By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
X. THE FLYING MONK
As to the flying monk, there is no doubt whatever that he deserved his name. He flew. Being a monk, these feats of his were naturally confined to convents and their immediate surroundings, but that does not alter the facts of the case.
Of the flights that he took in the little town of Copertino-alone, more than seventy, says Father Rossi whom I follow throughout, are on record in the depositions which were taken on oath from eye-witnesses after his death. This is one of them, for example:
“Stupendous likewise was the ratto (flight or rapture) which he exhibited on a night of Holy Thursday. . . . He suddenly flew towards the altar in a straight line, leaving untouched all the ornaments of that structure; and after some time, being called back by his superior, returned flying to the spot whence he had set out.”
“He flew similarly upon an olive tree . . . and there remained in kneeling posture for the space of half an hour. A marvellous thing it was to see the branch which sustained him swaying lightly, as though a bird had alighted upon it.”
But Copertino is a remote little place, already famous in the annals of miraculous occurrences. It can be urged that a kind of enthusiasm for their distinguished brother-monk may have tempted the inmates of the convent to exaggerate his rare gifts. Nothing of the kind. He performed flights not only in Copertino, but in various large towns of Italy, such as Naples, Rome, and Assisi. And the spectators were by no means an assemblage of ignorant personages, but men whose rank and credibility would have weight in any section of society.
“While the Lord High Admiral of Castille, Ambassador of Spain at the Vatican, was passing through Assisi in the year 1645, the custodian of the convent commanded Joseph to descend from the room into the church, where the Admiral’s lady was waiting for him, desirous of seeing him. and speaking to him; to whom Joseph replied, ’I will obey, but I do not know whether I shall be able to speak to her.’ And, as a matter of fact, hardly had he entered the church and raised his eyes to a statue . . . situated above the altar, when he threw himself into a flight in order to embrace its feet at a distance of twelve paces, passing over the heads of all the congregation; then, after remaining there some time, he flew back over them with his usual cry, and immediately returned to his cell. The Admiral was amazed, his wife fainted away, and all the onlookers became piously terrified.”
And if this does not suffice to win credence, the following will assuredly do so:
“And since it was God’s wish to render him marvellous even in the sight of men of the highest sphere, He ordained that Joseph, having arrived in Rome, should be conducted one day by the Father-General (of the Franciscan Order) to kiss the feet of the High Pontiff, Urban the Eighth; in which act, while contemplating Jesus Christ in the person of His Vicar, he was ecstatically raised in air, and thus remained till called back by the General, to whom His Holiness, highly astonished, turned and said that ’if Joseph were to die during his pontificate, he himself would bear witness to this successo.’”
But his most remarkable flights took place at Fossombrone, where once “detaching himself in swiftest manner from the altar with a cry like thunder, he went, like lightning, gyrating hither and thither about the chapel, and with such an impetus that he made all the cells of the dormitory tremble, so that the monks, issuing thence in consternation, cried, ’An earthquake! An earthquake!’” Here, too, he cast a young sheep into the air, and took flight after it to the height of the trees, where he “remained in kneeling posture, ecstatic and with extended arms, for more than two hours, to the extraordinary marvel of the clergy who witnessed this.” This would seem to have been his outdoor record–two hours without descent to earth.
Sometimes, furthermore, he took a passenger, if such a term can properly be applied.
So once, while the monks were at prayers, he was observed to rise up and run swiftly towards the Confessor of the convent, and “seizing him by the hand, he raised him from the ground by supernatural force, and with jubilant rapture drew him along, turning him round and round in a violento ballo; the Confessor moved by Joseph, and Joseph by God.”
And what happened at Assisi is still more noteworthy, for here was a gentleman, a suffering invalid, whom Joseph “snatched by the hair, and, uttering his customary cry of ’oh!’ raised himself from the earth, while he drew the other after him by his hair, carrying him in this fashion for a short while through the air, to the intensest admiration of the spectators.” The patient, whose name was Chevalier Baldassarre, discovered, on touching earth again, that he had been cured by this flight of a severe nervous malady which had hitherto afflicted him. . . .
Searching in the biography for some other interesting traits of Saint Joseph of Copertino, I find, in marked contrast to his heaven-soaring virtues, a humility of the profoundest kind. Even as a full-grown man he retained the exhilarating, childlike nature of the pure in heart. “La Mamma mia“–thus he would speak, in playful-saintly fashion, of the Mother of God–”la Mamma mia is capricious. When I bring Her flowers, She tells me She does not want them; when I bring Her candles, She also does not want them; and when I ask Her what She wants, She says, ’I want the heart, for I feed only on hearts.’” What wonder if the “mere pronouncement of the name of Maria often sufficed to raise him from the ground into the air”?
Nevertheless, the arch-fiend was wont to creep into his cell at night and to beat and torture him; and the monks of the convent were terrified when they heard the hideous din of echoing blows and jangling chains. “We were only having a little game,” he would then say. This is refreshingly boyish. He once induced a flock of sheep to enter the chapel, and while he recited to them the litany, it was observed with amazement that “they responded at the proper place to his verses–he saying Sancta Maria, and they answering, after their manner, Bah!”
I am not disguising from myself that an incident like the last-named may smack of childishness to a certain austere type of northern Puritan. Childishness! But to go into this question of the relative hilarity and moroseness of religions would take us far afield; for aught I know it may, at bottom, be a matter of climatic influences, and there we can leave it. Under the sunny sky of Italy, who would not be disposed to see the bright side of things?
Saint Joseph of Copertino performed a variety of other miracles. He multiplied bread and wine, calmed a tempest, drove out devils, caused the lame to walk and the blind to see–all of which are duly attested by eye-witnesses on oath. Though “illiterate,” he had an innate knowledge of ecclesiastical dogma; he detected persons of impure life by their smell, and sinners were revealed to his eyes with faces of black colour (the Turks believe that on judgment day the damned will be thus marked); he enjoyed the company of two guardian angels, which were visible not only to himself but to other people. And, like all too many saints, he duly fell into the clutches of the Inquisition, ever on the look-out for victims pious or otherwise.
There is one little detail which it would be disingenuous to slur over. It is this. We are told that Saint Joseph was awkward and backward in his development. As a child his boy-comrades used to laugh at him for his open-mouthed staring habits; they called him “bocca-aperta" (gape-mouth), and in the frontispiece to Montanari’s life of him, which depicts him as a bearded man of forty or fifty, his mouth is still agape; he was, moreover, difficult to teach, and Rossi says he profited very little by his lessons and was of niuna letteratura. As a lad of seventeen he could not distinguish white bread from brown, and he used to spill water-cans, break vases and drop plates to such an extent that the monks of the convent who employed him were obliged, after eight months’ probation, to dismiss him from their service. He was unable to pass his examination as priest. At the age of twenty-five he was ordained by the Bishop of Castro, without that formality.
All this points to a certain weak-mindedness or arrested development, and were this an isolated case one might be inclined to think that the church had made Saint Joseph an object of veneration on the same principles as do the Arabs, who elevate idiots, epileptics, and otherwise deficient creatures to the rank of marabouts, and credit them with supernatural powers.
But it is not an isolated case. The majority of these southern saints are distinguished from the vulgar herd by idiosyncrasies to which modern physicians give singular names such as “gynophobia,” “glossolalia” and “demonomania"; [Footnote: Good examples of what Max Nordau calls Echolalie are to be found in this biography (p. 22).] even the founder of the flying monk’s order, the great Francis of Assisi, has been accused of some strange-sounding mental disorder because, with touching humility, he doffed his vestments and presented himself naked before his Creator. What are we to conclude therefrom?
The flying monk resembles Saint Francis in more than one feature. He, too, removed his clothes and even his shirt, and exposed himself thus to a crucifix, exclaiming, “Here I am, Lord, deprived of everything.” He followed his prototype, further, in that charming custom of introducing the animal world into his ordinary talk ("Brother Wolf, Sister Swallow," etc.). So Joseph used to speak of himself as l’asinelio–the little ass; and a pathetic scene was witnessed on his death-bed when he was heard to mutter: “L’asinelio begins to climb the mountain; l’asinelio is half-way up; l’asinelio has reached the summit; l’asinelio can go no further, and is about to leave his skin behind.”
It is to be noted, in this connection, that Saint Joseph of Coper-tino was born in a stable.
This looks like more than a mere coincidence. For the divine Saint Francis was likewise born in a stable.
But why should either of these holy men be born in stables?
A reasonable explanation lies at hand. A certain Japanese statesman is credited with that shrewd remark that the manifold excellencies and diversities of Hellenic art are due to the fact that the Greeks had no “old masters” to copy from–no “schools” which supplied their imagination with ready-made models that limit and smother individual initiative. And one marvels to think into what exotic beauties these southern saints would have blossomed, had they been at liberty, like those Greeks, freely to indulge their versatile genius–had they not been bound to the wheels of inexorable precedent. If the flying monk, for example, were an ordinary mortal, there was nothing to prevent him from being born in an omnibus or some other of the thousand odd places where ordinary mortals occasionally are born. But–no! As a Franciscan saint, he was obliged to conform to the school of Bethlehem and Assisi. He was obliged to select a stable. Such is the force of tradition. . . .
Joseph of Copertino lived during the time of the Spanish viceroys, and his fame spread not only over all Italy, but to France, Germany and Poland. Among his intimates and admirers were no fewer than eight cardinals, Prince Leopold of Tuscany, the Duke of Bouillon, Isabella of Austria, the Infanta Maria of Savoy and the Duke of Brunswick, who, during a visit to various courts of Europe in 1649, purposely went to Assisi to see him, and was there converted from the Lutheran heresy by the spectacle of one of his flights. Prince Casimir, heir to the throne of Poland, was his particular friend, and kept up a correspondence with him after the death of his father and his own succession to the throne.
Towards the close of his life, the flying monk became so celebrated that his superiors were obliged to shut him up in the convent of Osimo, in close confinement, in order that his aerial voyages “should not be disturbed by the concourse of the vulgar.” And here he expired, in his sixty-first year, on the 18th September, 1663. He had been suffering and infirm for some little time previous to that event, but managed to take a short flight on the very day preceding his demise.
Forthwith the evidences of his miraculous deeds were collected and submitted to the inspired examination of the Sacred Congregation of Rites in Rome. Their conscientiousness in sifting and weighing the depositions is sufficiently attested by the fact that ninety years were allowed to elapse ere Joseph of Copertino was solemnly received into the number of the Blessed. This occurred in 1753; and though the date may have been accidentally chosen, some people will be inclined to detect the hand of Providence in the ordering of the event, as a challenge to Voltaire, who was just then disquieting Europe with certain doctrines of a pernicious nature.