Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Flying Saint

 Saint Joseph of Cupertino:  (San Giuseppe da Copertino, 1603-1663; born Giuseppe Maria Desa in Cupertino, southeastern Italy) was considered rather dull witted (in modern terms, he may have suffered from learning disabilities), and said to possess a violent temper (a point we will return to). Joseph was extremely pious, however, and became a Franciscan friar. Joseph exhibited various mental psychic phenomena; for instance, it is said he was aware of the thoughts of penitents and knew if they were not fully honest and forthright during confession. Due to his mental deficiencies, he could learn only a small amount of material at a time. When preparing for exams he simply studied one specific topic, and then prayed that that would be the very subject, of all possible subjects, that would be asked of him – and so it was. Was this an example of precognition, or was Joseph telepathically influencing or accessing (perhaps unconsciously) the examiners in terms of the questions they would put to him?
Joseph was also said to have the power to heal the sick. But it was his bodily levitations, his literal flights in the air, that he is most famous for, and which by many are considered to be absolutely mysterious and miraculous, either justifiably earning Joseph the appellation of Saint (he was canonised in 1767), or in the skeptic’s opinion dismissal as either a fraud, or at the least someone who incited hallucinations among those witnessing the supposed levitations. At first glance, St. Joseph’s flights rank high on my incredulity meter.
Although we are separated from St. Joseph by three and a half centuries, and his time still contained a strong element of superstition and anti-scientific sentiment (after all, the Inquisition was in full swing during Joseph’s lifetime, persecuting Galileo in 1633), it is still difficult to dismiss all of the varied eyewitness accounts of Joseph’s flights. Reportedly the first levitation was in his hometown of Cupertino during an outdoor procession on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Joseph took off, flying over the crowd. After it was over, in embarrassment, he fled to hide in his mother’s house. From then until the end of his life, Joseph experienced uncontrolled fits of bodily levitation. Various minor incidents could potentially initiate a levitation: a casual remark about the wonders of God, or viewing an image of the Virgin Mary, could send Joseph into ecstasy, and then with a loud sob or cry he would fly into the air.
His reported flights were not trivial. On one occasion he flew from the middle of the church to the high altar, a distance of forty feet, and remained there for about fifteen minutes before descending. He once flew over the heads of bystanders to reach a statue of the Immaculate Conception, and then flew back again over their heads once more. Another time he reportedly flew eighty yards, over a pulpit, to a crucifix. During another levitation he ended up in a tree, and once he came out of his trance he was unable to get down until a ladder was fetched. On several occasions he carried another person up with him, holding them by the hand or hair.
Although it is “only” eyewitness testimony (but what else can we have from the seventeenth century?), it is incredibly varied and consistent, and Joseph’s levitations were not always viewed positively. Indeed, his superiors often found Joseph to be an embarrassment. His unannounced flights during solemn ceremonies could cause a disruption. Once floating before the altar holding the Holy Sacrament, his sandals fell off. Joseph was at times banned from choir practices, public masses, and even from meals with his fellow friars. Joseph and his “miracles” attracted a huge following, and especially later in his life, the church authorities periodically attempted to place him in seclusion. In my mind, these facts only reinforce that the levitations may well have been genuine. Prominent witnesses to Joseph’s levitations were the High Admiral of Castile, Spanish Ambassador to the Papal Court (his wife fainted at the sight); John Frederick, Duke of Brunswick (who converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism as a result of witnessing Joseph levitate); and Pope Urban VIII (during a papal audience Joseph fell into ecstasy and levitated).
The Inquisition and Poltergeists
What do we make of Joseph’s levitations? Could they have been genuine? They are difficult to explain away as hallucinations on the part of the witnesses. Furthermore, they hardly fit the mold that would be expected of stories tailored to aid in the canonisation of a beloved friar. Due to the publicity he attracted, in 1638 Joseph was investigated by the Inquisition in Naples, but cleared of any wrongdoing. Joseph’s levitations were undisciplined, uncouth (he apparently cried out at the start of each incident), and disrupting to those around him. What is really pertinent in my mind is that Joseph is not the sole example of such levitations, for similar phenomena are reported widely in medieval church accounts, popular folklore, and in ethnographic accounts of “primitive” peoples and their myths.
Joseph’s levitations strike me as perhaps a form of self-directed “poltergeist” affliction. Derived from the German, meaning a boisterous or noisy ghost, typical poltergeist incidents include strange noises (scratching, raps, knocks, banging) and the movement of objects. In a typical poltergeist case objects inexplicably fall off of shelves or get thrown through the air even when nobody is close enough to reach them, and no physical means are apparent that could have caused the objects to move.
As the physicist and early psychical researcher Sir William Barrett wrote in 1911, “Of the genuineness and inexplicable nature of the phenomena there can be no manner of doubt, in spite of occasional attempts at their fraudulent imitation.”
It appears that in most cases the affected objects are not being moved by spirits or ghosts, as traditionally believed, but unconsciously via paranormal means by a living person, someone who is typically emotionally or psychologically disturbed, with unresolved repressed feelings of deep guilt or fear, and intense “hysterical” tendencies. The poltergeist instances swirling around such a person are a sort of unconscious acting out and externalisation of the emotions.
Interestingly, very similar types of poltergeist phenomena have been described for thousands of years in different cultures on different continents; such facts lend credence to the idea that poltergeist instances are genuine (and I will admit that I have witnessed a mild poltergeist instance first-hand). Modern researchers, such as Dr. William G. Roll, have intensively studied various modern poltergeist cases and it is clear that the paranormal movement of material objects against the forces of gravity and inertia is real (that is, objects are levitated) and such movements follow general patterns (as would be expected of a genuine set of phenomena).
I believe that Joseph was a psychologically disturbed, highly conflicted, individual prone to extremes in temperament. This is evidenced by his reported fits of rapture and ecstasy, as well as his occasional violent temper (even the saints can have bad days, I suppose). His own frustration with his apparent learning disabilities and mental limitations probably added to his troubles. Joseph also suffered from cataleptic or epileptic fits, convulsions, and severe attacks of depression (melancholia, as it was called). Joseph, I suggest, did genuinely levitate. I hypothesise that Joseph was essentially the centre of what we might now refer to as poltergeist activity (or to use the more modern terminology, recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis, RSPK), but in his case the activity (the levitation of objects, or an object) was directed unconsciously toward his own physical body. Joseph basically inflicted the levitations upon himself.