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A Tale of Religious Masochism

Or, There's Room for Two on That Cross.

Part II of "The Deborah Trilogy."

By Mary Beth Crain

In Part I of “The Deborah Trilogy,” we met Mary Beth Crain's friend Deborah, a religious fanatic who performed a novena to St. Theresa “The Little Flower” for help in getting her perfect mate. According to novena protocol, if St. Theresa will grant your request, you will receive a rose during your nine days of prayer (Deborah’s novena was, for some unknown reason, a 21-day affair). When, on the final evening of the novena, Deborah still had not received a rose, she got so mad at St. Theresa that she flushed her novena card down the toilet. But instead of politely exiting into the sewer, St. Theresa came back up, staring pointedly at Deborah as she floated around in the bowl.

Now, in the second installment of our trilogy, we find Deborah planning her dream trip to Italy, in search of holy affliction.

One day Deborah called me with the thrilling news that she was planning a big trip to Italy.

Now, a normal person’s itinerary would have included, well, normal things. But not Deborah’s. On the other hand, it all depends on how you define normal. To most of us, her idea of a good time would rate as about as exciting as calculus summer camp. To the flagellants of the Middle Ages, however, or St. What’s-His-Name who sat on a post in the desert for 40 years, Deborah’s agenda would probably seem like a Disneyland dream vacation.

“I’m going to visit churches!” she informed me. "And holy sites. Like the Dominican Church where they’ve got St. Catherine of Siena’s head on display.”

Huh?

“Yeah. It’s under glass and anybody can view it.”

Ooh. Tres charmant.

“And Padre Pio’s grave.”

Padre Pio was Deborah’s idol. Which brings us to another of her obsessions: the stigmata.

Deborah was absolutely fascinated by history’s chosen few who had miraculously received the bloody wounds of Christ.

“One day when Padre Pio was praying,” Deborah related the details to me, “he suddenly received the nail holes of the crucifixion in his hands. And every day for the next 50 years until his death, blood flowed from the wounds. He later received the marks of the Crown of Thorns, too, and blood flowed from his head and he had excruciating headaches that were never cured!”

Did I detect a note of envy in her voice?

Then there was St. Theresa Neumann, the Bavarian fräulein who got worldwide attention in 1923, when she received the stigmata in her head, hands, breast, and feet. Every Friday thereafter until her death in 1962, blood would flow from the wounds. Deborah was pissed off about her, though.

“She was just a peasant,” Deborah complained. “She was ignorant and probably ate all sorts of bad food.”

I forgot to mention that Deborah had been on a cleansing diet for the past 15 years, with the hopeful goal of someday being able to exist on nothing but air. Ironically, she’d gotten her facts wrong: It is said that after Theresa Neumann received the sacred wounds, she never ate another thing again, and became the world’s most famous breatharian.

“Why would you be upset about Theresa Neumann getting the stigmata?” I asked.

“Because! I’ve got a PhD! I pray all the time, I only eat clean food, and I don’t get any signs from God!”

“You mean you want the stigmata?” As loony as Deborah was, this beat it all.

“Welll…”

Now, everybody, just pause for a moment and contemplate what it would be like to wake up one morning with bleeding holes in your hands or head or feet that would never, ever go away. And if you’re really lucky, the Crown of Thorns and splitting migraines for the rest of your life. I mean, unless you were the Marquis de Sade, would you be dancing on the ceiling?

“Deborah,” I tried to reason with her, “nobody ever asked for the stigmata! Who in their right mind would want the pain and the inconvenience, not to mention the mess?”

I thought maybe this last item would bring her to her senses, as, naturally, Deborah also suffered from obsessive compulsive cleanliness disorder.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she replied. “I think if I knew God loved me enough to give me the holy wounds of His only son, none of that would matter. After all, I have constant back pain with nothing to show for it!”

Pain was a big issue in Deborah’s life. She always had something wrong with her and was the world’s worst hypochondriac. In the beginning I felt sorry for her, until I realized that she thrived on agony because it made her feel special. She lovingly referred to “my pain” as if it was her best friend, and God forbid if you suggested any cures.

“Oh, my pain will never go away,” she’d assure me, trying to sound like a martyr but unable to keep the glee out of her voice. “God is testing me, I know.”

After she’d booked her reservations, Deborah’s next task was to find a traveling companion. Amazingly enough, nobody she knew wanted to go with her. Finally she snared two unsuspecting victims, a couple of long-lost cousins in Oregon whom she had only recently met, and who naturally assumed that they were all embarking on a fun-filled European adventure.

“The poor devils,” I said to my husband, who couldn’t stand Deborah. “They have no idea what they’re in for.”

“You said it,” he nodded. “I’d rather share a hot tub with the pope!”

Deborah was gone for a whole month. When she returned, she was bubbling over like the mineral springs of Lourdes with stories of all the miracles that had befallen her.

“I don’t know where to begin!” she babbled.

“Did you see St. Catherine?” I asked.

“Oh my God! Did I see her? When I took one look at her I fell in love!”

With a 600-year-old head?

“I stared into her eyes and they were so beautiful I went into a trance! I visited the church every day and meditated with her looking at me. I can’t describe the ecstasy. But that’s not the most important thing that happened!” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “God gave me the Sign!”

“What sign?”

“The stigmata!”

The stigmata? I felt my blood curdle. If Deborah had holes in her hands and feet, God had holes in his head.

“Well, sort of.” Here’s the story: Deborah was sitting at an outdoor café in Siena, taking a breather in between visits to her new girlfriend, St. Catherine, when a bee flew up and stung her on the palm.

“I felt this sharp stab of pain,” she said. “And instinctively I thought of Jesus and that nail going in. When I looked down at my hand, my palm was all swollen up! And I knew that God was telling me not to despair, that He has wonderful things in store for me!”

Wonderful things, like spikes through your hands or swords in your heart or thorns in your scalp? I could just imagine Deborah at the Inquisition, spoiling everybody’s fun. “More pain! Bring it on! Give that rack another turn! And don’t forget that strappado over there! I want to beat Jesus’ record for agony endurance!”

“And that’s not all!” Deborah went on.

You mean there’s something to top the stigmata?

“The Holy Mother appeared to me! On a napkin!”

No, I’m not making any of this up. Deborah spilled some coffee on her napkin in the café, and the liquid supposedly spread out into the very form of the BVM.

“I put it right in my purse and took it to Father Mike, the priest I always talk to, as soon as I got home!”

“What did he say?” I asked.

“Well, he couldn’t quite make her out, but he said we should pray about it.”

Yeah, I thought. He’s praying, all right—for God to get Deborah the hell out of his parish.

The inevitable postscript to Deborah’s Italian Pilgrimage was that her cousins were completely appalled by her behavior, in particular her suggestion that they accompany her to mass three times a day no matter what city they were in. They ended up going off by themselves and never contacting her again.

“Of course, that’s another sign from God,” Deborah reasoned. “They’re so unspiritual, and He’s just stripping the dross from my life. I’m being continually purified.”

Are You listening, Lord? What’s that? From now on, you’re forwarding all of Deborah’s calls to your voicemail? I understand completely. In fact, I’d do that myself—if she didn’t make such a damn good story.

 

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Mary Beth Crain is SoMAreview.com's contributing editor. Read Part I of “The Deborah Trilogy” here and Part III here.

 


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