Did St. Joseph of Cupertino Really Fly?

St. Joseph of Cupertino, whose feast day is Sept. 18, is the patron saint of pilots, astronauts and all aviation workers.

Felice Boscaratti, “St. Joseph of Cupertino in Ectasy,” ca. 1762
Felice Boscaratti, “St. Joseph of Cupertino in Ectasy,” ca. 1762 (photo: Public Domain)

I remember that old gospel song, “I’ll fly away oh glory, I’ll fly away. When I die, hallelujah by ad by, I’ll fly away.” 

We might “fly away” when we die but devotees of St. Joseph of Cupertino contend that he “flew” not so much in the sweet by and by, but in the bitter here and now.  Because of his supernatural flight Joseph is the patron saint of pilots, astronauts and all aviation workers.

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.

I can think of another boy born in a stable with a carpenter for a father, but unfortunately this Joseph was not so brilliant. From a human point of view he was a failure.

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 sent away to wander 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.

His 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.

Whaat?! The doubters will scoff, “Tell me about it. 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, saying, “There is such a thing as gravity, you know. People don’t levitate. It’s impossible.”

Well, 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 Joseph of Cupertino fly about the church or up into the trees? My inclination is to believe the legends are based in real events. I’d rather be guilty of believing too much than too little!

Did he levitate?  Certainly levitation is not unknown as one of the aspects of mystical experience. There are reports of this phenomenon from exorcists and in Eastern religions. Among the Catholic saints who are reported to have levitated are St. Francis, St. Alphonsus Liguori, Teresa of Avila, St. Martin de Porres, Seraphim of Savor and Padre Pio. There is more information on the subject here.

We’ll take it as given therefore that St. Joseph of Cupertino levitated when he was in a mystical trance. More important are the lessons we take from this phenomenon.

The first lesson we take from the life of St. Joseph of Cupertino is that this physical world is stranger and more unpredictable than we can imagine. Reality is rubbery. Nature is not a closed system. “There are more things in heaven and earth than our philosophy has dreamt of.” This post explains that 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 Joseph’s simple dedication and love. If he was mentally disabled 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 me despite my failures, inadequacies and sin.