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The Lives of Plaster Saints Who Embarrass Catholic Scholars and Inspire Believers

Saints or Knaves?

Therese Neumann, knave?

Therese Neumann, knave?

Therese of Lisieux

St. Therese of Lisieux, definitely not a knave

Bernadette

St. Bernadette of Lourdes. Were her visions of the Virgin Mary hallucinations caused by epilepsy or hallucinogenic fungus?

Spear of Destiny

The Spear of Destiny, one of four existing weapons believed to have euthanized Jesus – also a popular video game of the same name

Some miraculous lives of the saints have a medical explanation. Other tales conceal pious frauds or describe people who would be psychiatric patients today. They have become idols with feet of plaster.

Joan of Arc’s Saints Michael and Catherine may have been hallucinations caused by “focal” epilepsy or the hallucinogenic fungus ergotamine that created the 16th century dance craze, a village-to-village conga line known as St. Anthony’s Fire.

I’m not a forensic pathologist, but any number of illnesses or poverty or the wish for attention may have fueled the visions of the Virgin by St. Bernadette (Soubirous) of Lourdes in the 19th century and the sad-faced tots of Fàtima in the early 20th.

An embarrassed Catholic Church discouraged pilgrimages to the shrines at Fàtima and Lourdes, where the mother of God was said to have appeared.

In Fàtima, a mass hallucination by pilgrims made them see a sun that looked as though it was about to supernova. As many as 100,000 worshippers watched as the sun seemed to hurtle toward earth.

The anti-clerical governments of 19th century France and 20th century Portugal also persecuted Soubirous and the children of Fàtima, who raised the hackles of government and Church. Portugal’s military junta in 1919 had placed severe restrictions on Catholics, who made up 84 percent of the population. Church property was confiscated, priests were forbidden to wear clerical garb, and ringing church bells was banned. Three peasant children under 11 defied the government with their spectacular visions.

St. Rosa of Viterbo’s life, even by devout Catholic bloggers today, owes more to Venerable Bede’s holy hokum. The 8th century Anglo-Saxon monk wrote the earliest hagiographies or lives of the saints. But Bede’s tales packed more miracles per parchment page than the Gospels. They were also more preposterous than those perpetuated by the Good Newsmen of the Christian Bible, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Then, there are saintly idols who do not have feet of clay. Their lives celebrated humble piety that earned them sainthood. They were not pious frauds as Thérèse Neumann may have been. The Vatican, currently considering her canonization, employs a Devil’s Advocate to dig up dirt on prospective saints. Embarrassing results may be suppressed.

A Bavarian peasant who never left her village, Neumann (pronounced NOY-mahn) lived in the previous century. Her claim to fame and sainthood was the Stigmata or Christ’s wounds that allegedly appeared on her body most of her 64 years.

St. Paul was the first to suffer from the sanctifying affliction. In a letter to the Galatians, he wrote, "I bear on my body the marks of Jesus." Since then, St. Francis of Assisi and hundreds of other Stigmatics have appeared.

Neumann may have faked her wounds by using pig’s blood. That may also explain why she has never been canonized. In 2005, a petition with 40,000 signatures arrived at the Roman Curia’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Vatican’s canonization committee. The petition sought Neumann’s beatification, the penultimate step before sainthood.

Neumann’s namesake and inspiration, St. Thérèse (Martin) of Lisieux, was a French Carmelite nun who died of tuberculosis at 24 in 1897. Unlike self-dramatizing thaumaturges, Greek for miracle workers, she never claimed that power, although believers attributed their cure to her intercession with God. Three miracles are required for sainthood.

St. Thérèse sought anonymity and contemplation of God. She only gained international fame posthumously. Her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, became an international bestseller. Her spiritual memoir so charmed Pius XI, he called her the jewel in his tiara. Her beatification in 1923 and canonization in 1925 took place at hare’s speed compared to the tortoise crawl of almost four centuries that kept Joan of Arc from becoming St. Joan.

The Maid of Orleans was first dubbed “Saint Joan” by George Bernard Show in his 1920 play of the same name. Also in 1920, the Vatican finally got around to making Shaw’s saintly moniker official.

Adding Insult to Injury - Joan of Arc’s Abuse by the Church After Death

The Church still had qualms about Joan of Arc’s saintliness, dating back to its abandonment of her to the flames of Rouen in 1431. Shaw, an non-observant Anglican, presented Joan as the first Protestant who anticipated Luther with her call for direct communion with God without intercession by the Church. That was a burning offense in an age of lethal orthodoxy.

St. Thérèse was the Andrew Greeley of the 19th century - clerics who wrote bestsellers. Besides her autobiography, she composed letters, poems, and religious prayers whose compilations also made bestseller lists.

Biographer Guy Gaucher almost sounds churlish when he quibbles, "Thérèse fell victim to an excess of sentimental devotion which betrayed her. She was victim also to her language, which was that of the late nineteenth century and flowed from the religiosity of her age."

Her dying words were modest, not excessive. "I only love simplicity. I have a horror of pretense." She also took a parting shot at self-promoting saints. “We should not say improbable things, or things we do not know. We must see their real, not their imagined lives."

Her sisters recorded Thérèse’s dying words, perhaps the only time she fell under the spell of her own hagiographical press. One sibling made sure the public knew the face behind a Greek mask of sanctity by disseminating paintings and photos of Thérèse.

O, Ye of Too Much Faith

It would be kind to insult Thérèse Neumann by calling her a plaster saint, since she may have been a fraud and no saint of any kind. It’s not a coincidence that even gullible Popes have never promoted her sainthood. A lot of scoundrels have duped credulous if well-meaning occupants of St. Peter’s throne.

Neumann’s blindness may have been hysterical because she miraculously regained use of a partially paralyzed arm after falling while extinguishing a blaze in a barn. Novenas Neumann made to St. Thérèse on her beatification day in 1923 restored her eyesight. She also said St. Thérèse had cured her bed sores, which had never suppurated from infection. Antibiotics, available since 1945, don’t explain her miraculous recoveries before that year.

If there’s no such thing as hysterical appendicitis, that’s what Neumann may have suffered from because St. Thérèse also allegedly cured Neumann’s inflamed organ without help of surgical removal available since the 18th century. In 1926, Rudolf Valentino died of complications following a successful appendectomy, but it was a case of the cure being worse than the disease.

Also in 1926, at the beginning of Lent, a time of penance before Easter, the Christianized holy day pagan Rome celebrated a Mardi Gras-like bacchanalia called Lupercalia, she saw a vision of the Mount of Olives with Jesus and his apostles. It’s impossible to tell if she witnessed Judas’ betrayal in a public park on the Thursday night before Bad Friday.

Victorian theologians spoke of Jesus’ “Uranian traits,” code for homosexual. St. John the Beloved was not “beloved” platonically, theologians speculate. Academics who teach queer studies speculate that Judas had no fury like a tax collector scorned.

And the real reason for Jesus’ arrest in the park called the Mount of Olives, according to queer studies, was frolicking in the bushes, still a popular and illegal pastime today.

Holy Blood or Pig’s Blood?

As for Neumann, skeptics say her superficial wounds were self-inflicted with pig’s blood that lent authenticity to her scam.

The miracle debunker and sometime stage magician, the Amazing (James) Randi, claims oozing holy men and women conceal animal blood under their bed sheets.

On one Good Friday Neumann said she saw Jesus trod toward Calvary and crucifixion. A Roman soldier (not Jews) plunged St. Helena’s dubious relic, the Spear of Destiny, into Jesus’ sternum or breastbone.

A page on Monstropedia.org devoted to the Spear mentions at least four alleged weapons the Romans used to make sure Jesus wasn’t faking his death before they took him down from the cross. Usually victims of crucifixion were allowed to die of exposure, an ordeal that could last days. But in order not to offend Judeans as the Sabbath approached, Jesus was euthanized. Like the four Spears of Destiny, there were enough pieces of the Untrue Cross traded in Medieval Europe to build a house.

One of the few afflictions that Job or his God’s son didn’t suffer was endured by Neumann, who bled from the eyes.

Historian Josef Hanauer's wrote in The Swindle of Konnersreuth, the Bavarian town she spent her entire life in, that eyewitnesses saw only dried blood, no bleeding. Cherchez la femme et le porc.

Neumann biographer Albert Paul Schimberg says devotees who kept vigil as Neumann languished in bed with a water bottle filled with blood saw her bleed. After receiving Extreme Unction, she made yet another Lazarus-like comeback. But the Stigmata remained. Just in time for Easter in 1926, Neumann saw Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Ever since, on Good Fridays she not only exhibited the Stigmata but allegedly endured all of Jesus’ other torments before his death.

Jesus’ Unfair Attack on Venal Moneylenders Who Weren’t

The Stigmata remained with her after death but never suppurated. Miraculous preservation of relics in which dead saints were dismembered and their limbs turned into holy collector items created a commodities market that would have horrified a proto-Marxist Messiah who drove out the moneylenders outside the temple in Jerusalem for making “My Father’s” house a den of thieves.

Jesus was being holier than they. The term moneylenders was mistranslated. The people Jesus chased out of His Father’s patio were actually money changers. They performed the pious task of converting currencies from all over the world belonging to Temple worshippers who wanted to buy animals to sacrifice to Yahweh.

Another miracle attributed to Neumann may actually have been anorexia nervosa, in which teenage girls starve themselves in a feckless attempt to look like Paris Hilton.

For 40 years until her death, Neumann claimed her only sustenance was Holy Communion, not even consecrated wine turned into the blood of Christ, a post-Vatican II addition to the Mass.

For almost as many years, Neumann also claimed she didn’t drink a drop of water. That’s impossible. Dehydration leads to death in five days or less depending on environment. Starvation with water can take up to three weeks. Death in slow motion is excruciating, as Holocaust victims discovered.

Neumann’s many afflictions may have been psychosomatic, not fraudulent.

A year after she stopped drinking water, a physician and four nursing sisters stayed by her bedside, 24/14, or two weeks around the clock. During that time, she ate only one communion wafer per day with no adverse effects. Neumann wasn’t dehydrated. A psychosomatic disorder wouldn’t account for that miraculous intercession.

Montague Summers in the Physical Phenomenon of Mysticism backed up claims about Neumann’s survival by quoting a 1940 magazine article that described a Bavarian peasant who put her mysticism where her mouth was and said she didn’t need World War II ration cards because she didn’t need food.

Like Pentecostals, Neumann was said to speak in tongues, specifically Aramaic, the better to understand Jesus’ native language, as well as Hebrew, ancient Greek and the language of the Vulgate, the 4th century A.D. translation in so-called vulgar Latin (vulgus means “common people”), the language of Rome’s slaves and plebeians. Neumann boasted impressive linguistic skills for an impoverished Bavarian peasant with little formal education.

Whatever her flaws, Neumann was a courageous woman at a time when her betters remained silent during the Third Reich. She encouraged Fritz Gerlich, one of Hitler’s opponents, to continue the fight against Nazism. Gerlich was killed for his efforts.

Her anti-Nazi views became known, and the Gestapo spied on Neumann, but she escaped harm. Her family and parish church did not.

Forty years before her death, an impeccable source, Paramahansa, made a pilgrimage to Konnersreuth, Neumann’s village. In his 1946 Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda reported that she exhibited the Stigmata.

One Affliction Therese Neumann Couldn’t Fake

On September 18, 1962, the 64-year-old Neumann succumbed to a condition that couldn’t be psychosomatic or fraudulent, a heart attack, following a bout with angina.

It’s not surprising that Yogi Yogananda devoted an entire chapter to Neumann in his memoir. Neumann’s anorexia had a religious name for it, inedia, Latin for fasting. The related concept of breatharianism holds that people can survive for long periods without food or water. The divine diet is nourished by the Hindu life force called prana or by solar energy.

Modern science dismisses the ancient concept of breatharianism, but concedes a minimal diet can sustain life. A researcher at UCLA is currently starving himself into what he believes will be his 100th-plus birthday.

Gandhi, probably anorexic as well, turned his breatharianism into a club that ended the British Raj in 1947.

Unlike Fàtima and Lourdes, the Church kept its distance from Neumann, who has never been canonized, until a few years ago. To date, the Vatican refuses to confirm or dismiss Neumann’s miraculous wounds.

That hasn’t deterred her partisans, 40,000 of whom have signed a petition for her canonization. A German bishop in 2005 began the process of beatification, the penultimate step before canonization by the Roman Curia, high-ranking Vatican officials, mostly cardinals.

Yogi Yogananda reported in his memoirs that Neumann told him, "One of the reasons I am here on earth today is to prove that man can live by God's invisible light, and not by food only," reinforcing the Hindu belief that solar energy can substitute for food and water.

The Yogi explained that her ability to subsist on a solar-powered diet of one communion wafer per day for the past decade represented the physical embodiment of breatharianism. Yogananda validated her claims, saying, "I see you realize that energy flows to your body from the ether, sun, and air."

Neumann smiled, and survived on her self-imposed bread and no water diet for the next forty years.

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Thérèse Neumann

I'm not sure what to make of your account of this lady Frank. Are you praising or criticising her. Her motives must have been pure, since why would she endure what she seems to have done, if she was not genuine?

A most interesting article, anyway. Thank you.