Levitation: Miracle or Science?
The Life and Flights of St. Joseph of Cupertino

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“Who are these that fly as a cloud, and as the doves to their windows?” Isaiah 60:8 (KJV)

When Jesus walked on water, St. Peter mimicked Him and partially succeeded. It happened during a storm and Peter became afraid. He started to sink and called out to Jesus for help. For millennia the incident has been interpreted and explained as a testimonial of faith. The common belief is simply this: If Peter had maintained his faith in the Lord, he wouldn’t have sunk. Perhaps there is a scientific explanation for such a miracle of levitation–or, perhaps not.  To explore this question, let’s look at the life of one of the most renowned of Catholic levitators, St. Joseph of Cupertino (Guiseppe Desa, born in 1603 in Italy) and then consider whether recent advances in understanding quantum mechanical forces could explain his miraculous ability.

Joseph Desa of Cupertino: His Troubles

Saint Joseph’s contemporaries reported (see “SOURCES” below) that he was absent minded, awkward and nervous—a dullard, unable to complete a sentence or express a thought. It”s also reported that by his mid-twenties he would suddenly simply rise into the air and “soar in the sky.”

Perhaps some of his personality defects were due to a hard family life. His father, heavily in debt, had died a few months before his birth, and the family’s home had been confiscated to pay off those debts. His mother gave birth to him in a shed behind the house where she was hiding from creditors. As a child he was underfed and sickly.  He suffered from what today would be called a learning handicap—barely able to read or write. His frustrated mother wearied of him and was abusive, punishing him without mercy. Understandably, he grew up insecure and throughout his life considered himself “dumb like an ass.”

Since he didn’t seem able to learn at school, his mother apprenticed him to a shoemaker—a trade he was unable to master.  At seventeen Desa became enamored of the religious life when a “begging” friar came to the village of Cupertino.

After several applications for admittance to various religious orders were denied because of his lack of education, he was admitted as a lay brother to a religious community. This also did not work out because of his absentmindedness and lack of awareness of what he was doing.  Joseph would drop to his knees into prayer, utterly oblivious of everything around him: dropping and breaking dishes when washing them or carrying food in the refectory.

In order to cure him of this, broken plates were fastened to his habit, but the punishment didn’t work. Finally he was defrocked and expelled from the monastery.  Desa sought help and refuge from an uncle and his mother, both of whom turned him down. It was the low point of his life. He was destitute, living as a homeless man.

St. Joseph of Cupertino, the Flying Saint and Healer

In his early twenties Joseph Desa was finally admitted to a Franciscan monastery as a servant. At this time he seemed to be transformed, becoming more humble and gentle, more careful and successful at his work. He went into the streets on his own and begged for the poor. The priests noticed that he was welcomed among the poorest of the poor, who saw better than others the man behind all the odd behavior. He was given another chance and, despite his learning difficulties, was finally ordained a Catholic Priest in 1628.

Even as a priest he was still a character. Reports that have survived nearly four centuries reveal that he saw holy visions and he would “stand fixed as a statue, insensible as a stone, but nothing could move him.” His colleagues would prick him with pins and burn him with “embers to recall him to his senses” but he was oblivious to the pain. He called his religious visions “fits of giddiness.”

Two years into his priesthood in Cupertino, the eccentric Joseph was in a procession honoring the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi when he “suddenly soared into the sky where he remained hovering over the crowd.” When he finally descended, he was so embarrassed that he fled to his mother’s house to hide. It was the first of what would become many incidents of levitation which earned him the nickname “The Flying Saint.” The soaring episodes increased—in the church during Mass, in the refectory during meals with plates of food in his hands.

Many times people saw him rise from the ground while saying Mass or praying. On one occasion while out begging he flew into a tree.  The following incident is told: when some workmen were laboring to plant a stone cross in its socket, Joseph rose up above them, took up the cross and placed it in its socket for them. His most famous flight allegedly occurred during a papal audience before Pope Urban VIII. One historian, Father Christopher Sharrock, recounts that some of these levitations would last upwards of seven hours.

St. Joseph was also proclaimed a healer, touching the blind eyes of one young child, making her see. Historic accounts say he could lift up sick children and cure them. As his flights and healing powers became more widely known, pilgrims and the sick began to seek him out.

The Church Questions St. Joseph, but Finally Canonizes him.

St. Joseph’s strange powers and unusual character were questioned by church authorities as his following increased. During an inquiry he was imprisoned—a normal procedure for inquisitions then. There is some evidence that he may have been subjected to an exorcism, but his levitations continued. Ultimately he was declared innocent of wrongdoing.

Nevertheless,  he was committed to a cloistered religious order and forbidden to speak to anyone other than his fellow religious. He was forbidden to receive or write letters. Although authorities attempted to conceal his location, he would be discovered by pilgrims and then be transferred to another religious order where the same regulations were enforced.

Such relocations occurred numerous times over the last two decades of his life. His fellow friars would observe him kneeling in the garden praying,  when he would rise in the air, still in a kneeling position. They recalled his ability to read their minds and his visions of future events, such as the death of a pope before it was known to the population.

St. Joseph, whose life was marked by ecstasies and levitations, died in 1663. He was canonized a saint in 1767. At the Vatican library are thirteen volumes documenting his elevation to sainthood.  These books contain numerous testimonies of witnesses (including princes, cardinals, bishops and doctors) who knew St. Joseph personally and in many cases were eyewitnesses to the wonderful events of his life.

During St. Joseph’s lifetime his confusing behavior alarmed church officials and others. At that time levitation and visions were often confused with witchcraft and demonic possession, even though levitation events had been reported for other Christian saints, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Teresa of Avila. Levitation events have been observed in other world religions, for example, for the Hindu mystics,  Nagendranath Bhaduri and Gyaneshwara.

A Science of Levitation?

Is the levitation of saints purely a miracle or is there a scientific explanation for this phenomenon?  In 2007 two theoretical physicists at St. Andrews University in Scotland announced a major breakthrough which “elevated levitation from being pure science fiction to science fact.” The scientists, Professor Ulf Leonhardt and Dr. Thomas Philbin, were able to reverse the quantum mechanical Casimir Force: two atomic sized objects could be made to repel each other, rather than attract.  The Casimir force is one example of short-range forces, forces which die off after a distance corresponding to molecular dimensions.  Another is Van der Waals attraction, the kind of force which enables a gecko to stick to a ceiling.

Does science help to  explain levitation miracles?  Will scientists come up with explanations to describe the supernatural and mystical levitations of men of religion as they continue to explore quantum mechanical phenomena like the Casimir Force?  Were these saints somehow able to use more of their brains to manipulate the Casimir force/Van der Waals attraction within their bodies—a kind of dimmer switch effect—allowing them to levitate?

Is it possible the Jesus’ walk across water was something less of a miracle than is the conventional interpretation?  Could it be that the Great Teacher was telling us more about human faith and mental powers than we had heretofore imagined?

Sources

Joseph of Cupertino,

Levitation,

Saints and Levitation,

St. Joseph of Cupertino: The Dunce—1603-1663,

St Joseph of Cupertino,St. Joseph of Cupertino, Catholic Online, 

St. Joseph of Cupertino, Catholic Encyclopedia, Friar Christopher J. Sharrock O.F.M. Conv. The Life of St. Joseph of Cupertino,

The Reluctant Saint,

 

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16 thoughts on “Levitation: Miracle or Science? <br> The Life and Flights of St. Joseph of Cupertino”

  1. junk article; kind of stuff atheists write; there is no scientific explanation; if there was, science would be able to reproduce the levitation which they can’t and never will be able to do; this is ammunition for the skeptics; nothing more

  2. Levitation is a mystical gift sometimes experienced by souls in the Unitive Way. Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P. discusses these gifts in his classic text, Spiritual Theology.

  3. Science when backed into a corner without explanation (such as bleeding statues of Mary) comes back with some pitiful answer like “science does not delve into any ideas or discussions of the supernatural.” Well, fine. Then do not pretend like what you are doing is all that important for mankind compared to the eternal fate of souls. Science may not act like they are out to prove the existence of God, but it seems pretty apparent to me that they are surely in the business of trying to disprove God’s existence. And it is a futile, if not obvious and sorrowful, ambition.

    1. It is not true science when they exclude God anyway. I was watching that so called scientist Brian Cox explain the beginnings of life and the universe, and he was rambling on and on saying stuff that he could not possibly know. I thought to myself, how could he go on and on about such things without considering the possibility of a God. It is clear they work for the principalities of darkness in their efforts to remove God from the minds of human beings.

    2. Thanks. I always like this remembrance from even well back in time. >>> Jonathan Swift (17th century English satirist) speaking of the achievements of science and its reflection upon its own laurels. —- “And he, whose fortunes and dispositions have placed him in a convenient station to enjoy the fruits of this noble art; he that can with Epicurus content his ideas with the films and images that fly-off upon his senses from the superficies of things; such a man truly wise, creams off nature, leaving the sour and the dregs for philosophy and reason to lap up. This is the sublime and refined point of felicity, called, the possession of being well deceived; the serene peaceful state of being a fool among knaves.”

  4. I find it hard to believe with all of the “miraculous” events on-going today that none of them have been proven to be inexplicable. With all we know about science, and the churches recent year long examination of the Medjugorje seers – they came up with NOTHING that was supernatural? Its not complicated – there are either supernatural events or there are not. Why were all of these “levitating” saints prior to the ability to actually document the occurrence? Why can there not be a camera in an exorcist room- why do I have to take the persons present’s word for it that books were thrown from the shelf, etc?

    1. Incorrect – all indications are and the vast majority of the Papal Commission said first seven apparitions deemed as supernatural

  5. It is possible to levitate/float/walk on water. It is the configuration of molecules at a molecular level. Take water for instance it is made up of H2O. What else is made up of H2O?…Air (there are water molecules in the air….if they become dense enough they fall as water depending on temperature and atmospheric pressures among other things). How do these two exist?…one as a gaseous state…one as a liquid state. What else is made up of water…Ourselves…the Human Body is over 50% water. We are essentially water in a solid state so to speak…it’s in out organs.
    If Jesus were to alter the positivity & negativity of the internal molecules of water between two states and alter the internal water molecules in our body to repel the opposing external water molecules. Then humans can float…Peter did. Think of any water body…what exists between the water surface and the air surface…there is an in between state otherwise the two would mix. Then there is the question of whether surface tension was involved (such was water strider bugs)…I’ve pondering this miracle for over a decade now…
    When it comes to questions of faith sometimes you just need to ask…then the answers will come to your mind. Humans are still in a fallen state especially mentally…we have more capabilities that we cannot comprehend/dream nor have we received from God.

  6. As a scientist I guarantee that nothing explains so far such levitation. Casimier forces only work at extremely close range due to (negative) pressure by virtual particles. So the article you cite is the typical exaggerated pop-sci news.

    Levitation by science is hardly something new but they cannot explain a person starting to fly just like that.

    1. Barry, I totally agree….but maybe God does an anti-gravity thing… As C.S. Lewis said, “The divine art of miracle is not an art of suspending the pattern into which events conform but of feeding new events into that pattern.” –C.S. Lewis, Miracles

  7. Miracles by definition defy natural explanation. They happened because God wanted them to. Providing a scientific explanation for a miracle makes it no longer miraculous. Explaining miracles is a type of modern human folly. We think it makes us more credible with the unbelievers. It doesn’t. It simply makes them more secure in their unbelief.

    St. Joseph of Cupertino, St. Teresa of Avila and others levitated because God wanted them to. We need no other explanation than that. One wonders why Jesus doesn’t allow modern saints to levitate on camera. My guess is because it would make it too easy for people to believe. It would no longer require us to have faith in what we have not seen.

    1. TG, I don’t think attempting to explain a miracle takes anything away from it. The Church explains the miracle of the consecration of the Eucharist in terms of transubstantiation. Simply saying that, “because God wants it that way,” is a narrow minded and flawed approach to life. The Church doesn’t explain away science in this fashion. The Church holds the view that all authentic forms of study (i.e. philosophy, theology, sociology, psychology, physics, mathematics, etc.) are attempts to seek the truth about life that ultimately point to God.

    2. Having a scientific explanation for a miracle makes it a miracle no more. The Mysteries of God and the spiritual are outside the realm of scientific explanation, including transubstantiation. All miracles through men are the result of strong faith and closeness to God.

    3. When Mike Trout makes one of his miraculous plays in the outfield, it can be explained scientifically. But there’s no natural explanation for that kind of “levitation”. And maybe St. Joseph had some special way of marshalling these “Casmir/Van der Waals” forces or attractions or whatever, but that’s not a “natural explanation”.

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