The Amazing Life of a Stigmatist
and Devotee of Christ
By Nakin Lenti
Therese Neumann (1898-1962) was a German visionary, whose whole life was absorbed in complete devotion to Christ. At age 28, she became a center of worldwide controversy when she received the stigmata, the manifestation of Christ’s wounds on her body. And it was discovered that she abstained from all food and drink except for the daily intake of the Holy Eucharist, a paper-thin wafer, every morning at 6AM.
It is estimated that during her lifetime millions of people saw her briefly in her home and/or witnessed the weekly “Friday Passion.” Among them was the great yoga master, Paramhansa Yogananda. In his spiritual classic, Autobiography of a Yogi, he gives a first hand account of the stigmata and attests to the genuineness of her weekly visions of Christ’s passion and death on the cross.
He said that Therese’s life was intended to reassure all Christians of the historical authenticity of Jesus’ life and crucifixion as recorded in the New Testament and to dramatically display the ever-living bond between Christ and his devotees.
Yogananda later revealed that she had been Mary Magdalene in a previous lifetime and, for this reason, she was blessed with the stigmata and the weekly visions of Christ’s sufferings.
Yogananda also said that she was a jivan mukta, a soul freed while living, who enjoyed the highest state of Nirbikalpa samadhi**.
Although she had no karma of her own, she had the power, through prayer, to take onto her own body the ailments and sufferings of others and became a willing ‘victim’ for the salvation of souls.
“The glorified child Jesus”
Therese Neumann was born on Good Friday, April 9, 1898, to Anna and Ferdinand Neumann in Konnersreuth, Bavaria, a remote farming village of 1400 people. The oldest of ten children, she grew up in a poor, but loving, Catholic home where strict obedience was insisted upon, but no child was favored above the other.
Despite poverty and hardship, she was always cheerful and willing and accommodated herself readily to the strict household regimen. She adapted to elementary school with the same characteristic energy and cheerfulness and she was a good student.
Therese experienced her first vision of Christ at age eleven during her First Holy Communion. She saw “not the host, not the priest, but the glorified child Jesus.” At the time she didn’t consider it extraordinary, thinking: “This is what everyone experienced on this occasion.”
By age 15, she had decided to become a missionary nun and serve in Africa. But her entry into the convent was delayed by World War I. Her formal schooling ended when her father was drafted into the army, and she was forced to seek employment as a children’s maidservant to help with the family income.
She was happiest when there was plenty to do. She was strong enough to do the hardest man’s work, and she especially enjoyed working in the fields and with farm animals.
She never lost her desire to be a nun, but a serious back injury on the morning of March 10, 1918 suddenly changed the course of Therese’s life and marked the beginning of a seven-year ordeal.
While fighting a fire on a neighboring farm, she dislocated her second and third lumbar vertebrae causing partial paralysis of the spine accompanied by severe leg cramps. She was placed under medical care, but the doctors’ efforts were unsuccessful in bringing her any relief. She suffered excruciating pain, which gradually worsened and spread throughout her body.
A few days later, she fell down the cellar steps of her home and hit her head on a concrete floor. When she regained consciousness, her vision was nearly gone.
Five months later, Therese again injured her back and thereafter experienced ongoing headaches and fainting spells that left her unconscious for hours and sometimes days at a time. By March 1919, a year after her first back injury, Therese was completely blind and bedridden and paralyzed in both legs.
A willing “victim”
The role of a helpless invalid was difficult for Therese, as well as giving up her dream of working as a missionary. But with the loving support of her family, she became reconciled to her changed circumstances and devoted herself to prayer and self-offering for the sufferings of others.
Though bedridden and in constant pain, she never prayed for herself. She prayed only for God’s will and the redemption of souls. Her abstinence from solid food dates from this period, when she assumed the throat ailment of a young seminarian.
The intercession of Therese of Lisieux
Therese’s life-long devotion to Therese of Lisieux played an important part in her gradual restoration to health. On April 28,1923 the day Therese of Lisieux was to be “beatified” by the pope, Therese offered up special prayers to the saint, though not to be cured. That same day, she miraculously regained her eyesight.
Two years later, Therese was instantaneously cured of the paralysis in her legs on the same day that Therese of Lisieux was canonized a saint by the Catholic Church. While Therese was silently praying the rosary, a white light suddenly appeared over her bed and a voice said: “Resl (Therese’s nickname) wouldn’t you like to be well again?”
Everything is all right with me: living and dying, being well or sick, whatever my dear God wills, He knows what is best…I am happy with all the flowers and birds, or with any other suffering He sends and what I like most of all is our dear Savior himself.
Then the voice said:
Today you may have a little joy. You can sit up; try it once, I’ll help you. Suddenly, Therese experienced a painful wrenching in her back, as if her spine was being snapped back into place.
The voice addressed Therese again:
You still have much to suffer and no doctor can help you, either. Only through suffering can you best work out your desire and your vocation to be a victim, and thereby help the work of the priests. Through suffering you will gain more souls than through the most brilliant sermons. I have already described it before.
Father Naber, Therese’s spiritual counselor, later discovered this last statement about suffering—in those exact words—in Therese of Lisieux’s autobiography.
In the months that followed she was also cured of appendicitis, bronchial catarrah, and pneumonia, each time accompanied by a vision of light and saintly voice that advised and counseled her.
The stigmata appear
Within a year of having been cured of paralysis, the first signs of the stigmata began to appear on her body beginning with the wound above the heart. “One night,” Therese said:
“I was busy with my prayers, without being particularly conscious of the Passion of Christ, when for the first time, I saw the Savior in the Garden of Olives sweating blood. He looked at me with a loving expression, and at that very moment I felt as if someone had pierced me through the heart with a sharp object, and then withdrawn it. I noticed that blood was flowing, and I felt this stabbing pain which, with the exception of Easter Week, has never left me completely.”
On successive Fridays Therese had a partial vision of Christ’s passion that extended each time to include His scourging at the pillar, the crowning with thorns, and the carrying of the cross. They culminated with an entire vision of the Passion on Good Friday, April 13, 1926. In addition to the wounds on her hands and feet, blood flowed profusely from her eyes in thin rivulets about two inches wide.
The following November she received the wounds on her head from the crowning with thorns and also Christ’s wounds on her shoulder and back. Each time it was the same—Christ looked at her lovingly before each wound manifested on her body.
“In receiving these wounds,” she said, “I recognized the will of God and thus bear them the way I do everything that God sends me, primarily in the spirit of propitiation for others and in order to bring souls closer to the Savior.”
Visions of Christ and the disciples
Therese’s weekly visions of Christ’s passion, during which she experienced the same physical and mental agonies as Christ, occurred every Friday except during the festive seasons in the church calendar or Holy Days which fell on a Friday, in all about thirty-five Fridays a year (over 700 times during her lifetime). The visions always increased with intensity during the Fridays of Lent and reached a climax on Good Friday, where they were prolonged beyond their usual duration.
Typically they began around midnight on Thursday. She experienced the Passion in a series of 35 to 50 partial scenes or visions suffering on her own body the same physical and mental agonies that Christ did. Each vision lasted about 4 to 5 minutes and alternated with a state of rest or “elevated calm” in which she fell back onto her pillow to regain her strength.
In this ecstatic state it was possible to ask her questions, which were often designed to enlarge upon what she had seen in her visions. Linguists confirmed her accurate use of Aramaic and other foreign languages at appropriate times during her visions, although she knew only the simple German dialect of her village. Each year Therese also had as many as a hundred others visions of the lives Christ and his disciples. The most significant of these were: Christmas, Three Kings, Transfiguration, Resurrection, Penetcost, Ascension, and Assumption.
By the end of the Passion she had lost one to two quarts of blood. Physicians who witnessed these events found that she had no heartbeat, no pulse, and no breathing. She lay motionless for about 45 minutes, then gradually re-gained consciousness. After an hour or so she was back to normal.
On August 6, 1926, following a vision of Christ’s transfiguration, Therese experienced no further need of food or drink, and required very little sleep. At the request of the local bishop, she underwent a two-week period of strict medical observation during which she took no food or drink. At the end, her weight was unchanged. She lived a normal, active life sustained solely by the Holy Eucharist.
In a conversation with Paramhansa Yogananda, she stated: “One of the reasons that I am here on earth is to prove that man can live by God’s invisible light and not by food only.”
Characteristic of Therese was a desire to avoid publicity but reports of the stigmata spread like lightning throughout the world press. Daily visitors numbered in the hundreds and included Catholic hierarchy from all parts of the world, Protestant ministers, scientists, physicians and men and women from all walks of life. Visitors for the Friday Passion numbered anywhere from 5 to 7,000 people and occasionally up to 15,000.
To accommodate so many people, the visitors were lined up in twos and were allowed to go upstairs where they filed through Therese’s room and, without stopping, continued walking downstairs. High ranking clergy and some others, however, were never under these time restrictions.
Above all, the Neumann family who recognized God’s will in her sufferings never tried to capitalize on these extraordinary events which made Konnersreuth known throughout the world. The family rejected all possible offers such as films and motion pictures about Therese’s life and absolutely refused any kind of donations. Nor did the people of Konnersreuth seek to commercialize Therese’s presence.
The Nazis attempt an arrest
When the Nazis came to power in Germany between1933 and 1945, they promptly banned all visitors to Konnersreuth and the numbers soon dropped. Although Therese Neumann was physically unharmed she was made a target of Nazi propaganda and she was constantly harassed and threatened with arrest and prosecution. She made no secret of her dissenting views and, in1940, at the height of Nazi power, she boldly predicted Hitler’s downfall.
The Nazis made one attempt to arrest Therese during a Friday vision. As two Gestapo agents approached her home, Therese, at the height of her suffering, suddenly sprang from bed, walked downstairs, and confronted the agents as they reached for the doorbell. The figure of Therese covered with blood, the suffering etched in her face so awed the two men that they turned and fled.
In spite of constant harassment her inner life continued uninterrupted. By the war’s end the borders were again open to visitors from all parts of the world and included thousands of U.S. Army personnel stationed in Germany after the war.
Endless deeds of charity and kindness
Throughout her life she remained a peasant maid who took an active interest in the daily life of her home and village. At home she cleaned and scrubbed and worked on the family farm. In the village, she cared for the sick and needy, tended graves in the cemetery and received guests in the parish house with Father Naber, her spiritual advisor.
Her deeds of charity and kindness were endless. It was not unusual for Therese to spend all night arranging flowers for the altars or cleaning the village church.
In addition to the Friday sufferings, she received prayer requests from all over the world and voluntarily took on the sufferings of those in great spiritual distress or suffering from severe physical afflictions. She was particularly sympathetic to those in despair and would-be suicides, and served as an instrument for hundreds of miraculous cures.
During the last years of her life the Friday sufferings began to decrease. They occurred only on the First Fridays of every month in commemoration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. They were shortened whenever Therese was too sick or exhausted from her sufferings of reparation. To be a child of God and willingly and gladly conform to His will, that was the whole of her wisdom.
On September 18, 1962, at age 64, Therese Neumann died from cardiac arrest, shortly after helping to establish a Carmelite convent in Konnersreuth. Five days after her passing, the doctors declared her body to be fresh and supple with no signs of decay.
*The Path, by Swami Kriyananda, Crystal Clarity Publishers
** Conversations with Yogananda, by Swami Kriyananda, Crystal Clarity Publishers