Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Leaps of faith

Sometimes my searching for topics for Skeptophilia leads me down some very peculiar rabbit holes.  Like yesterday, when (while looking for something else) I stumbled upon a link to a Wikipedia page called "Levitation of saints."  So of course I couldn't resist having a look at that.

And... wow.

Apparently there's a long tradition in Christianity that holy people can fly, or at least float.  I was raised in a staunchly Roman Catholic family, and as befits such an upbringing, I read the Bible and other religious texts regularly, but I had no idea about this.  Some of the stories don't come from the Bible directly but from hagiography (writings by and/or about saints), which understandably lead some people to take them with a substantial grain of salt (me, I take it all with a substantial grain of salt, but I suspect you already knew that).

In any case, apparently there were a good many saintly types who, if they didn't exactly fly, engaged in falling with style.  Here's an eighteenth-century engraving of a guy named Joseph of Cupertino, for example:

[Image is in the Public Domain]

Is it just me, or does he look kind of freaked out by this?  From his expression it seems like he was out one day for a nice quiet walk through the Italian countryside, and suddenly WHOAAAA HOLY FUCK WHAT'S HAPPENING he got picked up bodily and hoisted aloft.  Joseph (who was, by the way, a real guy, and lived from 1603 to 1663) was a mystic and seer whom the local Franciscans didn't particularly like.  They thought he was a bit of an uneducated rube; one of the more literate church leaders of the time said Joseph was "remarkably unclever."  They finally admitted him to their order, albeit somewhat reluctantly.  It's clear they were kind of embarrassed by the whole claims-of-flying thing, but couldn't find a good reason to turn him away, so he joined up and spent the rest of his life as a Franciscan monk.

Skeptic Joe Nickell, after checking out contemporaneous writings describing Joseph of Cupertino's airborne acrobatics, was predictably unimpressed:
Joseph's most dramatic aerial traverses were launched by a leap—not by a simple slow rising while merely standing or kneeling—but, moreover, I find that they appear to have continued as just the sudden arcing trajectories that would be expected from bounding.  They were never circuitous or spiraling flights like a bird's.  Invariably, Joseph's propulsions began with a shout or scream, suggesting that he was not caused to leap by some force but chose to.

So I guess the only miracle here was his impressive hang time.  If the whole monk thing hadn't worked out for him, maybe he should have tried out for the local track-and-field team.

You'd have thought that the Franciscans would have been more accepting of Joseph of Cupertino's leaps of faith, though, because the founder of their order -- Saint Francis of Assisi -- supposedly did the same thing.  While praying, Francis sometimes was suspended in the air at a height of "three, or even four, cubits" (a meter and a half, give or take).  A century later, Saint Catherine of Siena also floated around the place while praying, and a priest reported that when he gave her Holy Communion, the host flew from his hand straight upward onto Catherine's tongue, an image I find bizarre and strangely hilarious.

Sort of a sanctified version of the chefs at the hibachi grill tossing cooked shrimp for customers to try to catch in their mouths.

So there's a long tradition of floating saints, apparently.  The problem was, there was another group of people who were thought by the religious authorities to be able to fly, and that was witches.  So how do you tell good flying from bad flying?  Even back in biblical days this was a problem, if you believe the story in the Acts of Peter (one of the books of the biblical apocrypha).  There was this guy named Simon Magus, who was impressing the hell out of everyone in the Roman Forum by levitating, and told the crowds that he was a god.  Well, the Apostle Peter was having none of that, so he prayed for God to put an end to it, and Simon suddenly fell to the ground and broke both his legs.  The crowds (who were evidently a bit on the fickle side) immediately stoned Simon Magus to death.

Which hardly seems fair.  I mean, the guy had been flying, right?  It was hardly Simon's fault that Peter the Killjoy got involved and spoiled the show.

In any case, the religious powers-that-be never seemed particularly comfortable with people levitating.  By the sixteenth century, the Inquisition kind of decided it was all bad, and discouraged flying for everyone.

Because forbidding something that no one can actually do is pretty much a sure bet.

In any case, these days none of the hyperreligous types are claiming they can levitate.  Which I think is kind of a shame.  Hey, if Joseph of Cupertino, Francis of Assisi, and Catherine of Siena could do it, you'd think Franklin Graham, Kenneth Copeland, Joel Osteen, and Jerry Falwell, Jr. should be able to.

At least I'd like to see them try, wouldn't you?


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