“While strolling in the garden one day…a priest said to him, ‘Father Joseph, oh, how beautiful God has made heaven!’ Then Joseph, as if he had

Making Sense of Levitating Saints

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2023-09-16 12:30:03

“While strolling in the garden one day…a priest said to him, ‘Father Joseph, oh, how beautiful God has made heaven!’ Then Joseph, as if he had been called to heaven, gave a loud shriek, leapt off the ground, flew through the air, and knelt down atop an olive tree, and—as witnesses declared in his beatification inquest—that branch on which he rested waved as if a bird were perched upon it, and he remained up there about half an hour” (Paolo Agelli, Vita del Beato Giuseppe di Copertino, 1753).

What kind of nonsense is this? Who is this liar quoted above? Human beings can’t fly or kneel on slender tree limbs like little birds. So, how is it that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—the very era that gave birth to aggressive skepticism and empirical science—countless people swore that they had witnessed such events? And how is it that some of these sworn testimonies are legal records, archived alongside lawsuits and murder trials, from all sorts of people, not just illiterate peasants but also elites at the apex of the social, intellectual, and political hierarchy?

Reports of flying or hovering humans reached a peak at the dawn of modernity, along with reports of other phenomena also deemed impossible by many in our own day and by some doubters back then. Unlike spontaneous healing miracles, which really do occur with some frequency, levitations and bilocations are extremely rare events that are seldom taken seriously outside certain belief systems. They are but two of several physical phenomena that have been linked to mystical ecstasy in various cultures and religions around the world for thousands of years. They are also among the oddest of wonders, not just because they seem to happen infrequently but also because they appear to serve no practical purpose other than confirming the special status of the person who levitates or bilocates. In a religious context—and most accounts of levitations and bilocations have religious origins—the unseen force is usually ascribed to some higher being, but it can also be ascribed to the levitators and bilocators themselves, who are so obviously unlike most of their fellow human beings, for whom the tug of gravity within a single location is inescapable. In Christianity, that higher being could be God or the devil, and levitators could be viewed as either holy or diabolical, or, in some cases, as clever frauds. As awesome displays of raw unnatural power, the phenomena of levitation and bilocation have few equals.

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