Posted on: January 16, 2013

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Did a simple German peasant girl prove that a human being can live on virtually no sustenance for over 30 years? Was it genuinely religious/supernatural phenomena, or a great show of mind-over-matter, or a massive hoax? No one knows.

Therese was born in 1898 in Konnersreuth, Bavaria, Germany. As a sturdy, healthy young woman she worked as a domestic help on many of the local farms, and liked to boast that she could do the work of any man. She also had ambitions to become a missionary in Africa. Things took a disturbing turn towards the end of the Great War though, as in 1918/19 she became accident-prone, and seemed to constantly suffer from a series of strange illnesses that no one could explain. One day, after falling off a stool, she lost much of her eyesight. Confined to bed, she developed severe bed-sores, which often left her bones exposed. Her eyesight only returned in 1923, which she claimed was all down to the beatification of St Therese of Lisieux, for which she had been praying.

During Lent 1926, at the age of 28, she had a vision of Christ’s Passion which left her bleeding from five wounds on her hands, feet and side. Every Friday from then on, she wept blood or bled from the wounds. At Lent she would go through the complete Passion, writhing in agony and losing nearly a pint of blood. A doctor who examined her said that her wounds would begin to bleed as soon as dawn broke on Friday morning, and during trances she would speak in Aramaic, believed to have been the language of Christ.

Even more mysterious was her lack of sustenance. For 35 years no food or liquid, except the Communion wafer and wine would pass her lips. For ten days, in July 1927, she was kept under strict surveillance night and day by a Doctor Siedl, accompanied by four nurses, who reported at the end of it (and swore on oath) that she had consumed nothing. Unsurprisingly perhaps, after 1930 she stopped excreting completely, and her intestinal tract had withered away.

Visiting Therese was not a sight for the faint-hearted. Veteran silent movie star, Lilian Gish, paid a visit to her in 1928, as part of her preparation for an acting role. She was appalled to find Therese sitting up in bed, wearing a bloodstained nightdress, with bloodied bandages wrapped around her head and hands, and babbling wildly about religion. She said afterwards that she could have fainted at the sight of her. A far cry from one sanitised photograph I saw of her many years ago, showing her sitting up in bed in a spotless white nightgown, pointing sullenly to her side (presumably where one of her marks were).

During World War 2 Therese refused to have a ration book, claiming that she didn’t need one. Naturally she came to the attention of the Gestapo, who – nervous of her popularity in the area – wanted to have her removed to a mental hospital. Her family resisted this idea.

Towards the end of her life, Therese explained to a visitor that the point of her life had been to prove to the world that Mankind didn’t need sustenance, and could live entirely “by God’s invisible light”. A remark that frankly was completely irresponsible. She died of a heart-attack in 1962.

In his book ‘An Encyclopedia Of Claims, Frauds And Hoaxes Of The Occult And Supernatural’, arch-skeptic James Randi said that Therese’s claims could only be taken seriously if she had been put under round-the-clock surveillance. Well I suppose she was at one time, but it was for only ten days, and could somebody fake it for that length of time? The communion wine would have given her a small amount of vital liquid intake, but would it have been enough? I don’t feel qualified to judge that one.

Therese seems to have been a remarkably strong-willed person. A human being, particularly one fuelled by this kind of religious frenzy (for want of a better way of putting it) could compel themselves to do anything. I can’t help coming back to how I felt when I first wrote about her many years ago … what was the point of it all? And I don’t mean all that guff about surviving on God’s light. A woman of her determination and strength of character could have achieved so much good for the world. Instead, she spent decades lying in bed, with blood pouring out of her. I will never understand religion.



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