayer while people made their Sacrament of Reconciliation in the church. Only then she would return home after the daily mass. She had lot of time when dealing with the salvation of souls.
Her days were hectic with service to the needy in whatever form it appeared, be it the sick in their homes, the sinner, the abandoned or the poor, but she was a sentinel of the Crucified Christ at nights. She would sleep only two hours. From 12 midnight to 5 am she would keep awake with her suffering Lord. Not only did she sleep little but she ate little and often she could not consume food at all. Such an intake would not usually sustain an adult at all still she remained strong in her service and life.
She was renowned for her sanctity of life. Countless are the souls both the living and the dead saved by her. Souls in purgatory would appear to her seeking help for salvation. After she had the vision of heaven, hell and purgatory she would not waste a moment in saving souls. Hence, not even a person died without her presence in Puthenchira. The devils would not spare her for the harm she does to their kingdom. Therefore they fought fiercely with her causing suffering to her in unbelievable ways. Her family people, co-sisters and people of the locality have witnessed to this fact in the forms of sounds of devils attacking her, blind folding her from going to the church and receiving communion, physical attacks, bruises on the body regardless of the time – day or night. But her fidelity and constancy were put to the utmost proof and her soul was refined under trials and temptations. At the end of the trials devils revealed that they were a battalion of ten thousand and they conceded defeat saying “you have won”. It was at the end of these fierce trials that she was called with a new name, Mariam Thresia, by Blessed Virgin Mary and so was she called from thence. (History, p. 81).
While some theological thinking of the 20th century critically viewed certain aspects of the gospels as ‘myth’ and as that can be ignored, Mariam Thresia through her God given charisms could convince the people that reading souls, casting out demons, etc. were realities. In this 21st century Pope Francis is telling us that Satan is not a metaphor or a nebulous concept but is a reality, a real person armed with dark powers and therefore we mustn’t be naïve about it but be alert and watchful with prayer. Devil “poisons us with the venom of hatred, desolation, envy, and vice. When we let down our guard, he takes advantage of it to destroy our lives, our families and our communities.” (Rejoice and be Glad, 161). Mariam Thresia knew it and she remained a weapon in the hands of God to fight him. She teaches us how to be on our guard against this common enemy and how we have the power to overcome him when we stand close to the Crucified Saviour.
As a culmination of her love towards the Lord and her readiness to share His suffering the Lord was so gracious in granting her his wounds, the stigmata. Although she had been receiving it for previous years one by one she received all of them in a visible form on January 27, 1909. The more she wanted to hide it from the public gaze the more it was known, for many a times blood oozed out from the feet, hands, side and head while in prayer in the presence of the people. Several people have testified to this fact and detailed accounts are also there from her spiritual guide Venerable Fr. Joseph Vithayathil as well as many other reliable and renowned personalities. It would confirm Mariam Thresia’s intense identification with her Crucified Lord and her fervent desire to share His sufferings. Like her contemporary saint Padre Pio (1887 – 1968) and other saints like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena she also was favoured with this grace because she had submerged her individual self into that of her Suffering Christ.
In this age while everyone wants to slide away from slightest suffering Mariam Thresia, the stigmatic, tells us that suffering is an inevitable part of being human. In the great redeeming plan of God, Jesus himself took up suffering to repair for the many offences committed against the Father and to save us. It is a means of intense love when God condescends to elevate us to be sharers of his salvation. It has a mission of conforming one to Christ, offering one’s suffering for the salvation of souls. She is teaching us that our suffering today has the power to rectify, purify, sanctify, and make whole provided one is able to look up to the cross and no suffering would go unmerited when joined with that of Christ.
Sr. Dr. Bhavya CHF