28 February 2016


Michael Grosso. The Man who Could Fly: St Joseph of Copertino and the Mystery of Levitation. Rowman and Littlefield, 2016.

Guiseppe Desa (1603-1663), known to history as St Joseph of Copertino (or Cupertino, sources differ on the spelling) was a most unusual person it seems. He was born into a family on the way down, his father fled the family to avoid debt collectors before Joseph was born, and he grew up emotionally at least abused by his mother.  🔻

He developed some sort of growth on his rump which made him bedridden for years and which drove him into an internal world. When the growth was finally removed in a life threating and agonising operation, he was left with extreme clumsiness. He was a poor student and only got into the priesthood (there was little else he could do) through a rigged examination.

His behaviour as a priest was to the say the least odd, aggressively attacking people who annoyed him, and seems to have alternating moods of extreme asceticism and relaxing into luxury. He then started claiming to be able to read people’s minds and start preaching at the public, rather like the people who stand in the street corner preaching today. Much of his time seemed spent in reveries which were interpreted as mystical experiences.

If all Joseph was claimed to be was just another shouting man, he would have been forgotten. It was the fact that stories went around that he could levitate that set him apart and on the road to stardom. Joseph became a celebrity, rather the pop star of his time and place, which rather ruffled the feathers of the church superiors who ended up shunting him from place to place.

The stories continued to grow, Joseph could perch up on a tree, rise into the air to move a picture, sometimes when levitated his body was cold and rigid, his clothes staying perfectly neat. He was even said to have levitated on his deathbed.

After his death these stories were gathered together by first biographer Dominico Bernini, whose account forms to basis of Grosso’s book. One has to say that if only a fraction of what Bernini reports actually happened we are confronted with a major mystery, for according to him there were hundreds of witnesses to Joseph’s feats and some of these took place in daylight. Bernini’s book was published nearly 60 years after Joseph’s death, but Grosso argues that it was essentially a transcript of original documents, some generated because at various times the Church suspected him of sorcery. There was an earlier biography published in 1678, and more recently Gustavo Pariisciani in the 1960s produced a new biography based on archival sources.

A problem for the outsider with all these sources is that they are all written by pious Roman Catholics, and serve perhaps devotional as much of historical purposes. Though Grosso cannot be considered an orthodox Roman Catholic, if anything he is more of a gnostic, his work also serves as much a polemical as historical purpose. He is clearly opposed to what he sees as 'materialism', and one suspects much of the modern world, including it would appear Pope John XXIII and Vatican II, along with the usual suspects such as liberals, humanists and reform minded Christians.

He seeks to bolster his case by cases from psychical research, Indian mysticism and other modern sources, though in many cases the evidence for these is not as good as that for Joseph’s feats. Much space is taken up with topics like near-death-experiences, altered states of consciousness, maternal impressions and etc. along with speculation about quantum mechanics. Sometimes irony is lost, for example he quotes Bernard Carr the psychical researcher and astrophysicist that mind exists in some higher dimensional space, without realising that this theory is, in essence, just as materialistic as those of conventional science, if not more so.

Grosso argues that the sort of feats that Joseph is credited with are what one can experience in dreams, and it is as though Joseph existed in a sort of bubble of dream space in ordinary space. Of course in dreams we witness other people doing strange things, and an interpretation which argues that in certain conditions dreams can intrude into waking life looks more fruitful.

A real assessment of Joseph awaits a genuinely scholarly biography by a non-Catholic historian with extensive knowledge of the life and times of Late Renaissance and Counter-Reformation Italy, with the linguistic skills to examine and interpret the documents of the time. As a preliminary assessment all I can say is that had I been around in Joseph’s day would I have seen him levitate? I might well have. If I had gone back in the Tardis with a movie camera, would I come back with film of him levitating? I rather doubt it. -- Peter Rogerson.

More on Joseph and other miraculous saints, from the Magonia archive HERE

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