Throughout history there have been the occasional reports of people who could levitate or fly, and such accounts really serve to grab the imagination. Not only do these cases evade conventional understanding, but they feed into the almost universal subconscious desire many of us have to take flight and break loose of the tethers of gravity. There have been quite a few reports of this allegedly really happening, but one of the most well-known and oft-debated of the supposed flying people started off as a humble man, who would take off to become legend.
The man known as Joseph Desa was born into a hard life. After his father died before he was even born, he came into this world in 1603 in a stable in the rural village of Cupertino, Italy, with his poor, debt-saddled mother Frencesca barely able to take care of him, and they lived in abject poverty. He wasn’t a particularly clever boy, by all accounts even somewhat of a dullard and dimwit, and from a young age he reportedly began to experience ecstatic visions that combined with his being a dummy made him considered sort of a local weirdo. His own mother didn’t even care much for him, often doling out harsh punishments for the most minor infractions, and poor Joseph was mostly relentlessly bullied by the other village children. Yet these visions he continued to have as he grew older convinced him to take up a religious, pious life, and after an unsuccessful stint as a shoemaker he would begin to take his first steps toward the legend he would become.
It didn’t go easily at first. In 1620 he applied to the Conventual Franciscan friars, but was rejected because he had no real education and was considered to be too hopelessly dumb and unable to grasp what the life entailed. Undeterred, he then applied to the Capuchin friars, and was accepted as a lay brother, but they soon deemed him unfit for the position and let him go. After this, he crawled back to the Conventual Franciscan friars and offered to work for free in their stables, practically begging them to take him, and after proving how hard working and pious he was the friars eventually allowed him into their order in 1625, after which he would manage to become a Catholic priest in 1628. This was his greatest dream realized, something he had overcome great hardship and his personal difficulties for, and it also happened to be when his life would get very bizarre, indeed.
Whereas Joseph had always gone into ecstatic trances at a moment’s notice from a young age and this was considered odd by those around him, they would gradually get even odder. At times during these intense visions he would become absolutely immovable, as if he were a stone set in the ground, and on other occasions he would become totally impervious to pain, not waking from his trance even when stuck with needles or burned with coals or candles. Then things would escalate one day at a mass, in an incident that would prove to be the oddest of all. On this occasion, Joseph went into a particularly deep prayer state, during which he was witnessed by all present to begin levitating several inches off the ground, much to their utter astonishment. When he snapped out of his ecstasy and returned to the floor Joseph had no memory of what had happened, and was oblivious to the fact that he had just been floating in the air for some time, in fact not even believing it at first, but it was confirmed by many witnesses, including top priests. It would also be far from the last time this would happen.
After this first show of this amazing power, Joseph began to go into his dazes and levitate with increased frequency. Sometimes he would rise and hover only a few inches from the ground, while at other times he was reported as actually flying about for considerable distances and at great height. One popular tale is when he apparently flew up to rest upon the top branches of an olive tree, where he purportedly stayed for nearly a half an hour while the thin branches bent no more than they would have for a small bird. In another incident he was said to have flown up to help some workmen place a stone cross into a socket, and in yet another he flew through town over the heads of awed citizens. This apparently embarrassed him greatly, and he shunned the accolades and hated hearing about it.
His flight powers were apparently strong. He was also seen to fly up to the second or third stories of buildings, to shoot off some distance away and then back again at great speed, or meander about through the air at the roof of churches, and these episodes could last anywhere from several minutes to several hours, with Joseph never able to remember them. There were over 150 personal eyewitness testimonies and when Joseph later became a Saint, his beautification records would list nearly one hundred separate officially recorded instances of this levitation, and these flights became so frequent that he was often asked to refrain from coming to public masses and other gatherings because it was a distraction. Fr. Angelo Pastrovicchi's 1767 official biography on Joseph of Cupertino would say:
Not only during the sixteen years of the Saint's stay at Grottella, but during his whole life, these ecstasies and flights were so frequent, as attested in the acts of the Process of beatification, that for more than thirty-five years his superiors would not permit him to take part in the exercises in the choir and the refectory or in processions, lest he disturb the community.
These mysterious bouts of levitation were witnessed by people of all ages, from all walks of life, including the religious and non-religious alike, with no one able to figure out how he did it. Perhaps one of the most prominent witnesses was Pope Urban VIII, who requested an audience with Joseph in which he levitated over a statue of the Our Lady's statue in Assisi. In the meantime, Joseph was also allegedly starting to show great powers of healing, giving sight to the blind and allowing the crippled to walk again, and this coupled with his powers of flight made him a sort of superhero among the common people. He even was said to be able to predict the future, and it was all seen as a miracle, making sure he was revered wherever he went, yet these very same powers were also increasingly looked at with suspicion and worry by the church.
In that era there was a fine line to be walked between a miracle and evidence of witchcraft and devilry, and indeed Joseph drew the attention of Inquisitors, who suspected just this. He would actually be imprisoned and tried on suspicion of witchcraft but found innocent, yet the Inquisition still ordered that he be moved and put under observation just in case. He would finally return to a Conventual community in 1657, after which he would sadly pass away in 1663. Despite the conflicting feelings that the church had about his various abilities, Joseph was nevertheless beatified in 1753 and canonized in 1767. Although there have been many Saints who are said to have had the power of levitation, Saint Joseph of Cupertino remains by far the most documented and well-witnessed of these, and it leaves questions and speculation to this day.
Skeptics have suggested that the answer could lie in everything from trickery, illusions, feats of gymnastic prowess, or effects from eating bread tainted with fungus called ergot, which can have various hallucinogenic effects and has been blamed for many historical hysterias, all mixed with a little good old fashioned sensationalism and exaggeration. However, this seems to do little to explain some of the feats that were witnessed by hundreds of people over the course of decades, including top church officials and even the Pope. Michael Grosso, Ph.D., author of The Man Who Could Fly: St. Joseph of Copertino and the Mystery of Levitation believes that the sheer number of witnesses and the amount of official documentation tend to suggest that this might have been a genuine case of human levitation, and he dismisses the skeptical arguments, saying:
A fact is a timeless entity. It (the skeptical argument) doesn’t hold water—not for 35 years, and all the witnesses that were involved. The character of the witnesses was of the highest order—cardinals, a pope, the inquisitors themselves. It seems to me that if … any of the stories about levitation are true … they’re important for at least one major reason. They add to the evidence that renders the idea of materialism quite untenable.
In the end there is no real way to know just what exactly happened here, but it was all very well documented and reported by witnesses. Was this a real case of someone who could overcome the laws of physics and actually levitate or even fly? Or is this all a misunderstanding exaggerated by subsequent myths and legends? Although there have been many priests and Saints said to have had the ability to levitate, the story of Saint Joseph of Cupertino remains perhaps the most famous, the most mysterious, and very intriguing indeed.