People can think with their emotions. At a young age we begin formal schooling to teach us the rational ways that we must develop to live in society. Emotions are trained, tamed, and sometimes repressed as we are taught that “higher brain” functions are what make us distinctly human. Even in our supremely rational world, however, we can’t figure out consciousness. It remains elusive, provocatively bordering on the supernatural, and the experience of being human gives the lie to consciousness being emergent from a physical brain. These are the kinds of issues that underlie the strange case of Joseph of Copertino. The subject of Michael Grosso’s recent book, The Man Who Could Fly: St. Joseph of Copertino and the Mystery of Levitation, Joseph may well be off the radar of most people. In fact, in the seventeenth century church in Italy, his presence was downplayed and hushed, almost as an embarrassment to Roman Catholicism of the day. Why? Joseph was known to levitate. In fact, his levitations were often in public and were witnessed by individuals whose credibility was not in doubt. With the Reformation going on, however, the last thing the church needed was a miracle.
The standard historical line of dealing with Joseph is to laugh and wave our hands in the directions of those credulous early moderns. They thought they saw him levitate, but it was all imagination. Even if we have to invoke mass hallucination. People just can’t levitate. Grosso’s book, however, takes a different approach to Joseph. Looking at first-hand accounts, carefully considering the political situation of seventeenth-century Italy, and being open to parapsychology, this book presents a very different portrait of the flying saint. There was nothing to be gained by hiding such a prodigy unless, as Grosso argues, there was actually something to the story. It may come down to a basic misunderstanding of consciousness, his book suggests.
No doubt The Man Who Could Fly will be simply dismissed by many. Those who dare to read it, however, will find a cogently argued, rational exploration of a man who was lifted by spiritual ecstasies in a way we have yet to understand. Grosso demonstrates that, depending on perspective, such events do not violate laws of physics so much as demonstrate that we have much yet to learn about them. Categorizing events as supernatural puts up an artificial barrier to exploring scientifically events that have evidence in the form of multiple witnesses. Obviously we can’t go back to the 1600’s and visit Joseph in some obscure convent where he’d been shuffled by church authorities to keep him out of the public eye. Even if we could there would be no way to prove his extraordinary gifts. When it comes to the life of emotion, the only way to accept the impossible is with belief. And at times belief may be the most rational response at hand.