“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?