Could St. Joseph of Cupertino Really Fly?
The lesson we take from the life of St. Joseph of Cupertino is that the material world is stranger and more unpredictable than we can imagine.
September 18 was the feast day of St. Joseph of Cupertino, who was famous for levitating and is therefore the patron saint of pilots.
Joseph was born into a poor family in Cupertino, Italy in 1603. His father was a poor carpenter who died before he was born, and his impoverished mother gave birth to him in a stable.
The poor boy started out with no advantages and his misfortune continued. To put it bluntly, he was stupid to the point of being unteachable. Everything he attempted he failed. His ecstasies began early in life and he would suddenly stop and stand and stare — totally distracted as if in a trance.
He got the idea that if he was good for nothing he might make it as a friar, but his lack of education meant the friars wouldn’t have him. Finally he was accepted, only to fail and be rejected, and went wandering as a beggar. Eventually he returned and offered to be a servant at the friary and look after the mule. Somehow by God’s providence he made it through to ordination as a priest.
Joseph’s ecstasies, visions and mystical experiences were legendary. He heard heavenly music, went into such a complete trance that he could be dragged about, pierced with needles and burnt with candles and it would have no effect. Most famously he is said to have levitated while in the trance state.
Elaborate legends about him flying developed: He flew up into a tree to talk with birds, he flew up to help workmen place a memorial cross into the ground; he flew around the church during Mass.
The doubters will scoff, “What is this — some sort of Peter Pan story? The saint could fly away to Neverland? Never.” Or they might laugh, “This sounds like Superman. Up, up and awaaaay!”
The materialist will shake his head, “There is such a thing as gravity you know. People don’t levitate. It’s impossible.”
Maybe or maybe not. We have to take the more exaggerated stories of St. Joseph’s flight with a pinch of salt. In the face of supernatural phenomena the Church expects us to take a position that is neither gullible nor cynical. In other words, we must look first for every natural explanation, but on the other hand we must not rule out the possibility of miracles and the supernatural.
In today’s world Joseph of Cupertino would probably be regarded as severely mentally disabled. He was a misfit mystic. Quite apart from his mystical experiences, his life of asceticism was so extreme that some people would say he had an eating disorder, that he was emotionally or mentally ill. During his lifetime he was accused of witchcraft and reported to the Inquisition.
Did he really fly about the church or up into the trees? If so, what can we learn from this wonder?
Certainly levitation is not unknown as one of the aspects of mystical experience. This article discusses the paranormal phenomenon more completely. Levitation of objects and people has been associated with demonic and poltergeist activity and a good number of other saints were known to levitate: St. Teresa of Avila, St. Padre Pio, St. Martin de Porres, St. Francis, St. Alphonsus Ligouri and the Russian Orthodox St. Seraphim of Sarov.
The lesson we take from the life of St. Joseph of Cupertino is that the mystical life unlocks the truth that this physical world is stranger and more unpredictable than we can imagine. Reality is rubbery. It is not a closed system. “There are more things in heaven and earth than our philosophy has dreamt of.” This post explains that weird things happen.
If the world is not as predictable as we thought and there is an open ended aspect to it, then prayer, the sacraments and all that we believe as Catholics regarding the supernatural are valid possibilities.
Secondly, we learn not to take life (and especially ourselves) too seriously. G.K. Chesterton said, “The angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” The same can be said of St. Joseph. He took himself lightly. He was humble, therefore he was not heavy. He defied gravity because he was not grave. He levitated because of levity. I’m thinking of that scene in Mary Poppins where they visit Uncle Albert and float to the ceiling because they are laughing so much.
Thirdly, we learn once again through St. Joseph of Cupertino that God uses the weak things of the world to confound the mighty. The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man. In worldly terms St. Joseph of Cupertino was a fool, a failure and a flop. He was a nobody. He spent most of his life locked in a cell, moved from one religious house to another and suspected of being a fraud and even a witch. He made it to ordination by a mistake and seemed even as a priest to be useless.
God used his dedication and love. If he was mentally subnormal or even mentally ill, God used that too. Did he fly? Most certainly.
Even if he had never levitated he flew. He was raised up because that’s the gospel principle: God raises up the lowly.
And with that thought I am inspired, because God might just use failures like me and you.